Return to the savage mountain

Fifty years after the first ascent of K2, the Italian who conquered it is revisiting the scene of his triumph. But, reports Peter Popham, a bitter controversy will follow him
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The Independent Online

An old man returned to the mountains this week. Fifty years after he and his companion became the first climbers to reach the summit of K2, the world's second tallest mountain, Lino Lacedelli, now a sprightly 78, is in its shadow again. He has gone back, he told reporters in the town of Skardu, en route to K2, "to say hello and goodbye to the king of the mountains".

An old man returned to the mountains this week. Fifty years after he and his companion became the first climbers to reach the summit of K2, the world's second tallest mountain, Lino Lacedelli, now a sprightly 78, is in its shadow again. He has gone back, he told reporters in the town of Skardu, en route to K2, "to say hello and goodbye to the king of the mountains".

He is not, of course, making another attempt on the 8,611-metre summit. Instead he travelled by four-wheel drive to the last village before the base camp, Askuli, then began trekking the rest of the way, a moderately arduous walk at any age (especially at 5,000m). Yesterday he was reported to be making slow but steady progress, and is expected to arrive at base camp within four days.

Lacedelli and his team of 24, which includes doctors, guides and researchers, is one of three Italian groups swarming round the mountain in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of his triumph, which falls on 31 July. The other, larger groups are again attempting to reach the summit, one from the Pakistani and one from the Chinese side. Lacedelli and his companions intend to hold a commemorative ceremony at base camp on 15 July.

But however warm the congratulations, the party is unlikely to erase memories of a bitter controversy that began to cast its shadow over Lacedelli and his companion in victory, Achille Compagnoni, before they had even got back to base. For K2's reputation as the cruellest of all mountains is well-deserved, in more senses than one.

It makes Everest, they say, look easy. Reading even the most technical descriptions of the mountain's hazards can stand your hair on end. As extreme terrestrial experiences go, it's about the limit.

You start from the dusty and basic town of Skardu, a mere 2,340m up into Pakistan's Northern Areas. The amenities are not much in this one-street town, but cherish the view: "A great oval basin," wrote Jean Fairley in The Lion River, "some 20 miles long and eight miles wide, enclosed in rocky mountains, purple, red, grey and ochre, that soar up to 17,000ft [5,200m]."

You leave Skardu behind and trek for nine days, scrambling over moraines and trudging through gorges, crossing en route the 40-mile-long Baltoro Glacier. Then, already well-exercised, you arrive at the base camp (5,000m) ready for the assault on K2.

Here you see clearly for the first time what is in store. "The Baltoro Glacier," writes John Keay, the mountaineering historian, "holds in its icy embrace 10 of the world's 30 highest peaks. They line its sides and close its easternmost end like high priests guarding the Holy of Holies." They include Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums and K2 itself - it's the highest concentration of high peaks in the world, and they are the only 8,000m peaks on earth that are not visible from any inhabited place. They soar skywards with the cruel simplicity of a child's drawing of mountains.

"The wall was a stiff 60 degrees," said Hans Kammerlander, a mountaineer, when asked about negotiating K2 on skis; "it would have been like skiing on the roof of a bell-tower."

And now you start: Camp 1, according to one recent account, is "like every camp on the route... exposed to the winds and storms that lash the south face..." Camp 2 is "hacked from an icy crest... at 6,760m." Camp 3 is set on "completely exposed slopes at 7,450m" - and so on, by way of the even less hospitable Camp 4 (8,000m), all the way to the summit.

Which is, of course, where it gets really tough. "Some of the strongest Himalayan climbers of all time," write the folks at earthtreksclimbing.com, "have turned back within 100ft of the summit... Even in the best conditions, the climb is hard and scary."

There: now you're at the top. But "there is no lingering on the summit of K2: snap some photos and it is a race to get down alive." To speed you on your way, here's a thought: of the 53 people known to have died on the mountain - including our own Alison Hargreaves, ripped from the mountainside and dashed against its flanks by hurricane-force winds in 1993 - most died coming down.

K2 WAS given its blunt name by a British surveyor, Colonel T G Montgomery, in 1856; "K" stands for Karakoram, the name of the mountain range; it is "2" because it was the second one in the series which he identified.

The first assault on the mountain was a British job, too, led by an English climber called Eckenstein in 1902. They reached the modest-seeming height of 6,600m before turning back, unable to see any way of getting further. Since those days, however, Italian climbers schooled on the Alps have made the Savage Mountain something of a speciality.

The first large and scientific expedition, in 1909, was led by Luigi Amadeo, Duke of Abruzzi, a kinsman of the Italian king. The attempt failed, but by reaching 7,654m on a nearby peak called Chogolisa, the duke achieved a record for altitude that was beaten only on Everest in 1922.

In 1929, another Italian effort was led by Duke Amedeo's nephew, the Duke of Spoleto. The scientific leader of that team was Professor Ardito Desio, whose contribution to the successful assault of 1954 was to be critical.

Other national teams continued to challenge K2, meanwhile, and when in 1939 four climbers on an American expedition vanished without trace close to the summit, K2's fearsome reputation was reinforced.

But in 1954 the Italians were back, their new attempt benefiting from a scouting trip by Ardito Desio, the new mission's leader, to identify possible routes. Desio saw that the only hope of success lay in tackling the mountain with military discipline, without thought of personal ambition. Team members had to pass a stiff medical, which included being tested in a pressure chamber.

The team went up the Abruzzi spur, named after the leader of Italy's first expedition, and still followed by most climbers today. By the middle of June, supplies for the final assault had been stored at Camp 4, and Desio was hopeful that they would make the summit by the end of the month.

Then the weather turned foul, with storms and vicious winds raging throughout the Karakoram range; for weeks all progress was frozen. On 21 June one of the Hunza porters, Puchoz, died of pneumonia and was buried on the mountain. It looked as though Desio would have to limp back to Italy again, having got no higher than he had done 25 years before.

Suddenly, however, their luck changed: the winds died, and the weather appeared to stabilise. Desio decided to seize what would probably be the last opportunity before the monsoon. He made a break for the top, establishing new camps at 7,300m, 7,600m and finally at 8,150m, less than 500m below the summit, and just below the sheer 200m wall which is the last and most daunting obstacle of all.

Four men - Lacadelli and Compagnoni, plus a rising young star of the team, 24-year-old Walter Bonatti, and a Hunza porter, Mahdi - were now poised within striking distance of the top. It was decided that Lacadelli and Compagnoni should make the attempt; Bonatti and Mahdi were sent down to bring more bottles of oxygen.

But Bonatti and his oxygen, it was claimed, never reached them. In the end, Lacedelli and Compagnoni set off for the summit together, and managed to make it there with no extra gas.

In compliance with Desio's "military discipline" injunction, no announcement was made as to who had actually summited until they were all back in Italy - greeted by a huge, cheering crowd in Genoa. Italy, still emerging from the misery and mayhem of the Second World War, had scored a historic success. And it had been achieved, it appeared, without the sort of divisions and recriminations which were all too normal in Italian public life. Once the names of the summiteers were out, Lacedelli and Compagnoni were national heroes.

And that is how the story should have remained, with an ending both happy and tidy. But the mystery of the missing oxygen bottles refused to go away. In the years that followed, rumours and innuendoes spread through Italy's mountaineering community. Why, people asked, had the heroes been obliged to risk their lives by attempting the summit without oxygen? And what was Walter Bonatti's role in the affair?

It all culminated, on the 10th anniversary of the triumph, in a newspaper article claiming that Lacedelli and Compagnoni never received the extra gas because Bonatti had intended to keep it for himself, to enable him to make his own, private bid (with his guide) on the summit.

Ostracised by the mountaineering community as the accusations took hold, Bonatti sued the newspaper for libel and won. The oxygen, he told the court, was not delivered because he and Mahdi had got lost and were forced to bivouac, exposed to the screaming winds. He pointed out that he and the guide were not in any case in possession of oxygen masks; and that, in the photos taken on the summit, both Lacedelli and Compagnoni were clearly wearing masks. If their oxygen had truly been exhausted, he argued, they would certainly have dumped the bottles rather than lug that useless weight.

But despite his court victory, the row refused to go away. He has spent much of his subsequent life trying to free himself from the stigma of being the one egotist in that selfless, military team of heroes.

This May an official " Risoluzione" of the dispute was published, intended to bury the controversy for ever, and following the Bonatti line. But even in old age (Desio died two years ago, aged 104, but Compagnoni and Bonatti are still alive), the bitterness of the affair lingers. Lacedelli publishes his own version in his memoirs later this month.

"Fifty years after the Italian conquest of K2," said the honourary leader of this year's expedition, Minister of Agriculture Gianni Alemanno, at a ceremony in Rome before the climbers set out, "we want it to be as if the whole of Italy is reaching the summit... an Italy which accepts challenges and fights its battles without enemies, to transcend its own limitations."

Without enemies, then; and also, incidentally, without auxiliary oxygen - which all recent expeditions to the mountain have dispensed with.

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