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Achille Compagnoni: Mountaineer whose ascent of K2 left a legacy of bitter controversy

When Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli staggered to the summit of K2 as the sun was sinking on 31 July 1954 they restored for Italy a touch of national pride after the humiliations of fascism and wartime defeat. Straddling the border of Pakistan and China in the Karakoram mountains, K2, at 8,611 metres, is the world's second highest summit and following the British success on Everest was the highest untrodden place on Earth. Fame was assured for Compagnoni and his team-mates but personal rivalries and tactics high on the mountain left a legacy of bitterness and lawyers' bills. Only last year, the Club Alpino Italiano issued the latest "official" version of what happened high up on the first ascent of K2.

Compagnoni, throughout, remained truculently adamant of his own blameless conduct and scathing of those who would "throw mud" at Italy's heroes. In this he was at one with the geographer Ardito Desio, who led the 1954 expedition in autocratic style.

Though most climbers today deplore any chauvinistic flag-waving, for post-war Italy, and for Desio in particular, victory on K2 was a matter of national honour. In 1950, the French had planted the tricolour on Annapurna – the first of the world's 8,000-metre peaks to be climbed – and then in 1953 the British (through the agency of Hillary and Tensing) had finally "knocked off" Everest.

K2 was also regarded by the Italians as "theirs" by a kind of proprietorial right. Their countrymen, along with Americans, had been the most active in trying to force a route to its classic pyramidal summit. Indeed, the most commonly attempted line bears an Italian name, the Abruzzi Spur, after Luigi Amedeo di Sovoia, the Duke of Abruzzi, who prospected it in 1909.

Desio assembled his expedition on unashamedly military lines that he said would be familiar to those who had served in Alpine regiments during wartime. Compagnoni must have felt quite at home as a veteran of the Alpini, Italy's elite mountain corps. Headquartered in the Aosta valley, he had become an expert ski-tourer and climber and, after the Second World War, became an alpine guide.

Though pushing 40, Compagnoni's selection was a shrewd choice by Desio (who was himself 57, a ripe age for Himalayan pioneering.) He was strong, ambitious and used to obeying orders, which would come aplenty – usually in Blimpish messages dispatched by Desio from the base camp he rarely left.

With an 11-strong climbing team – the cream of Italian mountaineering bar the spurned Riccardo Cassin – plus four scientists, a doctor, a film-maker, and a mind-boggling 500 porters, Desio marshalled his caravan up the Baltora glacier. All was in place by 31 May for what became a two-month war of attrition, climbers sapped by sickness, poor weather and altitude. Each dip in morale brought an exhortatory note to the front line from Desio: "The honour of Italian mountaineering is at stake", read one. "If you succeed... the entire world will hail you champions of your race," said another. Not surprisingly those struggling in deep snow or tent-bound for days on end dubbed their leader "Il Ducetto" – in effect, the little Mussolini.

The most dangerous of the 8,000m peaks, K2 was already earning its epithet "the savage mountain". Three Sherpas and an American had perished in 1939 and just the season before Desio arrived, another American, Art Gilkey, had been lost in an avalanche. Then at the end of June, the Italians buried Mario Puchoz by the Gilkey Memorial at Base Camp; the 36-year-old guide from Courmayeur had died low on the Abruzzi Spur, probably of pulmonary oedema.

A fortnight later, Desio's "champions of your race" missive placed Compagnoni in charge of the summit attempt. He proved a redoubtable lieutenant and by the evening of 28 July he and Lacedelli, aided by others, were established at Camp VIII at 7740m ready to tackle the ice cliffs that bar the way to the top. Up here is where K2 exacts its heaviest toll on climbers, their minds fuddled by thin air, bodies fatigued and chilled. Last year 11 perished.

The Italians, too, teetered on the brink of disaster and in the ensuing fog of events lay the seeds of half a century of bitter acrimony. On the 29th the team's youngest member, Walter Bonatti, and a Hunza porter, Mahdi, laboured up with two bottles of oxygen for the summit pair. The gas was to be delivered to a high camp, which in the darkness Bonatti and Mahdi could not find. They shouted in vain and were forced to endure a bivouac in the open at 8100m. Mahdi, who had no high-altitude boots, lost toes and fingers to frostbite.

Bonatti claimed it had been agreed that Camp IX would be placed "as low as possible" on the shoulder of the mountain at 7950m. He believed Compagnoni had sited it higher in order to stifle any prospect of being beaten to the top by a pushy youngster. Compagnoni fiercely denied any such subterfuge. He said the earlier site was threatened by séracs and counter-charged Bonatti with siphoning off oxygen, leaving himself and Lacedelli gasless and gasping before reaching the summit. How any siphoning could be done when neither Bonatti nor Mahdi had an oxygen mask was not explained.

The next day, Compagnoni and Lacedelli picked up the oxygen cylinders where Bonatti and Mahdi had cached them and resumed their slow progress to the top. Climbing broken rocks, Compagnoni fell off – the first of four tumbles in 24 hours. Each time he landed in soft snow without much harm done, but it is an indication of how barely in control he was after so long at high altitude.

The pair spent half an hour on the summit – "that windswept solitude where it would probably be true to say that we had both just experienced the greatest moment of our lives," ran the authorised account. Compagnoni lost a glove while taking photographs; Lacedelli quickly gave him one of his own, but Compagnoni's hand was already frostbitten.

As with the British Everesters a year earlier, a heroes' welcome awaited. The team returned to an audience with Pope Pius XII and a clutch of medals. Compagnoni received one of Italy's highest civilian awards, the medal of honour for civil valour, and was appointed a Cavaliere di Gran Croce.

His great adventure over, Compagnoni settled back comfortably into Cervina, the resort on the Italian side of the Matterhorn he had made home after service in the Alpini. Limited by his lost fingers, he worked mainly as a ski teacher and ran a small hotel. Though as a guide, he made numerous ascents of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, his local peaks, he made no further ascents of note (as if K2 weren't enough!) In fact the only member of Desio's great assemblage to make a big mark thereafter was Walter Bonatti, who became first, the finest alpinist of his generation, and then a successful photo-journalist.

Compagnoni had less luck in the courts than on the mountain. He failed in an action against the CAI and a film company for a share in the summit film rights as compensation for his lost fingers. Then Bonatti successfully sued the newspaper Gazetta del Popolo over an interview published on the 10th anniversary of the ascent in which Compagnoni accused Bonatti of trying to race himself and Lacedelli to the summit and of deserting Mahdi.

In 2004 came a volte face by Lino Lacedelli, who in long interviews with the journalist Giovanni Cenacchi, published as K2 – il Prezzo di Conquista [the Price of Victory] confirmed Bonnati's story in nearly all important respects. Lacedelli, it seemed, dared not speak out while Desio was alive (Desio died in 2001 aged 104). Last year, the CAI also found its voice, backing Bonnati and recognising his and Mahdi's essential role in ensuring that Compagnoni and Lacedelli had oxygen all the way to the summit.

Attempting to divine what was really going on in the minds of exhausted men at more than 8,000 metres decades after the event is nigh impossible. Not much at all beyond basic survival might be the best guess. The wrangling seems petty compared to what was actually achieved by Compagnoni, Lacedelli, their climbing comrades and that vast supply chain. Egos, though, can be bigger than mountains.

Stephen Goodwin

Achille Compagnoni, mountaineer, guide and hotelier: born Santa Caterina di Valfurva, Sondrio, Italy 26 September 1914; married twice (one son, and one son deceased); died Aosta 13 May 2009.