The Greatest Mountaineering Rivalries: First Ascent of K2

Backstabbing in the Italian expedition

Karakorum peaks

Karakorum peaks     Photo: Anthon Jackson

Mountaineering was an endeavor of blatant, military-fueled nationalism following the second World War in the 1950s. The Italians, disturbed by their defeat in war, sought rekindled glory with a K2 first ascent and chose their expedition leader accordingly: professor Ardito Desio, a decorated mountaineer and geologist who had fought in World War I.

Twenty-four-year-old Walter Bonatti was the expedition’s youngest member and perhaps its strongest climber. But Desio played favorites and chose his protégé, Achille Compagnoni, to attempt the summit. Bonatti was relegated to the support team with the treacherous task of carrying oxygen cylinders to Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli at Camp IX, hacked into the mountain at 25,900 feet. But Compagnoni had inexplicably moved Camp IX 600 feet higher, where Bonatti and Hunza climber Mahdi, who had counted on sharing their tent, couldn’t find them in the falling night. The pair called out to their teammates, who eventually shone a light and shouted from the darkness to leave the cylinders and descend immediately, then disappeared. Bonatti and Mahdi had no headlamp for the descent and were forced to survive an unheard-of open bivouac above 26,000 feet. It’s likely, as the climbers maintained, that they didn’t hear Bonatti’s and Mahdi’s shouts after the exchange because of loud winds. But Bonatti believed Compagnoni and Lacedelli hid behind rocks 600 feet higher than Camp IX’s intended site to prevent him from sharing their tent and the glory of the summit. “I was supposed to die,” Bonatti has said.

Compagnoni and Lacedelli made the peak the next day but ran out of oxygen while still shy of the summit. Climbing journalist Nino Giglio later claimed that Bonatti had tried to steal the summit from them by siphoning off oxygen from the cylinders. The bilious Compagnoni had fueled that story, but 50 years later Lacedelli told writer David Roberts that Bonatti didn’t have the masks and regulators and couldn’t have sabotaged them. They ran out because they didn’t know how to regulate the cylinders and used the oxygen too quickly. Bonatti never again climbed with expeditions, trusting only himself to make several daring solo ascents that eventually gave him due fame.    

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