Two Italian climbers achieved the first ascent of K2 in 1954, and their achievement was widely lauded
throughout Europe. But something terrible happened up there, a betrayal and more. It took 50 years for
people to believe the truth. In the waning light, Walter Bonatti examined the cliffs above, looking for the tent. Camp IX was about 26,500 feet on the steep southeast slope of K2. Bonatti, 24, and Hunza porter Amir Mehdi were carrying 40-pound oxygen sets, vital equipment if the 1954 Italian expedition was to accomplish the world’s second-highest first ascent. Yet there was no sign of the tent or the summit team, Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli.
Perplexed, Bonatti again exclaimed, "Lino, Achille! Where have you gone? Answer
Nothing but quiet. The camp was not present.
It soon became too dark to climb up or down the icy slopes. Having no tent or sleeping bags, Bonatti and Mehdi
were forced to conduct an impromptu bivouac, which had never been tried at this altitude previously. The
expedition’s success was in serious doubt. Their ability to survive was also tested.
The dreadful cold was debilitating & quot Bonatti would later write in Mountains of My Life.
The Italian ascent of K2 would become one of climbing’s most famous and contentious conflicts, even going to
court. Bonatti would accuse Compagnoni of underplaying his part and doing an act that endangered others.
Bonatti would be accused of plotting to be the first to reach the summit, using the summit team’s oxygen, and
abandoning Mehdi, all of which he would deny. While Mount Everest is well-known, K2 is less prominent, despite having witnessed many of the most significant and iconic moments in Himalayan mountaineering. Bonatti’s experience on K2 is one such example, but it is not only little-known but also exceedingly unique in mountaineering history: It had awful, malicious consequences.
Climbing in the Beginning
Thomas Montgomerie, a member of the British Royal Engineers and part of the Great
Trigonometrical Survey of British India, "found" K2 in 1856. Montgomerie labelled the peak "K" because it was in the Himalayan Karakoram Range and "2" since it was the survey’s second discovery. K2’s estimated height was 28,271 feet, making it the world’s second-highest mountain after Mount Everest, identified a few years earlier by the Great Trigonometrical Survey.
Because Nepal was forbidden to foreigners until 1950, so the British began their attempts on Everest
from its Tibetan side in 1922. Pakistan, with five of the world’s 8,000-meter mountains, was the most
significant spot to climb high in the Himalayas at the time. K2 was the highest of the five mountains.
An expedition headed by the Italian mountaineer Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, set the tone for
K2 for the next 50 years as early as 1909. The daring Duke, a cousin of Italy’s reigning King, switched
climbers’ attention from the peak’s north side to the southeast ridge and pioneered a route 3,000 feet
up before retiring at a severe ice wall.
The Americans are
American mountaineers undertook two historical excursions to K2 in 1938 and 1939, pushing the
planned route further up the Abruzzi Ridge, as the course had been termed. The 1938 team, led by
Charlie Houston, a New Hampshire medical student and Harvard graduate, conquered the next
major challenge, a 100-foot rock wall at 21,500 feet. The historic pitch, led by 25-year-old Yale
alumnus Bill House, became known as House’s Chimney. Houston and Paul Petzoldt, a Wyoming mountain guide, reached a high point of 26,150 feet, barely 2,100 feet below the summit, before returning fatigued. They climbed without using any oxygen.
Americans returned to K2 in 1939, led by German-American Fritz Wiessner. Wiessner excelled on
snow, ice, and rock, and Sherpa Pasang Lama reached the peak in the late afternoon, but Pasang
Lama refused to continue at that time. His fears were realised when the two barely survived a
perilous nighttime fall back to their high camp. Most climbers were back in base camp, suffering from various ailments. The resulting logistical and communication issues meant that a second summit attempt could not be mounted, leaving American climber Dudley Wolfe stranded at Camp VIII, waiting for the return of his teammates. The three Sherpas dispatched to rescue him vanished, and with Wolfe also presumed dead, an expedition that
had come so close to triumph ended in massive tragedy.