Walter Bonatti represents today, more than sixty years after his great achievements, an example to follow. Anyone approaching the world of mountaineering today would do well to know its history.
It demonstrates what moral values, what strength and what skills one must have to be a world-class mountaineer.
Walter Bonatti made the history of mountaineering, he was very strong indeed and he believed in his ideas without compromise. For him there was no lie in the mountains. He was a spotless mountaineer, one of the greatest if not the greatest of his generation. The great battle he undertook after the vicissitudes of the conquest of K2, to see recognized the fundamental importance of his action in the conquest of the summit, and to cancel the shameful accusations of Compagnoni and Lacedelli of having even used the extra oxygen that was destined to they see him as the winner over 50 years from the facts.
Who is Walter Bonatti
Walter Bonatti using numbers and temporal references represents the symbol of the evolution of a man of adventure. The great Reinhold Messner wrote a beautiful book about him titling “The brother I didn’t know I had”, thus wanting to stigmatize the greatness of Bonatti.
But let’s get to the numbers: between 1949 and 1965 it opens more than twenty new routes all of very high difficulty in the Alps and precisely in the Mont Blanc massif. Between 1954 and 1961 he took part in four international expeditions in Karakorum Patagonia and Peru. Between 1965 and 1986 he made explorations in: Alaska, Antarctica, Australia, Chile, Congo, Guyana, Indonesia, New Guinea, Patagonia, Amazon River, Tanzania, Uganda, Venezuela, Zaire.
During these explorations he wrote reports that were published in a well-known Italian magazine and helped make it become legendary.
Walter Bonatti was first an alpinist and mountain guide then he became an explorer and writer. Between 1961 and 2009 he wrote twenty books on both mountaineering and exploration. Some of his books have also been translated into English: The Mountains of My Life (not to be missed), The Great Days, Magic of Mont Blanc and some more.
A much discussed mountaineer
Bonatti is a much discussed character in the mountaineering world, and he is above all abroad, where it is hard to understand why the Italian Alpine Club, which is the reference association for mountaineering in Italy, took half a century to recognize the truthfulness of the words of Walter Bonatti. In fact, CAI is an organization often criticized for resembling an elephant. In reality, many souls are mixed in it and the association often shows political dynamics.
The conquest of K2 was also a political fact and was sponsored not only by the Italian Alpine Club but also by the Italian State, the Italian National Research Council, and the Italian Military Geographical Institute.
Very probably for decades the will to not question the value that this feat had for Italy prevailed. In more recent times, however, the thrust of both the Italian and foreign mountaineering world and the enthusiasts and members of the Cai have convinced the association to review the facts.
Walter Bonatti and the conquest of K2
In 1954 Bonatti was included in the list of the 13 mountaineers selected to win the K2 which I remember is considered the most technically difficult 8000m. The laboratory tests reveal in him a powerful and unique physique, he is only 24 years old and he really wants to climb. The expedition begins badly and after a few days one of the thirteen climbers Mario Puchoz dies of pulmonary edema.
A separate post would be necessary to explain the subsequent events but we will limit ourselves to dwell on the key episodes, always remembering that it was 1954 and mountaineering was not what we know today, the means were rudimentary and inadequate clothing. Moreover it is true that the year before the myth of mountaineering Herman Bull had arrived on the top of Nanga Parbat alone and without oxygen but it is also true that the Nanga Parbat is 8126 mt. while the K2 is 8611 mt. The height of more than eight thousand meters is considered “death zone”.
Walter Bonatti in a day of ordinary madness
The day before the conquest, Walter Bonatti with the Hunza porter Amir Mahdi descends from camp VIII to camp VII to take the oxygen tanks to bring in support of Compagnoni and Lacedelli. These are the climbers that the expedition leader Ardito Desio has established will attempt to reach the summit.
Bonatti and Mahdi leave with the load of cylinders and after reaching camp VIII they continue to get to the point that Bonatti together with Compagnoni and Lacedelli had decided to find themselves to deliver the oxygen bottels.
The big surprise
But Compagnoni and Lacedelli do something that leaves Bonatti incredulous; there is no one at the established point! They set up the camp 250 meters above the established point and shout to Bonatti to leave the oxygen and go down.
Impossible to go down, it is dark, impossible even to climb if the companions do not tell you which direction to take to find the tent. There is only one possibility, try to survive the night at -50 degrees without a tent and without a sleeping bag in the death zone.
At 4.30 am Mahdi begins to go down despite Bonatti trying to hold him back. Later at about 6.00 also Bonatti descends and reaches him at camp VIII, Mahdi reports severe freezing and loses some fingers.
At 6.30 Compagnoni and Lacedelli descend to take oxygen bottles and leave for the conquest of the summit. The two will use oxygen up to the top and this is demonstrated by the photos taken by the two. Compagnoni declaring that oxygen he ended up at an altitude of 8400 meters. He accuses Walter Bonatti of having used the oxygen destined for the leading party.
Bonatti and Mahdi could not use oxygen since they had no dispensers. According to many, Bonatti, he was probably able to reach the summit without oxygen as he was healthy. The summit photos show the oxygen bottles on top of the K2. Why would they take them if they were empty? Also in the photos, you can see the signs of the masks that had been kept worn up.
The great bitterness
For Walter Bonatti it is a strong pain increased by the fact that the expedition leader refuses to listen to his version. A contract forces Bonatti to remain silent for two years. He’ll uses them to write a book that contains his truth. The publication of the bewilderment of the mountaineering world is remarkable. So begins the great battle that will see Bonatti also protagonist in the classrooms of a court where he will win a lawsuit against a journalist in evident bad faith.
The CAI can no longer keep quiet and even if with the times that distinguish it. In 1994 it proposes a revision of its position. With written and authoritative interventions in all the press that espouse its thesis. In spite of this, Bonatti does not consider the story to be closed. As it is in fact never explicitly said that Desio, Compagnoni and Lacedelli were wrong but only that Walter Bonatti is right.
It may seem a very subtle difference but those who have waited 40 years the justice no. Bonatti want it complete because only then will there be no more doubts.
And so in 2004 a commission of three essays commissioned by Cai gave the final opinion. On the whole affair and ended a painful chapter forever, the role of Walter Bonatti was decisive for the success of the expedition and the conquest of K2
The other non-European expeditions Of Walter Bonatti
In 1958 Walter Bonatti takes part in an expedition to Patagonia whose goal is the Cerro Torre. For various logistical and economic problems the climb is not possible and stops a few hundred meters from the summit. The goal then moves to other more affordable peaks and makes the first ascent of Cerro Adela, Cerro Doblado, Cerro Grande, Cerro Luca.
Also in 1958 he took part in another great expedition and returned to the Karakorum, this time as the undisputed protagonist. The expedition led by another of the greatest Italian mountaineers of all time: Riccardo Cassin. He has as its objective the very difficult Gasherbrum IV mountain of 7,925 Mt. This time there are no misunderstandings, Cassin is a true mountaineer. He is not a professor, he knows that for the summit it is necessary to focus on racehorses. He assigns the task of conquering the summit to Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri. After various attempts, Bonatti and Mauri reach the summit through difficulties of even V grade on the rock, just below the summit. Suffice it to say that to date the summit of Gasherbrum IV is reached only three times.
In 1961 Walter Bonatti instead dedicated his attention to the Cordillera Huayhuash where together with Oggioni and Ferrario he designed three splendid streets on Cerro Paria-Nord, Nevado Ninashanca, Nevado Rondoy Norte.
Walter Bonatti and the Mont Blanc
At the end of the forties, Bonatti was a steel worker and made his first ascents in the mountains of Lombardy in Grigna. He takes a bicycle from Bergamo to Lecco, at that time having a car was a dream for the few. However, he soon realizes that he needs tougher mountains with extreme problems to solve. Thus he shifts his attention to the Mont Blanc which with its 4808 meters offers really extreme difficulties. It will be between Mont Blanc, Grand Jorasses and Cervino that Bonatti will write unforgettable pages of mountaineering.
The Great Capucin
In 1951 accompanied by Luciano Ghigo, he attempts to climb the Gran Capucin for a new route. Also this time the bad weather forces the two climbers to a bivouac on the wall. But the mountain is won and Walter Bonatti gives his name for the first time to a mountaineering route. Fee: 3.838 Mt. Dif: ED, max 5.12b – 5.12c, 5.9 and A1 mandatory.
The Petit Dru
Here Walter consecrates himself definitively as a point man of world mountaineering. In August 1955 he completed a feat that is still considered a milestone in mountaineering.
He leaves on his own to attack the southwestern pillar of the Petit Dru. He will remain on the wall for six consecutive days and risk his life after five days as he is at a point where it is no longer possible to go up or even go down.
It is a kind of mousetrap, but Bonatti does not lose heart and invents a solution that is ultimately the only one possible. High, teen meters above him, a little moved sees a kind of comb formed by a strange stone of a few centimeters. He builds a tangle of lines and connects them to the safety rope. After a dozen temptations, he manages to hook the comb but without being able to know if it was resistant or not.
He has no other choice, he loads the weight gently on the rope and lets himself go making a pendulum. It’s done, climb the rope with arms and gain salvation. Def. 600 m / TD +, A1. Unfortunately this route no longer exists as a recent collapse has seen the entire pillar disappear.
Walter Bonatti and the tragedy of the Freney Central Spur
In 1961 Walter Bonatti, together with Oggioni and Gallieni attempted to climb a peak that had never been climbed before in the Mont Blanc group: the central Freney spur. At the Fourche bivouac, they meet four Frenchmen including Pierre Mazeaud the expedition leader. They decide to join forces and try to conquer the summit together. When they are only 100 Mt. from the top a violent storm surprises them and will last a whole week. After three days in the storm, they decide to attempt a retreat from the ascent route, it is an almost impossible undertaking. During the journey, three French mountaineers and the Italian Oggioni lose their lives. Only Bonatti, Gallieni and Mazeaud will find salvation at the Gamba hut.
The great north walls
On the Gran Jorasses Walter Bonatti leaves as signature a route of great difficulty evaluated by the repeaters grade ED+ . This climb climbs directly to Punta Whymper for the north wall.
The north face of the Matterhorn and farewell to extreme mountaineering
Walter Bonatti, although he is still young, wants to say no to extreme mountaineering and does it his own way, accomplishing a feat that can still be considered legendary today. But why legendary? How many mountaineers have faced immense efforts on the walls of the Alps, who is he to call it legendary?
The north of the Matterhorn is a 1,200 meter-high stone wall. I can imagine little Walter small in this immense sea of unstable stones held together only by the great cold. The Matterhorn is a pile of piles stacked up to 4,478 meters above sea level. So beautiful it is to look at from afar, so bad it is to walk on it.
It is winter, after two failed attempts, one of which ended in the storm, Bonatti appears under that gloomy wall. This time, however, he has found no companions who could accompany him. So he takes a tough decision indeed very strong, he will climb alone. He will try to win the north face of the Matterhorn in winter alone by a new route.
Walter Bonatti on all TVs
The news goes around the press agencies and journalists. From all the newspapers and television stations sit down with the binoculars to follow that man so bold as to challenge death in such a difficult undertaking. After 4 days and three nights on the wall, there is no trace of Walter Bonatti. The planes do reconnaissance but cannot locate him.
The fifth day seems to suffer the same fate and by now many people think something has happened. But they haven’t come to terms with the strength, technical ability, courage, and moral strength of that man, a lonely man who climbs his mountain.
At three o’clock in the afternoon of 22 February 1965, Walter Bonatti appears on the summit ridge of the monte Cervino (called Matterhornin Swiss). Beautiful period images portray him walking slowly towards the summit cross. He embracing the crucifix, “I embraced it as if it has a soul,” he said once he reached the valley.
Explorer Walter Bonatti
For many the sporting achievements of Walter Bonatti are those of the extreme mountaineer but he knew how to distinguish himself also as an explorer. At the end of his career as an extreme mountaineer he began to collaborate with the weekly Epoca. He’ll produce a hundred reports from around the world.
It is impossible to list them all here but if you read his books you will understand which extraordinary man of adventure was Walter Bonatti and which writing he was also capable of. Certainly it is an old style writing but romantic and rich in intellectual cues.
In mountaineering it is important to know the past, the future is traced from the past. A First ascent is always a demonstration that can be done. In a repetition of a route you already know that it can be done. This is why it is increasingly difficult to open new route that do not repeat them.
Walter Bonatti dedicated his mountaineering life to creating new itineraries and all of extreme difficulty. As a popularizer he transmits his moral strength, he approaches the mountain almost on tiptoe with great respect. However once inside, the battle for survival has never seen him defeated.
An eminent Italian mountain writer, Gino Buscaini, said of him something significative. He said if he had been born in the time of Homer he would certainly not have been an alpinist, but his exploits would certainly have reached us.