ExWeb special: 50 years of silence
(K2Climb.net) Italians proudly describe the first ascent of K2 as one of the golden pages in climbing history. However, not everything was epic in the expedition. While Lino Lacedelli and Achile Compagnony were celebrated as national heroes; a furious Walter Bonatti accused the two summiteers to have abandoned him in the death zone.
The dark side of K2 conquest
1954, Bonatti, was a 24 year old member in Ardito Desio’s K2 expedition. Bonatti and local porter Madhi were ordered to bring spare O2 bottles to Lino and Achile; on summit push from final camp 8.
The high camp was further away than Bonatti and Madhi had expected and night fell before they reached it. When they called outside their climbing mates' tents, Bonatti and Madhi were told by Lino and Achile to leave the O2 and descend… in full night, at 8100m. Walter and Madhi survived a night in the open at K2’s shoulder, but the Pakistani lost all his fingers to frostbite.
52 years of silence and lies
Back home, the summit team not only denied all charges, but Compagnoni counter-attacked Bonatti accusing him of trying to sabotage their summit push and steal the top for himself. Bonatti, who made first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in 1958, was ostracized from the climbing community and in 1965 gave up mountaineering.
Bonatti has since published "The Mountains of My Life", an autobiography with stories about the expedition of 1954. In his book Bonatti displays proof of his innocence, including a photograph of Lino and Achille wearing oxygen masks on the summit.
Lino speaks up
50 years after the 1954 K2 expedition a very old Lino Lacedelli - who had remained silent all this time - couldn’t face to take the truth with him to the grave. In a book, he has confessed what really happened, thus changing the course of history.
The book is due in English this summer, but Mallory & Irvine researcher Pete Poston, a regular contributor at ExplorersWeb, offers a sneak preview, including an analyze of the controversy and the amazing conclusion in a two part series. Today, part 1:
Spilling the Beans - Lino Lacedelli’s Book
“Price of Conquest: Confessions from the First Ascent of K2”, Part 1
By Pete Poston, for ExplorersWeb
“My good name is the nonrenounceable center of my existence. I will never stop defending it.” – Walter Bonatti.
“A Sahib is about to climb K2!” – the Hunza porter Isakhan at Camp 8 as he watched Lacedelli and Compagnoni’s last steps to the summit of K2.
A desperate night at 8100m on K2
On the night before the first ascent of K2, Walter Bonatti and the Hunza porter Mahdi had to endure a freezing, storm-swept bivouac high on the Shoulder of K2, while their companions Achille Compagnoni and Leno Lacedelli spent the night in a tent literally within hailing distance. As agreed beforehand, Bonatti and Mahdi had carried the oxygen bottles for the summit team who were waiting for them in Camp 9. But the top camp was placed in a different, higher location than Bonatti had expected, and so when they couldn’t find the tent, they were forced into a desperate emergency bivouac at an altitude of 8100 meters.
Since then the controversy has raged as to exactly why the high camp was moved higher, did the oxygen really run out several hours below the summit as claimed, and if so, when exactly did Lacedelli and Compagnoni start out for the summit then? And since they could communicate with either verbally, why on earth didn’t Compagnoni and Lacedelli help them over to the safety of their tent?
From K2 to courtyard
Ten years after the ascent, accusations that had been simmering just below the surface finally publicly erupted. Mountaineering journalist Nino Giglio published several newspaper articles based on interviews with Compagnoni and the expedition’s Pakistani liaison officer Colonel Ata-Ullah. It was claimed that Bonatti had tried to beat Lacedelli and Compagnoni to the summit, that he used oxygen during his bivouac that caused the summiter’s supply to run out early, and that Bonatti had deserted Mahdi and so was responsible for his frostbite and subsequent amputations.
These accusations prompted Bonatti to file and win a libel suit against Giglio and the newspaper (the damages were donated to an orphanage). It was easy to prove that Bonatti couldn’t have used the oxygen since he didn’t have the masks or tubing, just the bottles. But once mud is thrown, it tends to stick. Bonatti found himself on the outside, while Lacedelli, Compagnoni and expedition leader Ardito Desio maintained their version of events, at least regarding departure times and the oxygen running out early.
Lino discloses the truth 50 years after
Now, after 50 years of maintaining the party line, Lino Lacedelli has written a book with Giovanni Cenacchi - “Price of Conquest: Confessions from the First Ascent of K2” - where he finally tells the truth of what really happened that night. But first here’s a continued review of what the story has been up to now according to both sides (1, 2).
1954: The morning after
Surviving the stormy night out, first Mahdi and then Bonatti descended back to Camp 8, which Bonatti reached shortly after Mahdi at 7 AM (this was verified by another team member, Pino Gallotti, in Camp 8). Bonatti has stated that while descending, he repeatedly scanned the slopes above him for some sign of Compagnoni and Lacedelli, but saw no trace of them, even though the summit pair claims to have left their tent at the first glimmer of light in the eastern sky (dawn was at 4:54 AM according to the official meteorological tables for K2).
Regardless of what the departure time actually was, the next morning after a bitterly cold night in the tent, the summit pair emerged outside and then:
“Suddenly to our amazement, we caught sight of a figure receding into the distance. Who was it – Bonatti or Mahdi? From such a long way off it was impossible to tell. We called out to the man at the top of our voices. He stopped and turned around, but he did not answer, and after a moment he resumed his halting progress down the precipitous slope. We were simply flabbergasted”.
After some initial hesitation regarding the weather, Compagnoni and Lacedelli descended to the bivouac site and picked up the oxygen Bonatti and Mahdi had carried up the previous day. According to Compagnoni and Lacedelli, after connecting their masks to the oxygen bottles, they were ready to leave by about 6:15 AM, even though Bonatti could still see the bivouac site as he descended and claims to have seen nothing.
The tough path to glory
Compagnoni and Lacedelli’s epic ascent of the crux of the route – the serac-threatened Bottleneck and the horribly exposed and icy Traverse to the summit slopes – is a classic of mountaineering literature. Adding to a day of bottomless snow, icy rock pitches, and terrifying exposure, they claimed the oxygen ran out several hours below the summit. But instead of taking off the heavy oxygen cylinders, they kept climbing to the top, which was reached at about 6 PM (this time is not in dispute since they were observed from below climbing the last few feet to the summit).
Lacedelli and Compagnoni were national heroes, and Italian pride justifiably swelled to fill the gap left by the destruction of the Second World War. But what of Bonatti and Mahdi’s role in all of this? Certainly they deserve accolades for their support of the summit pair, who would have had a tough time making the top without the crucial oxygen supplies they carried up in support.
Bonatti, the forgoten one
Bonatti, in particular, had descended all the way from Camp 8 to Camp 7 to pick up oxygen, where joined by Mahdi and Erich Abrams, continued carrying all the way back up almost as far as Camp 9! But hardly any mention was made of them in the expedition book or original version of the expedition film.
It was Bonatti’s turn to be flabbergasted.
If you read the official expedition book written by the leader Artito Desio, early explorer and pioneer geologist of the Karakoram, Bonatti and Mahdi’s forced bivouac barely takes up a whole page, and can be summarized by these passages:
“The two men, realizing that they could only descend at the risk of their lives, dug a hole in the snow and prepared to spend the night in it – a night in which at such an altitude was bound to be terrible beyond words”.
It was. The proud Mahdi - who had helped carry the crippled Hermann Buhl down Nanga Parbat the year before - lost most of his fingers and toes to frostbite as a result.
Cries in the wind
That’s it, no further mention of Bonatti and Mahdi’s increasingly more frantic pleas for help - or the appearance of a light from the direction of the assault camp - only the brief conversation between Lacedelli and Bonatti which ended after it was determined that the oxygen had been delivered.
The summit pair claimed that the wind carried his words away, and apparently misunderstood Bonatti’s shouted remark that he could “manage by himself”, not realizing that he was referring to his ability to descend safely in the dark as opposed to Mahdi. They shouted at them “Go back! Go back! Leave the masks! Don’t come any farther!”, and it “did not even occur to us” that at such a late hour without a tent and sleeping bags, they wouldn’t turn around and head back to the safety of Camp 8.
5 decades of official version
For nearly fifty years this was the official story given by Desio, Compagnoni and Lacedelli. Until recently that is, when Lino Lacedelli co-authored his book with Giovanni Cenacchi - “Price of Conquest: Confessions from the First Ascent of K2” - where the old guide finally spills the beans and gives a different version of what happened that night. A version that more closely matches what Bonatti has been saying all along.
Tomorrow: Part 2, final
(1)“Ascent of K2: Second Highest Peak in the World”, Ardito Desio (David Moore, trans), Elek Books, 1955
(2)“The Mountains of My Life”, Walter Bonatti (Robert Marshall, trans), Random House, 2001
Thanks to Roxanne Espantman for pointing out to me the Italian literature, and to Sylvia Guistina of the University of Oregon for translations.
American Pete Poston is a long time contributor to ExplorersWeb. His are classics such as the "Chomolungma Nirvana - the Routes of Mount Everest", a 5-part series co-written with Jochen Hemmleb "The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate', and a 5-part series feature on Chris Bonington.