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The slippery summit

  • Written by  Mick Conefrey
  • Published in Explorers
The slippery summit
01 Jul
2014
Ever since an Italian expedition first climbed K2, in 1954, its members have argued bitterly about a key aspect of the ascent. Mick Conefrey unearths evidence to shed new light on this famous mountaineering controversy

‘Today all Italy is standing up to acclaim you as fearless leaders of our race.’Ardito Desio, official message 13, base camp, K2

When, at 6pm on 31 July 1954, Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli became the first climbers to reach the summit of K2, it seemed as if Italy was back on track. Like the British victory on Mount Everest in 1953, here was a moment when, after years of post-war austerity, the whole country could come together and celebrate.

Sixty years on, after decades of bitter controversy, things aren’t so simple. It’s now widely accepted that Compagnoni and Lacedelli lied about a key aspect of their ascent – that they reached the summit after their oxygen ran out.

But could it, in fact, be true? The Italian K2 expedition of 1954 has as many mysteries as a Leonardo Sciascia novel and today, it seems, there may be one more twist in the tale.

 

ON A MISSION

It all began in 1953, when Ardito Desio obtained a permit from the Pakistani government to lead an expedition to K2. Desio was a small man with a big ego. A geology professor from Milan, he said that his aim was ‘not to make an attempt on K2 but to conquer it’.

Initially, he was very influenced by the British Everest expedition of 1953. Like John Hunt, the soldier who led that attempt, Desio planned methodically and took great care to assemble the best possible team. Eleven climbers were chosen after a rigorous selection process that involved repeated medical tests and two training camps in the Alps. No fewer than seven of those chosen were professional guides.

When they arrived in the Karakoram in spring 1954, almost 700 porters were needed to take their gear to the foot of the mountain. Unlike Hunt, who led from the front, the 57-year-old Desio spent most of his time at base camp, issuing orders and frequently reminding his troops that they were climbing for the ‘honour of Italian mountaineering’.

They initially made good progress, but by late June everything had started to slow down. One of the strongest climbers, Mario Puchoz, died of suspected pneumonia as K2 was battered by storms. Desio contemplated a retreat to makea second attempt in the autumn but at the end of July, the weather suddenly improved.

Compagnoni, a tough former ski champion and Alpine soldier, was appointed the leader of the climbing party. He selected Lino Lacedelli, a mountain guide from the Dolomites, as his partner for the summit attempt. Before they could set off, however, someone had to get their oxygen cylinders to a final camp 500 metres below the summit. 

That task fell to Walter Bonatti, at 24 the youngest member of the team, and Amir Mahdi, an experienced Hunza porter. Their journey up the mountain was an epic of grim tenacity

that climaxed with a night spent in the open at 8,100 metres, after Compagnoni and Lacedelli changed the location of their final camp. On the following morning, they staggered down, leaving Compagnoni and Lacedelli to retrieve six oxygen cylinders and head for the history books.

 

A SOUR TURN

It wasn’t easy. The first few hundred metres took so long to climb that their oxygen ran out before the summit, they later said. They continued on regardless and even carried their oxygen sets to the top to leave as proof of their ascent. Unlike Ed Hillary in 1953, Compagnoni had a 16-millimetre film camera and was able to come back with some extraordinary summit shots.

Desio’s team returned to Italy as national heroes, but it didn’t take long for the story to turn sour. Mario Fantin, the expedition cameraman, sued Desio for defamation after a dispute over some missing film; Compagnoni sued the film-production company for a share of the profits of the expedition movie; and Desio fell out spectacularly with the Italian Alpine Club over finances.

However, the most bitter and longest running controversy revolved around the events of 30 July. The official film and expedition book barely mentioned Bonatti and Mahdi’s epic trip up the mountain with the oxygen bottles and their enforced bivouac at 8,100 metres. So, in 1961, Bonatti wrote a book in which he told his side of the story, accusing Compagnoni of deliberately moving the final camp to make sure that no-one could take his place in the summit party. Although Bonatti survived the bivouac unscathed, Mahdi lost all of his toes to frostbite.

Compagnoni’s response came three years later on the tenth anniversary of the climb, when he briefed a journalist, Nino Giglio, on the ‘truth about K2’ – that Bonatti wasn’t the victim but the villain. According to the subsequent article, Compagnoni and Lacedelli’s oxygen ran out early because Bonatti used some of it on the night of the 30th.

 

MOUNTAINEERING CELEBRITY

The article was a big mistake. After K2, Bonatti had made a series of sensational climbs in the Alps and the Karakoram and become the most famous mountaineer in Italy. In 1965, his career climaxed with a solo direct ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn – in winter. Bonatti wasn’t used to giving up or walking away from a fight.

Besides which, the idea that he used any oxygen was absurd because neither he nor Mahdi had a mask or a breathing tube – only the summit party did. Bonatti sued for libel and won, but he felt that his reputation had been tarnished. Desio wasn’t interested in rewriting the official history and nor was the Italian Alpine Club, the sponsor of the expedition, so Bonatti wrote a series of books arguing his case.

Then in 1985, he gained an unlikely champion – Robert Marshall, an Australian surgeon and ‘dedicated armchair mountaineer’. After reading about the libel case, he became determined to help Bonatti.

In 1993, Marshall found some photographs that showed something remarkable: Compagnoni on the summit of K2, wearing his oxygen mask and Lacedelli looking as if he had only just taken his off. So, was the story about the oxygen running out pure make believe – the ‘base lie’ as Bonatti later called it? And if the oxygen had lasted, how could Compagnoni have possibly claimed that Bonatti had used some the night before? When Marshall published his theory in the prestigious journal Alp, it received huge coverage, but still the Italian Alpine Club was slow to react.

Then finally, in 2004, under enormous pressure, the club commissioned a group of historians and geographers, I tre saggi (‘The three wise men’), to investigate. Their conclusions were damning, confirming almost every aspect of Bonatti’s account.

When, a few months later, Erich Abram, the 1954 team’s oxygen controller wrote to Bonatti and revealed that the German oxygen cylinders used by the summit team were designed to last for 12 hours, two hours longer than their ascent, their whole story fell apart. ‘The oxygen did perhaps run out on K2,’ wrote Marshall in his splendidly titled book K2: Lies and Treachery, ‘but if so, this must have happened on the way down, not the way up!’

 

REWRITING HISTORY

Bonatti was vindicated. In 2007, the Italian Alpine Club published a revised official account, K2: The Final Story, that confirmed that Compagnoni and Lacedelli had lied. As Marshall wrote: ‘The mills of fate, grinding slowly as always, have finally seen the saga of K2 reach its end.’ But have they? Did Marshall miss something in the photographic evidence and did the ‘three wise men’ ignore the evidence of the 1953 British Everest expedition?

In the early 1950s, oxygen equipment was crude and little was known about the effects of altitude. The British expedition was the best prepared in the history of Himalayan mountaineering up until then, but despite spending much time and money researching and building oxygen sets, there were repeated problems on the mountain. As the British climber Charles Evans joked, the question wasn’t whether you could get up Everest without oxygen, but whether you could get up with it.

Initially, Desio had planned to copy the British system, but instead he opted for an Italian set, made by a company called Dalmine. As a backup, he also took a number of German oxygen sets made by Dräger. These had been used by the Swiss on Everest in 1952.

In transit, many of the Italian bottles leaked and when they reached K2, the challenge of getting a lot of heavy cylinders up the mountain was so great that they didn’t use oxygen on the lower slopes. Everyone was convinced, however, that oxygen was essential for the summit attempt.

But Compagnoni and Lacedelli had hardly any experience with the equipment – the only time that either of them had used an oxygen set was months earlier back in Italy. Whereas Hillary spent the night before the summit attempt on Everest checking and rechecking his and Tenzing’s sets, the Italians’ oxygen bottles were languishing on a snow slope for the second night in a row.

 

NEW EVIDENCE

On the following morning, Compagnoni and Lacedelli collected the bottles, but the summit photos reveal something that Marshall didn’t notice. Their sets carried three six-kilogram bottles, designed to be discarded in turn when they ran out of gas. But Lacedelli and Compagnoni didn’t do that. They threw away their first bottle, but as the photos show, they kept the other two. Why?

Even if Marshall was right and one bottle was partially full, why did they each carry an empty bottle to the summit? Hillary and Tenzing didn’t. As soon as their cylinders expired, they discarded them. Either Compagnoni and Lacedelli’s sets were mounted incorrectly or, as they claimed, they were so focused on getting to the top that, rather than lightening their loads, they simply carried on.

The most significant piece of photographic evidence is only visible in the film footage, shot on the summit in brilliant colour. It shows that Abram was mistaken and that Compagnoni and Lacedelli were, in fact, using two different models – the blue cylinders are from the German Dräger sets, the red ones are Italian Dalmine bottles, considered so unreliable that they were only supposed to be used at the bottom of the mountain.

Put all of this together and it seems much more likely that at least one of their sets did run out of oxygen. The fact that they both reported hallucinations before the summit is consistent with hypoxia – oxygen starvation.

That they carried on going and didn’t discard their heavy sets seems odd, but there were precedents. On Everest in 1953, Charles Wylie’s oxygen ran out at 7,800 metres, shortly after he collected a heavy pack discarded by a Sherpa.

Wylie carried on for another 120 metres to the South Col. He felt terrible, but he made it. A few days later, Evans’s oxygen set malfunctioned at around 8,500 metres, but he, too, carried on, even though he was breathing a noxious mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

As for the photograph of Compagnoni with his mask on at the summit, it does look strange, but a year earlier, when Charlie Houston led a US attempt on K2, at least two members of his team wore ‘Arctic breathers’ – a kind of sock positioned over the mouth to warm incoming air.

Of course, none of this provides absolute proof one way or the other, but Lacedelli and Compagnoni went to their graves insisting that they weren’t lying. Odd things happen on mountains; it may not make sense to continue when your oxygen runs out, and it may make even less sense to carry your empties to the summit, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. As Machiavelli put it: ‘Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.’

This story was published in the July 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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