K2: The Price of Conquest. Lino Lacedelli & Giovanni Cenacchi. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2006. 124 pages. 30 BLACK & WHITE PHOTOS. $16.95.
Was there ever a large climbing expedition that did not spew out rancor, ressentiment and the whine of wounded pride in its wake? Perhaps, but damn few. For a display of the very worst in human nature that mountaineering can bring out, surely none tops the Italian first ascent of K2 in 1954, whose summiteers were Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli. The chief whiner in this sordid opera has been the much-calumnied Walter Bonatti. From his efforts to clear his name, and correct a false official narrative, the climbing community has learnt something of this climb's internal politics. And now there is more, much more—courtesy of the US publication of K2: The Price of Conquest (first published in Italy in 2004 to mark the 50th anniversary) in which Lacedelli now purports to tell all.
One cannot get very far into this book before questioning Lacedelli’s credentials as a truth teller. In the half century since his climb, he has not merely stuck his head in the sand. He mutely supported many untruths promulgated by the late Compagnoni and Ardito Desio, the martinet leader, even in joint press appearances. But the trouble is that mani pulliti (dirty hands) cannot be washed clean with the assertion that “I went along to get along.” Even on the mountain, out of range of the universally hated Desio, where Lacedelli was the stronger and more talented, on the pre-summit day he uncomplainingly deferred to Compagnoni’s decision to locate their tent where they were at needless risk.
Of his long history of lacunae and evasions, he says “Sometimes I confirmed things even when I knew they hadn’t happened exactly like that” in the first minute of the interview with Cenecchi that is the heart of the book. Why? That is the enigma. Here is a sport that is supposed to build character, and what we have is a gentle giant who tolerated scores of others’ falsehoods by making himself invisible when truth cried out to be heard—not a morally edifying sight.
In the end he is of some help to Bonatti’s version of the metanarrative. He confirms Bonatti’s picture of the events on the pre-summit day, but insists, contra Bonatti, that the summiters ran out of oxygen before topping out. (Sorting out this and other domains of conflict, agreement, and speculative reenactment is beyond the scope of this review.)
“Ripeness is all,” declaims one of Shakespeare’s heroes. Alas, Lacedelli’s chronic lack of it cannot, as he doubtless now imagines, be compensated for at this late date. Nor by the character assassination of Desio and Compagnoni. As Bad Guys they are worse than I’d imagined, real villains. But Lacedelli is a bad guy of a different, yet no more savory kind, the empty suit.