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The Loss of a Giant, Goodbye Walter Bonatti

Walter Bonatti after opening his historic route on the north face of the Matterhorn. One hundred years after the mountain’s first ascent, Bonatti established the Bonatti Route, solo, in winter–the first direct route up the north face, and the concluding coup to his unprecedented career. “I used to head off with just a few wooden pitons, some old hemp ropes and a bivouac. It was often just me and the wilderness for days on end.” — Bonatti 2010 [Photo] Walter Bonatti collection

The alpine community has lost a giant. Walter Bonatti died of cancer last night. He was eighty-one.

Perhaps the finest alpinist there has ever been. -Doug Scott

Walter Bonatti is gone. After eight decades of life the Italian climber passed away in Rome. Born on June 22, 1930 in Bergamo in Italy Bonatti burst onto the climbing stage at the age of eighteen with the fourth ascent of the north face of the Grandes Jorasses (4208m), one of the great north faces of the Alps. Three years later he made the first ascent of the Grand Capucin (3838m) with Luciano Ghigo via a 400 meter grade VII route. His home town of Monza held an honorary reception for him on his return, but the festivities turned bittersweet. His proud mother suffered a fatal heart attack during the ceremony, leaving Bonatti with a sense of guilt. Such intermixed success and tragedy would dog Bonatti for the rest of his career. Later, Bonatti would walk away from the Central Pillar Freney with two companions, all that remained of a seven man team. At age twenty-four the young Bonatti was an obvious choice for a spot on the 1954 Italian K2 Expedition. But he Italian Expedition degenerated into political infighting and bitterness. Bonatti and a Hunza climber Ahmir Mahdi were forced to spend a night out without bivy gear at 8100m. Both survived but Bonatti was angered by the experience. He believed that his teammates had intentionally tried to kill him and Mahdi, to prevent them from joining in the summit push. Upon his return to Italy he tried to organize another K2 expedition where he planned to climb the mountain solo and without oxygen, but the rivalries of the 1954 Expedition continued to block his attempts to organize the seemingly impossible expedition, decades before Messner would prove oxygenless climbing possible on Everest(8848m).

In the midst of the bitterness among the Italian climbing community Bonatti returned to Europe and climbed a new route on the Petit Dru, which he did solo over the course of six days. The Bonatti Pillar became a test piece for climbers until the full route was destroyed by rockfall in 2005. Bonatti continued break boundaries with new routes on the Mont Blanc massif as well as outside of Europe. In 1958 he and Carlo Mauri made the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV (7925m) by via the northeast ridge, as of 2008 their route was unrepeated. In the midst of his climbing Bonatti also found time for a sixty-six day, 1795 km long ski tour of the alps.

“I chose the ones that interested me,” he says, “and when there was nothing left for me to do save repeat myself, I stopped.”- Walter Bonatti, 2010

One hundred years after the first ascent of the Matterhorn (4478m), Bonatti retired from the hard alpine with one final climb, the first winter solo of the Matterhorn’s direct north face. He was in his mid-thirties and began a career as a journalist and writer. His books like Mountains of My Life have become Cannon for aspiring alpinists. His legacy to the alpine community is the example he set for approaching routes and climbs in all conditions in proud style. In 2009 Bonatti became the first climber to receive a Piolet d’Or for Lifetime Achievement.

“Every climb I did was about challenging myself, about not knowing if I had what it took to survive. I seldom felt a feeling of great triumph when I made it to the top; that feeling came when I was on the mountain itself and I knew there was nothing that could stop me. – Walter Bonatti 2010

Sources:, The Guardian, The UIAA