Walter Bonatti: Citizen of Mont Blanc

Posted on: March 23, 2020


[This Mountain Profile essay originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

The Italian face of Mont Blanc, showing, from left to right, Brouillard Ridge Integral (Cosson-Henry-Salluard-Zappelli, 1973); the Innominata Integral (Gugliermina-Gugliermina-Proment-Ravelli, 1921). [Photo] Mario ColonelThe Italian face of Mont Blanc, showing, from left to right, Brouillard Ridge Integral (Cosson-Henry-Salluard-Zappelli, 1973); the Innominata Integral (Gugliermina-Gugliermina-Proment-Ravelli, 1921). [Photo] Mario Colonel

WHEN YOU CLIMB UP from the valley near Courmayeur, you see nothing except a colossus: the Italian side of Mont Blanc. Two immense aretes rise toward a culminating point: Peuterey and Innominata. Ridges bristle with frozen spikes. Glaciers stretch across approaches, furrowed with crevasses. You feel as if you're about to enter a wildwood of stone and ice. In The Divine Comedy, the fourteenth-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri recounts the story of a traveler who becomes lost in a thick forest and begins a journey through the nine circles of hell, out of its icy core and up the mountain of purgatory to reach paradise. To me, the Mont Blanc stories of the Italian climber Walter Bonatti trace a similar geography: from the dim inferno of storms to the luminous stillness of summits.

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On Christmas Eve, 1956, Walter and Silvano Gheser set out for the Pear Route, where an icy breath descends from the top. Seracs gleam in jumbled piles like the chaotic architecture of a mythic city. Each time their walls collapse, tons of debris ravage the couloirs. On the way to the Fourche Bivouac, the two Italians ran into the French climber Jean Vincendon and his Belgian partner Francois Henry, who were descending: the weather hadn't seemed inviting that morning. But the skies had since cleared, and Walter was full of radiant energy. Jean and Francois decided to climb back up to the Fourche.

The next day, concerned about serac fall, Walter and Silvano changed course from the Pear Route to the Brenva Spur, where Jean and Francois had started climbing. A blizzard engulfed the four men. Walter took over the lead. On December 26, they emerged onto the Brenva Col. Walter knew they had to cross over the summit, more than 500 meters higher, to find a safe escape down the other side. Everyone agreed. After a while, however, Jean and Francois slowed their pace to rest a little. The Italians kept moving: Silvano's feet were beginning to freeze; he was already stumbling; there was no time to lose. On their own, the French-Belgian team tried to descend the Corridors, an area prone to avalanches and covered with heavy drifts. They stopped around 3500 meters. They never moved again.

Despite this devastating experience, Walter returned to the Italian side of Mont Blanc to complete several new routes. In 1959 on the Red Pillar of Brouillard, he and a childhood friend, Andrea Oggioni, struggled through deep layers of snow, past daggers of falling ice. That September, Carlo Mauri, who had been with Walter on the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV, proposed that they climb the Pear Route together. By then, Walter had already done that climb. "Carlo," he said, "why don't you solo the Pear? I'll solo the Major Route, and we'll meet on the summit." After hours of solitude, advancing step after step under the cold menace of seracs, the two friends stood on the sun-drenched apex of Western Europe. They fell into each other's arms. Higher up, there was nothing: only the sky and the light.

In 1961, with Roberto Gallieni, Walter and Andrea headed toward the "last great problem" of Mont Blanc, the Central Pillar of Freney. Immersed in shadows, they found themselves back in that Dantesque world. They joined forces with another team they met there: Pierre Mazeaud and Pierre Kohlmann, as well as Robert Guillaume and Antoine Vieille, two youths who had recently made the first winter ascent of the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru. Guillaume had titled his report in La Montagne, "In search of perfection." The seven men were on the Chandelle, a column of rock below the final monolith, when thundersnow filled the air. Lightning struck Kohlmann's head, leaving him disoriented. The next day, a brief shimmer of sun revealed the thickness of new drifts. Blizzards closed around them again. They waited two more days: the fastest way home was over the summit.

The snow and the wind wouldn't let up. They decided, finally, that they could no longer reach the top. Instead, they would try to make some fifty rappels through the storm to arrive on the Freney Glacier. Then they would climb back up the couloir of the Col de l'Innominata to seek assistance at the Gamba Hut.

On the way down, they stopped for one more bivouac, where they used the last of their fuel to brew hot tea for Kohlmann, and they shared the last of their food. A day later, Antoine couldn't go any farther. Despite the efforts of his companions, he sank in the snow and died. Next, Robert collapsed on the Freney Glacier. Kohlmann, now delirious, attacked Walter and Roberto soon after they crossed the col. The others remained stuck in the Innominata couloir, too depleted to move higher without assistance. Unable to subdue Kohlmann or to haul their teammates out on their own, Walter and Roberto unroped to summon help from the refuge. When the rescuers set out to look for their companions, they found only one survivor: Mazeaud, still tied to Andrea's corpse.

Once more, Walter had experienced horrific loss. Later that year, after another team completed the first ascent of the Central Pillar, he went back with Cosimo Zappelli to establish a route on a nearby wall, where he envisioned "a harmonious succession of rocks and ice slopes," as he wrote in The Mountains of My Life, and where he could recall an older style of climbing "for the sheer pleasure of it." I think Walter had to return to the area, although I can't explain why: perhaps, despite all that happened, his love for this mountain was irresistible; maybe he felt that his journey there wasn't over. Walter and Cosimo finished two more first ascents on the Grand Pilier d'Angle, including an ice route that no one repeated until the arrival of curved axe picks in the 1970s. Walter quit serious mountaineering in 1965. Again and again, on mountains around the world, he'd lived through the hell of alpinists, when the elements unleash and everything becomes suffering, tragedy, grief. On Mont Blanc, he'd also known a few moments of ineffable beauty—as if he'd encountered that formidable privilege, as the writer Georges Sonnier suggested, of "contemplating the eye of the god."

In 2009, Walter received the first Piolet d'Or Lifetime Achievement Award. Soon afterward, officials from Chamonix and Courmayeur gave him the title "Citizen of Mont Blanc." A title that suited him well.

—Translated from the French by Katie Ives

[This Mountain Profile essay originally appeared in Alpinist 69, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 69 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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