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