Lino Lacedelli, who with Achille Campagnoni was the first to reach the summit of K2, died in Cortina di Ampezzo, Italy, on November 20 of complications following heart surgery.
Even at 83, Lino Lacedelli looked as if he were supplying all of Cortina with firewood. Thousands of spliced logs lined his shed, and I found him wielding
an axe, chopping more.
“Don’t you chop your own wood?” he asked me, as another log dropped on the pile. “You have too many questions, like my grandson.”
The child, while slurping soup, once examined Lacedelli’s hand and asked where he had lost his left thumb. “I told him I dropped it in his minestrone,”
Lacedelli replied, flashing a grin that must have been the same 70 years ago when he slipped away from his father to free solo Cinque Torre. Passing
a bewildered guide, tethered to an English tourist, the 14-year-old waved from the top. The guide berated him. You could have died, he told Lacedelli.
But the pretty tourist was impressed. She tossed him a stick of chocolate, sealing his destiny.
His thumb he’d lost to frostbite on the first ascent of K2.
Reinhold Messner described Lacedelli as “one of the greatest climbers ever.” Lacedelli was a compassionate man and a legendary climber. It now seems wrong
that one incident on K2 sometimes eclipsed it all.
In 1954, when Lacedelli set off to K2, the expedition leader Ardito Desio predicted, “If you succeed in scaling the peak—as I am confident
you will—the entire world will hail you as champions of your race long after you are dead.”
But one decision compromised the climb. Lacedelli’s partner, Achille Compagnoni, feared he’d lose the summit to two support climbers, Walter Bonatti and
the Pakistani porter Amir Mehdi. So, over Lacedelli’s protests, Compagnoni decided to leave them out in the cold. Bonatti and Mehdi arrived at
26,600 feet the night before the first ascent carrying 80 pounds of bottled oxygen to the rendezvous point. But they couldn’t find the leaders’ tent,
pitched far along an unstable traverse. Lacedelli shouted instructions to the support climbers: Avoid the traverse, cache the oxygen and climb down.
Headlamps of the era cast such a faint glow that night climbing was difficult. Mehdi grew hypoxic, and Bonatti decided they needed to bivouac. As
Lacedelli and Compagnoni sipped chamomile tea inside their tent, Bonatti and Mehdi carved a perch in the snow below K2’s Bottleneck and endured a harrowing
open bivy in the Death Zone. Bonatti descended at dawn with wounded pride. Mehdi, with inferior boots, lost his toes to frostbite.
For a time after they conquered K2, all of the Italians presented a united front, refusing to disclose details of the forced bivouac. Feted by presidents
and the Pope, Lacedelli and his Italian teammates became household names, their faces plastered on postage stamps and cigarette cartons. Bonatti also
embraced celebrity, sometimes with spectacular results. “If you could be left on a desert island with any man, who would it be?” a magazine quizzed
the screen siren Rosanna Podesta. “Walter Bonatti,” the actress said. “I’d even carry his pack.”
A decade later, Compagnoni cemented his reputation as the Judas of mountaineering. Through the journalist Nino Giglio, he accused Bonatti of siphoning
the K2 summit team’s oxygen. Lacedelli knew it was a lie—the regulators had been inside the tent—but remained silent. Bonatti, who by then
had moved in with Podesta, began a successful libel case to clear his name.
Lacedelli didn’t like to speak of the incident. When journalists hiked to his house, he hid in the hayloft. Only in 2004, 50 years after the climb, did
he finally break his silence, publishing K2: The Price of Conquest, an account of the climb that vindicated Bonatti.
“Lino’s book was his final olive branch to Walter,” said Erich Abram, who climbed with both on K2.
Even to the end, Lacedelli hoped for reconciliation. But Bonatti, like K2, remained unforgiving.