Maurice Herzog: Mountaineer who became one of the first two men to ascend Annapurna

He lived thanks to the loyalty of his comrades and the Sherpas who carried him for weeks

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Maurice Herzog became a hero of France when, on 3 June 1950, he and Louis Lachenal became the first human beings to reach the summit of an 8,000-metre mountain – Annapurna in central Nepal. But it was success at great cost. Herzog reached the top in an altitude-induced trance and, after a nightmare descent, lost all his fingers and toes to severe frostbite.

"Annapurna, to which we had gone empty-handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days," Herzog wrote in the conclusion of Annapurna, his best-selling account of the adventure. For him, despite the amputations, this proved true. Idolised, Herzog prospered as a Gaullist politician and businessman.

It was not until 1996 that it became clear Herzog had put a good deal of spin into Annapurna. He appeared to have covered himself in an heroic mantle while relegating his companions to technical assistants or workhorses – notably Lachenal, a Chamonix mountain guide.

It was Herzog who determined to press on when Lachenal, fearing frostbite, counselled retreat. "My whole being revolted against the idea," he wrote. "Today we were consecrating an ideal, and no sacrifice was too great." Without such resolve, the French flag would not have flown from the crest of Annapurna.

France and the Club Alpin Français (CAF) badly wanted a Himalayan victory. National self-esteem had been brought low by the war, while mountaineering had been dominated by Germany, Austria and Britain. Lucien Devies, president of the CAF, saw in his friend a leader who could restore the country's honour.

Herzog was born in Lyon, the eldest of eight children. He studied law in Paris and acquired a love for high places at the family chalet by Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc. His engineer father also climbed. During the war, the young Maurice joined the French Partisans and Riflemen – though its Communist leanings were at odds with his own politics – and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his deeds as captain of a troop of mountain fighters.

Herzog became an executive with the tyre manufacturers Kléber-Colombes, which limited his climbing, and there was controversy over the decision to appoint him leader of the 1950 expedition. He was an accomplished alpinist but not in the same class as the men who, with him, would prove to be the stars of the expedition – Lachenal, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rébuffat, all Chamonix guides at the cutting edge of alpinism.

Technical brilliance was not the prime consideration. Diplomacy and organisational skills were as necessary. They were entering virtually unknown territory for westerners. Nepal was only just opening its doors and nearly all previous Himalayan expeditions had approached from the north. Maps would prove to be plain wrong.

Annapurna was not the first objective, but Dhaulagiri (8,167m). But after three often hazardous weeks exploring its icy flanks they turned their gaze east to Annapurna (8,091m). They had been warned by a Buddhist Lama that Dhaulagiri would not be "propitious". The monsoon season was approaching and there was still much uncertainty. As a frustrated Herzog put it on another high pass: "Where on earth was Annapurna?"

With time running out, they picked the glaciated North Face, although, raked by avalanches, it was far from free of danger. Herzog had hoped to make a summit bid with Lionel Terray; the two were in good physical form. But with Terray carrying loads, the pair got out of step and on 2 June Herzog and the volatile Lachenal were poised at the top camp. A storm almost blew them off and at dawn they were still clinging to the tent poles.

Herzog described his mental powers as "numbed". By then the weather was fine, but a bitter cold penetrated their eiderdown jackets. Herzog was aware of the risk of frostbite, but in Lachenal, whose career as a guide depended on full mobility, it became a terror. He grabbed Herzog and demanded: "If I go back, what will you do?" Pictures went through Herzog's head of the team's "daily heroism" and the difficulties they had overcome. "I should go on by myself," he replied. And Lachenal said he would follow.

It was a wrong decision, and Herzog's responsibility. Lachenal was motivated by his duty as a guide and friend, as was revealed when his complete diaries emerged five years ago, free of earlier censorship by Devies and Herzog. "I guessed that if he continued alone, he would not return. It was for him and him alone that I did not turn around," wrote Lachenal.

Herzog slipped into a trance, a great happiness welled up inside him, and he thought of the shining ladder of St Teresa of Avila. Gasping for breath, they reached the summit, a corniced crest of ice. Lachenal grew anxious as his dream-fuddled leader brandished the French flag for photos and incensed when he held the Kléber-Colombes flag aloft – Lachenal and Rébuffat conspired to prevent publication of the tyre flag photograph.

That the pair survived the descent is near-miraculous. Not far below the summit, Herzog watched helpless as his gloves rolled away. Rébuffat and Terray received him with delight at Camp V, but when Terray shook Herzog's hand the smiles vanished: "Momo – your hands!" After an awful night spent massaging frostbitten limbs, the four struggled on down in a white-out. Exhausted and lost, they tried in vain to find the next camp. Then Lachenal vanished into a crevasse and this ice cave became their hellish bivouac. Next morning, after struggling to find boots buried under spindrift snow, Terray was barely able to drag Herzog up from the cave.

Lachenal was delirious and Terray and Rébuffat snowblind, having removed their goggles to see in the previous day's storm. Herzog was convinced death was near. "It's all over for me," he told Terray. "Go on – you have a chance." But Terray, his rock, would have none of quitting.

Herzog lived thanks to the loyalty of his comrades, indefatigable Sherpas, who carried him for weeks over difficult terrain, and Dr Jacques Oudot, the team's medical officer, who performed amputations and artery injections along the jungle trail and later in Indian railway carriages. The last digits, mainly Lachenal's, were swept out on to the platform at Gorakphur "before the startled eyes of the natives". British climbers know this part of the drama best through a satirical Tom Patey ballad sung to the tune of "Twenty Tiny Fingers": "In an Eastern Railway carriage where the River Ganges flows/ There are Twenty Tiny Fingers and Twenty Tiny Toes."

Herzog was carried down the aircraft steps at Orly a hero. His climbing days were over and he poured his energies into boardrooms and public affairs. Charles de Gaulle, appointed him Minister for Youth and Sport, and later – 1968-77 – he became mayor of his beloved Chamonix. He was a champion of the Mont Blanc tunnel, serving as president of its parent company.

Annapurna is still the best selling mountaineering book ever – up to 15 million copies – though the royalties went not to its author but to subsequent expeditions. Herzog dictated it from his hospital bed as he underwent 12 operations in a year. It is best read in conjunction with True Summit (2000) in which David Roberts analyses the accounts that emerged in 1996 with a biography of Rébuffat and Lachenal's notebooks.

Herzog had exclusive rights to the story for the first five years. As the deadline was expiring, Lachenal skied into a crevasse above Chamonix and was killed. After his notebooks had been edited by Devies and Herzog, what emerged, Roberts wrote, was "a sanitised, expurgated whitewash".

The expedition was clearly a more acrimonious affair than originally painted. Herzog lost some of his noble gloss and the three guides received a posthumous boost to their reputations. But when Roberts asked him in 1999 if the furore had troubled him, Herzog, dignified as ever, said he had a clear conscience. However it is construed, the first ascent of Annapurna remains one of the greatest epics of mountaineering.

Maurice Herzog, mountaineer, businessman and politician: born Lyon 15 January 1919; married 1964 Comtesse Marie Pierre de Cossé Brissac (divorced 1976; one son, one daughter), 1976 Elisabeth Gamper (two sons); died 13 December 2012.

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