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In Memoriam: Walter Bonatti

Posted on: September 14th, 2011 by Luke Bauer

The American Alpine Club is sad to note the passing of an alpine great, Walter Bonatti. Bonatti died after a long battle with cancer Tuesday evening in Rome. He was 81. Bonatti was known for his pure, clean, and fast style, often climbing solo and in winter. He has left a mark on world alpinism that will not be forgotten.

He was an Honorary Member of The American Alpine Club and a 2009 winner of the Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award (the first to receive that honor). In 2004 Bonatti received the the Italian honorific title Cavaliere di Gran Croce. Bonatti also was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur for having saved the lives of two climbers in the Alps.

Bonatti was born on June 22, 1930 in Bergamo, Italy. In 1948, at only 18 years old, he made the fourth ascent of the Grandes Jorasses (4208m), one of the great north faces of the Alps. 1951, he and Lucianao Ghigomade the first ascent of the Grand Capucin (3838m) via a 400-meter, grade VII route. Four years later, he established his famous route up the Petit Dru, solo, during six days and five nights.

At age 24 the young Bonatti was chosen for a spot on the 1954 Italian K2 Expedition. While the expedition successfully made the first ascent of the peak, Bonatti was not a member of the summit team and in fact became embroiled in controversy upon the expedition’s return. It was years before the controversy was settled and Bonatti was exonerated from all charges of wrongdoing.

Then followed the first ascents of the east face of the Grand Pilier d’Angle on Mont Blanc (1957, with Toni Gobbi), the Red Pillar of Brouillard (1959, with Andrea Oggioni) and the north face of the Grand Pilier d’Angle (1962, with Cosimo Zappelli).

In 1958 Bonatti and Carlo Mauri made the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV (7925m) via the northeast ridge. Other accomplishments include carrying out the first winter ascents of the north face of Cima Ovest di Lavaredo in the Dolomites and the Grandes Jorasses. One-hundred years after the first ascent of the Matterhorn (4478m), Bonatti ended his alpine-climbing career with the first winter solo of the Matterhorn’s direct north face. He was in his mid-30s and, shortly thereafter, began a career as a journalist and writer.

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

AAC Board Member William Putnam traveled to Italy to present Bonatti’s Honorary Membership Award to the Club Alpino Italiano. Pictures in our Gallery.