Lino Lacedelli: Mountaineer whose ascent of K2 in 1954 was shrouded in controversy

Lino Lacedelli's story is one more proof of the often-quoted 15th century proverb "Truth will out". It is a story of triumph and of a truth concealed for more than 50 years – to be at last revealed.

Assiduous readers of Independent obituaries should by now be familiar with the 1954 Italian expedition to K2 and its colourful cast. This is the third time in eight years that we have followed Ardito Desio's caravan, with its 500 porters, up the Baltoro glacier into the heart of Karakoram mountains of Pakistan. And over that period the storia K2 has been rewritten.

Desio, the geology professor who led the expedition, died in 2001 at the age of 104, having had the unusual distinction of living in three centuries. Such was the autocratic zeal with which Desio drove the cream of Italian alpinism up the world's second highest mountain that the climbers referred to him as Il Ducetto – in their eyes, the little Mussolini.

Achille Compagnoni, Desio's loyal lieutenant and leader of the climbing team (the professor didn't himself venture far above base camp) died in May this year aged 94. It was Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli who on 31 July 1954 became the first men to reach the 8,611m summit, salving the wounded pride of a nation humiliated by fascism and wartime defeat. The expedition was a grossly nationalistic affair.

Compagnoni and Lacedelli, indeed the whole team, returned to a hero's welcome in Italy. But as the garlands faded, claims and counter-claims over potentially fatal trickery high on the mountain cast a litigious shadow over the achievement. The fall guys were Walter Bonatti, youngest member of the climbing team, and the Hunza porter Amir Mahdi, who endured a freezing bivouac in the open at 8,100m after Compagnoni surreptitiously shifted the high campsite. Mahdi suffered appallingly and lost fingers and toes to frostbite. Yet in the official version of events that stood for 53 years, Bonatti and Mahdi appeared architects of their own downfall, with Bonatti the main culprit.

Over the decades, Desio's version gradually lost credibility but for half a century the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) resisted appeals to conduct an enquiry and issue a fresh definitive account of the first ascent of K2. In the end, three men, among many, helped clear the fog: somewhat improbably, Robert Marshall, an Australian surgeon turned K2 sleuth, Annibale Salsa, a truth-seeking president of the CAI, and Lacedelli, who in 2004 turned queen's evidence.

Thanks to Salsa, in late 2007 the CAI published K2 – Una Storia Finita, acknowledging the decisive role played by Bonatti and Mahdi in carrying up the oxygen vital for the summit pair and concluding that Compagnoni and Lacedelli had arbitrarily moved the high camp up from an agreed site to one too difficult for Bonatti and Mahdi to reach. Compagnoni, then pushing 40, did not want to be upstaged on summit day by the young thruster Bonatti. The first detailed English language account of CAI's statement and the report by the tre saggi (committee of three wise men) that informed it, appeared in Robert Marshall's K2: Lies and Treachery published this year by Carreg.

It is hard not to feel sympathetic towards Lino Lacedelli, who seems to have been a good man cowed into silence by post-expedition politics, fearful, particularly, of speaking out against Desio. He was certainly an excellent rock climber – one of the finest of the 1950s, according to the Italian mountaineer Rheinhold Messner. And even if he shared in putting the lives of Bonatti and Mahdi at risk on K2 he helped save many more, taking part in numerous rescues in the mountains around his native Cortina d'Ampezzo.

With the Dolomites on his doorstep, Lacedelli began climbing aged 14, when he slipped away from his father and followed a mountain guide and his client up the Torre Grande on the Cinque Torri, near his home. Lacedelli was taken under the wing of Luigi "Bibi" Ghedina, a master of the vertical Dolomite limestone and accepted into the Scoiattoli– the "squirrels" of Cortina (several local Italian climbing clubs took the names of animals). Prolific on their native rock, in 1951 Ghedina and Lacedelli ventured into the western Alps and made the first repeat of the technically difficult Bonatti-Ghigo route on the east face of the Grand Capucin in a remarkably fast 18 hours, without a bivouac (Bonatti and Luciano Ghigo had taken four days). The next year, joined by Guido Lorenzi, another of the Scoiattoli, they made the first ascent of the south-west face of the Cima Scotoni (VI+/A1), a 400m route regarded for several years as the hardest route in the Dolomites.

Today, climbers with Lacedelli's flair and ambition would think of turning professional. Instead Lacedelli worked as a plumber and also as a mountain guide and ski instructor. Later, he ran a sports shop in Cortina called K2 Sports.

For all the strength and talent of Desio's 11 climbers for the K2 expedition, by 30 July 1954, with a route established all the way up the Abruzzi Spur (still the "standard" route) there were only a handful capable of going higher, plus the redoubtable Mahdi. From Camp VIII at 7,627m below K2's summit pyramid, Compagnoni and Lacedelli were to ascend and set up Camp IX in readiness for a summit attempt next day. Meanwhile, Bonatti and Mahdi would descend to Camp VII, retrieve the cylinders of oxygen deemed vital for the summit pair and carry it all the way up to Camp IX. Erich Abram and Pino Gallotti also assisted until exhausted. For Bonatti it would mean a descent of 227m followed by a climb of 700m with a load of 19kg on his back.

This daunting task was all but completed. However as darkness fell, Bonatti and Mahdi were unable to locate Camp IX. It had not been sited as planned on a snowy shoulder at around 7,950m but was tucked away beyond treacherous rocky ground and a good deal higher. The pair shouted into the darkness and at one point made brief contact – according to Bonatti, Lacedelli shouted out "Do you want us to stay out all night and freeze for you?" – but in the end it was Bonatti and Mahdi who suffered a night of paralysing cold. Mahdi went off his head and tried to dash into the night. Lacking high-altitude boots, he lost all his toes and most of his fingers to frostbite.

The next day Compagnoni and Lacedelli picked up the oxygen cylinders where Bonatti and Mahdi had cached them and climbed slowly towards the top; at one stage Lacedelli bravely removed his crampons and gloves to tackle a 30m cliff. They lingered for half an hour on the summit. When Compagnoni lost a glove while taking photographs, Lacedelli quickly handed him one of his own. Both suffered frostbite and Lacedelli had part of one thumb amputated.

It was an extraordinary feat, and K2 remains the most feared of all of the world's 14 eight thousand-metre peaks – an ascent of K2 certainly carries more kudos among mountaineers than one of Everest by either of its standard routes. Compagnoni and Lacedelli remained heroes to the Italian public but all the while bitterness seethed, particularly between Compagnoni and Bonatti. The expedition spawned four legal actions, though only one, won by Bonatti, over the 30/31 July debacle.

Settled back in Cortina, Lacedelli resumed his climbs with the Scoiattoli and despite his missing thumb took part in significant first ascents on the Cima Ovest di Lavaredo and on Punta Giovannina. He loved the mountains and remained a member of the Scoiattoli for 64 years. In 2005 he was made a Knight of the Grand Cross, Italy's highest honour, but his long association with the "squirrels" was probably dearer to him.

For half a century Lacedelli tried to avoid the arguments about K2, though his silence was construed as support for the Compagnoni-Desio version of events. Then in 2004 he published K2 – Il Prezzo della Conquista, written with the journalist Giovanni Cenacchi, in which he repudiated his summit partner and broadly endorsed Bonatti's account. The book has since been published in English as K2 – The Price of Conquest. Blaming Compagnoni for the shifting of Camp IX to "a most dangerous and stupid position", Lacedelli said that once in the tent Compagnoni told him explicitly that he did not want Bonatti to join them. He said Compagnoni would not leave the tent to call to Bonatti and Mahdi that night and sent him out instead.

Compagnoni was furious and in an interview with Corriere della Sera accused Lacedelli of throwing mud on their victory. "Lacedelli and I were friends for 50 years and now he makes up all this poisonous rubbish – I don't want to hear from him any more."

In fact Lacedelli's volte face was only one of three decisive blows. Marshall, the Australian who taught himself Italian to take up Bonatti's cause, brought to light photographs that clearly disproved Compagnoni's claim that Bonatti had siphoned off oxygen from the cylinders and that he (Compagnoni) and Lacedelli had run out of gas 200m short of the summit. One photograph showed Lacedelli on the summit with his mouth rimed in ice, consistent with very recently breathing through a facemask, and another showed Compagnoni still wearing his mask. Finally, late in 2007, the CAI published its Storia Finita, officially correcting Ardito Desio's version of the first ascent of K2.

In 2004, aged 79, Lacedelli returned to the Karakoram and trekked to K2 base camp for the 50th anniversary of his momentous climb. It also enabled him to pay his last respects to his friend Mario Puchoz, the 36-year old guide from Courmayeur who had died on the 1954 expedition while establishing the route on the Abruzzi Spur, probably from pulmonary oedema. This was important to Lacedelli, for despite the machinations of Desio and Compagnoni and his own awkward silence, he always contended that it was "thanks to everyone" that they had succeeded on K2.

Stephen Goodwin



Lino Lacedelli, mountaineer, guide and sports-shopkeeper; born Cortina d'Ampezzo, Belluno province, Italy 4 December 1925; died Aosta 20 November 2009.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine