The Mountains of My Life

Overview

Published for the first time in English, The Mountains of My Life collects the classic writings of world-famous mountaineer Walter Bonatti, and tells the real story of the 1954 controversy over the events on K2 that changed his life.

Bonatti is one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, a man who continually reset the benchmark of human possibility by ascending routes that others dared not even contemplate. He climbed with an audacity and panache that epitomized the purest ...

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Overview

Published for the first time in English, The Mountains of My Life collects the classic writings of world-famous mountaineer Walter Bonatti, and tells the real story of the 1954 controversy over the events on K2 that changed his life.

Bonatti is one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, a man who continually reset the benchmark of human possibility by ascending routes that others dared not even contemplate. He climbed with an audacity and panache that epitomized the purest spirit of alpinism, and inspired an entire generation of climbers. Jon Krakauer calls him one of my heroes. He is not only a mountaineer of astonishing talent and vision, but one of the world's most engaging writers about mountaineering.

Bonatti has also been dogged by controversy and often been at odds with the climbing community. The Mountains of My Life not only collects the best of Bonatti's writing telling of adventures in the Alps, the Himalayas, and little-known South American peaks it also tells Bonatti's version of what really happened on the Italian expedition that made the first ascent of K2 in 1954. Bonatti's selfless actions helped avert disaster, yet in the expedition's aftermath he found himself cast as a scapegoat. Part detective story, part hair-raising adventure, part meditation on his craft, The Mountains of My Life is as awe-inspiring and controversial as its author, and is beautifully illustrated with Bonatti's own photos.

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Editorial Reviews

KLIATT
Over the past few years I have read a number of mountaineering books, many of which mention the author of this volume. Born in Italy in 1930, Bonatti's legendary feats were accomplished in the '50s and '60s. He abruptly retired from high altitude climbing in 1965, having become disenchanted with certain elements of the mountaineering community who considered him a subversive malcontent. Bonatti wrote several books about his exploits, but only two were ever translated into English. Enter Robert Marshall, an Australian surgeon who became intrigued by the Bonatti saga and set about translating his classic writings in order to a) vindicate Bonatti, and b) share his remarkable story with a wider audience. Enter Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, editor of the Modern Library Exploration series and Bonatti fan, who with publication of The Mountains of My Life has helped revive the reputation of arguably the greatest alpinist of all time. So what did Bonatti actually do? He started out conquering "impossible" faces in the Alps, which earned him an invitation at the age of 23 to join 10 other men on an assault on K2, the never-before-summitted second-highest peak in the world. Two of Bonatti's companions made the first ascent with the heroic and nearly fatal support of Bonatti and a native Hunza porter. Then, inexplicably, the successful teammates accused Bonatti of treachery, i.e., trying to reach the summit before them. Shocked and bewildered, Bonatti went on to establish dynamic routes in the Alps and Patagonia, but the weight of innuendo eventually wore him down, and he wrapped up his climbing career with an unprecedented solo ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn in winter. Bonattiwent on to become a successful outdoors photojournalist, but it is his heroic adventures in the mountains for which he will be remembered. An exhilarating combination of alpine drama, controversy, and philosophy, The Mountains of My Life stands as one of the seminal works of mountaineering literature. Includes photographs, maps, and charts. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Random House, Modern Library, 442p. illus. bibliog., $14.95. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Randy M. Brough; Lib. Dir., Franklin P.L., Franklin, NH , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
Kirkus Reviews
Well-made compendium of adventures—and misadventures—on some of the world's highest peaks. In his day, Italian adventurer Bonatti was among the world's best-known climbers, having established daring new routes on some of the most forbidding mountains of the Alps, many accomplished on solo climbs without oxygen. This collection, a volume in a series edited by Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air, 1997, etc.), gathers portions of several of Bonatti's climbing memoirs, some of which were published in English editions but have long been out of print. As adventure writing, the memoirs are often standard fare: I came to a peak, I climbed it (or, in some cases, failed to climb it), I endured harrowing weather and the possibility of swan-diving into the abyss. Bonatti, however, is both more modest and more reflective than many of his contemporaries and successors (Reinhold Messner comes to mind); mountains, he writes,"are no more than the reflection of our spirit. Each peak is big or small, generous or mean, in proportion to what we offer it and what we ask of it." Much of the book is given over to documents relating to Bonatti's ill-fated climb of the Himalayan peak K2 in 1954, which, he notes with considerable understatement,"turned out to be more complicated and full of surprises than had been expected." The junior member of an Italian national team, Bonatti was accused of abandoning his fellow climbers to scale K2 by himself and thus claim the honor of being the first to the summit; senior members charged that he had left them without sufficient oxygen, although two did make it to the top. Bonatti's defense is vigorous and convincing, although it will doubtless not prove to bethefinalword in a controversy that has gone on for more than four decades. Ably translated and edited by Australian climber Marshall, this will be of great interest to mountaineering buffs, and to armchair adventurers generally.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375756405
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/6/2001
  • Series: Modern Library Exploration Series
  • Edition description: MODERN LIB
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Bonatti was born in Bergamo, Italy, in 1930. A well-known photographer and the author of over a dozen books on climbing, he received the French Legion d'Honneur for his heroic rescue of two fellow climbers on an expedition in which four others perished. He lives in Italy.
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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

Beginnings

(1948)

When I was a child I used to get away from home on one pretext or another during the school vacations and go where I could watch the eagles fly. It really was so, because in those days eagles did fly in the skies of the Prealps, and a pair of these predators had chosen for their nest a rock just above the area where I played-Vertova di Valseriana, one of the valleys to the north of Bergamo.

Higher up the ridge was Mount Alben, the peak that, of them all, most triggered my imagination, thanks to its white limestone spires, which were often wreathed in mist. At that point in my life, Mount Alben was the best example of nature at its most austere that I had ever seen, and I used to idolize it with all the ingenuousness of a child, making it the very symbol of my aspirations to adventure. I was disappointed many years later, when from the heights of the Grigna I realized, seeing it from a distance, my fabulous Alben was lower and squatter than the peak on which I was standing.

I was still living in Monza in the years after the Second World War. They were hard times, too, for a boy with no prospects facing life in a defeated country. It was during those years that I came to know the Grigna, the slim rocky pyramid that overlooks the Brianza. And despite the fact that, in those days, I only went by the paths, I couldn't help but be fascinated by the spires and crests of that beautiful peak on which, with wonder and envy, I used to see climbing ropes at work. I would stand for hours on end watching those lucky people, then try to imitate them only a few feet from the ground on a nearby boulder.

One day my usual companion arrived with his mother's clothesline in his knapsack. This was the first time I ever tied on to a climbing rope, but from then on I tried to put into practice what I had been watching.

A real, genuine climb was to follow not much later, thanks to a sympathetic chap called Elia who was to become a friend of mine. One day, at the foot of the Nibbio, one of the Grigna towers, Elia came upon me raptly watching the progress of a rope pair that was busy on the rock face above. It must have rather touched him because he came up to me, decked out in all his climbing gear, and, with the air of an expert, said, "How'd you like to try it?"

"I couldn't think of anything I'd like more!" I replied.

Five minutes later we were climbing up by way of the path to the direttissima, which took us to the base of the pinnacle known as the Campaniletto (Little Bell Tower). We roped up and, after giving me some instructions, Elia set off. However, after no more than ten feet or so, my new friend seemed to founder and run aground. I watched him as he tried to go on, bending first to one side, then to the other. He curled himself up, then tried again, and yet again. But he stayed right where he was, ten feet from the ground, as I watched in silence.

Finally he decided to turn back.

"My soles are slipping!" he said to excuse himself, then added, "I'll try farther over to the left."

He repeated the moves as before, as I silently urged him on and encouraged him with all the intensity I could muster, but with no better result.

Go on! I said to myself. Keep it up! Or my first climb is going to vanish into smoke!

In the end he came back down to the starting point. I was terribly disappointed and was about to resign myself to failure when, amazingly, Elia said, "Go on! You have a try with those boots of yours!"

I was in fact wearing a pair of enormous army surplus boots with square toes, tethered to my ankles by a wide leather strap.

If Elia couldn't get up wearing climbing boots, I thought, how on earth will I be able to do it without a rope holding me from above? In spite of this, I wanted to try so much, I took his place. I don't know how I did it, but I somehow managed to climb that first difficult pitch. Suddenly I felt I was at the center of a delirious dream. When the rope ran out, Elia, now held by me from above, was able to come up and join me, but just as we were about to change places he said, "Great! Why don't you just carry on, right up to the top?"

And up to the summit I went. It was in this way I had my first encounter with a real rock face.

It was August 1948, and that first climb on the Campaniletto galvanized me. More climbs on the Grigna peaks followed, many of them, as many as I could accomplish between dawn and dusk on all the Sundays that followed.

I was now devoted heart and soul to rock faces, to overhangs, to the intimate joy of trying to overcome my own weaknesses in a struggle that committed me to the very limits of the possible. More than that, I came to know the satisfaction of passing where others had not been able to go. In a sort of direct communion between thought and action I discovered more and more about my own powers, my own limits. Perhaps I was repaying myself for what life had denied me in other ways, but it became clearer to me how up there, in direct contact with unsullied nature in an uncomplicated environment, I felt alive, free, and fulfilled-more and more every day. In this way I was discovering adventure, rich in everything that uplifts and exalts humanity. Above all, I was discovering my way of life.

As I gained experience, the climbs I attempted demanded ever more single-minded commitment. In this way I progressed from the easiest to the most difficult routes on the Grigna peaks. It was a brief but intense cycle, which lasted all winter and ended in late spring-that is, at the beginning of the real, genuine Alpine climbing season of 1949.

My usual companions, neophytes like myself, were Oggioni, Barzaghi, Casati, Aiazzi, and, later, Carlo Mauri. The great Alpine peaks we now confronted bore prestigious names that put them in the top rank of the grades of difficulty: the direttissima of the Croz dell'Altissimo in the Brenta Dolomites, the north face of the Badile, the east face of the Aiguille Noir de Peuterey in the Mont Blanc group, and, in the same area, the Walker Spur on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses. A straight flush of successes for a nineteen-year-old lad, which was all I was then, less than a year after that first timid climb with Elia on the Campaniletto.


Chapter Two

Bregaglia: Three North Faces

(1949)

The major preoccupation of the thirties for all the best European climbers was the conquest of the six most difficult north faces in the Alps: the Lavaredo, Badile, Dru, Matterhorn, Eiger, and Grandes Jorasses.

The Badile ("shovel") is a gigantic granite peak on the Italian-Swiss border, and its northwest face is indeed a smooth and almost vertical wall of rock closely resembling the back of an upturned shovel, including a huge central groove in its exact center that runs halfway up the wall toward the sharp transverse summit ridge. It was first climbed in 1937 by the great Italian climber Riccardo Cassin, accompanied by Esposito and Ratti. They succeeded in reaching the top on their first attempt, but it took them three days. Two Lecco climbers, Molteni and Valsecchi, were independently attempting the face, but were in difficulties and joined Cassin's three-man rope* after the first bivouac. All five reached the summit as a single team in a blizzard after two more terrible days on the face, but Molteni and Valsecchi both died from exposure soon afterward during the descent. These two young men were experienced climbers, and their deaths serve to emphasize what a serious undertaking the Badile was in those days. To climb such a face and survive took great skill and extraordinary endurance. Yet in 1949 Bonatti, still a teenager, tackled the northwest face of the Badile in his very first alpine season with his friend Barzaghi not so much as a goal in itself but as a training climb for the north face of the Grandes Jorasses.

Just beyond the Swiss frontier, on the borders of the Engadine, lies the most beautiful Alpine landscape I know: the Bregaglia, a typical Swiss valley where lush pastures, picturesque cottages, and dense conifers, overlooked by the rugged profiles of ice-clad mountains, typify the picture that has so often inspired painters of mountain scenery and is most eagerly sought by lovers of the Alps.

The whole Bregaglia is wonderful, but among the valleys that converge on it is one most dear to mountaineers, the Val Bondasca. It begins at the little village of Bondo on the left-hand slope, then rises, fantastic as a fairy tale, to the foot of some of the greatest granite colossi in the Alps. What mountaineer has not at least dreamt of knowing the clear faces of the Badile, the Cengalo, Gemelli, Sciora, Trubinasca, and many other peaks? Some of them symbolize stages in the evolution of mountaineering, and I wish to speak of climbing three of their beautiful north faces, the memory of which binds me forever to these mountains.

The first time I got to know them was in July 1949, when I set out for the northwest face of the Piz Badile: a gigantic granite rampart 2,200 feet high that had first been climbed in 1937 and ascended only once since then.

Together with my faithful friend Barzaghi, I set out with all the enthusiasm of my nineteen years. At that age, with strong muscles and burning ambition, it was easy to believe no mountain obstacle could prevent us from succeeding. We didn't know the area; it was the first time we had encountered granite mountains and, even worse, we had the unfortunate idea of reaching the Badile from the Val Masino-that is, on foot from Italy after crossing the extremely tiring Porcellizzo and Trubinasca passes. The principal reasons for this were a shortage of cash and a complete absence of passports. As if this wasn't bad enough, we were also given confusing directions: "Take the first pass on your right after you've crossed the Porcellizzo," my friends had told me. It actually should have been the first on the left, so we had to climb up and down four steep, difficult stony gullies before the fifth finally turned out to be the correct one.

At 2:30 p.m. on July 23 we reached the foot of the northwest face of the Badile, feeling like whipped dogs. We were so tired and discouraged that the sight of it had a deep impact on us. That accursed approach had cost us altogether the best part of eighteen hours: a forced march carrying very heavy rucksacks, plus a night in the open as boring as it was uncomfortable. This hard lesson was to prove very valuable in times to come, but that day it was a severe blow to our pride, although it could not induce us to give up our attack on the face.

This was what happened. In between mouthfuls of food, we tied on to the doubled rope; then, when we got to the ice couloir that ran down from the Badiletto, I lowered my companion into the depths of the bergschrund and joined him there on some jammed green ice blocks, beneath which the crevasse lost itself in a black abyss. I was cold and felt as if I were in an icebox. To reach the rock face and get out into the open again, we had to overcome about sixty feet of almost vertical wall encrusted in ice almost two fingers thick. As a beginning, it was off-putting, and I really didn't know how best to proceed. I started to hammer here and there on the hard crust without much conviction, perhaps under the illusion I might uncover some holds, but there was no sign of any. Then, beneath the clear transparency of a patch of very thin ice, I discovered a small crack going up vertically for a few feet. I managed to clear it of ice as far up as possible by dint of much hammering, and drove in a piton, though not very convincingly. While my companion held me by tension on the rope, I warily climbed up, trusting most of all my cramponed feet, which, set against the iced-up wall, gave me excellent purchase. Using the same method, I freed another length of the crack and tried to fix a second piton, but this time it didn't want to go in, and after two hammer blows it popped out abruptly and ended up tinkling into the depths of the crevasse. I tried again with another piton, and finally managed to hammer it in an inch or so: this was enough to let me climb up, balanced precariously, and fix a third piton, which went securely into the crack. I thoroughly cleared some good holds, and got up a few more feet to a narrow ledge. I had to plant a fourth before attempting a difficult move, and the tension on the rope pulled the second piton out of the crack. I watched it slide back down the rope to my companion. Another "Pull!" another "Slack!" a few more feet of wall to clear of its ice crust, and then fine slabs of dry rock that, though smooth, were much more inviting than their predecessors. My companion rejoined me, we took off our crampons, and I set off again, clambering up easy sloping rocks that, after another rope-length, brought me to a point below a vertical outcrop.

My ropemate started off toward me. Though I couldn't see him, I knew he was only a few yards away when a strange echo filled the air. A terrible suspicion struck me and made me stare wide-eyed toward the heights. I froze, paralyzed for a few moments, when I saw what confronted us. Halfway up the wall, a veritable cloud of rocks was rebounding through the air. I trembled at the sight of one of these boulders, which grew bigger and bigger as it approached. When it was about to land on top of me, I just had time to flatten myself against the wall, squashing myself to it as if I wanted to disappear completely. A shattering crash followed, and then many more. I knew exactly what was happening, but could see nothing because I had my eyes tightly closed in frantic anticipation of disaster.

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