Showing posts with label Mountaineering. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mountaineering. Show all posts

17 September 2020

Nives Meroi - mountaineer

One of history’s greatest female climbers 

Nives Meroi and Romano Benet
Nives Meroi and Romano Benet have been
climbing together for more than 40 years
The climber Nives Meroi, widely regarded as one of history’s finest female mountaineers, was born on this day in 1961 in Bonate Sotto, a small town in the province of Bergamo, about 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan.

One half of a renowned husband-and-wife climbing team with Romano Benet, Meroi is one of only three women to have reached the peak of all 14 of the so-called eight-thousanders, the only mountains in the world that tower about 8,000m, topped by Everest (8,848m), which she conquered in 2007, and K2 (8,611), which she had scaled in 2006.

Meroi completed the full set of 14 when she reached the summit of Annapurna (8,091m) in the Himalayas in 2017.  She and Benet, born in Italy but who has Slovenian nationality, are the first married couple to have climbed all 14 together.

The two first met more than 40 years ago in Tarvisio in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Benet’s hometown, situated in an Alpine valley close to the borders with Austria and Slovenia. Meroi, a student, was sharing a house with Benet’s sister. They began hiking and climbing together after discovering they had a common love of the mountainous scenery.

They were married in 1989, about 10 years after they met, with climbing central to the decision to tie the knot, Meroi confessing in an interview some years later that it enabled them to realise a dream, which at the time seemed out of reach, to go climbing together in the Peruvian Andes, on the Cordillera Blanca range.

Benet and Meroi have scaled the 14 highest mountains in the world
Benet and Meroi have scaled the 14
highest mountains in the world
“We had no money or leave days," Meroi said in an interview on the BBC World Service. "So we decided to get married because our employers would give us two weeks off, and we asked our friends and family to pay for the trip."

With the Alps on their doorstep in Tarvisio, they had by then become seasoned climbers and it was not long after becoming husband and wife that they began to travel to the Himalayas.  They attempted both Everest and K2 in the mid-1990s, without reaching the peak, before chalking off the first of the eight-thousanders in 1998, whey they successfully scaled Nanga Parbat, which rises to 8,126m in Kashmir. Meroi was the first Italian woman at the summit.

They had climbed two more off the list by the end of the decade before, in 2003, Meroi became the first female climber to complete the three eight-thousanders of the Gasherbrum Massif on the border of China and Pakistan.  Their conquests of K2 and Everest in the next few years were notable for the couple reaching the summits alone, with no sherpas to help carry equipment, and without using supplemental oxygen.

Not surprisingly, given the risks involved with climbing, their lives have not been without drama.

In 2008, attempting a treacherous winter ascent of Makalu, at 8,485m the world’s fifth highest peak, Meroi was blown off her feet by a fierce gust of wind and fell between two boulders, breaking her right leg. With the help of another Italian climber who had accompanied them on the trip, Benet carried her down to a glacier 2,000m below where the incident took place, from which a helicopter took her to hospital. 

Nives Meroi
Meroi is only the third female to
climb all 14 eight-thousanders
A year later, once Meroi had recovered, the pair set out to climb Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest peak, on the border of India and Nepal. They were closing in on the 8,586m summit when Benet became unwell. Meroi had the option to continue alone, leaving her husband to wait for her in a tent, which would have put her in with a chance of becoming the first woman to complete the 14 eight-thousanders, given that the two that would remain on her list were less daunting prospects.

In the event, the decision to descend immediately and quickly was the right one. Benet was suffering from aplastic anaemia, an extremely rare condition in which the bone marrow fails to produce enough new blood cells.  It took two years of treatment, including dozens of blood transfusions and two bone-marrow transplants, before Benet was well again, having been in grave danger of losing his life.

Undaunted, the couple resumed climbing.  They succeeded at the third attempt to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga in 2014, scaled the peak of Makalu two years later and conquered the last of the 14 on May 11, 2017, when she and Benet arrived at the 8,091-metre summit of Annapurna, in north-central Nepal.

It made Meroi only the third woman to have climbed all the world’s eight-thousanders, after the Spanish mountaineer Edurne Pasaban, who had achieved the feat in 2010, and the Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who followed a year later. Kaltenbrunner and Meroi are the only women to have completed all 14 without supplemental oxygen.

Benet - almost 10 years his wife’s senior - had just turned 65 in May 2017. He became the 16th man to complete the set and the fourth Italian.

The couple still live just outside Tarvisio in what they describe as a mountain hut.

The remaining apse of the former Basilica di Santa Giulia
The remaining apse of the former
Basilica di Santa Giulia
Travel tip:

Bonate Sotto, where Neroi was born, is a small town of around 7,000 residents some 12km (9 miles) southeast of the Lombardia city of Bergamo within the so-called Isola Bergamasca between the Brembo and Adda rivers. It is best known for the remains of the Basilica di Santa Giulia, a 12th-century Romanesque basilica built on the site of a church that may have stood since in the seventh century. It fell into disrepair and was abandoned in the 14th century. The 12th-century structure had a nave and two aisles with three apses, with an interior was divided into five bays, of which only the last one preceding the apse area survives. The area outside the remains includes a cemetery.

The market square in Treviso, with the church of Saints Peter and Paul
The market square in Treviso, with the
church of Saints Peter and Paul
Travel tip:

Tarvisio, which has a population of slightly less than 5,000, can be found 7km (4 miles) from the Austrian border and 11km (7 miles) from Slovenia, in the Val Canale between the Julian Alps and eastern Carnic Alps. It is a popular base for both winter and summer activities. Its historic market, which used to open on Saturdays but now hosts stalls on weekdays too, attracts shoppers from over the border.  Meroi and Benet live in an area of tiny Alpine lakes called the Fusine Laghi, just to the east of the town.

Also on this day:

1630: The birth of Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma

1688: The birth of Maria Luisa of Savoy

1944: The birth of mountaineer Reinhold Messner


27 October 2018

Simone Moro - mountaineer

Bergamo climber with unique record

Simone Moro has been climbing since he was 13 years old
Simone Moro has been climbing
since he was 13 years old
The mountaineer Simone Moro, who is the only climber whose list of achievements includes the first winter ascent of four of the so-called eight-thousanders, was born on this day in 1967 in the city of Bergamo in Lombardy.

The eight-thousanders are the 14 peaks on Earth that rise to more than 8,000m (26,247ft) above sea level. All are located in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges in Asia.

A veteran of 15 winter expeditions, he completed the winter ascent of Shisha Pangma (8,027m) in 2005, Makalu (8,485m) in 2009, Gasherbrum II (8,035m) in 2011 and Nanga Parbat (8,126m) in 2016.

He has scaled Everest (8,848m) four times, including the first solo south-north traverse in 2006. In total he has completed more than 50 expeditions, conquering peaks in Tien Shan, Pamir, Andes, Patagonia and Antarctica as well as the Himalayas and Karakoram.

Moro is also renowned for his courage and bravery. During his 2001 attempt on the Everest-Lhotse traverse, he abandoned his ascent at 8,000m and battled through the most dangerous conditions in darkness to save the life of British climber Tom Moores.

In recognition of his bravery, Moro was awarded a Civilian Gold Medal by the Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.   He was also awarded the Pierre de Coubertin International Fair Play Trophy by UNESCO and the David A. Sowles Memorial Award from the American Alpine Club.

Makalu in the Himalayas - the highest of the four eight-thousanders Moro climbed in winter
Makalu in the Himalayas - the highest of the four
eight-thousanders Moro climbed in winter
An experienced helicopter pilot - the first European qualified to fly in Nepal - in 2013, Moro and two other rescue experts carried out the world's highest long-line rescue operation on a helicopter, on Lhotse, at 7800m.

In 2015, he set a new flight altitude world record in an ES 101 Raven, turboshaft powered helicopter reaching 6,705m.

Born into a middle-class family, Moro grew up in the borough of Valtesse, a suburb of Bergamo in a valley to the northeast of the Città Alta, between the elevated medieval part of the city and the Maresana Hill.

He had the enthusiastic support of his father, who was also a climber and a high-altitude biker, in his passion for the mountains and tackled the 2,521m (8,271ft) Presolana and other massifs of the Alpi Bergamasche when he was only 13.  There is a strong climbing tradition in the Bergamo area, which produced another famous mountaineer, Walter Bonatti.

Once had had graduated from university, he took on climbs in the Grigna - a massif in the province of Lecco, northwest of Bergamo, before attempting more ambitious climbs in the Dolomites.

Moro often makes public appearances to share his expertise and experiences
Moro often makes public appearances
to share his expertise and experiences
He did his military service at the Alpine Military School of Aosta, finishing his 15-month stint as a sub-lieutenant of the Alpini, the mountain troops of the Italian Army.

He participated in his first Himalayan expedition to Mount Everest in 1992 and the following year achieved the first winter ascent of Aconcagua in Argentina, at 6,960.8m (22,837 ft) the highest mountain in both the Southern and Western Hemispheres.

Moro has also used his own money to help various charitable projects, including the financing of a school for 396 Sherpa children in the isolated Nepalese village of Syadul.  Near the Nanga Parbat base camp, he built a small masonry building for the shepherds and a small hospital in the village of Ser.

He performs free rescue missions in the Nepalese area using a helicopter he bought with his own money in 2009.

Moro raises the funds for his missions by making frequent public appearances and providing motivational speeches. He has also written a number of books, including an autobiography entitled Devo perché posso - I Must Because I Can.

He is married to Barbara Zwerger and has two children, 19-year-old Martina and eight-year-old Jonas.  He still has a home in Bergamo.

The walled Città Alta is one of the two centres of Bergamo
The walled Città Alta is one of the two centres of Bergamo
Travel tip:

Bergamo, where Moro was born and grew up, is a fascinating, historic city with two distinct centres. The Città Alta, upper town, is a beautiful, walled city with buildings that date back to medieval times. The elegant Città Bassa, lower town, still has some buildings that date back to the 15th century, but more imposing and elaborate architecture was added in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Grigna massif in the province of Lecco
The Grigna massif in the province of Lecco
Travel tip:

The Grigna is a mountain massif in the province of Lecco, with an elevation of 2,410m (7,907ft). It is part of the Bergamo Alps, and it has two peaks, Grignone or Grigna settentrionale, the higher, and the lower Grignetta or Grigna meridionale (2,177m).  To the southwest, the Grigna massif descends precipitously towards an arm of Lake Como known as Ramo di Lecco (The Branch of Lecco). To the east, the mountain rises gently through fields and forested land into Valsassina. The northern side of the mountain, which is known for its many caves and crevices, leads to Passo del Cainallo and the town of Esino Lario.

More reading:

The Bergamo climber whose career was marred by a 50-year row

The climber from the Dolomites who conquered Everest

Riccardo Cassin - mountaineer and resistance fighter

Also on this day:

1952: The birth of Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni

1962: The death of controversial industrialist Enrico Mattei


12 August 2018

Vittorio Sella - mountain photographer

Images still considered among the most beautiful ever made

A 1909 photograph by Sella of K2, on the China-Pakistan border
A 1909 photograph by Sella of K2, on
the China-Pakistan border 
The photographer Vittorio Sella, who combined mountaineering with taking pictures of some of the world’s most famous and challenging peaks, died on this day in 1943 in his home town of Biella in Piedmont.

Even though Sella took the bulk of his photographs between the late 1870s and the First World War, his images are still regarded as among the most beautiful and dramatic ever taken.

His achievements are all the more remarkable given that his first camera and tripod alone weighed more than 18kg (40lbs) and he exposed his pictures on glass plates weighing almost a kilo (2lbs).  He had to set up makeshift darkrooms on the mountain at first because each shot had to be developed within 10 to 15 minutes.

Sella had exploring and photography in his blood. He was born in 1859 in Biella, in the foothills of the Italian Alps. It was an important area for wool and textiles and his family ran a successful wool factory.

Sella’s father, Giuseppe, was fascinated with the new science of photography A few years before Vittorio’s birth, he published the first major treatise on photography in Italian.

Meanwhile, Sella’s uncle, Quintino Sella, led the first expedition to the top of Monte Viso (or Monviso), the highest mountain in the French-Italian Alps, and in 1863 founded the Club Alpino Italiano, which remains Italy’s principal mountaineering club.

Le Siniolchu (6895 m) and the glacier Zemu, in the
Himalayas, often seen as one of Sella's greatest pictures
Sella’s father died when he was 16 and he was placed in the care of his uncle, which only encouraged Vittorio’s interest in mountaineering. His uncle was a famous man in his day, one of Italy's foremost mountaineering experts, who also helped establish a royal museum of mineralogy in Turin. 

Quintino Sella was also well known as a politician, serving as Italy’s minister of finance in 1862, after Italy was unified.

Vittorio decided he wanted a career that combine his father's passion with his uncle's and he was a pioneer in mountaineering as well as photography. In 1882, he led the first group to successfully climb the Matterhorn - Monte Cervino to Italians - the largest mountain on the Italian–Swiss border, during the winter.

He also made the first winter ascent of Monte Rosa and the first winter traverse of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco).

Further afield, he undertook three expeditions to the Caucasus (where a peak now bears his name) and also climbed Mount Saint Elias in Alaska and the Rwenzori in Africa. He was part of the 1909 expedition to K2 and the Karakoram. 

Vittorio Sella attempted to climb the Matterhorn at the age of 76
Vittorio Sella attempted to climb
the Matterhorn at the age of 76
The remarkable fact of Sella’s climbing career is that, where most mountaineers consider reaching distant summits and returning safely home as the limit of their ambitions, Sella often repeatedly climbed to the same summits in order to create still more stunning photographic images.

Age did not lessen Sella’s appetite for climbing. He attempted to scale the Matterhorn at 76 years old, the attempt failing not because of any weaknesses on his part but because one of his guides was injured.

The American photographer Ansel Adams, who saw Sella make a presentation in the United States, said his photographic work inspired "a definitely religious awe".

Sella died in Biella a few days before what would have been his 84th birthday.  He was buried at the Monumental Cemetery of Oropa, a little over 15km (9 miles) northwest of Biella in the Sacro Monte di Oropa nature reserve.

The Vittorio Sella Refuge, once a hunting lodge belonging to King Victor Emmanuel II, located at 2,588m (8,490ft) in the Gran Paradiso National Park on the Piedmont-Aosta border, is dedicated to him.  The refuge has beds for 150 people and a restaurant.

His collections of photographs is now managed by the Sella Foundation (Fondazione Sella) in Biella.

Biella's Roman baptistery, which dates back almost 1,000 years, is next to the town hall
Biella's Roman baptistery, which dates back almost 1,000
years, is next to the town hall
Travel tip:

Biella is a well-established town of almost 45,000 inhabitants in the foothill of the Alps, about 85km (53 miles) northeast of Turin and slightly more than 100m (62 miles) west of Milan. Its attractions include a Roman baptistery from early 1000s and the church and convent of San Sebastian. Wool and textiles have been associated with the town since the 13th century and although the best years of the industry have now passed, with many mills and factories closed, brands such as Cerruti 1881, Ermenegildo Zegna, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Fila still have a presence.

A classic view of the Matterhorn, showing the east and north faces
A classic view of the Matterhorn, showing
the east and north faces
Travel tip:

The Matterhorn, also known as Monte Cervino, which straddles the Swiss-Italian border about 60km (37 miles) northeast of Aosta, is an almost symmetrical natural pyramid, with four steep faces, whose peak is 4,478 metres (14,692ft) high, making it one of the highest summits in the Alps. The north face was not climbed until 1931 and the west face, which is the highest of the Matterhorn's four faces, was completely climbed only in 1962. More then 500 alpinists have died on the Matterhorn, including four on the first attempted ascent in 1865, making it one of the deadliest peaks in the world.

More reading:

How bitter rivalry marred the career of climber Walter Bonatti

War hero who was first to complete more than 100 climbs

Felice Beato - the world's first war photographer

Also on this day:

1612: The death of Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli

1990: The birth of controversial football star Mario Balotelli


2 January 2018

Riccardo Cassin – mountaineer

Long life of partisan who was fascinated by mountains

Riccardo Cassin developed a fascination with mountains as a boy
Riccardo Cassin developed a fascination
with mountains as a boy
The climber and war hero Riccardo Cassin was born on this day in 1909 at San Vito al Tagliamento in Friuli.

Despite his daring mountain ascents and his brave conduct against the Germans during the Second World War, he was to live past the age of 100.

By the age of four, Cassin had lost his father, who was killed in a mining accident in Canada. He left school when he was 12 to work for a blacksmith but moved to Lecco when he was 17 to work at a steel plant.

Cassin was to become fascinated by the mountains that tower over the lakes of Lecco, Como and Garda and he started climbing with a group known as the Ragni di Lecco - the Spiders of Lecco.

In 1934 he made his first ascent of the smallest of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites. The following year, after repeating another climber’s route on the north west face of the Civetta, he climbed the south eastern ridge of the Trieste Tower and established a new route on the north face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo.

In 1937 Cassin made his first climb on the granite of the Western Alps. Over the course of three days he made the first ascent of the north east face of Piz Badile in the Val Bregaglia in Switzerland. Two of the climbers accompanying him died of exhaustion and exposure on the descent.

The Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where Cassin embarked on some of his earliest climbing challenges
The Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where Cassin embarked on some
of his earliest climbing challenges
This is known today as the Cassin Route, or Via Cassin and he confirmed his mountaineering prowess by climbing the route again at the age of 78.

His most celebrated first ascent was the Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif in 1938, which was universally acknowledged as the toughest Alpine challenge. Even though Cassin knew little about the area before going there he reached the summit and made a successful descent during a violent storm.

Cassin made a total of 2,500 ascents, of which more than 100 were first ascents.

During the Second World War, Cassin fought on the side of the Italian partisans against the Germans. In 1945 along with another partisan he attempted to stop a group of Germans escaping along an alpine pass into Germany. His comrade was shot dead by them but Cassin survived and was later decorated for his heroic actions.

Cassin was supposed to have been part of the Italian expedition that made the first ascent of K2 in the Karakoram, having sketched the route and done all the organisation.  But the expedition leader left him out after sending Cassin for a medical examination in Rome where he was told he had cardiac problems.

The Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc massif, where Cassin scaled the Walker Spur
The Grandes Jorasses in the Mont Blanc
massif, where Cassin scaled the Walker Spur
Cassin realised the expedition leader had felt threatened by his experience and from then on he organised and led expeditions himself, such as the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in the Karakorum range and an ascent of Jirishanca in the Andes.

In 1961 he led a successful ascent of Mount McKinley in Alaska. The ridge was later named Cassin Ridge in his honour and he received a telegram of congratulations from President Kennedy.

Cassin began designing and producing mountaineering equipment in the 1940s and formed a limited company in 1967. In 1997 the CAMP company bought the Cassin trademark from him.

Cassin wrote two books about climbing and received two honours from the Italian Republic. He became Grand’Ufficiale dell Ordine al merito in 1980 and Cavaliere di Gran Croce Ordine al merito in 1999.

The book, Riccardo Cassin: Cento volti di un grande alpinista, was produced for his 100th birthday, containing 100 testimonials from people who had been associated with him, including President Kennedy.

Cassin died in August 2009, more than seven months after his 100th birthday, in Piano dei Resinelli, Lecco.

The main square - Piazza del Popolo - in San Vito al Tagliamento
The main square - Piazza del Popolo - in
San Vito al Tagliamento
Travel tip:

San Vito al Tagliamento, where Riccardo Cassin was born, is a medieval town in the province of Pordenone in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, about 80 kilometres northwest of Trieste . It still has three towers of its medieval walls and a Duomo with a triptych by Andrea Bellunello. Mussolini’s brother, Arnaldo, taught there for several years and his nephew, Vito, also lived and worked there.

Lago di Lecco
Lago di Lecco
Travel tip:

Lecco, where Riccardo Cassin eventually settled, lies at the end of the south eastern branch of Lago di Como, which is known as Lago di Lecco. The Bergamo Alps rise to the north and east of the lake. The writer Alessandro Manzoni lived there for part of his life and based his famous novel, I promessi sposi, there.  

17 September 2016

Reinhold Messner - mountaineer

Climber from Dolomites who conquered Everest

Reinhold Messner, pictured in 2012 at Castel Juval,  one of the sites of his Messner Mountain Museum
Reinhold Messner, pictured in 2012 at Castel Juval,
 one of the sites of his Messner Mountain Museum
Reinhold Messner, the Italian mountaineer who was the first climber to reach the summit of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first to reach the peak on a solo climb, was born on this day in 1944 in Bressanone, a town in Italy's most northerly region of Alto Adige, which is also known as South Tyrol.

Messner was also the first man to ascend every one of the world's 14 peaks that rise to more than 8,000 metres (26,000 ft) above sea level.

His 1976 ascent of Everest with the Austrian climber Peter Habeler defied numerous doctors and other specialists in the effects of altitude who insisted that scaling the world's highest mountain without extra oxygen was not possible.

Born only 45km from Italy's border with Austria, Messner grew up speaking German and Italian and has also become fluent in English.  His father, Josef, introduced him to climbing and took him to his first summit at the age of five. He soon became familiar with all the peaks of the Dolomites. 

From a family of 10 children - nine of them boys - Messner shared his passion for adventure with brothers Günther and Hubert, with whom he would later cross the Arctic.  He and Günther, two years his junior, began climbing together when Reinhold was 13 and by their early 20s were among the best climbers in Europe.

The Rupal face of Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, on the  descent from which Messner's brother Gunther sadly died
The Rupal face of Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, on the
descent from which Messner's brother sadly died
Their partnership ended tragically, however, on Messner's first major Himalayan climb in 1970, after the two had reached the summit of the previously unclimbed Rupal face of Nanga Parbat. Günther was killed in an accident after the two became separated on the descent of the Diamir face. The circumstances of his death were never conclusively established but Reinhold, who himself lost seven toes to frostbite, claims Günther was swept away by an avalanche.

Messner's motivation for attempting Mount Everest without taking supplies of bottled oxygen stemmed from his belief that climbs assisted in that way were not true tests of human capability, that in a way it was cheating.  He pledged that he would ascend Everest "by fair means or not at all." Having succeeded once, he repeated the feat from the Tibetan side in 1980, which gave him the distinction of achieving Everest's first solo summit.

Reinhold Messner pictured at Everest base camp
Reinhold Messner pictured at Everest base camp
He became the first to complete all 14 of the so-called 'eight-thousanders' on 1986, a year ahead of the Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka.  All 14 are located in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges in Asia and Messner again scaled them all without extra oxygen.

Messner, who has crossed Antarctica on skis, has written 63 books, which include his autobiography Free Spirit: A Climber's Life, his Everest account The Crystal Horizon: Everest – The First Solo Ascent and All 14 Eight-thousanders, all published by Mountaineers Books.

As well as climbing, Messner became interested in politics and from 1999 to 2004 he was Member of the European Parliament for the Italian Green Party (Federazione dei Verdi).

Nowadays, he devotes much of his time to the Messner Mountain Museum project, which consists of five museums in his home region of Alto Adige, established to help educate visitors about the science and history of mountaineering and rock climbing.

Travel tip:

The small city of Bressanone - Brixen in German - became part of Italy only at the end of the First World War. It is characteristically German in its culture, with three quarters of the population of 21,500 speaking German as a first language. Located in a valley where the Eisack and Rienz rivers meet, it is shadowed on one side by Monte Telegrafo (2,504m) and on the other by Monte Pascolo (2,436m).

The Piazza Vescovile in Bressanone with the two towers of the Cathedral in the background
The Piazza Vescovile in Bressanone with the two towers
of the Cathedral in the background
Travel tip:

The third largest city in one of the richest regions in Italy, Bressanone has a cathedral that was rebuilt along Baroque lines in the 18th century but originates in the 10th century, and an unusual round Church of Saint Michael that was built in the 11th century with a Gothic bell tower added in the 15th century. Bressanone is a stop on the railway line from Verona in Italy to Innsbruck in Austria.

More reading:

Walter Bonatti - outstanding career marred by 50-year row

(Photo of Nanga Parbat by Daniel Martin GFDL 1.2)
(Photo at Everest base camp by Sanjay Kodain CC NY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Piazza in Bressanone by Sailko CC BY-SA 3.0)


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 CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Photo of Monza Cathedral by Francescogb CC BY-SA 3.0)