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High Crimes On K2

In 1954, two Italian climbers made the first ascent of K2, and were celebrated across Europe. But something happened up there that was a betrayal and worse. It took 50 years for the truth to be believed.


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In fading light Walter Bonatti scanned the rocks above, looking for the tent. Somewhere up there, at over 26,500 feet on the steep southeast face of K2, was Camp IX. Bonatti, age 24, and the Hunza porter Amir Mehdi were carrying 40-pound oxygen sets, critical equipment if the 1954 Italian expedition was to make the first ascent of the world’s second-highest mountain. But neither the tent nor the summit team, Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli, were anywhere to be seen.

Perplexed, Bonatti shouted, over and over, “Lino, Achille! Where are you? Answer!”

Only silence. The camp wasn’t there.

It was soon too dark to climb either up or down the icy slopes. With no tent or sleeping bags, Bonatti and Mehdi faced an unplanned bivouac, something never before attempted at this altitude. The success of the expedition was seriously in doubt. So was their ability to survive.

“The terrible cold,” Bonatti would later write in Mountains of My Life, “was paralyzing.”

The Italian ascent of K2 would become one of climbing’s greatest and most bitter controversies, ultimately even going to court. Bonatti would accuse Compagnoni of downplaying his role, and committing an act that endangered others. Bonatti would be accused of scheming to reach the summit first, using the summit team’s oxygen, and of abandoning Mehdi, points he would deny.

While Mount Everest is a household name, K2 is somewhat unknown, yet its history includes many of the most important and legendary moments in Himalayan climbing. Bonatti’s experience on K2 is one such, but it is not only little-known but highly unusual in the annals of mountaineering: It had terrible, nefarious implications.

Italian team, 1954, at basecamp ready to make history. Standing, left to right: Achille Compagnoni (summitter), Ugo Angelino, Gino Pagani (doctor), Mario Fantin (filmmaker), Ardito Desio (leader), Erich Abram, Gino Solda, Lino Lacedelli (summitter), Walter Bonatti, Sergio Viotto, Pino Gallotti; front: Ubaldo Rey, Cirillo Floreanini, Mario Puchoz. Photo: Granger/REX/Shutterstock/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Early Climbing History

In 1856, K2 was “discovered” by Thomas Montgomerie, a member of the British Royal Engineers and part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of British India. Montgomerie labeled the mountain “K” because it was in the Karakoram Range of the Himalaya, and “2” because it was the second mountain the survey found. The estimated height of K2 was 28,271 feet, making it the second-highest mountain in the world, behind Mount Everest, which had been identified by the Great Trigonometrical Survey a few years earlier.

Until 1950, Nepal was closed to foreigners, hence, starting in 1922, the British launched their multitude of attempts on Everest from its Tibetan side. Pakistan, with five of the world’s mountains over the magical height of 8,000 meters, was the best place to climb high in the Himalaya at that time. The highest of those five mountains was K2.

As early as 1909, an expedition led by the Italian mountaineer Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, set the tone on K2 for the next 50 years. The adventurous Duke, who was the cousin of the reigning King of Italy, shifted climbers’ focus from the north side of the mountain to the southeast ridge and pioneered a route 3,000 feet up before retreating at a steep ice wall.

The Americans

In 1938 and 1939, American mountaineers launched two historic expeditions to K2 and pushed the attempted line further up the Abruzzi Ridge, as the route had been named. The 1938 team, led by Charlie Houston, a medical student and Harvard graduate from New Hampshire, solved the next major difficulty, a 100-foot rock face at 21,500 feet. Led by the 25-year-old Yale graduate Bill House, the milestone pitch has since been known as House’s Chimney.

Houston and Paul Petzoldt, a mountain guide from Wyoming, reached a high point of 26,150 feet, only 2,100 feet below the top, before descending exhausted. They climbed without oxygen.

Americans returned to K2 in 1939, with Fritz Wiessner, a German-American, as their leader. Wiessner, who was stellar on snow, ice, and rock, and Sherpa Pasang Lama came within 800 feet of the summit in late afternoon, but Pasang Lama refused to continue at that hour. His concerns proved correct, as the two barely survived a harrowing nighttime descent back to their high camp.

Most of the climbers were back in basecamp suffering from a number of maladies, and the resulting logistical and communication problems meant that a second summit attempt could not be mounted, which left the American climber Dudley Wolfe waiting for the return of his teammates, stranded at Camp VIII. The three Sherpas sent to rescue him disappeared, and with Wolfe, too, left for dead, an expedition that came so close to success ended in enormous tragedy.

Gasherbrum IV, the Karakoram range, Pakistan. Photo: Graham Zimmerman

Post War Era

When expeditions returned to the Karakoram after World War II, it was a completely different scene. The British Raj had dissolved in 1947, creating both India, which was primarily Hindu, and Pakistan, primarily Muslim. The two new countries were in conflict, so Nepalese Sherpas were not allowed into Pakistan. Expeditions to the high mountains of the Karakoram had to rely on Hunza porters from the Gilgit Valley, who were strong but lacked experience or skills in mountaineering.

Charlie Houston returned to K2 in 1953 to settle the score. With experience and data from the previous two expeditions, the team quickly advanced up the mountain and established Camp VIII at 25,500 feet, where the members of the first two summit teams were selected by vote. But then storms closed in and pinned the entire group at the high camp for almost a week.

On the sixth day, Art Gilkey, a 26-year-old geologist from Alaska, developed thrombophlebitis. As blood clots moved from his leg to his lungs, the seven others at Camp VIII struggled to get him down the mountain in the teeth of a raging blizzard. Near inevitably, in the impossible conditions, someone slipped. In a melee of tangled ropes and falling climbers, only a single axe belay by the Washington climber Pete Schoening saved five of the party from hurtling off the mountain.

Slowly the battered climbers regained their senses, but when they searched for Gilkey, who had been wrapped in a makeshift sled made from a tent, he was gone: apparently swept away by an avalanche. It was all the remaining members of the team could do to get themselves off the mountain.

Houston, in his classic book K2 The Savage Mountain (1954), cowritten by Robert Bates, wrote of Schoening’s feat: “Such magnificent belay work has rarely been recorded in mountaineering anywhere. Nor have I read of any other climbing miracle when three separate ropes fouled together to save the lives of five men.”

The fabled ice axe, which is on display at the American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado, turns out to have belonged to Tom Miller, a friend of Schoening’s. Miller was concerned about the strength of Schoening’s axe, which was made of ash, so he loaned him his stronger hickory axe.

Bonatti and Mehdi settled down for the long, cold night. To add to their misery, a sudden blizzard arose, and snow slides almost buried them three times.

The Italians Return

While Houston and his team were on their way out of the Karakoram, two Italians, Ardito Desio and Riccardo Cassin, were hiking toward K2 as a reconnaissance for the next year, 1954. The Italian Alpine Club (CAI) had chosen Desio, a professor of geology at the University of Milan, as overall leader based on his experience from a 1929 scientific exploration around K2. Cassin, a legendary climber from Lecco, was to be the climbing leader.

To pick the team, the CAI took the novel step of holding tryouts, with two training camps from which 11 climbers were selected. In a portent of things to come, Cassin was mysteriously left off the team because of varicose veins and supposed problems with his liver, although it seems likely that the true reason for his dismissal was that Desio would brook no potential challenge to his authority.

To replace Cassin, Desio appointed Achille Compagnoni, a mountain guide from Breuil, at the toe of the Matterhorn in Italy. Also included was Lino Lacedelli, who had pioneered difficult climbs in the Dolomites in Cortina. Walter Bonatti was the youngest team member, but an up and comer already doing hard climbs and first ascents in the Alps, such as the east face of the Grand Capucin. The remaining eight climbers were also very accomplished in the Alps, though none had any high-mountain experience in the Himalaya.

It was a strong party that set its sights on the well-known Abruzzi Ridge. While Annapurna in 1950 and Nanga Parbat in 1953 had been climbed without oxygen, those mountains were 2,000 feet lower than K2. Upon the success of the British with oxygen on Everest the year before, the Italians took gas and planned to use it.

The budget for the American 1953 expedition had been about $30,000. The Italians’ budget of $108,000 ($1,200,000 in today’s dollars) seemed excessive, but included a large sum for a joint scientific expedition, a key element later as events unfolded.

Also, because they could not use Nepalese Sherpas, the Italians, as had the Americans in 1953, hired Hunza porters for load carrying. The Americans had only used the Hunzas low on the climb, whereas the Italians were counting on them to carry to the highest camps, another factor of lasting consequence.

Sergio Viotto, Lino Lacedelli, and Ubaldo Rey covered in rime on K2, Pakistan, August 1, 1954. (Leftmost person unidentified.) Photo: Mario De Biasi/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

BaseCamp

Once the expedition reached basecamp and started up the mountain, it was clear to the climbing party that Desio, unlike Charlie Houston and Fritz Wiessner, did not intend to climb high. He would lead from base. His style of leadership reflected his military training.

Interviewed for his perspective on K2 history, Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all 14 peaks over 8,000 meters, says of Desio’s approach, “He seemed to have the personality of a dictator, assuming he was in charge and could command his team from the rear, without actually being aware of the challenges up high .… He should have been more open to allowing input from the climbers who were actually working hard, high on the mountain, and had much more experience.”

Desio gave orders via a radio transmission each night, limiting the amount of two-way communication. He was also preoccupied with the needs of the scientific personnel at basecamp and, according to a number of accounts, seemed to shrug off the difficulties or dangers the climbers were experiencing on K2.

Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks and one of the world’s greatest mountaineers, also weighs in on the long-ago situation. “Desio was a non-climber,” he says. “A very strong person, and he didn’t care about the personal feelings of the different climbers.”

When the well-liked Mario Puchoz, 36, an alpine guide from Courmayeur, unexpectedly died at Camp II of what we can now identify as pulmonary edema, Desio ordered the team back up the mountain the day after the memorial. The climbers ignored him and took a day to compose themselves and their thoughts before resuming.

Achille Compagnoni, the appointed climbing leader, was the only one who seemed to heed Desio. For the most part, the other climbers made decisions among themselves.

Bonatti could not understand why Campagnoni and Lacedelli had intentionally moved Camp IX, which left him and Mehdi to their ordeal.

Preparing for the Summit

The Italians moved steadily. By the end of July, Camp VII had been established at 24,600 feet, and all that remained was one last push to establish Camp VIII at around 25,400 feet, and then a final camp, Camp IX, at 26,600. Unlike the Americans in 1953, who had voted, Compagnoni selected himself and Ubaldo Rey, a 31-year-old mountain guide, as the first summit team, with Bonatti and Pino Gallotti, a chemical engineer from Milan, in support. The following account of events, up through those of the summit day, is according to Bonatti’s 1961 book, My Mountains.

Plans changed when Rey collapsed on the carry to the proposed Camp VIII and was replaced on the summit team by Lino Lacedelli. Two days before the intended summit attempt, Bonatti and Gallotti climbed up to the designated pair, who had just established Camp VIII. The Italians had brought two oxygen sets onto the mountain, just enough for use by the lead climbers on summit day, but Rey and Erich Abram, the climbers carrying the sets, did not make it to Camp VIII.

A new plan arose, which was to have Compagnoni and Lacedelli continue up to establish Camp IX at around 26,500 feet, while Bonatti and Gallotti descended to Camp VII in hopes of getting any other Italians and Hunzas there to help them carry the oxygen sets up to Camp IX.

The next day, upon their arrival in Camp VII, Bonatti and Gallotti convinced Erich Abram, a mountain guide from Bolzano, and two Hunza porters, Amir Mehdi and Isakhan, to climb back up with them to Camp VIII. But when the five arrived at Camp VIII, only Bonatti had the strength to continue.

Bonatti finally persuaded Abram and Amir Mehdi—who, with one other porter, had carried Hermann Buhl, exhausted and frostbitten after his solo ascent, off the lower slopes of Nanga Parbat the year before—to accompany him to Camp IX. It made an additional thousand-foot carry with the heavy oxygen apparatus.

They set off at 3:30 p.m., with darkness just four hours away, heading for a visible spur of rock that was the agreed-upon location of Camp IX. At 6:30 p.m. Abram was overcome with exhaustion, and with frozen feet he dumped his load and headed down. Only Bonatti and Mehdi continued, and arrived to find no tent nor hear any answer to their calls.

Just as Bonatti decided they would have to climb up even higher to find the camp, Mehdi started shouting in delirium. As Bonatti settled him down, night fell, and with his flashlight dead he determined that the terrain around them was too difficult to climb either up or down in the dark, nor was he sure of the tent’s location. As Bonatti set about chopping a hole in the slope for an open bivouac, a light appeared above. It was Lacedelli, who asked Bonatti if he had the oxygen sets. When Bonatti replied in the affirmative, Lacedelli said for the two to leave the oxygen and head back down to Camp VIII at once. The silence returned.

A chapter in Bonatti’s later book Mountains of My Life gave Compagnoni’s perspective: “Compagnoni no doubt presumed that, having failed to reach Camp 9, Bonatti and his companion would go back to Camp 8 in the dark. Not in his wildest dreams would he have expected them to bivouac in the open …. He probably was quite certain that Bonatti and Mahdi [alternate spelling] had gone down after dumping the oxygen. He had left them no other choice.”

Bonatti and Mehdi settled down for the long, cold night. To add to their misery, a sudden blizzard arose, and snow slides almost buried them three times. The storm passed just before dawn, but it pushed Mehdi too far, and at first light he took off on a reckless and uncontrolled descent back to Camp VIII.

A little while later Bonatti himself managed the icy slopes to Camp VIII. It was up to Compagnoni and Lacedelli to retrieve the oxygen sets from the bivouac site and head for the top.

Camp V on K2, during the successful 1954 expedition. Photo: De Agostini/Getty Images

Summit Day

The oxygen provided a much-needed boost, and the summit team, not wanting to chance the new snow in the adjacent Bottleneck, tackled technical rocky terrain on its left edge.

Surmounting the wall, Compagnoni and Lacedelli plodded upward hour after hour until, as claimed later in the original expedition account, The Ascent of K2, the oxygen ran out two hours below the summit. According to that account, they continued, still carrying what would now have been useless 40-pound sets, reaching the summit at 6 p.m. They dumped the sets, took the requisite summit photos and even some movie film, but were in no state to enjoy the moment.

It would be dark soon, and they were already experiencing the first signs of frostbite. When one of Compagnoni’s gloves blew away, Lacedelli gave him one of his outer gloves, leaving himself with only a thin silk liner on one hand. He would pay dearly for that unselfish act.

Their descent was pure chaos. At the top of the Bottleneck they skipped the rock wall and plunged straight down the deep snow of the couloir. Thankfully they didn’t trigger any avalanches, and with a haphazard jump off the lip of a large crevasse finally reached Camp VIII at 11 p.m.

Bonatti and Mehdi had been recuperating all day. Now Compagnoni and Lacedelli joined Mehdi as frostbite victims. Luckily, with no further events on the descent, everyone was back at basecamp two days later.

Members of the 1954 expedition are greeted upon landing in Rome from Pakistan, and presented with flower wreaths by Aktar Hussain, minister of Pakistan to Italy. Left to right: Mrs. Hussain (first name unavailable), wife of the minister; Mario Fantin, Hussain, Ubaldo Rey, Achille Compagnoni, and G. Scalfaro, under-secretary to the Italian president. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Aftermath

In the end, Mehdi fared the worst: All of his toes were amputated, and he never ventured to the mountains again, nor reportedly even wanted to see his old ice axe. “It reminded him of his suffering and how he was left out in the cold to die,” his son, Sultan Ali, would tell the journalist Shahzeb Jillani of the BBC in 2014.

Compagnoni lost the tips of the two fingers on his left hand, while Lacedelli lost a thumb. Compagnoni returned to life as a mountain guide; Lacedelli opened a climbing shop in Cortina.

Bonatti suffered no frostbite from the open bivouac; the toll on him was more mental than physical. He could not understand why Compagnoni and Lacedelli had intentionally moved Camp IX, which left him and Mehdi to their ordeal. In early 1955, the official expedition book, The Ascent of K2, was published, with virtually no mention of the sacrifices he and Mehdi had made to carry the oxygen sets to the summit party.

The omission was most likely due to the fact that although each climber was required by contract to turn over his personal diary to Desio at the end of the expedition, most had such contempt for their leader that only Compagnoni complied. The official account was almost solely from his version of the events.

Bonatti was distraught at the lack of acknowledgement of his efforts for the summit pair and the forced bivouac he and Mehdi had endured. His solution was to head back to the mountains. Not only did he set his sights on one of the last great problems in the Alps, the 2,000-foot southwest buttress of the Aiguille du Dru above Chamonix, France, he went alone.

Messner gives his take: “He was not doing this for showing that he was the great Bonatti. He did it for himself, because he became quite lonely after the situation on K2. He didn’t understand why nobody was on his side. Why nobody would help him in the public discussion …. And he was suffering under that. He tried to do something great to get out of his depression.”

Bonatti succeeded on the five-day first ascent, still considered a masterpiece of climbing, and the route is named the Bonatti Pillar in his honor. Unlike Compagnoni and Lacedelli, he continued to climb at the highest level, amassing such groundbreaking ascents as Gasherbrum IV in the Karakoram in 1958, the Red Pillar of Brouillard in 1959, and a direct route on the North Face of the Matterhorn, his farewell to climbing, in 1965. “He was a climber who was doing everything,” Messner says.

Bonatti was also a survivor of the famous 1961 tragedy on the Central Pillar of Freney, Mont Blanc, when a party of top European climbers was lashed by unremitting storm, trapped up high. The group was well-prepared but the route was very hard and committing, and the disaster, in which four out of the seven died, may have added to the ambiguity with which Bonatti was regarded.

After his finale on the Matterhorn, Bonatti took a job with the Italian magazine Epoca and traveled the world as an adventure photojournalist.

Bonatti at home in Courmayeur after his and Cosimo Zappelli’s first winter ascent of the Walker Spur, the Grande Jorasses, Chamonix. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Slanderous Allegations

The drama surrounding K2 was far from over. In 1964, on the 10-year anniversary of the ascent, two articles appeared in Turin’s New People’s Sunday Gazette, both written by the mountaineering journalist Nino Giglio. The first, “After Ten Years the Truth About K2: How Bonatti Tried to Precede Compagnoni and Lacedelli,” and the second, “The Ten Years of K2 Celebrated at the Home of Compagnoni: The Karachi Envoy Confirms the Hunza Mehdi Attempted An Attack On the Summit With Bonatti,” made three serious allegations against Bonatti and his actions on K2.

First, Giglio asserted that Bonatti had secretly stolen oxygen from the sets during his bivouac, hence Compagnoni and Lacedelli had run out of oxygen two hours below the summit. Second, he claimed that Bonatti had been only concerned with himself on the mountain and had basically abandoned Mehdi. In the last claim, Giglio wrote that Bonatti had intended to push for the summit ahead of Compagnoni and Lacedelli and had enlisted the help of Mehdi to do so.

These two articles created a sensation and also raised many questions.

One was this: If the oxygen had really run out two hours before the summit, why did the pair continue the climb with a useless burden of 40 pounds on their backs? Ed Viesturs, for one, questions the claim. “Climbing without oxygen is hard enough, let alone carrying another 40 pounds on top of it,” he says. “That’s superhuman.”

Compagnoni, while positing nothing at the time about Bonatti stealing oxygen, had offered one reason in 1958 when he claimed in his book, Men On K2, that the summitters wanted to leave the sets on the top to mark their ascent.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Viesturs counters. “Most people just get to a summit, they take photos including a panorama, and that typically is proof enough. You don’t need to leave something behind and then have somebody else find it .… That’s ridiculous.”

Compagnoni had also written that the two summitters still wore the oxygen masks even when the gas ran out because the breathing tube warmed the incoming air. Again Viesturs resists, saying, “To say, ‘We continued to wear the masks to make the air warmer’, that’s like breathing through a straw. That makes it even harder.”

The next question is how Bonatti could have extracted oxygen from the cylinders when Compagnoni and Lacedelli had the masks and regulators at Camp IX. Perhaps, though, the journalist Giglio’s claim about the oxygen arose from a comment in Bonatti’s 1961 autobiography, My Mountains, in which he wrote, “How simple would it have been to turn one of those valves! What did it matter that we had no masks? The air around us would soon become impregnated with the precious gas.”

With regards to the allegation that Bonatti had abandoned Mehdi, the fact that Mehdi took off for Camp VIII first, while Bonatti arrived after him, refutes that charge.

The third allegation, that Bonatti wanted to get to the summit ahead of Compagnoni and Lacedelli, would be shown in court to have no material basis either.

Bonatti sued Giglio and the newspaper for defamation, and a trial was held in winter 1966. When Giglio revealed at the trial that the source for these accusations was Achille Compagnoni, the feud that had been simmering for 10 years blew up in public.

Amir Mehdi, intentionally or not, further clouded the issue when he provided a deposition for the trial in which he stated that Bonatti had promised that he and Bonatti would climb to the summit if he would help carry the oxygen sets to Camp IX. He had also, through misinterpretation due to language barriers, thought he had been offered an attempt to pre-empt the summit party, an idea presented in the deposition. Bonatti’s lawyer argued that giving hope for a summit bid was a common tactic to get someone to help and that Bonatti never intended to precede Compagnoni and Lacedelli to the top.

“My father was a simple man. He knew how to climb mountains, but he didn’t know how to read or write. It’s possible that his testimony was used to discredit Bonatti,” Sultan Ali told the BBC, implying that his father had generally backed Bonatti.

Mehdi’s deposition was ultimately considered to contain too many inconsistencies to be reliable. It was in the end dismissed by the tribunal.

February 1965. Bonatti returns from a solo first ascent on the North Face of the Matterhorn to a crowd of friends and onlookers. Photo: Climber Walter Bonatti with crowd of admirers.

During the trial, Pino Gallotti, Erich Abram and Compagnoni were also called to provide evidence. The trial lasted several months, and at the conclusion the judge ruled in favor of Bonatti, who, according to his later memoir Mountains of My Life, promptly donated the monetary damages (the amount was undisclosed) to an orphanage.

Giglio and the New People’s Sunday Gazette were required to print a retraction, which stated, “[T]he more recent investigations definitely rule out the suggestion that the Hunza Mehdi was in any way duped by the Italians [in suggesting he might have a chance at the summit] or that Bonatti had tried or even only planned to get to the summit ahead of Lacedelli and Compagnoni; and they have confirmed that Bonatti gave Mehdi all possible help during and after the terrible night in the open.”

What were Compagnoni’s reasons for trying to defame Bonatti, a critical member of the expedition? To stir things up 10 years later, with comments that could be argued, seems only a risk. One reason is that at basecamp he would have probably felt guilty and been concerned about blame for Mehdi’s severe injuries, and would have believed or wanted to believe Bonatti had been treacherous and created the problem.

Messner, who has thoroughly studied the whole affair, adds: “Compagnoni was not as good a climber as Bonatti. Bonatti was the best climber in Italy, maybe worldwide. Compagnoni was a good skier and a big, strong man, but he was not an alpinist in the world class of high-class mountaineering. And he wanted to have the fame of the summit by himself alone. And for this he had to put down Bonatti. Very simply. Putting down Bonatti; telling the story they did it without oxygen.”

Ed Viesturs agrees, “It seems to me that Compagnoni was trying his best to maintain the fabricated story about those final days on K2, using information that could possibly be used against Bonatti. Perhaps he became bitter as well, seeing how Bonatti’s climbing career kept quietly elevating while his slowly faded.”

Over the years a constant source of frustration for Bonatti was that even after the 1966 trial ended in his favor, he still felt the public did not believe his side of the story. On the 30th anniversary of the ascent of K2, in 1984, in yet another attempt to clear his name, he wrote the book Trial On K2. In it he appealed in vain to the Italian public for an inquiry to set the record straight.

Ten years later, on the 40th anniversary of the K2 ascent (33 years after his first book on the expedition), Bonatti released the book Mountains of My Life, edited by Roger Marshall, a doctor and mountaineer from Australia. Marshall, who also wrote one chapter and part of another, had dug up photographs of Compagnoni and Lacedelli that supported Bonatti on whether the oxygen ran out two hours before the summit: Marshall contended that ice on the pair’s beards at the summit showed they had worn their oxygen masks all the way to the top.

In a chapter in Mountains of My Life, Marshall quoted Compagnoni’s account in The Ascent of K2, in which he stated that when the oxygen purportedly ran out, “at once we snatched off our masks, inhaled deeply and tried to pull ourselves together. And in fact, little by little, that terrible constriction disappeared.” Marshall asserted that according to Compagnoni himself, the two summitters couldn’t have climbed with their masks on unless oxygen was flowing.

When it was revealed at the trial that the source for these accusations was Achille Compagnoni, the feud that had been simmering for 10 years blew up.

Vindication

Bonatti’s name was finally and completely cleared by a most unexpected source. On the 50th anniversary of the conquest of K2, in 2004, Lino Lacedelli published a book, K2: The Price of Conquest. It seemed that Lacedelli wanted to clear his conscience before he died.

Over the years, Lacedelli had never supported Compagnoni’s version of the ascent, but he never stuck up for Bonatti, either. In the book he gave his reasoning for remaining silent all that time: “There have been so many arguments and articles over the years and the journalists have written just about everything they possibly could,” he wrote. “I tried to stay out of it all so as not to ruin the memories of everything we achieved.”

In the book, which is essentially a long interview by the co-author, Giovanni Cenacchi, Lacedelli revealed that Compagnoni had deliberately moved Camp IX from the planned location to keep Bonatti from potentially joining the summit team. Compagnoni wanted to be certain that he would be the first to stand on top of K2. When asked why he thought Compagnoni had moved Camp IX, Lacedelli replied, “I believe he didn’t want Bonatti to reach us.”

Ed Viesturs has strong words for Compagnoni’s action in leaving Bonatti and Mehdi out in the open. “They did suffer frostbite because of that. It was terrible. To sneak away and put the camp where it wasn’t supposed to be was criminal. Absolutely. Imagine if one or both of them had died. What is the story then? How do they fabricate something else?”

Amir Mehdi’s life changed forever because of what happened that night. It took him years to learn how to walk without his toes, and he was unable to work to provide for his family. “Sometimes, his eyes welled up with tears,” his son told the BBC. “He would tell them he had risked his life for the honor of his country, but he was treated unjustly.” Mehdi died in 1999, five years before Lacedelli’s book was published.

Bonatti turns his back on climbing and becomes a traveling journalist and photographer. Photo: Mondadori via Getty Images)

Viesturs believes Mehdi was a nearly forgotten casualty in part because he was an employed local and non-European. “It seems so easy to just say, ‘It was a Hunza’ without saying a name. ‘It was a hired hand,’ [as if to say,] ‘Sorry you got injured. You go home and we’ll go home, and we don’t really have to worry about you anymore.’ It is almost like a throwaway instead of saying, ‘No, you are one of us. You are part of our team. We have to take care of you no matter what happens, and if something happens, we are going to take care of you for the rest of your life.’” Today, the Juniper Fund (www.thejuniperfund.org) provides financial resources for Himalayan high-altitude workers and their families in case of injury or death.

Even upon Lacedelli’s confession, Achille Compagnoni stuck to his side of the story and took it to his grave. Both he and Lacedelli died in 2009.

“Once you create a lie it is almost easier for a lot of people to maintain the lie and somehow live with it rather than backtracking and apologizing and admitting you were lying,” Viesturs says.

After Lacedelli’s book appeared in 2004 and following a symposium hosted by Messner in the same year and attended by the surviving members of the 1954 K2 expedition, including Compagnoni and Lacedelli but not Bonatti, the Italian Alpine Club (CAI) changed its official report to Bonatti’s account. In 2009, Bonatti became the first-ever recipient of a Piolet d’Or for lifetime achievement.

While Lacedelli’s revelations vindicated him, Bonatti remained angry until his death in 2011. “Bonatti told me that after Lacedelli had come out with his account, it was too late,” Messner says. “For 50 years he had to suffer with all his accusers, and it was too late to say, ‘Sorry.’”

Bruce Hildenbrand has been a freelance photojournalist and climber for over 40 years. His articles have appeared in Outside, Climbing and Rock and Ice, and in 1998 he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. He splits his time between Silicon Valley, Boulder and Europe.