Based on Mick Conefrey's new book THE GHOSTS OF K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent
At about 6:00 p.m. on July 31st 1954, Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli became the first men to stand on the summit of K2. That much is certain. Precisely how they got there is not.
The 1954 Italian K2 expedition is probably the most rancorous in the history of mountaineering. Almost as soon as the team got home the lawsuits started. They argued about everything from expedition finances, to the rights to the film, to the leadership of Ardito Desio, the organizer of the expedition. The bitterest and longest running dispute, however, was of a much more fundamental nature. Walter Bonatti, the youngest member of the team, claimed that the two men who reached the summit had lied about key elements of their ascent. He fought a long, hard battle to get his version of events accepted in Italy and in the international climbing world. But did Bonatti get it right and how much weight should now be given to the role of Robert Marshall, the self confessed “arm-chair mountaineer” who played a decisive role in the controversy?
Today Bonatti is acclaimed as one of, if not, the greatest climber of his generation but in 1954 he was the youngest member of the team. During the early stages he did not do any of the lead climbing but at the end he was entrusted with a vital task. In an epic of endurance, Bonatti and the Hunza porter Amir Mahdi carried two 18kg oxygen sets from their seventh camp at 7440m to around 8100m. They got within shouting distance of the summit pair but were unable to reach their tent and had to spend a night in the cold without any protection. On the following day they descended, leaving Compagnoni and Lacedelli to retrieve the sets and head for the history books. Remarkably Bonatti survived unscathed but Mahdi developed severe frostbite.
This episode didn’t receive much coverage in Desio’s official expedition book, The Conquest of K2, but in 1961 Bonatti published his first autobiography, Le Mie Montagne, and gave a detailed account of what happened. He was very critical of the summit pair, accusing them of placing their final camp so high that it was impossible to reach and then abandoning their support party to their fate. Bonatti portrayed Compagnoni as a man on the edge of exhaustion, so jealous of his position as climbing leader that he was prepared to endanger fellow team members’ lives.
Three years later, a report appeared in an Italian newspaper, based on an interview with Compagnoni, which told a very different story. It accused Bonatti of trying to make an unauthorized attempt on the summit, abandoning his partner Mahdi and most damagingly, of using some of Compagnoni and Lacedelli’s oxygen during his high altitude bivouac. Bonatti denied all the charges, sued for defamation and won the case. But the arguments didn’t stop.
Over the next forty years he waged a one-man guerilla campaign against the Italian climbing establishment, demanding that the official history of the expedition should be revised to recognize his vital supporting role and acknowledge the selfish behaviour of the summit pair and the lies that they had told. Bonatti argued that none of the altitudes or timings in The Conquest of K2 could be trusted and, crucially, nor could Compagnoni and Lacedelli’s claim that they reached the summit under their own steam.
According to interviews given by Compagnoni, the oxygen ran out between 100-200m from the top. He and Lacedelli kept on going though and even carried their heavy sets all the way to the top, because they were so awkward to remove and because they wanted to leave something as proof they had made it.
Bonatti poured scorn on this and denounced it as the ‘base lie’ of the whole story, which could easily be disproved using common sense and mathematics. In the first instance, it was simply absurd to maintain that anyone would carry an 18 Kg oxygen set to the top of the world’s second highest mountain after the gas had ran out. Secondly, by looking at their climbing rates with and without oxygen, and comparing the capacity of their sets to the length of time it took to climb K2, he concluded that there must have been some gas left.
Bonatti published a book outlining his case, but no one paid that much attention. After years of arguments over K2, there was no appetite in Italy for yet more controversy. Then something unexpected happened: an Australian surgeon called Robert Marshall entered the fray.
Marshall was a keen trekker and an avid reader of climbing books. A long time fan of Bonatti, he became convinced that a grave injustice had been done. In 1993 he wrote an article in which he claimed to have found photographic evidence to prove that Compagnoni was lying.
The photos in question had appeared in the 1955 edition of a discontinued review, The Mountain World. One was the classic picture of Lacedelli standing next to his oxygen set, the other showed Compagnoni on the summit – wearing his oxygen mask. This, Marshall claimed, was absolute proof that the oxygen lasted all the way — why else would he have the mask on?
When the article was translated and published in Italy it garnered huge publicity and convinced many that Bonatti was right. Marshall spoke at conferences and translated the Penguin edition of Bonatti’s best selling book, The Mountains of My Life; it included his analysis of the summit photographs and a long piece in which he outlined the elaborate conspiracy theory which he believed lay behind the story.
Today no one questions Robert Marshall’s writings on K2 but if you look at them in detail, they are significantly flawed. In the first instance Marshall implied that there had been some sort of cover up, with the photograph of Compagnoni on the summit missing from the “official version,” replaced with a blurred image where he has no mask on. There is no evidence for this and no sense that anyone had tried to suppress an incriminating image: the images in question were the very first two summit pictures to appear in the Italian press, published in Il Corriere Della Sera on September 28th 1954, long before any books appeared, under the headline ‘The first photographic documentation of the events’. The Mountain World was not an obscure journal: it was a well funded and well known annual publication from the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research and was released in the same year as Desio’s book.
Regarding the photograph of Compagnoni, Marshall assumed that the oxygen was connected and still flowing but this is impossible to determine from a still photograph and it is not even clear where the tube from Compagnoni’s mask terminates. When Compagnoni was challenged, he explained that he was using the mask to warm the freezing air. Robert Marshall dismissed this out of hand but it was supported both by Lacedelli and Eric Abram, the Italian team’s oxygen controller. The Italians were using “open-circuit” sets. Their supplementary oxygen was routed via a mixing box, or “lung,” where it was combined with ambient air. When the oxygen ran out it was still possible to breathe through the mask.
In a long interview from 2004, Abram confirmed that it was commonplace on the Italian expedition for climbers to wear their masks and breathing tubes to warm the freezing air in 1954. A year earlier in 1953, two members of Charlie Houston’s American K2 team wore “Arctic breathers,” a kind of sock on top of their mouths, for the same purpose. Then and now, in the Arctic and Antarctic masks are worn for this very reason.
Furthermore, Marshall focused almost exclusively on a single summit photograph, and ignored the four other summit images of Compagnoni in which he is not wearing a mask. The photographic and film evidence makes it absolutely clear that he spent at least some time on the summit without recourse to any supplementary oxygen.
As for Lacedelli, Marshall could not find an image with his mask on, so he came up with an elaborate theory that the ice visible on Lacedelli’s beard was either caused by condensation of water vapour, indicating that he had just taken it off, or by a loose fitting mask that he had just removed. There are two obvious problems with this: firstly there are photographs of Lacedelli and other climbers with ice on their beards much lower down the mountain when they were not using oxygen or wearing masks. Secondly, if Marshall was right and ice formed when Lacedelli took his mask off, then why in all the photographs and footage of Compagnoni without a mask, is there no tell tale ice on his beard?
Marshall claimed that these photographs were the key to the oxygen controversy, but he didn’t notice something very telling: Compagnoni and Lacedelli had jettisoned one of their cylinders on the way up. Marshall always maintained that they carried three cylinders, a full 18 kg to the summit, but this is not the case. The middle cylinder is missing from each set. This is hard to see on the black and white pictures but clear in the film footage and the colour summit photographs.
Like the equipment taken to Everest in 1953, the sets used by the Italian team were designed to allow for easy attachment and removal of cylinders. Every time a bottle ran out, it could be discarded; the more oxygen you used, the lighter your set became. So why did Compagnoni and Lacedelli only throw away one empty cylinder? Even if Bonatti was right and their final bottle contained some remaining oxygen, why did they carry the other bottle which must have been used? If reducing weight was their priority, this does not make sense. There are two possible explanations: either they didn’t have the time, energy or ability to remove them, or that their sets had been assembled incorrectly. Either way, the fact that they must have carried at least one empty cylinder lends credence to their account.
The most important visual evidence however is found in the expedition film, Italia K2, which unlike most of the photographs was shot in colour. The Italian team were equipped with two types of oxygen cylinder: a large number of red bottles made by Dalmine, an Italian steel foundry with no track record in mountaineering, and a smaller number of blue bottles, made by Drager, one of Europe’s leading oxygen companies. Drager had provided equipment for both the Swiss Everest expedition of 1952 and the German Nanga Parbat expedition of 1953.
The Dalmine bottles had a maximum capacity of ten hours but when tested on the mountain many of them leaked. The Drager bottles were filled to higher pressure and, in theory, lasted for twelve hours. The plan was to use the Dalmine bottles for the low altitude work and then switch to the Drager cylinders for the final attempt. That’s not what happened though.
The expedition film shows that one of the oxygen sets on the summit was equipped with bright red Dalmine cylinders. It is not clear why this happened but somewhere in the confusion of the last days, the plan to use only Drager sets went awry.
The other striking fact that neither Marshall nor Bonatti mentioned, was that the only time oxygen was used in 1954 was the last day. Of the 230 odd cylinders transported out to Pakistan, only 6 were used for climbing. Unlike Hillary and Tenzing, who used supplementary oxygen several times in the build up to their summit bid on Everest, Compagnoni and Lacedelli had hardly any experience with it. And unlike Ed Hillary, who spent the night of 28th May 1953, checking and re-checking his and Tenzing’s equipment, Compagnoni and Lacedelli did not get hold of their sets until the morning of their ascent and had no time to make sure they worked properly.
The oxygen sets of the early 1950s were crude and prone to failure. Though they had a good reputation, no Drager set had ever been used at really high altitude. The 1952 Swiss Everest expedition did not get above the South Col and members of the Austro-German Nanga Parbat expedition of 1953 hardly used their Drager sets either. Herman Buhl reached the summit of Nanga Parbat powered by guts, will power and amphetamines- not oxygen.
Supplementary oxygen was used in 1953 on the first ascent of Everest, but if you look in detail at the experience of that expedition, the British team had repeated problems. Cylinders leaked, valves froze up, tubes became choked with ice; oxygen frequently ran out at just the wrong moment. The first summit attempt by Bourdillon and Evans was undone by a faulty oxygen set and Tenzing had problems with his set on the way to the summit.
Put all of this together — the fact that Compagnoni and Lacedelli had virtually no experience, were using one set never intended for the summit, and climbing in an era when oxygen equipment was prone to failure, then it becomes much more likely that they were telling the truth and that their oxygen did run out early.
Both Bonatti and Marshall made the mistake of applying 1980s’ standards to a 1950s’ story. Modern oxygen sets might be relatively reliable, but those of the 1950s were not. And this wasn’t the only example of Robert Marshall looking at the past with modern day eyes.
According to Marshall’s commentary on K2, as published in The Mountain’s of My Life and then elaborated upon in his book K2 Lies and Treachery, the story of the oxygen running out early was the lynchpin of an elaborate conspiracy theory, what he called a typical piece of ‘Machiavellian bastardy’, designed to make Bonatti the scapegoat for his partner Mahdi’s frost bite.
Bonatti had emerged from his bivouac physically unscathed, but Mahdi later had all his toes amputated. According to Marshall, Desio was very worried that this incident would sully the reputation of his historic victory. Marshall envisaged a series of meetings between Compagnoni, Desio and an irate Mohammed Ata-Ullah, the Pakistani liaison officer assigned to the Italian team, out of which emerged a plan to scapegoat Bonatti, the youngest and most “expendable” member of the team, and avoid any criticism of the triumphant summit pair for placing their final camp so high. Marshall backed up his theory by referring to angry reports in the Pakistani press and an affidavit made in response to the Italian ambassador in Karachi in September 1954, to clarify events on the mountain.
There are no letters, diary entries, memos or any archival evidence to support this and the idea of Ata-Ullah storming into Desio’s tent to demand an explanation for Mahdi’s frostbite makes no historical sense. The Italian expedition had been personally approved by the Pakistani Prime Minister, the Pakistani army had built the bridges that enabled the Italians to reach K2 more quickly than any previous expedition, Compagnoni and Lacedelli had planted the national flag on the summit of Pakistan’s highest mountain. Would Ata-Ullah really have had the temerity, or the desire, to create a public scandal when he and everyone else was so thrilled at the first ascent of K2?
In the 1950s mountaineering was seen as an inherently dangerous sport and frostbite as one of its occupational hazards – for both Western climbers and their Eastern assistants. Only a few years earlier Maurice Herzog had famously lost all his toes and most of his fingers on Annapurna and the last two K2 expeditions, in 1939 and 1953, had resulted in the deaths of two American climbers and three Sherpas. Robert Marshall ignored the fact that both Compagnoni and Lacedelli also came down from the mountain with severe frostbite, while their colleague, Mario Puchoz, lost his life right at the beginning of the expedition. There would have been sympathy for Mahdi’s frostbite but Desio would not have feared a scandal.
As for the idea that he was frightened by the Pakistani press, Desio could not have read any angry press reports, because he did not leave K2 with the climbing team, instead staying in the Karakoram for a secondary scientific expedition. When critical press reports were published in Karachi at the beginning of September, he was many miles away on the Biafo Glacier and had no idea what was being written. Furthermore, the negative press coverage did not focus on Mahdi’s frostbite, but rather on the mistaken idea that the Italians had prevented him from reaching the summit, because they wanted to keep that privilege for themselves. In the affidavit made to the Italian ambassador, signed by Bonatti and Compagnoni, there is no mention of Mahdi’s frostbite.
Compagnoni rejected the accusations of Marshall and Bonatti but he did not take either of them to court. Instead he appealed to patriotic values and called for all the mud slinging to stop. To some this might seem suspicious but Compagnoni was 80 when Marshall’s article was published and after spending years in court on a failed attempt to get a share of the K2 film’s profits, would have had no appetite for another legal battle. He was a tough, sometimes abrasive character; he did not have Walter Bonatti’s charisma or his climbing record. This however does not make him a liar.
As for Lacedelli, Bonatti and Marshall portrayed him as Compagnoni’s toady, but the two men were neither friends before the expedition, nor afterwards. When in 1955 Compagnoni sued the producers of the expedition film, Lacedelli did not support him and even signed a team letter condemning his actions. In his book K2, the Price of Conquest Lacedelli was very critical of Compagnoni but he insisted that the story about the oxygen running out was true- whatever Bonatti or Marshall wrote thirty or forty years later – he was certain that it had, because he experienced it.
Bonatti’s “mathematical proofs” are rarely questioned but they too have problems. His timetable for the summit day was inconsistent; he conflated Compagnoni’s book, Men on K2, and Desio’s 1955 book, The Conquest of K2, into one mythical “official version” and refused to accept the evidence of Pino Gallotti, another Italian climber who witnessed the events and kept a detailed diary. Robert Marshall put his faith in Bonatti because he was such an honourable man but this is not a story about personalities – it’s about oxygen sets. All the historical evidence indicates that it was much more likely for something to have gone wrong with Compagnoni and Lacedelli's equipment, than for it to have worked perfectly.
Bonatti won his libel case in 1966. He did not need to rewrite the whole story of the summit day to prove that he had been wronged; the judge accepted that he had neither abandoned Mahdi, tried to stage an ‘unofficial’ attempt nor used any of the summit team’s oxygen. Robert Marshall did not need to concoct a complex conspiracy theory to explain the photographs taken on the summit. The simple version, that Compagnoni and Lacedelli were telling the truth, that the oxygen ran out as a result of ‘cock-up rather than conspiracy’ as (the British writer) Jim Curran might have put it, has holes and problems and contradictions, but on balance it is far more historically plausible than Bonatti or Marshall’s elaborate version of events.
Hillary and Tenzing left a small cross and some sweets on the summit of Everest, Herman Buhl left his ice axe on the summit of Nanga Parbat, Lacedelli and Compagnoni carried their empty oxygen sets to the summit of K2 and left them there as a marker. It might sound strange, it might sound irrational, but in extraordinary situations people often behave in extraordinary ways. Elaborate conspiracy theories are just an attempt to bring order to the chaos of life – reality is frequently much stranger.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MICK CONEFREY is an internationally recognized filmmaker and acclaimed writer on mountaineering. He has produced several BBC and History Channel documentaries on exploration, including the film Mountain Men: The Ghosts of K2, which won the best mountain documentary award at the Telluride Film Festival in 2003. His previous books include the bestselling Everest 1953 and The Adventurer’s Handbook. He lives in Oxford, England. Follow him on Twitter at @mickulus.