The Best Mountaineer Ever

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by Mike Keeler

The greatest athlete in the history of his sport recently passed away.  You’ve probably never heard of him.

 In 1954, a group of Italian mountaineers attempted to climb K2, the second tallest mountain in the world.  Everest had been conquered the summer before, and the climbers hoped their expedition would repair Italian pride damaged since World War 2.  On July 31, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni reached the summit, but not without controversy.  During the climb, a member of their support team named Walter Bonatti (who had famously conquered the Capucin Massif on Mt. Blanc at age 21) and a Pakistani porter named Mahdi were bringing oxygen canisters up the mountain.  When they arrived at the highest support camp just below the summit, they found that the camp had been moved and their team was gone.  They were alone at 26,600 feet, forced to spend the night with no tent or equipment.

Miraculously, they survived.  The Bonatti/Mahdi bivouac is considered one of the most impressive episodes in the history of alpine climbing.  Unfortunately, Mahdi lost his fingers and toes to frostbite.  And the worst was yet to come.  In explaining what had happened, Compagnoni accused the two support climbers of using up all the oxygen and turning back before reaching camp.  Bonatti produced two photographs that substantiated that the camp had been moved, and he argued that Compagnoni had moved it to keep Bonatti from joining the team that reached the summit.  It was a bold claim that essentially accused Compagnoni of betrayal and attempted mountaineering manslaughter.

Bonatti was roundly criticized and shunned by his peers.  The climbing community rallied around their new hero Compagnoni and accepted his version of the story.

Ostracized but undeterred, Bonatti kept climbing on his own.  In the summer of 1955, he was soloing on Petit Dru in the French Alps when he was overtaken by a summer storm.  In the dark and rain, he tied a rope into a series of loops with carabiners attached, and repeatedly hurled it up the rock face.  One of the carabiners caught hold in an unseen crack, and Bonatti ascended hand-over-hand in what one mountaineer later called, “the most important single feat ever to take place in mountaineering.”  For the next 10 years, Bonatti continued to astonish; if anything was deemed unclimbable, he would climb it.  In his final act, in 1965, he climbed the North Face of the Matterhorn.  Solo.  In the dead of winter.  And then he retired from climbing.

He became a popular adventure journalist.  But nothing could remove the “thorn in his heart” of Compagnoni’s allegations.  In 2004, Achille Compagnoni died, and his partner Lino Lacedelli finally came clean.  He admitted that Bonatti had done nothing wrong; the K2 camp had in fact been moved without warning.

At last, after 50 years alone, Bonatti had reached the one summit that had long eluded him: the clearing of the stain on his reputation.  And what a reputation!  Journalist David Roberts, when asked to summarize Bonatti’s exploits, said, “If you had a poll of the greatest mountaineers of all time, he might win it. It is that simple.”

Walter Bonatti made the ultimate ascent on Sept 11, at age 81.