Climbers do their best work in isolation-example of Walter Bonatti

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It’s interesting to observe how some of the most astonish climbs came up from people who at some point in time faced some disappointments in life. With all their furry, they turned toward the walls in isolation and did great climbs. Walter Bonatti was such a case.

His climbing career began when he was 18 years old and stopped when he was 35.  After this age, he traveled the world as photojournalist (between 1965 and 1979 he travelled the world reporting for the magazines Epoca and Bild der Zeit).  Below are Bonatti’s climbs, and we can see there is a precipitation of hard/extreme climbs right after the year 1954. You can find here a graphic telling the same story.

1949-the fourth ascent of the formidable North Face of the Grandes Jorasses

1951-the first ascent of the Grand Capucin east face

1953-the north faces of  Tre Cime di Lavaredo in winter

1954-a climbing controversy regarding the first ascent of K2 (Bonatti was 24)

1955 – a solo climb of a new route on the south-west pillar of the Aiguille du Dru (The Bonatti pillar)

1957- Grand Pilier d’Angle (with Tito Gobbi)

1958- Gasherbrum IV

1959-The Red Pillar of Brouillard

1961-Rondoy North – Patagonia

1963-The north face of the Grandes Jorasses in winter

1965 -the first solo winter ascent of the Matterhorn north face (Bonatti was 35).

So, what happend in the year 1954 ?  By 1954 he had become an unavoidable selection for the Italian assault on K2, the one that would cause him all that trouble. “At 24 years old, I was the baby of the team, but my achievements in the Alps had made it impossible for me to be left behind.”

The expedition was riven with tensions from the off as Bonatti had proved himself to be easily the most capable of surviving high altitudes, and yet the more experienced Lacedelli and Compagnoni were chosen as the climbers to reach the summit. Bonatti’s job was to ferry oxygen to them. It was on the climb with Mahdi, their Pakistani mountain guide, to the final camp before the summit that the difficulty started.

“Lacedelli had placed their camp out of sight more than 250 metres away from where we had agreed,” says Bonatti, “so Mahdi and I were forced to bivouac out in the open at 8,100 metres. Throughout the night we had to keep digging out our snow hole and by morning Mahdi had severe frostbite.”

Why had the summit pair moved camp? “To kill us,” Bonatti says bluntly. “It may sound farfetched, but they were terrified we were in such good shape that we would be able to accompany them to the summit without using oxygen.” Which would have detracted, of course, from their own oxygen-assisted summit.

In fact, Bonatti did deliver the oxygen, but Compagnoni and Lacedelli accused him of trying to compromise their summit bid by using the oxygen that was intended for them. “And that’s the version of events that survived for many years,” says Bonatti, “until photographs were found proving that both climbers had used oxygen at the summit. But old habits die hard . . . the Italian Alpine Club still insist the K2 ascent was done without oxygen.” It was a very Italian feud, with Bonatti’s reputation sacrificed for the greater good of restoring national morale in the aftermath of the second world war – and it would be more than 30 years before the truth came out.

Understandably, Bonatti came back from the Himalayas feeling somewhat bruised. He tried to organise a solo ascent of K2 without oxygen the following year to put the record straight but couldn’t get the backing.

After K2, Bonatti chose his friends and climbing partners ever more carefully and acquired the tag of the chippiest, most difficult character on the ice block. Bonatti says: “It was often just me and the wilderness for days on end; complete solitude with no one knowing quite where I was or what I was doing until I returned.

In his classic book  The Mountains of My Life , we can read that one of his reasons to climb was to avoid humanity. As he writes, “My disappointments came from people, not the mountains.”

Let’s follow Robert Marshal in an superb exercise of imagination: Imagine an alternative scenario…what about Bonatti? If he had not been tempered by K2, would he have become the questing spirit who, driven by his private demon, conquered the “Bonatti Pillar”, survived the disaster on the Central Pillar of Freney, and climbed the direttissima solo on the north wall of the Matterhorn in winter? He might have developed a very different personality had he not felt the need to “prove he was not finished”.  

Bibliography:  book The Mountains of My Life-by Walter Bonatti, The Guardian-John Crace,  Stewart’s Climbing Blog,

Skiing can make you a strong climber

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Here is what Bonnatti thinks about the benefit of skiing: “My attempt on the Walker Spur in winter was a secret project (year 1963). Together with Cosimo Zappelli we intended to do the climb by the straight-forward method of reaching the mountain, climbing it, and descending to the valley in one single thrust, relying only on our legs, without help from helicopters or communication equipment. If, as we hoped, we succeeded in our aim, the winter ascent of the N face of the Jorasses would not only be a personal affirmation of our principles, but it would also pay homage to the established traditions of mountaineering in the true spirit of the generations that had preceded us. 

I reached perfect physical fitness not by climbing difficult rocks but by downhill skiing. Those who knew me were astonished to see me suddenly become an assiduous habitué of the ski slopes. But the truth was, for each trip up in the ski lift there was an uninterrupted series of short-swing turns down the fall line, on the most secluded and uneven slopes, in deep snow in poor condition.”

text from: “The Mountains of my life”, by Walter Bonatti

Bonatti’s training program for climbing the North Face of Lavaredo in Winter, year 1953

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Then came demobilization (Bonatti was called up for compulsory national military service), and also winter, at first very snowy and then extremely cold. Except for Sundays, which I always spent in the mountains in good weather or bad, every day was for me empty and insignificant, made up of nothing but the same old things at the same times, the same routine in the same surroundings. How sad and useless it is to live like that! And to think the greater part of humanity is restricted nowadays in this way. But what is worse, those who choose to be different are often victimized. For my part I had already decided I would spend my life differently. Meanwhile, partly through longing and partly through rebellion, my thoughts continually turned to the north faces of the Lavaredo.

My training in preparation for this exploit was carried out in a quite unusual way. Every Saturday evening, without fail, I went with a friend to the foot of some difficult face in the Grigna to climb it next day at dawn after an icy overnight bivouac.

In my opinion there could be no better way to measure oneself against cold and the difficulties posed by the mountains, and to check one’s own limits while still staying within the bounds of safety. To put ourselves to the test, during each succeeding bivouac we reduced our equipment little by little and chose places that were more and more uncomfortable and exposed to bad weather. Naturally, with thermometer at hand, we checked the temperature carefully and recorded all our reactions to cold. In the end, without exposing ourselves to excessive danger, we gathered invaluable experience.

…but the experience we gained from it was invaluable. For example, we learned we could lighten our climbing rucksack considerably by carrying less food and clothing. And a simple eiderdown jacket would suffice instead of a complete down suit.

text from: “The Mountains of my life“, by Walter Bonatti.