On July 31, 1954, two men prepared to climb the ice-capped and untouched summit of an 8,000-meter-high mountain. They were preparing to ascend one of the most dangerous peaks in the world, K2. K2 lies on the border between China and Pakistan in the Himalayan chain that includes Mount Everest. At 8,611 meters, Mount Everest is the highest mountain on the planet. In the first half of the 20th Century, explorers had tried to climb K2 and failed. They were unable to overcome steep routes and furious snowstorms. The failed attempts had already cost lives. In 1954, a team led by Italian geologist Ardito Desio began its attempt. Desio’s team moved up the so-called Abruzzi Spur, a rocky spur on the southeast side of the mountain. Between April and May, the climbers set up a base camp at 5,000 meters. Other camps were positioned based on the route they planned to use to reach the summit.
Desio remained in the lower base camp to direct the operation. The actual climb to the top was left to more expert climbers. On June 21, the team faced a blizzard at 5,600 meters. It cost the life of climber Mario Puchoz, who died of pneumonia. By the end of June, the Italian team crossed the Black Pyramid, a steep rock expanse pocked with ice channels at almost 7,000 meters. On July 30, climber Walter Bonatti and a Pakistani guide left the eighth camp at 7,500 meters for ninth camp at 8,100 meters. Bonatti’s mission was to get oxygen tanks, essential to breathing above 8,000 meters, to the climbers above him. But Bonatti couldn’t find the camp. He spent the night outdoors, in minus 50 degree Celsius temperatures. His physical strength and stamina were all that kept him from death.
Bonatti finally reached the ninth camp the next day. Thanks to the oxygen tanks, climbers Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacidelli managed to reach the summit. Later, to make their accomplishment sound more heroic, the climbers claimed their oxygen tanks were nearly empty and that they’d run out of air long before reaching the top. This generated a bitter feud with Bonatti. In 1994, photos of Compagnoni and Lacedelli at the summit supported Bonatti. The photos showed without the shadow of a doubt that the tanks had been used during their final ascent. Conquering K2 was a tonic for Italian national pride, at low ebb in the wake of World War Two. For years, K2 was known as “the Italian mountain”.