Conquistadors of the useless: from the archive, 4 October 1963

Paddy Monkhouse reviews a book full of beauty and adventure from the great French climber, Lionel Terray

Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray (Gollancz, 30s).

Lionel Terray is one of the finest climbers of our time. He has taken a leading part in the ascent of five major peaks in the Himalaya and five in the Andes, in the second ascent of the Eiger North Face, and in many other climbs of the highest class. As a climbing guide he has introduced innumerable men and women to the world of beauty and adventure in which he has long lived. His story would be worth reading even if the narration was as flat as the Pas de Calais. But Conquistadors of the Useless is anything but that. M. Terray has a strong, original and candid mind. He is as much concerned with ecstasy and suffering as with technical achievement. He takes triumph and death in his stride, a dedicated professional writing with the gusto of an amateur.

The two great events of his life and pillars of his book have been the Eiger climb and the French expedition which ascended Annapurna in 1950 – the first of the great Himalayan summits to be reached by man. In both he was associated with Louis Lachenal, perhaps the most remarkable of his contemporaries of the French school and his constant companion on the great climbs, a queer passionate brilliant man, who survived the desperate triumph on Annapurna, mutilated by frostbite, to die irrelevantly in an accidental fall into a hidden crevasse, while skiing. Terray continued his dedicated life with sobered zest, and it may be that his first ascent of Chacraraju in Peru (where the Golden Age of mountaineering is not yet over) has been the climax of his career as a climber. If this and his first ascents on Makalu and Fitzroy are more briefly described than Annapurna and Eiger, there is a reason for it: the former were superb feats of climbing, but the latter were the greater adventures of the spirit.

Besides these major expeditions, there are some striking reflective or descriptive passages – his impressions of French Canada, for instance, or his thoughts on the guide’s profession, or the account early in the book of a curious “sideshow” in the later stages of the war, when he fought with an irregular French force which harassed the Germans on the Italian frontier; it must have been one of the very few campaigns fought above the snowline. The book is discerningly translated by Geoffrey Sutton. One jibs a little at its title. “Conquistadors” is fairly derived from his exploits in Peru; “the Useless” is irony overstrained. But M. Terray could quote on his side old Attewell, the Nottinghamshire bowler, saying to the young Neville Cardus in a troubled argument about the place of cricket in the economy, “After all, we produce nowt.” Useless! Cricket and mountaineering, two of man’s noblest glosses on the universe.

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