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Great European lives: Walter Bonatti

The Italian mountaineer Walter Bonatti training on Kleine Scheidegg before facing the climb to Mont Blanc. Switzerland, 1963 (Photo by Mario De BiasiMondadori Portfolio by Getty Images) - Credit: Mondadori via Getty Images

Bonatti grew up in the Po Valley among the devastation of the Second World War, reading Jack London, and dreaming of escaping poverty for a life of adventure at sea.

At the end of July a group of Italians made its way gingerly towards the unconquered summit of K2 hoping that a successful assault would have the same effect on their compatriots’ morale as the French 1950 Annapurna expedition and the British conquest of Everest the previous year.

The team was a mixture of youth and experience, among them 24-year-old Walter Bonatti, who was fast becoming Italian climbing’s superstar following a string of daring Alpine conquests. By the time the Italians were ready for a last push to the summit on July 30 the team still on the mountain had been streamlined from 11 to five: the vastly experienced Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, local guide Amir Mahdi, Enrico Abram and Bonatti.

Lacedelli and Compagnoni went on ahead to establish Camp IX at 7,900 metres, the last camp before the summit, while the other three climbers shuttled down to a point between Camps VII and VIII, collected the oxygen tanks, then ascended to deliver them to the two men who would make for the summit.

When the trio reached the agreed location of Camp IX however there was no sign of their colleagues and shouts were met with responses from higher up the mountain. Lacedelli and Compagnoni had continued up to 8,150m before striking camp, compromising the safety of the three other climbers. Already suffering from frostbite, Abram descended immediately. Bonatti and Mahdi climbed towards the duo, weighed down by the oxygen cylinders, but as night began to fall and a blizzard blew up they were forced to halt at 8,100m with no chance of reaching the camps above or below.

With Mahdi beginning to panic, Bonatti dug an emergency bivouac into the snow: without a tent or even sleeping bags the two men were forced to sleep out on the side of the mountain in the open of a raging blizzard. After a fearful night, Mahdi descended alone before dawn the next morning, losing several fingers and toes to frostbite, while Bonatti waited for sunrise before returning to base himself.

Lacedelli and Compagnoni retrieved the cylinders and later that day became the first climbers ever to reach the summit of K2, the team became national heroes and Italy at last had something to celebrate.

What followed, however, would leave question marks hanging over Bonatti for the next half-century.

Charismatic, brave and unafraid to speak his mind Walter Bonatti was already a national celebrity by the time he joined the team that conquered the world’s second highest peak. Even today he is celebrated as Italy’s greatest mountaineer. At 18 he became only the fourth person to climb the north face of the Grandes Jorasses and among his other early Mont Blanc Massif successes were the east face of the Grand Capucin, the Red Pillar of Brouillard, the first ever winter ascents of the Walker Spur and Sentinel Rouge and the first solo ascent of the Major on the Brenva.

Bonatti grew up in the Po Valley among the devastation of the Second World War, reading Jack London, Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway and dreaming of escaping poverty for a life of adventure at sea.

“When the Po was in flood whole branches of trees that had been torn off upstream would race by and I would fantasise about one day following them out to wherever they washed up,” he said.

As a youth he would undertake long hikes around the Grigna, a limestone massif among the Bergamo Alps, and it was a combination of these excursions and the devastation of the war that would turn his ambitions away from the sea towards the heavens. In the spring of 1945 the fearsome Battle of the Po had taken place within a day’s walk of the Bonatti home on the outskirts of Monza and a couple of weeks after the fighting he visited the battlefield, finding utter carnage: burnt-out tanks and vehicles, bodies and parts of bodies were still scattered across the land and in the river.

“I knew then that the Po offered no escape so I looked instead to its source and saw the mountains,” he said. “At that moment I knew climbing was to be my life.”

Despite limited equipment and limited time due to his job at a steel mill, Bonatti soon began to develop a reputation as a gifted and adventurous climber. The contrast between the clean air and solitude of the mountains and the noise and smoke of the steel mill convinced him that his destiny lay among the peaks.

By the time he returned from his successful climb of the Grand Capucin in 1951 the 21-year-old’s local celebrity was such that Monza threw him a huge reception, albeit one that was marred by the sudden death of his mother the same night. Once he’d climbed the north face of the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo two years later he was Italian mountaineering’s brightest star and the Italian Alpine Club had little choice but to select him for the K2 expedition.

The controversy that followed concerned the siting of Camp IX and the fate of the oxygen canisters. Once the ceremonies and hullabaloo were over Compagnoni accused Bonatti of siphoning off oxygen from the tanks in a deliberate attempt to undermine the climb because he was angry at being overlooked for the assault on the summit. There were claims that Compagnoni and Lacedelli were put in mortal danger, even that the tanks were almost empty. Bonatti meanwhile cited how the pair’s moving of the prearranged Camp IX could feasibly have killed both him and Mahdi.

In 1964, a decade after the event, the affair blew up again when a national newspaper article revived the accusation against Bonatti, that he’d sabotaged the advanced climbers to steal the summit for himself. Bonatti sued successfully but the snipes and accusations continued to the point where the climber would be abused in the street and more than once he had his car tyres slashed. It took until 2004 and Lacedelli’s book K2: The Price of Conquest for the truth that Bonatti’s actions had been beyond reproach to emerge.

By then he was long retired from the slopes. At the time of his last major climb, in 1965, he’d cheated death twice, once in 1955 on a solo climb tracing a new route up the Petit Dru in the French Alps when the weather closed in and left him stranded on the mountainside for almost a week, and again as part of the Mont Blanc disaster of 1961. Climbing its most difficult face, the seven-man Franco-Italian group was caught in a storm that lasted for several days. Three Frenchmen and an Italian died but Bonatti was credited with escorting the survivors down safely and with saving the life of Pierre Mazeaud, a future French sports minister.

His last climb was an ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn via a route called the Diretissima, straight up a sheer 1,000-metre wall of rock beneath the summit, to mark the centenary of the mountain’s first conquest by Edward Whymper in 1865. Bonatti found himself roped to the rockface for four days before making it to the top and planting the European flag at the summit as a gesture of support for the European project.

By that time he was long disillusioned. “The old traditions of Alpinism are dead,” he said. “Modern equipment is so advanced you can climb almost anything if you put your mind to it. The impossible has been removed from the equation.”

He also described the mountaineering world as “rotten with mediocrity, lack of understanding and envy”. His partner, the actress Rossana Podesta, blamed the K2 controversy for all but extinguishing his passion for the mountains. Although Bonatti insisted that he had just run out of challenges, after his death Podesta conceded that “the K2 story was a big thorn in his heart”.

“He could not believe that even after all those years nobody had apologised or acknowledged the truth,” she said. “This left an indelible mark on his life.”

Bonatti spent his last years as mountaineering writer and photographer, his 2001 book The Mountains of My Life proving an international bestseller. In it he set out the motivation that had propelled him to the peaks of some of the world’s most challenging mountains.

“I don’t deny there can be an element of escapism in mountaineering,” he wrote, “but this should never overshadow its real essence which is not escape but to secure victory over your own human frailty.”