Throughout 2004, Italy has basked in a prolonged celebration of the 50th anniversary of K2. Newspaper retrospectives, TV documentaries, a newly issued postage stamp, and a much-hyped commemorative expedition to the mountain have revived the original glory of the first summit. Compagnoni, now 90, and Lacedelli, now 79, who reached the top of K2 at 6 p.m. on July 31, 1954, rest securely in their country’s pantheon of adventurers.
Walter Bonatti went on, during the 11 years after K2, to round out a roster of astounding first ascents that enshrine him today, at age 74, as one of the living legends of mountaineering. No less an authority than Himalaya veteran Doug Scott, in his book Big Wall Climbing, calls Bonatti "perhaps the finest alpinist there has ever been."
Yet Bonatti declined to take part in this year’s 50th anniversary festivities. For him, K2 was not a glorious triumph.
Ever since the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865—a feat forever marred by the deaths of four climbers on the descent—many of mountaineering’s finest achievements have been tarnished by bitter fallings-out among teammates, and even by claims that great alpinists, in extremis, have performed morally indefensible deeds. Such imbroglios seem to be an inevitable by-product of enterprises in which national pride, personal fame, and sheer egomania play so large a part.
Last December, to interview Bonatti, I traveled with French journalist Charlie Buffet to Dubino, an ancient hamlet on the Adda River, just east of the northern end of Lake Como. Appropriately, Bonatti’s house is the highest in the village, and now, on the day before the solstice, facing south across the shadowed valley, it soaked every possible erg of radiant warmth from the sun as it made its low traverse above the opposite hills.
Bonatti’s reputation in the climbing world conjures up an uncompromising idealist, a loner who always sought his own path, an angry victim of the attacks of his jealous, less gifted rivals. From the first moment, however, Bonatti seemed to me gracious and approachable, happily grabbing our suitcases and jogging with them to our guest rooms. He stands only about five feet seven inches tall, but, even in his eighth decade, his body exudes power. Right away I noticed the man’s thick, strong fingers, which he wields constantly as he talks, tracing shapes in the air or slapping his palms on the table for emphasis. He has a full head of fine silver hair, a big, blunt nose, and—surprisingly in a man whose life has been beset by rivalry and controversy—the genial wrinkles of someone who laughs a lot.