Italy is mourning one its greatest sporting heroes, the mountaineer and journalist Walter Bonatti, who died in Rome on Tuesday aged 81.
Born to working-class parents in Bergamo, Bonatti's precocious talent made him famous by his early 20s, despite the privations of post-war Italian life. His climbs on the Grand Capucin and Petit Dru above Chamonix are regarded as landmarks in the sport, while his first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in the Karakoram in 1958 with his friend Carlo Mauri was a highlight of Himalayan climbing. "He was among the greatest of all time, without a shadow of a doubt," the British mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington said.
Bonatti's fame extended far beyond the climbing world. But his adventurous life was overshadowed by controversy over the world's first ascent of K2 , which encapsulated the optimism and hypocrisy of post-war Italy. Fellow Italian Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb all 14 peaks over 8,000 metres, said Bonatti had left a great legacy in fighting for almost 50 years to tell the truth about that climb.
In 1954, Bonatti was part of a large expedition to K2 the world's second-highest peak, that sought to recover some Italian pride after the agonies of the second world war. His job in the final push for the summit was delivering oxygen equipment to his fellow climbers Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni. But they were anxious that the brilliant young alpinist, then just 24, shouldn't try to share in their glory, so set their top camp higher than agreed.
As night fell, they shouted down to Bonatti and a Pakistani porter, Amir Mahdi, to leave the oxygen and descend. But it was too late. Bonatti and Mahdi were forced to spend a night out in bitter conditions at 8,100 metres. Mahdi lost all his fingers and toes to frostbite.
Compagnoni and Lacedelli countered Bonatti's outrage by accusing him of stealing some of the oxygen. "The Italian establishment wanted to sweep it all under the carpet," Bonington said. Bonatti spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name, and was finally exonerated when Lacedelli confirmed his version of events after Compagnoni's death in May 2009. Bonatti coped with the bitterness of the 1954 K2 ascent by the next year, climbing a new route on the Petit Dru above Chamonix in the French Alps. The climb, called the Bonatti Pillar, collapsed in 2005 in a huge rockfall. On Sunday, two days before his death, the Dru was again shaken as a large overhang fell from the cliff.
Bonington said he first met Bonatti in 1961 while in competition for an unclimbed route on Mont Blanc. Bonatti had tried the route, the Central Pillar of Freney, earlier in the summer. One of seven French and Italian climbers who teamed up on the mountain, only Bonatti and two others survived a savage storm that lasted several days. He was later awarded the Legion d'Honneur for saving the life of Pierre Mazeaud, later a French sports minister. But he again faced criticism in the media.
In 1965, fed up with sniping from Italian journalists, he made a final great route on the North Face of the Matterhorn and quit extreme climbing for good. He embarked on a new career of adventure journalist for Epoca magazine. His friend and fellow journalist Mirella Tenderini said: "People who never knew him for his climbing were thrilled by his reportage. By the end of his life he was so popular."
His memoir The Mountains of My Life was recently republished in English to celebrate his 80th birthday.
"He was a complex person," Bonington said, "and a sensitive one too. K2 always preyed on his mind. But he was also a man of great integrity. And a great gentleman."