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Walter Bonatti at Courmayeur during the Piolets d'or 2010
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Walter Bonatti, goodbye

14.09.2011 by Vinicio Stefanello

Last night Walter Bonatti passed away. He was 81 years old and one of the greatest legends of alpinism of all times.

The great family of alpinists has lost a father today. Last night Walter Bonatti passed away, the alpinist who perhaps more than anyone else marked and guided the last 60 years of world alpinism. Born in Bergamo on 22 June 1930, Bonatti left an indelible trace on alpinism from an early age thanks to his hallmark style, pure, clean and fast, often in winter, which distinguished him from the outset and which he remained true to right to the end.

His ascents marked eras. They include, amongst others, the first ascent of the East Face of Grand Capucin in 1951 and then, four years later, his famous route up the Petit Dru, established solo during 6 days and 5 nights which inspired and also changed the face of alpinism. Walter Bonatti often chose to climb in the most prohibitive conditions, carrying out the first winter ascent not only of the North Face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo in the Dolomites, but also the Grandes Jorasses in 1963. His final masterpiece, an incredible good-bye to cutting-edge mountaineering, came about two years later when he established a new line, once again alone, up the North Face of the Matterhorn. This was a true manifesto for timeless alpinism, just like the beautiful first ascent of Ghasherbrum IV in 1958 together with Carlo Mauri during the historic expedition led by the great Riccardo Cassin.

His absolutely fundamental support during the first ascent of K2 in 1954 is history, too. Official recognition of his role came extremely late in his life and he had battled hard for this "belated truth" which had been the cause of great suffering. It would be incorrect to deny the fact that Bonatti's life was marked by this first ascent of K2. And one must also remember another delicate moment in Walter's life, namely the the tragedy on the Freney Central Pillar which cost the lives of 4 alpinists. These events give an idea as to the stature of the man Bonatti, not just the alpinist he was.

In 2004 Bonatti received the the Italian honorific title Cavaliere di Gran Croce which joined his French Legion d'Honneur for having saved the lives of two climbers in the Alps. In 2010 he was awarded the Piolet d'Or Lifetime Achievement Award.


WALTER BONATTI. A SANDOKAN OF THE MOUNTAINS
by Vinicio Stefanello

A man walks alone across the glacier. It seems as if that dot, lost amongst the incomprehensible web of crevaces, has no doubts whatsoever. Every now and then he hesitates, it's true. Stops. And, while even the mountains seem to take a breath and pause, he seems to look for answers within an undefined point. But only for a second... he then continues in his stride, confident, beyond that labyrinth of thoughts.

We will never be given to know what he discovered in that brief moment. What answers he looked for through his gaze towards the infinite. All that remains for is the effect, the aim reached. Perhaps it is because, when alone, thoughts such as fear fly within mysterious and incomprehensible spaces, but those heartbeats which precede the action of a man far removed from the masses have always seemed to vibrate the very essence of a hero and his quest.

It is for this reason that I always imaged Walter Bonatti to be a hero. A solitary hero who, right from the outset, filled my childhood imagination charmed by the mountains and alpinism as if they were inventions written by Emilio Salgari. For me Bonatti was, and really is, like a Sandokan of the mountains. A solitary warrior-philosopher whose yearning for the summits stemmed from a need for adventure, for freedom and for truth. He is the man who fights, cries, despairs and never truly exults. Because Bonatti is that sort of hero who reminds us, and remembers, that he is first and foremost a man. He is the alpinist who won us over, who won me over, by bearing his fears and his desperation of the impossible summit he aimed to reach. An impossible quest for that balance and salvation which alpinists (and adolescents, too) search for within their interior chaos. Perhaps this is why the life of Bonatti seemed to me a nigh incarnation of adventure. Of that leaning towards the unknown that needed to be discovered (and also won over) so ever-present in the young who interpret life as an infinite playing field of promises and possibilities.

This too is why I often followed him along his thousands of adventures described in his book “Giorni grandi”. And this is certainly why I was captured by a Bonatti who searched for a way through the impossible, unclimbed Capucin. And who fought alone for six days in the vertical desert up the Dru Pillar. He who always managed to find his way back, to save himself (and also rescue others), coming up trumps against incredible storms high up in the mountains. He is the man who battled to find his own, mysterious Holy Grail. He followed that end, and searched for those summits, incomprehensible and impossible to most, but loved (and yearned for) by all.

Only at first glance does all this seem to contrast with another Bonatti, the one "against", the Bonatti of K2. A Bonatti who, at the start of the experience, was all at one with the group. And who gave all of himself and exulted in the team summit only to find himself, once again, alone. Under attack and also humiliated. Not understood by almost everyone. So misunderstood that his seemed obstinacy. He claimed and demanded the truth, the true facts. But many grumbled, and too many prevaricated. His victorious trials proved useless. Just like the other mountains he breached, such as beautiful Gasherbrum IV.

And so after a thousand lawsuits, thousands of controversies and thousands of adventures as an alpinist, along came the moment of separation. Not total abandonment, but detachment. It was a move away from that world of alpinism which he no longer felt his own. A drawing the line which Bonatti interpreted as he wished, in his style, with a truly grandiose achievement: the first ascent, in winter and alone, of a new route up the North Face of the Matterhorn. After this, nothing more followed. From this point on he no longer had anything to do (and perhaps no longer wanted anything to do) with records in the mountains. At the time he was at the height of his fame. Bonatti, back in 1965, represented alpinism not only in Italy but also the rest of the world. He could be found on front-page news and on national TV. But his mind had been made up: he turned his back on that alpinism and on that environment (but not the mountains in general). In this, too, he is a man-hero who didn't go back on his words. He didn't turn back, never took those record-breaking shoes off the hook. Instead, he re-invented other spheres of adventure and exploration.

Yes, because his "second adventure" took off or, better still continued, in the forests, deserts, seas and amongst the most inaccessible populations on earth. He was the envoy of an era. He was the man who discovered and photographed marvels which we could only dream about. He lived in the Amazon, side by side with wild animals, continuing that exploration and that fair comparison with nature and his own limits which were the base of his difficult and conflictual relationship (this would now be defined extreme) with alpinism.

Bonatti distinguished himself for his ability to go beyond the fixed standards of the mountains and mountaineering, in his ability to rediscover, even beyond the summit, "his" adventure. This human and life choice shines like an adventure between the summits of curiosity and the desire for knowledge and to know oneself.

This is the legend. This is the hero who for decades fuelled my imagination (and that of many others) with his ascents and also with those vibrations which I always seemed to gleam from his writings. And then fate, in these last few years, twisted things giving me the chance to meet him, Walter Bonatti...

It's always difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the image of a hero with the encounter, with the real person. How should one deal with one's imagination? This is a question which, in truth, I do not yet know how to answer. I met Bonatti at Monte Rite during the presentation of his book "K2, the truth" (Baldini Castoldi Dalai), just a few months after the official (and substantial) reaffirmation of the historic truth of what he had always claimed had happened during the first ascent of K2. He seemed a man at peace with himself. He talked to me calmly about those distant facts, almost serenely. I remember his great smile and his willingness to talk about himself and to talk about those facts which, for him, for a long long time, had been absolutely painful.

Then in Lecco, during that same 2004 once again, I remember another encounter, even more relaxed. We sat at the same table and he talked a bit about everything including, naturally, alpinism and the younger generation. I was struck by his interested and curious glance as I replied to who knows whose affirmation that claimed that younger climbers were no longer interested in alpinism. "I'd say the opposite" I replied "things have changed, but I wouldn't say that alpinism has disappeared altogether for the younger generation, on the contrary." "Really? This makes me happy" Bonatti replied with a smile which expressed all his child-like curiosity. In that instant I noticed all the sincere joy of that man and that alpinist... Who knows where his thoughts flew to just then, and what suspended and mysterious vibration lit up in his heart.


by Vinicio Stefanello
published in ALP 243, June 2007

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