Walter Bonatti: Ground-breaking mountaineer who played a crucial role in the first ascent of K2

Report by Stephen Venables
Wednesday 21st September 2011

Extract from Stephen Venables' tribute to Walter Bonatti written for The Independent 

 Walter Bonatti could have made the first ascent of K2. He was the most talented member of the Italian expedition that climbed the world's second highest mountain in 1954, but at 24 he was also the youngest, relegated to a disappointing support role which nearly cost him his life. With the local Hunza porter, Mahdi, he had to carry up oxygen cylinders for the chosen summit pair, Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli, who at the last minute pitched camp some distance from the agreed site.

After a long exhausting day, arriving at nightfall, Bonatti was unable to reach the camp and it was too late to descend to a lower camp, so he was forced to spend a night in the open, without tent or sleeping bag, at 8,100 metres above sea level. It was a hideous ordeal, made worse by Mahdi's delirious attempts to hurl himself from the precarious snow ledge, but both men survived, descending to safer altitude at first light. Meanwhile, aided by the vital oxygen cylinders, Compagnoni and Lacedelli reaped glory for themselves and for Italy, reaching the summit late that evening.

The K2 experience left Bonatti embittered. Not only was his heroic sacrifice unacknowledged: the summit pair blamed him for the fact that they ran out of oxygen near the top, suggesting that he had stolen some of it. The accusation was patently absurd - Bonatti had neither mask nor adaptor to deplete the cylinders, and Compagnoni and Lacedelli were simply too slow - but the slur rubbed salt in the wounds of a man who, despite being one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, was quite thin-skinned and prone to controversy.


 Read the full obituary on The Independent website 


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