Lino Lacedelli (left) and Achille Compagnoni, the first men to climb K2, in training prior to the 1954 expedition. [Photo] Corriere archives
Lino Lacedelli, the Italian mountaineer who made the first ascent of K2, died November 20 in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, where he had lived his entire life. He was 83 years old.
Lacedelli’s ascent of K2 with Achille Compagnoni on July 31, 1954 and the ensuing decades-long controversy often overshadows his career as a daring rock specialist and member of the Cortina Squirrels climbing club. Born in Cortina, Italy, in the heart of the Dolomites, Lacedelli made his first climbs as a young teenager and quickly fell in love with the heights. In the difficult post-war years, he scraped by as a plumber, mountain guide and ski instructor, making several notable rock climbs in the Dolomites and the Western Alps.
The first of these was a blitz of the futuristic east face of the Grand Capucin via the Bonatti route, which Lacedelli and Luigi Ghedina achieved without a bivouac in 18 hours. (The validity of this claim, however, has been rejected by other early ascensionists of the route, from Walter Bonatti to Jean Couzy and Hermann Buhl.) In 1952, Lacedelli climbed the southwest face of Cima Scotoni in the Dolomites over two days; the face became an era testpiece.
But newfound nationalism dawning in the ’50s compelled climbers to greater heights than those of the Alps. As countries launched expeditions to the Himalayas, mountains attained significance as respective national symbols. While several Americans had launched expeditions to K2, the Duke of Abruzzi, an Italian, had led one of the first forays to K2’s flanks. In 1954, a year after Charles Houston’s legendary American unit struggled gamely with the Abruzzi Ridge, Ardito Desio, a scientist, began running rigorous tests in the Alps to find suitable climbers for the Italian conquest of K2. Desio was, by most accounts, a bit of a dictator. Later, Lacedelli recalled his nickname–Il Capetto–the “little chief.” Militaristic to a tee, insubordination was not to be tolerated, and Desio designed a specific summit team months prior to the expedition. Lacedelli, at age 29, found himself thrust into the limelight only when Ubaldo Rey suddenly fell ill.
The events of late July 1954 are enshrined in the oftentimes muddled history of high-altitude mountaineering. The two lead climbers, Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, set up Camp IX at ca. 8100m. According to Lacedelli, Compagnoni insisted on setting up the tent in a bizarre, illogical spot. The climbers then requested additional oxygen for the summit bid. In prime positioning for the task were the young and brilliant climber, Walter Bonatti, and his companion, the legendary Hunza porter, Amir Mahdi. (Just a year prior, Mahdi carried an exhausted Hermann Buhl off Nanga Parbat.)
Bonatti and Mahdi struggled upward with the heavy oxygen crates towards Camp IX, approaching the supposed spot at dusk on July 30. According to Bonatti, their shouts were met with a brief flickering of a headlamp farther off to the left, and the words: “Have you got the oxygen?”
“Yes,” replied Bonatti.
“Good! Leave it and go straight down!”
The light went out, and the two were plunged into darkness.
Lacedelli recalled in his book, K2: The Price of Conquest: “I believe [Compagnoni] didn’t want Bonatti to reach us… he said that it was just the two of us that had to make the final climb to the summit.”
The next morning, Bonatti and Mahdi, somehow alive after surviving an awful night out at 26,000 feet, staggered back to Camp VIII (7627m). Lacedelli and Compagnoni continued onward. At first the climbing was difficult, and the pair purportedly ran out of oxygen. (This has been widely disputed due to a series of summit photographs since published: one of Compagnoni with his oxygen mask still on, and one with Lacedelli’s beard lined with a telltale ring of ice.)
But at 6 p.m., after an exhausting day, the two reached the summit, leaving behind the now useless crates of oxygen. Lacedelli and Compagnoni then descended into the night, suffering frostbitten fingers, until the pair finally found Camp VIII, where Bonatti, Mahdi, two other Italian climbers and another Hunza awaited them. Even a resentful Bonatti later said: “Five hearts were exulting over the same victory in the same tent at Camp VIII. They belonged to Abram, Gallotti, Compagnoni, Lacedelli, and myself. At that moment, and only for that moment, I forced myself to forget all other reality. But… things like this leave indelible scars on a youngster’s mind.” Although unscathed physically, the emotional turmoil of abandonment Bonatti felt would result in a series of unforgettable solo climbs, as well as a series of libel suits and accusations in the decades that followed.
The official expedition account by Desio, Ascent of K2, as well as scathing articles by members of the Italian press, cast Bonatti as the ambitious young villain, greedily using oxygen intended for the summit attempt. Lacedelli himself attempted to stay clear of the prolonged skirmishes. He opened and ran a shop in his hometown of Cortina: K2 Sports, which sells climbing and skiing equipment to this day. But in 2006, after decades of silence, he published a book, K2: The Price of Conquest, vindicating Bonatti and condemning his teammate, Compagnoni, as well as Desio.
Lacedelli’s prolonged silence most likely rose from attempts at self-preservation amongst the close-knit hierarchy of Italian mountaineering, and a particular fear of Desio. He had never openly condemned Bonatti, and once stated in 2003, “After the expedition, I was friendly with Bonatti. Then we stopped writing and telephoning. I haven’t seen him in 25 years… Millions of people fight wars, and then shake hands afterwards. I hope one day to shake hands with Bonatti.”