Published: September 2004
K2: The Bitter Legacy
K2 Update: With 11 feared dead after last weekend's tragedy, David Roberts and Ed Viesturs weigh in on what could have gone wrong. Read the story>>

The first ascent of K2, arguably the deadliest mountain on Earth, had its 50th anniversary in 2004. In Italy, the half-century-old triumph of the countrymen who first stood atop the 28,250-foot summit remains a source of intense national pride. But simmering beneath the official glory is a legacy of backstabbing and betrayal that would ultimately drive one climber to change the course of mountaineering history forever.
Text by David Roberts

The exhausted climber scanned the frozen slope above him as darkness began to engulf the mountain. “Lino! Achille! Where are you?” he cried. The only answer was silence. It was July 30, 1954. At the end of a marathon day of load-hauling, Walter Bonatti and his gritty companion, the Hunza porter Amir Mahdi, had reached an altitude of 26,575 feet on Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain.

At that moment, the K2 summit—arguably the greatest mountaineering prize of the day—lay tantalizingly close to the grasp of a large Italian team. Just four years before, with the French first ascent of Nepal’s Annapurna in 1950, what would come to be called the golden age of Himalayan mountaineering had been launched. By the mid 1960s, all 14 of the world’s peaks that surpass the benchmark altitude of 8,000 meters (26,240 feet) would be climbed for the first time.

On that July morning, the Italian team’s climbing leader, 40-year-old Achille Compagnoni, and his partner, 29-year-old Lino Lacedelli, had ascended the mountain to establish Camp IX, an advance post for the final K2 summit push. Though Walter Bonatti, at 24, was the youngest member of the expedition, he had already forged a sterling climbing reputation by pioneering some of the most daring routes in the Alps. He was the strongest member of the Italian team. But he had not been chosen to make the first summit attempt.

Instead, accepting his role in support of the summit pair, Bonatti had set out that morning with Mahdi, the most experienced and respected Hunza climber of his day, on the dangerous quest to carry crucial oxygen cylinders up to Compagnoni and Lacedelli. Near the end of the day, the two men had at last reached the high, safe shoulder of snow at 25,900 feet where the whole team had agreed to place Camp IX the night before. The Camp IX tent, however, was not where it was supposed to be. Driving farther upward toward nightfall, Bonatti had now committed himself and Mahdi to sharing the inadequate tent with Compagnoni and Lacedelli. With the oxygen, however, the two men carried the only hope that their comrades could get to the summit on July 31. As night fell, Bonatti cried out to his teammates.

"Achille! Lino!" he shouted again and again. "Why don’t you answer?" It was now almost pitch dark. Mahdi had no headlamp, and Bonatti’s had ceased to work.

Abruptly, a light pierced the gloom. One of the climbers must have heard Bonatti’s cries. The light came from a camp that lay several hundred feet to the left of the main route to the summit and that was camouflaged by protruding rocks. Bonatti heard Lacedelli call out, "Have you got the oxygen?"

"Yes!"

"Good! Leave it there and go straight down!"

What could Lacedelli mean? "I can’t!" Bonatti yelled back. "Mahdi can’t make it!"

As abruptly as it had flashed on, the beam of light went off.

In absolute darkness, Mahdi screamed ("like a madman," as Bonatti later wrote), "No good, Compagnoni Sahib! No good, Lacedelli Sahib!"

"Lino! Achille! Help us, damn you!" Bonatti wailed. Not a word came from Camp IX.

In a fog of rage and despair, Bonatti turned to the slope before him and hacked out a ledge with his ice ax. Never before had anyone attempted, let alone survived, an open bivouac at such an altitude.

It was just a year before the Italian K2 campaign, in 1953, that Everest had been ascended, by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, as had Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain, by the Austrian Hermann Buhl. Still, 11 of the 8,000-ers remained inviolate. K2 would ultimately prove the most difficult of the world’s 14 highest peaks, as well as arguably the most dangerous. Its unique challenge: the extreme steepness of every one of its ridges and faces, the fact that some of its hardest climbing lies very high on its flanks—and a fiendish scarcity of good campsites.

With the bitter echoes of World War II still reverberating, the great expeditions of the golden age took on an intensely nationalistic cast. All the principal players in the war would now meet in a new theater, the Himalaya—even the Japanese, who made the first ascent of Nepal’s 26,781-foot Manaslu in 1956. For the French, who had never before distinguished themselves in the Himalaya, the revolutionary 1950 ascent of Annapurna served as a heroic epic that validated the whole country, still smarting from the shame of its occupation by the Germans.

It was not an accident that the leaders of the Himalayan expeditions of the 1950s tended to be autocrats with military dispositions and backgrounds: Sir John Hunt on Everest, chosen over the blithe vagabond Eric Shipton, who was bumped from the job at the last minute; on Annapurna, Maurice Herzog, who exacted from his teammates formal pledges of unquestioning obedience; and the German martinet Karl Maria Herrligkoffer, who sued Hermann Buhl for violating orders rather than congratulating the climber after he sum- mited Nanga Parbat.

For the Italians, defeated in the war, their duce shot by the conquerors and hung by his heels in a public square, the potential glory of K2 demanded just such a leader: 57-year-old Professor Ardito Desio. And there was no question which team member was likeliest to set the first foot on the summit: Achille Compagnoni was Desio’s protégé. Other members of the party reported that they were treated by Desio with something near contempt. As Lino Lacedelli would tell me in 2003, "We called him ‘Il Capetto’ [the Little Chief]. From base camp, he typed up daily orders. Order 13: ‘Who will not obey my orders will be punished with the heaviest weapon in the world—the press.’ "

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.

Speaking Italian that Charlie translated for me, Bonatti recalled the forced bivouac of July 30, 1954. "I could have gone down in the dark by myself, even without a headlamp," he said. "But Mahdi was out of his mind. Several times I had to keep him from running away.

"It took a long time to dig a ledge out of the icy slope. We sat very close together. Mahdi was too tired to take his crampons off, so I did it for him. Otherwise his frostbite would have been even worse.

"I spent the whole night looking at my five fingers to see if they were still there. Making up problems in my head to see if I could still think right. I kept banging my legs with my ice ax—that was before we knew it was a bad thing to do." (Pounding a frozen extremity can break blood vessels, exacerbating frostbite.) "It was as if one breath lasted the whole night."

In the wee hours, a sudden snow squall descended on the mountain, smothering the climbers in blowing snow. Three times the two climbers had to dig themselves out.

As soon as first light arrived, Mahdi took off, almost running down the mountain toward Camp VIII. "In the morning," Bonatti remembered, "I was a piece of ice. I didn’t have the strength to restrain him. All I could do was put on his crampons. My heart was beating fast as I watched him go. Then he reached a flat area, and I knew he was OK."

In the official account of the expedition, La Conquista del K2 (Victory Over K2), published the year after the ascent, team leader Ardito Desio tells a very different story from the one we were now hearing from Bonatti. Paraphrasing Compagnoni and Lacedelli, Desio writes that the lead pair never dreamed that Bonatti and Mahdi had bivouacked rather than descending. In the morning, when they saw Mahdi hurrying down the slope, "We were simply flabbergasted. . . . We thought of all the possible explanations except the right one. How could we suspect the truth—namely that two men had survived the rigors of a whole night spent in the open at an altitude of more than 26,000 feet?"

Both Lacedelli and Compagnoni claimed they never heard shouts in the night after the brief exchange that ended with Lacedelli’s request to leave the oxygen and go down at once. "Unfortunately," the pair reported, "the high wind made conversation very difficult."

Retrieving the oxygen bottles where Bonatti had left them, Lacedelli and Compagnoni set out for the summit later on the morning of July 31. According to Victory Over K2, in late afternoon, within seconds of each other, both Lacedelli and Compagnoni suddenly ran out of oxygen. In the book, the two narrate the shock of running out of bottled gas: "We found ourselves gasping for breath . . . our legs grew weak; we could no longer stand. . . . At once we snatched off our masks, inhaled deeply, and strove to rally our remaining forces. And in fact, little by little, that terrible feeling of constriction disappeared. . . . We were amazed to find that, although we were no longer wearing oxygen masks, our strength remained undiminished."

What happened next has always puzzled serious climbers who’ve read Desio’s book. Rather than discard the useless oxygen apparatus, the pair kept the rigs on their backs—three heavy, empty bottles each—all the way to the top. In Victory over K2, Lacedelli and Compagnoni explain this apparently self-defeating decision. "[T]o discard the crates," they report, "we should have had to throw ourselves flat on the snow, which was very steep and unstable. The operation would accordingly have been both difficult and dangerous."

On top of K2, Lacedelli and Compagnoni spent half an hour taking photographs. A couple of these shots—one showing Compagnoni with his oxygen mask still on his face (shown on page 49), another of Lacedelli, maskless (page 51), but with exactly the sort of ring of congealed ice on his moustache and beard that would have formed around a mask he had just removed—seem odd in light of Compagnoni’s claim that they’d run out of oxygen a full 650 feet below the summit.

In any case, it was almost dusk by the time the two men began the descent, determined to push all the way to Camp VIII. They nearly died in the process, taking a 50-foot fall roped together. Compagnoni and Lacedelli gained Camp VIII only at 11 p.m. and piled into a single two-man tent with three other men to wait out the rest of the night. Despite his ordeal of the night before, Bonatti shared in the celebration. As he wrote in his 1961 memoir Le Mie Montagne (My Mountains), "At 11 p.m., five hearts were exulting over the same victory in the same tent. . . . At that moment, and only for that moment, I forced myself to forget all other reality."

Later, Lacedelli and Compagnoni would lose digits to the frostbite they incurred on summit day. Bonatti, amazingly, escaped from the bivouac unscathed. It was Mahdi who turned out to be the true martyr of K2, eventually suffering the amputation of nearly all his toes and fingers. After K2, the finest Hunza climber of his day would never again go into the high mountains.

"I kept waiting for Lacedelli or Compagnoni to apologize," Bonatti told me at his home in Dubino. "At Camp VIII, there was no ‘Bravo, Walter.’ Not a word of thanks, never. In base camp, I waited to hear excuses. I was conscious of what I had suffered, but I was young and ingenuous. The true story of K2—the really bad story—begins after the expedition."

Desio’s Victory Over K2 was a shrewdly calculated narrative—a story of smooth teamwork culminating in a heroic summit thrust. Not only did the book and the ascent win lasting honors and celebrity for the expedition’s leader, but it supplied a war-ravaged Italy with an incalculable boost in chauvinistic pride. A tale riddled with dissension and betrayal could not have worked such magic.

As might be expected, My Mountains, Bonatti’s very different account of the expedition, caused quite a stir. But the real bombshell came three years later, in the form of a pair of newspaper articles by climbing journalist Nino Giglio that appeared in late July 1964—the tenth anniversary of the first ascent. The first one was titled, "After Ten Years, the Truth About K2."

Giglio claimed that Bonatti had tried to steal the summit from Lacedelli and Compagnoni. To enlist Mahdi in this ruse, the reporter wrote, Bonatti had promised the Hunza the glory of being the first Pakistani to stand atop K2. And the reason Lacedelli and Compagnoni had run out of oxygen short of the summit was that Bonatti had siphoned off at least an hour’s worth of the precious gas as he huddled in his bivouac.

At these accusations, Bonatti sprang furiously to his own defense. He instigated a libel suit against the journalist, which culminated in a 1966 trial in Torino. Under oath, Giglio admitted that Compagnoni was the source of the incendiary charges. The outcome of the trial was total vindication for Bonatti. Yet the calumny had indelibly stained Bonatti’s reputation, especially in Italy.

Fifty years after the expedition, Bonatti believes that Compagnoni and Lacedelli deliberately hid Camp IX behind rocks 600 feet higher than its planned site to keep him and Mahdi from reaching it, sharing the too-small tent, and possibly going to the summit themselves. He believes the story of running out of oxygen is fiction—"to make the ascent more heroic." The claim that he stole oxygen during the bivouac is preposterous, Bonatti says, because the summit pair had the masks and regulators at Camp IX: Bonatti could not have siphoned gas from the cylinders had he wanted to. Most damning of all is Bonatti’s conviction that Lacedelli and Compagnoni didn’t care whether he and Mahdi lived or died.

"They didn’t want to know if we were in the bivouac," he told me. "I was supposed to die. That would make the expedition even more glorious."

Had Bonatti reached the summit of K2 himself, or even been able to descend safely to Camp VIII on July 30, he might have gone on to be a "good soldier" on subsequent nationalistic expeditions. But K2 was the turning point in Bonatti’s life—and that personal crisis would spawn a revolution that forever changed mountaineering.

As Bonatti wrote in My Mountains, "Until the conquest of K2 I had always felt a great affinity for and trust of other men, but after what happened in 1954 I came to mistrust people. I tended to rely only on myself." Back in Italy, mired in depression, Bonatti slowly conceived of a way out.

The southwest pillar of the Petit Dru, above Chamonix, France, one of the most beautiful and difficult faces in the Alps, had been climbed only once, along a route on its left edge by four Frenchmen in 1952. Now, in August 1955, Bonatti undertook a solo assault on the most perfect line on the face, a central buttress that soars, only a few degrees short of vertical, without relief from base to summit.

On the fifth day on the Dru, three-quarters of the way up the face, Bonatti ran into a blank, crackless section of unclimbable rock. He was exhausted, his fingers sore and swollen. He was, however, probably too high on the face to be able to retreat. Instead, he spotted a crack system several dozen yards to the right. To reach these fissures, he had to perform three irreversible pendulums with his rope, cutting himself off for good from his ascent line.

When Bonatti arrived at the supposed crack system, he was faced with an ominous sight. As he later wrote, between him and the fissure of escape gaped "an immense cavity. . . . It was as if the Dru, at this point, had sucked in the rock to leave in its place an enormous, smooth flared hollow." Below him, the wall overhung for as far as he could see. There was no hope of rappelling off.

The climber had spotted several prongs of rock 40 feet above his perch. At first he thought he could lasso them, but they looked so fragile that he was sure they would break off under a man’s weight. The only hope was to wedge a knotted cord in a fissure between two prongs. Bonatti rigged a bolo-like contraption with three knotted extensions, each weighted with a carabiner. He tossed the bolo a dozen times before it caught. A slight tug, however, sprung it loose. He tried again and again. At last it seemed to hold.

"When I put my weight on it," Bonatti told me, "I had this nightmare that as I swung out and the angle changed, the rope would come loose. I counted ‘five-four-three-two-one . . . go!’ I was just hanging from the rope, not attached. I was a great gymnast at the time. I just climbed the rope hand over hand. The last meter was terrible. I had to be careful not to vibrate the rope. I had to climb over [the prong], one hand on the rope, one hand on the rock. When I was safe, I couldn’t imagine how I did it."

The next day, Bonatti reached the summit of the Dru. Doug Scott hails the ascent, which instantly became a legend in Europe, as "probably the most important single climbing feat ever to take place in mountaineering."

With his astounding solo climb, Bonatti had performed a deed that was the antithesis of the massive K2 expedition. In the process, he began to inspire a whole younger generation of brilliant alpinists, from Reinhold Messner to Yvon Chouinard, from Alex Lowe to Ed Viesturs. It was on the Dru that a revolution was hatched.

There followed for Bonatti, during the next decade, other visionary climbs. A first ascent of Pakistan’s 26,470-foot Gasherbrum IV in 1958, by far the hardest climb yet done in the Karakoram. The north face of France’s Grandes Jorasses in winter, in 1963. And then, in 1965, on the 100th anniversary of its first ascent, a new route, solo, in winter, straight up the middle of the north face of the Matterhorn.

The latter achievement was Bonatti’s swan song. At the age of 35, he quit serious climbing overnight. (Virtually no other top mountaineer has ended his career in such a fashion.) Becoming a photojournalist for the Italian magazine Epoca, Bonatti turned to other fields of adventure—deserts, rivers, jungles—often on daring solo expeditions.

The boldest of all Bonatti’s projects, during his miraculous decade, was one that never happened. After the Dru, he told me, "I was in a state of grace. I felt so strong that I thought I could do anything. And the name for ‘anything’ was K2."

For the summer of 1956, Bonatti plotted an attempt to climb K2 solo, without oxygen. "I planned it all very precisely," he said. "I would carry only 25 kilos [55 pounds]. I could be self-sufficient for a week. And I knew that if I could survive a night in the open at 8,100 meters without oxygen, I could go to the summit without oxygen."

Would such a deed have been, I wondered, an act of revenge against the national heroes Compagnoni and Lacedelli? "No," Bonatti insisted. But then, in the next breath: "It certainly would have diminished the national myth [of K2 1954]."

In the end, Bonatti failed to attract any sponsors who could have given him a shot at K2 solo. It is hard to appreciate today just how far ahead of its time Bonatti’s scheme was. A comparable feat would not be performed for another 24 years, when Reinhold Messner climbed Everest solo, without oxygen, in 1980.

Even at the height of the golden age in the Himalaya, many climbers found idealized accounts of expeditions, like Desio’s Victory Over K2 and Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna, hard to swallow. They knew firsthand that massive assaults on ambitious objectives inevitably produced keen rivalries, bitter arguments, and even backstabbing. With the ascent of the last 8,000-meter peak, Tibet’s Shisha Pangma, in 1964, the nationalistic ethos of the 1950s ran smack into the tell-it-like-it-is iconoclasm of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Such juicy narratives as Murray Sayle’s London Sunday Times account of the international Everest fiasco of 1971 and Chris Bonington’s candid tale of the internecine jockeying for laurels on the south face of Annapurna in 1970 made Desio and Herzog seem quaint and obsolete. The best climbers all over the world now came from the ranks not of expeditionary soldiers, but of hippies, dropouts, and visionary loners. And Bonatti became their patron saint.

I asked Bonatti why he ignored the K2 celebrations. "The most dignified way to celebrate the anniversary," he said, "would be to recognize the truth of what happened on K2." The vindication Bonatti has craved for half a century was at least partly fulfilled in May, when an Italian Alpine Club tribunal ruled that Victory Over K2 would no longer be considered the official version of the expedition.

Achille Compagnoni refused several requests for an interview, but three years ago, over the phone, the unrepentant climber, then 87, had told Charlie Buffet that "if Bonatti was forced to bivouac, it was because he spent too much time resting at Camp VIII, from ten in the morning to three in the afternoon." Bonatti says the stop was only two hours, spent not resting but in reorganizing the gear for the carry to Camp IX. "I’m proud of what I did," Compagnoni went on. "Today K2 is still an Italian mountain. And Bonatti contents himself with throwing mud on its heroes."

On December 22, Buffet and I drove from Dubino to Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the heart of the Italian Dolomites, to interview Compagnoni’s summit partner, Lino Lacedelli. We met the aging mountaineer at his home, which he has dubbed Villa K2 (or "Cappa Due," as Italians refer to the mountain), a chalet on the road up to the Falzarego pass.

Seventy-nine years old, Lacedelli walks with a slight stoop; his balding, ruddy face has a guarded look. He exudes not the power still seen in Bonatti, but a certain humility. He is missing the tip of his left thumb. "This is my reminder of K2," he mused at one point, raising the stump toward the ceiling and smiling. I asked Lacedelli, who stopped going to school at age 12, whether K2 had changed his life. "Very much," he answered. "First, I could build this house. And I opened a little sports store in town. I was an alpine guide for 40 years."

"But surely," I persisted, "K2 made you famous."

Lacedelli shrugged. "I was one among many."

Never in all the years since 1954 had Lacedelli published a single article about the expedition.

"I never even gave my version of the story to Desio," Lacedelli added. "That chapter, that is all from Compagnoni. We each kept a diary. But all the rest of us didn’t trust Desio."

As we talked on, I felt sympathy for the uncomplicated mountaineer seated opposite me, across the bare dining room table. I asked the man about the critical question of the oxygen. Did he believe Bonatti could have stolen gas from the summit duo? Without hesitation, he said, "At Camp IX, Compagnoni and I had the masks and regulators. Bonatti didn’t have them."

In one breath, Lacedelli seemed to have untangled a 40-year-old snag: For the first time ever, one of the two summit climbers had explicitly admitted that Bonatti could not have stolen their bottled gas.

As he recounted the summit push, Lacedelli clung to the story that he and his partner had run out of bottled oxygen. Now, however, he offered an explanation for running out of gas that had never appeared in print. "We were using German-made Dräger bottles. We didn’t know how to regulate them properly. We had too much oxygen—it burned our throats, and we bled from the mouth. That’s why we ran out."

I asked Lacedelli about the seemingly incriminating summit photo of Compagnoni with the oxygen mask still on his face. Why would he have been wearing the mask if the oxygen had run out long before? "Compagnoni put his mask on for just five minutes, to warm his breathing," he answered. "I just put up my hand. I didn’t want cold air in my throat."

When I asked about Bonatti’s role on K2, Lacedelli offered a spontaneous encomium to the teammates who had carried the oxygen bottles to Camp IX. "Bonatti was very brave and strong. It would have been perfect if all four of us could have gone to the summit. We had been together on the mountain for 65 days. Nobody can forget the sacrifice Bonatti made."

At the end of our talk, I asked Lacedelli, "Did you and Bonatti get along well during the rest of the expedition?"

"Yes," the old guide answered. "At Camp VIII, he massaged my hands. Then later at base camp, my hands were very painful. Twice I rolled out of my tent. Bonatti helped me back in.

"For a long time after the expedition, I was friendly with Bonatti. Then we stopped writing and telephoning. I haven’t seen him in 25 years."

Lacedelli sighed. "This was not war. Millions of people fight wars, and then shake hands afterwards. I hope one day to shake hands with Bonatti."

As for the man himself, the bitterness about K2, the sense of having been wronged, had been little in evidence in Dubino. At times, to be sure, Bonatti had given voice to a lifetime of exasperation. In his 70s, however, a certain calm seems to have come over the legendary mountaineer. As we were preparing to leave Dubino, I had told Bonatti that he had the bearing of someone who had fulfilled his dreams. "Yes," he answered. "I feel realizzato. A man should live to realize himself. If not, life makes no sense."