French mountaineer Lionel Terray was one of the most respected post-war alpinists, achieving fame for his second ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 1947 and as a key member of Maurice Herzog’s celebrated 1950 Annapurna expedition which achieved the first ascent of an 8,000 metre peak. In the ensuing 15 years, before his untimely climbing death in 1965, Terray enjoyed many expeditionary successes in the Himalayas, South America and Alaska, while still maintaining standing as a top professional guide in the European Alps. His major overseas ascents included Fitzroy, Makalu, Jannu, Huntington and many others, all of which he richly describes in this extraordinary autobiography.
Widely acclaimed after it was first published in France in 1961, later editions of Conquistadors of the Useless included a Foreword by renowned American climber and author, David Roberts, who described Terray as “…the greatest expeditionary mountaineer of all time.” Ed Douglas, writing for Climber Magazine echoed these sentiments: “An outstanding account of arguably the greatest Alpine career of the 20th century.’ In a 1974 critique of climbing memoirs for Ascent Magazine, Roberts went further, saying: “Conquistadors was the finest example of the genre ever written.”
In his Foreword, Roberts also reveals his own role in dispelling false rumours that Terray had not actually written Conquistadors. Roberts was given access to Terray’s files while researching his own book on Annapurna, and he and his French editor found the original manuscript in Terray’s own handwriting. David Roberts sat next to me signing books at the 2009 Banff Mountain Book Festival, and having read several of his books and having had the opportunity to chat with him on that occasion in Banff, and then reading his extraordinary opinions of Terray and his work, I jumped at the chance to review Conquistadors when Vertebrate Publishing brought out a new edition in 2020.
With Roberts’ tributes in mind, I approached Conquistadors with caution; it had a lot to live up to. Happily, it turned out to be one of the most comprehensive and insightful mountaineering memoirs that I have read. It lays out Terray’s climbing life from its earliest inception through to his great achievements.
In well-written, thoughtful prose, he gives gripping accounts of many of his climbs. He describes what it meant to be a professional mountain guide in the Alps in the post war years. He discusses his experience as a French alpine soldier during the last year of the war: his early sense of adventure, mixed with compassion and ultimately disgust as people on both sides are killed or hurt in the fighting. This empathy is also apparent in the opening pages of his chapter on Annapurna as he experiences the poverty and squalor of 1950 post-partition India for the first time.
Anyone who has read Maurice Herzog’s ground-breaking work, Annapurna will relish Terray’s own account of that famous expedition. Terray provides a keen description of the people, culture and history of Nepal that is unusual for that era of mountain literature. For Canadian readers, he also gives us an enlightening glimpse of life in Quebec in 1948-50 from the perspective of a newly arrived climbing and ski instructor from France.
Throughout this very satisfying work, I was struck by his extraordinary attention to detail, both during the most intense climbs and in other narratives. Terray provides a rationale for this
talent in his lead-up to Annapurna: “Nature has endowed me with an unusual capacity for remembering the details of events, and after ten years I can still recall almost every moment of that journey, even down to our excited conversations.”
In the book’s opening paragraph, after briefly sketching his life as a ski champion, a professional guide, an amateur of the greatest climbs in the Alps, and a member of many expeditions to the Andes and the Himalayas, he comments with masterful understatement: “If the word has any meaning at all, I am a mountaineer.”
‘Conquistadors of the Useless: From the Alps to Annapurna’ by Lionel Terray; Vertebrate Publishing, May 2020; 480 pages; Paperback; Retail £9.99; ISBN 9781912560219; https://www.v-publishing.co.uk/