There is a good case that alpinist Walter Bonatti, born in Bergamo, Italy in 1930, was the greatest mountaineer of the 20th century. He called his climbing philosophy the pursuit of the impossible.
Walter Bonatti's Sensational Climbing Career
In a short climbing career from 1949 until the mid-1960s Walter Bonatti pulled off an amazing number of audacious ascents and more remarkably survived some horrific climbs that killed his partners. Some of his ascents include the Grandes Jorasses in 1949; a 1953 winter ascent of the north faces of Tres Cima Laverado in the Dolomites; the controversial Italian expedition to K2 in 1954, where he aided two other Italians who made the first ascent of the peak; an ascent of Gasherbrum IV in 1958; and in 1965, a solo winter first ascent of a direct line up the north face of The Matterhorn.
Bonatti Part of Controversial First Ascent of K2 in 1954
Walter Bonatti was on the Italian climbing team that made the first ascent of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, on July 31, 1954. But while the ascent was a coup for the Italians after their bitter defeat in World War II, the ascent was tarnished for Bonatti, who was at age 24 the youngest member of the expedition but one of its strongest climbers. Bonatti did not reach the coveted summit and later accused two fellow climbers of denying him that opportunity by subterfuge.
Dispute Lingered for 50 Years
Bonatti and Amir Mahdi, a Pakistani porter, ferried extra oxygen tanks to the 26,000-foot high camp on K2's upper shoulder for the team’s final push to the summit. Upon reaching the supposed campsite, however, Bonatti was unable to find it and later said that the two summit climbers, Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli, had hidden the camp from view. Bonatti and Mahdi were forced to spend the night in the open and almost died from exposure. Mahdi fled downward the next morning despite having severe frostbite. The two summit climbers emerged from their hidden camp in the morning and took the oxygen canisters and climbed to the summit. Back in Italy, the climbing establishment sided with the K2 summit climbers, but the dispute lingered for another 50 years.
Quote from The Mountains of My Life
This quote comes from Walter Bonatti’s 1998 book The Mountains of My Life, a collection of essays, memoirs, and articles about his greatest ascents including the true story who happened on K2. The book, cobbled together over 40 years, is an intriguing read about lots of great adventures. If you pick the book up and read it, it’s worth remembering as you read that Bonatti, besides being a skilled and bold climber, was a consummate loner and maverick.
Bonatti's Reasons to Climb
One of his reasons to climb was to avoid humanity. As he writes in the book, “My disappointments came from people, not the mountains.” Echoes of that sentiment are in this quote. Mr. Bonatti died in Rome, Italy on Tuesday, September 13, 2011.
“For me, the value of a climb is the sum of three inseparable elements, all equally important: aesthetics, history, and ethics. Together they form the whole basis of my concept of alpinism. Some people see no more in climbing mountains than an escape from the harsh realities of modern times. This is not only uninformed but unfair. I don’t deny that there can be an element of escapism in mountaineering, but this should never overshadow its real essence, which is not escape but victory over your own human frailty.”
Buy books by Walter Bonatti:
The Mountains of My Life A classic collection of adventure stories from the master climber.