22 June 2016

Walter Bonatti - mountaineer

Climber's outstanding career marred by 50-year row

Photo of Walter Bonatti
Walter Bonatti, pictured in 1964
Walter Bonatti, the Italian who some would argue is the greatest alpine mountain climber that ever lived, was born on this day in 1930 in Bergamo in Lombardy.

He was the first to complete some of the most demanding climbs in the Alps and the Himalayas, including the first solo climb in winter of the North face of the Matterhorn.

But those achievements were marred for half a century by the bitter row that sprang from the part he played in the 1954 Italian expedition to conquer K2, the 8,611-metre peak north-east of the Himalayas that is the second highest in the world - behind Mount Everest (8,848 metres) - but is regarded as the more difficult climb.

Incredibly fit and able to survive at high altitudes without oxygen, he was already such an accomplished climber at just 24 years of age that he was chosen to join the expedition, which aimed to succeed where five previous attempts over 52 years had failed.

The row stemmed from the decision taken by expedition leader Ardito Desio as the party neared the summit that the more experienced Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni should be the climbers to make the final ascent, even though Bonatti was in better physical condition than either.  Compagnoni was 39 years old.

Bonatti and the Pakistani climber Amir Mehdi were charged with following behind with oxygen supplies to be delivered to the final base camp, but when they reached the point agreed they found that Lacedelli and Compagnoni had placed the camp at a higher location.

By then it was almost nightfall and too dangerous for Bonatti and Mehdi to reach the relocated final base camp or return to the penultimate one.  He and Mehdi were forced to spend the night in the open, without tents or sleeping bags, at temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius.  They survived, setting a record for the highest open bivouac (8,100 metres) but Mehdi lost all his toes to frostbite and spent eight months in hospital.

Photo of K2 mountain in the Himalayas
The imposing K2 mountain in the Himalayas
The following day, as they made their way back down the mountain, Lacedelli and Compagnoni collected the oxygen cylinders and reached the summit.  They were acclaimed as national heroes.

A furious Bonatti accused them of deliberately moving the base camp so that he would not be able to join them in climbing to the summit.  They denied this, insisting the location originally agreed had been too dangerous, counter-accusing Bonatti of using some of their oxygen, which ran out close to the summit.

Bonatti was blamed for Mehdi's plight and for years he was vilified by a substantial part of the Italian climbing community, who preferred to protect the reputation of Lacedelli and Compagnoni and not discredit their triumph.

It was not until 2004, when Lacedelli admitted in a book about the expedition that Bonatti's account was correct, that his name was cleared.  Lacedelli and Compagnoni knew that had he been given the chance, Bonatti would have completed the ascent without the need for supplemental oxygen and his achievement would have overshadowed theirs, so they moved the base camp in an attempt to deter him.

Photo of the Matterhorn
The east and north faces of the Matterhorn
The son of a fabric merchant, Bonatti grew up near Monza in the vast Po Valley. During the war years he spent part of his time with relatives in Gazzaniga, in Bergamo province, and his first climbing experiences were in the mountains close to Bergamo, specifically the Grigne range above Lecco. An adventurer by nature, he took on serious climbs from the age of 18 upwards. His achievements were all the more worthy for the fact that he had a poorly paid job in a steel mill and could not afford expensive equipment.

After the K2 row he found it hard to trust other climbers and set about achieving records on his own.

Among his triumphs were a solo climb of a new route on the south-west pillar of the Aiguille du Dru in the Mont Blanc massif in August 1955, the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in the Himalayas in 1958 and in 1965 the first solo climb in winter of the North face of the Matterhorn.

Immediately after his solo climb on the Matterhorn, Bonatti announced his retirement from professional climbing at the age of 35 and after only 17 years.

Subsequently, he wrote many mountaineering books and travelled the world as a journalist for the Italian magazine Epoca. 

In his later years, married to the actress Rossana Podestà, he lived in a house above the mountain village of Dubino, close to Lake Como.

He died in 2011 in Rome, where he was being treated for pancreatic cancer.

Travel tip:

Dubino is just a few kilometres from the northern tip of Lake Como in an area of alpine terrain close to the border of Italy and Switzerland.  The area is notable for its spectacular scenery, for speciality foods such as bresaola (cured beef) and bitto, a cheese made from the milk of cows that feed in high alpine meadows.

Photo of Monza cathedral
The marble facade of the Duomo at Monza
Travel tip:

Monza is a city of around 120,000 inhabitants in the Po Valley.  It is best known for its Formula One motor racing circuit but has many notable buildings, including a Romanesque-Gothic style cathedral with a black and-white marble arcaded façade erected in the mid-14th century.

(Photo of K2 by Svy123 CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of the Matterhorn by Camptocamp.org CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Monza Cathedral by Francescogb CC BY-SA 3.0)


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