Walter Bonatti dies

Mountaineering great Walter Bonatti has died. He was someone who ascended some of the most difficult climbing routes and had some notable firsts on these. But it perhaps his role in the first successful ascent of K2 in 1954 that Bonatti is best known for.

Bitter 1954 K2 controversy

His role in the successful 1954 first ascent of K2 by an Italian expedition has been controversial and only recently has it finally been cleared up what happened. This was a massive expedition with a total of 9 camps (in contrast to 4 now) and hundreds of porters, along with other climbers from Italy, climbing up the Abruzzi Ridge.

The controversy revolves around the role Bonatti and a Hunza porter played on July 30, 1954. This was the day before the successful summit of K2 by Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli. The facts of what happened were disputed for years between these climbers.

Delivery of the oxygen bottles

Bonatti and Hunza porter Amir Mahdi were supposed to deliver oxygen to the 2 lead climbers of the expedition at camp 9(somewhere just below the bottleneck and higher than climbers now make their final camp at about 8000m). Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli had made their final camp here before the summit. But this camp was higher than what was initially planned the day before. These leading 2 climbers were dependent upon Bonatti and Mahdi delivering them the final supply of oxygen so that they could make a summit attempt of K2 the next day.

Bonatti and Mahdi were late getting to the camp of these climbers and because the camp and they did not have time before dark to reach it. The headlamp from Mahdi was broken and Bonatti’s was no longer working. Mahdi was exhausted. They could not together make it up there.

They called out to Compagnoni and Lacedelli but were initially not heard. Eventually came a response from Lacedelli asking if they had the oxygen bottles. Bonatti replied that they had the oxygen bottles.  Lacedelli told him to leave in there and they would collect the oxygen bottles later. He also told them to go back down K2. But because the wind was blowing the messages between them were difficult to relay and possibly some of what Lacedelli said was not heard by Bonatti.

In the end Bonatti and Mahdi left the 2 oxygen tanks at the place where they were supposed to be for Compagnoni and Lacedelli at about 8100m.

Bonatti and Mahdi could not descend that night. Their headlamps were dead and Mahdi was in no condition to descend. He needed to stay in a tent because of his worsening condition. Because the leading climbers had placed the tent higher and in a more difficult position, it was impossible for Mahdi to reach the leading climber’s tent. So he and Bonatti had to endure a forced bivouac at around 8100m. Bonatti would later complain that they deliberately set the tent so high that he and Mahdi would not be able stay in the tent with them.

The cold that night caused severe frostbite to Mahdi’s fingers and toes. He ended up losing fingers and toes as a result. Bonatti escaped without such injuries. They ended up descending K2 after just surviving the bivouac, while Compagnoni and Lacedelli made their attempt on the summit.

Accusations against Bonatti

The next day Compagnoni and Lacedelli reached the summit of K2. They were the first climbers to make the summit of the second highest mountain in the world. The problem for these climbers started when they ran out of oxygen. In the end it would result in a desperate attempt to get back down K2.

Allegedly Compagnoni would later say that Bonatti had used some of the oxygen in the tanks. This meant, according to his account, which they ended up running out of oxygen. This not only risked the chances of them making the summit but also put their lives in danger. They ended up reaching the summit at 6pm on 31st July 1954. But they had run out of oxygen from the cylinders that were left for them by Bonatti and Mahdi.

Compagnoni allegedly said that he believed that Bonatti had deliberately used the oxygen tanks that they carried that day so as to sabotage the summit attempt. He believed that Bonatti wanted to be the first climber to reach the summit of K2.

Bonatti defends himself

Bonatti said that he did not use any of the oxygen that was meant for the final climbing pair. He also said that he left full bottles of oxygen at 8100m at the place where they were supposed to leave them. In fact, he said, he could not have because he did not have the face mask and tubes to use the oxygen tanks.

Rather he accused the final climbing pair of deliberately setting the final camp much higher than the designated spot. Bonatti said that he and Mahdi were supposed to stay in the tent with the final pair that night at camp 9.

A newspaper accused Bonatti years later of deliberately trying to sabotage the chances of Compagnoni and Lacedelli of making the summit, so that he would be the first. The journalist had sourced Compagnoni and other sources from that expedition. He won a libel case against the newspaper.

Lino Lacedelli’s recent account of Bonatti’s role

In recent years though Lacedelli has set the record straight on what happened. He said that he and Compagnoni did receive the oxygen from Bonatti and Mahdi. In fact, that they did run out of oxygen that day. But it was not because of the lack of oxygen in the tanks. Rather it was the exertion from a much more demanding last days climb than they had expected that meant the oxygen ran out much sooner than they planned.

Clearing of Bonatti’s reputation

In 1994 a court ruled in favour of Bonatti against the accusation that he used the oxygen that was given to the leading 2 climbers.

Bonatti is now seen to have been a victim of false accounts of his role in the successful summit of K2. His and Mahdi’s delivery of oxygen to Compagnoni and Lacedelli helped made it possible for the first ascent of K2.

 

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