Walter Bonatti 1930-2011

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 14/09/2011
Messner and Bonatti in 2010. Lindsay Griffin

In the global family of mountaineering there can be very few who would not recognise the name Walter Bonatti. Sadly, this Italian icon, one of the greatest climbers of the 20th Century, passed away yesterday, 13th September, in Rome, aged 81.

Bonatti was destined for stardom from an early age. By 19 he had already made significant ascents and new routes in the Bregaglia and Dolomites, and shot to relative fame with the third ascent of the West Face of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey and a very early repeat of the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses.

His first ascents in the Mont Blanc Massif are legendary: the East Face of the Grand Capucin, Red Pillar of Brouillard, East Face of the Petites Jorasses, Whymper Spur on the Grandes Jorasses, East Face of the Grand Pilier d'Angle, first winter ascent of the Walker Spur, first winter ascent of the Sentinel Rouge and first solo ascent of the Major on the Brenva Face, and of course the now demised South West Pillar of the Petit Dru.

Further afield he would make the first ascent of the difficult Rondoy North in Peru and, amongst other Patagonian peaks, Cerro Adela. His most notable first ascent in the Greater Ranges was Gasherbrum IV, completed with Carlo Mauri.

Bonatti's climbing career was always clouded by controversy and he often felt hounded by the press. Two of his most famous adventures did not involve him "reaching the top" but exemplified his legendary ability to "survive": the tragedy on the Central Pillar of Freney and the 1954 K2 expedition. Both brought bitter controversy.

For 53 years Bonatti fought the official version of events on K2, in which he and the Hunza porter Amir Mahdi were deemed architects of their own downfall, Bonatti largely being attributed with the blame.

But in 2004 Lacedelli, one of the two first ascensionists, published a book (translated into English as K2 - The Price of Conquest) in which he generally supported Bonatti's version.

An Australian, Robert Marshall, took up the baton and continued the detective work, teaching himself Italian in order to communicate with Bonatti.

Finally, the Italian Alpine Club published K2 - Un Storia Finita, officially correcting all details of the first ascent.

In the mid 1960s Bonatti came to a crossroads. He needed to earn a living and had given up being a guide because "it seemed to distort and vulgarise an ideal". Now famous, he was increasingly in demand to give lectures.

Always passionate about his photography, he found more and more newspapers and magazines soliciting his work. He had to make a choice between an adventurous life as a photojournalist, and a world of mountaineering "rotten with mediocrity, incomprehension and envy".

His farewell to the world of high-standard alpinism took place in the winter of 1965. With two companions he attempted a previously tried direttissima on the North Face of the Matterhorn, but was turned around by storm.

Back in the valley his two friends had to leave, and the press were making a meal about a "Bonatti failure". He considered his options then set off for a second attempt alone. Five days later he emerged on the summit, having completed a demanding climb that has rarely been repeated.

From that time on Bonatti travelled the world producing countless articles and writing a number of books. His autobiographies, notably On the Heights and The Great Days became essential reading for any budding alpinist.

Later, he would meet the famous Italian actress Rossana Podesta, and the two would remain together for the rest of Bonatti's life.

And not infrequently he would climb a mountain. In his mid-70s (a time when he was still going for daily runs) he ascended Mont Blanc; by the Innominata Ridge no less.

Bonatti inspired, and will undoubtedly continue to inspire, generations of climbers, though sadly it would appear that in later years a number of leading young Italian alpinists, while still having the greatest respect for his achievements, would be somewhat dismissive of Bonatti's comments on ethics and the current state of mountaineering, feeling he had become out of touch with the world of climbing.

In 2002 the great man was persuaded to visit the UK for the first time in 18 years following the publication of the English edition of his book Mountains of My Life (Bonatti was never happy with the way his previous books had been translated into English). He proved to be charming and a true gentleman.

That year he appeared as main speaker at the International Festival of Mountaineering Literature, announcing through a translator (Bonatti speaks no English), wrongly as it turned out, that this would be his last appearance at any major event.

In 2009 he took the stage in a packed Courmayeur theatre to be presented with the first Career Piolet d'Or, and in 2010 was back on the same stage to congratulate Reinhold Messner, who was awarded the second.

Bonatti appeared fit and well, and only relatively recently was he diagnosed with cancer.

In a tribute one of his many admirers, Reinhold Messner, said, "Bonatti was one of the greatest mountaineers in history, the last traditional climber and very strong in every discipline. But above all he was a beautiful person, tolerant and loving".
 



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