Walter Bonatti [pn].
Italian Alpinist, explorer and journalist
a mountain climber, especially in the Alps
Awe. Nerves. Excitement >> they all hit everytime I push a small gear up into an Alpine valley, and crossing the contours on the maps I’d been studying at home, up through Val Ferret from Courmayeur was no different. For our first few kilometers towering granite peaks plunge us into shadow until we gain 250+ metres, local cheesemongers sell us their smelly wares along the valley road, the Dora di Ferret river rages with melt water to write-off any swimming, and sombre stormy skies shroud us to the tune of clanging cowbells, as we ride (and bike-hike) the Tour du Mont Blanc towards the welcoming lights of the Bonatti Hut…
On our gravel bikes, over the next few days, we’d merely be scratching the surface of Bonatti’s Alpine playgrounds. But, as an armchair rock-climber, this tour was less about Walter Bonatti’s famed ‘impossible’ ascents, and more the associated mountain life and experience – spending time amongst the peaks he climbed, and in the huts and small towns that dot the landscapes around them. Oh, and the opportunity to seek out some roughstuff, nipple-crippling glacial plunge pool baths and picturesque coffee/negroni spots along the way.
The three of us would end up riding amongst the modest Limestone peaks and needles of the Bergamasque Pre-Alps, huge ancient granite ranges of the Mont Blanc Massif, and the UNESCO protected jagged Limestone peaks of the Dolomites ‘Pale Alps’: the home, pleasure, and training grounds of Walter Bonatti…
“l’avventura e dentro di noi…”
“the adventure is inside of us…”
Huts + Bivvys
Jordan and I’s idea for a Walter Bonatti themed bikepacking trip was born in a bivvy bag, one damp miserable morning somewhere in the Scottish Highlands. Midway through our 3-in-1 sachet coffees (legit circumstances) we discovered that we had both read about Bonatti’s epic climbing exploits in his book The Mountains of My Life (TMOML), and joked that our morning wasn’t so bad after all – it could never be as uncomfy and life-affirming as his slab-edge campouts above 3500m, in freezing conditions, with seracs crashing around, and only breadcrumbs & frozen cheese to eat. Yet, this was Bonatti’s staple as a hardy mountaineer – he craved the ‘unknown’ and the ‘impossible’ which meant treacherous north face ascents in the depths of winter, using the most minimal and basic of kit…
“Others may climb your route, but no one else can have the same experience. That remains yours alone…”
On the remainder of said Scottish Highlands trip, we decided that a tour of Bonatti locations in Northern Italy could be an interesting theme to base a Pannier Tour around. So, back at home with a load of maps stitched and sprawled across the floor, I began plotting a point-to-point route (following my nose and using Dangerous Roads / the Rough Stuff Alps guide as resources) between his hometown of Bergamo > east, across to the Dolomites where he earned more recognition as a young climbing star.
My initial route ended up clocking around 600km. Alpine kms, not normal kms, which would be a tough ask for us in the timespan we had. Also, my re-reading of The Mountains Of My Life threw another cone spanner in the works: we couldn’t really call it a ‘Bonatti’ Tour if we didn’t visit the place he called home for many years – Courmayeur – way out west on the border with France. This corner of the Mont Blanc Massif is also where the Bonatti Hut (Rifugio Walter Bonatti) sits proud overlooking Grandes Jorasses. So, that was the end of the linear tour concept >> instead we’d turn our Bonatti Tour into a series of three overnight bikepacking tours in three pivotal Walter Bonatti regions:
CIMA I: BERGAMASQUE ALPS (Inspiration & First Climbs)
CIMA II: MONT BLANC MASSIF (Home)
CIMA III: DOLOMITES (Expedition)
…we’d keep things lightweight by riding Specialized carbon gravel bikes (Diverge Comp 2018s) and using a selection of the 774 Club Alpino Italiano refuges (rifugios). These huts are an integral part of mountain life – offering vital or desirable shelter, and for making routes more accessible by allowing point-to-point journeys to be broken down. Be sure to check out Bonatti’s re-telling of their retreat to the Gamba Hut after the Freney tragedy (1961). Staying in this network of huts meant we’d support this fascinating mountain culture and infrastructure. Plus, there is nothing more rewarding than swapping your riding shoes for a pair of hut slippers at the end of a big day on the bike. Even if they are bright pink Crocs…
IA | MONTE ALBEN (Bergamasque Alps)
Walter Bonatti’s first inspiration as a young boy, visible from Vertova near where he grew up
“When I was a child, I used to get away from home…and go where I could watch the eagles fly…in Vertova di Valseriana, one of the valleys north of Bergamo. Higher up the ridge, was Monte Alben, the peak that, of them all, most triggered my imagination, thanks to it’s limestone spires which were often wreathed in mist. At that point in my life, Monte Alben was the best example of nature at its most austere…making it the very symbol of my aspirations to adventure.”
IB | NIBBIO & GRIGNETTA (Grigna, Bergamasque Alps)
Walter Bonatti’s first climbing experience, and first climb – 1948
“I was still living in Monza in the years after the Second World War…It was during those years that I came to know the Grigna…I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the spires and crests of that beautiful peak on which, with wonder and envy, I used to see climbing ropes at work…
…One day, at the foot of the Nibbio, one of the Grigna towers, a sympathetic chap called Elia came up to me and, with the air of an expert, said, “How’d you like to try it?”… It was August 1948, and that first climb on the Campaniletto galvanised me…I was now devoted heart and soul to rock faces, to overhangs … More than that, I came to know the satisfaction of passing where others had not been able to go … I felt alive, free, and fulfilled more and more every day… Above all, I was discovering my way of life.”
II | GRANDES JORASSES & COURMAYEUR (Mont Blanc Massif)
The location of Walter Bonatti’s first major north face climbs (and later tragedies), and his home town from 1953
“The Jorasses was the last and, perhaps, the most difficult and forbidding of the six classic north faces of the Alps to be conquered…The Walker Spur…was blithely selected by Bonatti and his friends for the climactic feat of their very first Alpine summer … in 1949, with three companions, Bonatti repeated the famous Walker Buttress of the Grandes Jorasses…considered at the time to be one of the three hardest climbs in the world. Walter was just nineteen … Its ascent marked the real beginning of Bonatti’s career as an extreme climber”
“In 1953…I took the great step of going to live in the mountains. I gave up a safe job in the city for the unknown … I qualified as an Alpine guide, and went to live in Courmayeur.”
III | TRE CIMA DI LAVAREDO (Dolomites)
One of Walter Bonatti’s first real ‘expeditions’, 1952 & 1953
“The north faces of the three huge stone fingers, known as the Cima Piccola (Small), Cima Gande (Large) and Cima Ovest (West), are absolutely vertical or overhanging and been the ‘last great problems’ of the thirties until climbed in 1937, and then in winter 1953 by Bonatti.”
“… one day I would pit myself against these giants in the way most appropriate to this austere place—in midwinter, when the north faces are hidden from even the weakest ray of sunshine and the frost and solitude hold sway. This is how a new concept of the ‘impossible’ arose in me … a little after five in the afternoon on February 27 1953 we reached the summit of the Cima Grande, which was still lit by the last rays of the sun.”
“I came to love the mountains for their solemn vistas, the struggles to reach their summits, the emotions and the memories they gave me; but perhaps above all for the sense of escape, freedom, and joy of living that I could find only up there on the heights…”
Before we set off, I should mention that our plan was never to do any actual climbing on this trip. The Bonatti theme was a way of us focussing on locations that we could curate interesting an journey around: interesting for us riding, interesting for people we met en-route, and hopefully interesting for folk, like you, that read our Journal. The Mountains for us, like Bonatti, were about escape and challenge – his just on a whole other, incomprehensible level. Riding our gravel bikes, we’d enjoy being amongst mountains; Bonatti was within them, and often against them…
So, who was Walter Bonatti?
1930 – Born, Bergamo
1948 – First Climb: Grigna Peaks
1949 – First Alp Climbs: Aiguille Noire de Peuterey and Grandes Jorasses
1951 – Grand Capucin Climb that confirms his climbing ethic: alpine style, the unknown, the impossible. Spends 15 months in the mountains for Military Service (Alpini Regiment)
1953 – Climbs the North Face of the Tre Cima di Lavaredo Climb, in Winter
1954 – Infamous K2 Expedition
1957 – Moved to Courmayeur
1961 – Freney Pillar Tragedy
1965 – Retires as a pro-climber and guide to focus on (photo)journalism and personal climbing. The French decorate him with the Legion d’Honneur, others slash his car tyres in his home town of Courmayeur
2001 – The Mountains of My Life first published in English
2010 – The Mountains of My Life (Penguin Classic) published
2011 – Passed Away, Rome
Born in Bergamo in the summer of 1930, Walter Bonatti was quick to dedicate himself to the world of mountaineering, becoming an expert climber at the age of 19 after moving to “where the faint aroma of the Grigna and the Prealps could be detected”. It was in the Val Seriana, where he lived and studied overlooked by Monte Alben that seeds were first sewn – the nature and the luring peaks inspiring him into the outdoors, and then into climbing. Soon enough, Bonatti and his ‘Skin and Bone’ Club mates learned to climb by stealing their mothers’ clotheslines, and sleeping out on the balconies of their houses in winter to accustom themselves to sleeping out on mountain faces.
Bonatti was soon heading west to the nearby Grigna peaks, completing his first climb in 1948. Located at the foot of Lecco’s Grigna, near Lake Como, the Nibbio tower – a sheer, and at points overhanging, face of limestone – was where Bonatti had his first climbing experience – encouraged by a guy climbing there who let him give it a go. He was hooked from that moment and this climbing spot (photo below) holds an important place in Italian mountaineering history, with Bonatti, Cassin and Messner all passing this way on their route to bigger climbs. In my head, The Nibbio is some kind of unofficial, cliquey initiation, and standing at the foot of The Nibbio on our trip, necks cranked up to make out the top, it’s easy to see why: it’s an accessible, but (apparently) technical face, with routes ranging from 6a > 8a.
His obsession with the mountains, nature and challenge continued through his younger years, to the extent that every weekend as a fearless teenager, he and his climbing pals headed, using whatever pocket money they had, to practice icy bivvys out in the Grigna peaks near to where he lived – for Bonatti “there could be no better way to measure oneself against the cold and difficulties of the mountains.” This experience, and his natural ability/mentality were undoubtedly reasons Walter Bonatti climbed to the heights of “greatest mountaineer of his time, and some might say greatest of all time…”
“the Nibbio tower holds an important place in Italian mountaineering history, with Cassin, Bonatti, and Messner all passing this way…”
After spending all of his weekends climbing in the Bergamasque Pre-Alps, a teenage Bonatti then started taking on the six most difficult north faces in the Alps – the Lavaredo, Badile, Dru, Matterhorn, Eiger, and Grande Jorasses – which were seen as “the major preoccupation of the thirties for all the best European climbers”. In 1949, at the age of just 19, “the Walker Spur was blithely selected by Bonatti and his friends for the climactic feat of their very first Alpine summer” and their successful ascent marked the real beginning of Bonatti’s career as an extreme climber.
However, it was in 1951 that Bonatti became the best known climber in Italy for conquering the ‘impossible’ east face of the Grand Capucin. This wasn’t just because he summited, but because he continued to practice the techniques of the great pre-war climbers, which in turn marked the beginning of his long-running crusade against modern climbing technology. For him, extreme alpinism was far more spiritual than physical, and physically climbing was of less importance that the psychological challenge of ‘the impossible’.
Later that year, he started fifteen month’s Military Service (in close companionship with Carlo Mauri, who was to become his great friend and his climbing partner), where he spent 50% of his time teaching in the somewhat hardcore Alpini Regiment, and 50% pursing his climbing – “during those fifteen months, there was no alpine region on the Italian side of the border I did not visit. Mountain routes followed one after another and took me from the Dolomites to the Breonie Alps, from the Ortler to Mont Blanc.” As soon as he was back to civilian life, he was straight back into climbing some of most famous north faces of the Alps, but this time in winter. First up was the Tre Cima di Lavaredo, in 1953, “whose north faces are absolutely vertical or overhanging and, in their time, were the last great alpine problems of the thirties”, until climbed in 1937, and then in winter in 1953 by Bonatti. This ascent of the Lavaredo put his name well and truly on the climbing map.
“The ‘unknown’ and the sense of the ‘impossible’— these are the two essential components of traditional extreme mountaineering. In their absence, a climb is reduced to no more than an athletic exercise…”
“Every Saturday evening, without fail, I went with a friend to the foot of some difficult face in the Grigna to climb it next day at dawn after an icy overnight bivouac … To put ourselves to the test we reduced our equipment little by little and chose places that were more and more uncomfortable and exposed to bad weather…we gathered invaluable experience”
“Once we had settled down we made an inventory of the remaining food: five-dried bananas, two scraps of bread, about a dozen lumps of sugar, a half portion of Nescafe, and what was left of a tin of jam. The little cognac we had lovingly kept in reserve had spilled in the rucksack …”
Bonatti continued to climb routes in Europe and Asia that no one else had dared contemplate – often alone and, at times, in the worst weather imaginable – in his own ethical way, and with the most basic of kit – “his uncompromising stance on the ethics of alpinism made him more enemies than friends, while his dramatic climbs generated enormous public interest”. It was this reputation he was accruing that led to his name put forward to be part of the proposed Italian expedition to K2 in 1954. As a twenty-three year old amateur climber, working as an accountant in the city during the week and escaping to the mountains on weekends, he was overjoyed to be asked, but it was to be an an adventure that would change Bonatti’s entire life >> the arguments and scandal that followed have continued ever since and are still not completely resolved. We won’t go into the account of what happened in the death zone of K2 in this Journal but be sure the check out the story in the Mountains of my Life…
Consequently, Bonatti arrived back home from the Himalayas deeply depressed, climbing impossible routes in the Alps again as a way of conquering his issues, and in turn, discovering his seminal role in mountaineering — as a solo climber. In 1957, he moved to Courmayeur, at the foot of Mont Blanc / Monte Bianco to work as a guide, and to live and climb in the Mont Blanc Massif.
“…it was getting late and we had to bivouac at once. We couldn’t have chanced upon a more uncomfortable spot: later climbers described this ledge as more like a big foothold. As in all bivouacs that precede a sure victory, the night passed serenely, both in our spirits and in the starry sky”
“Great mountains are the measure of the man who tests himself against them, otherwise they are no more than heaps of stone…”
Given his experiences on K2, amongst other things, Bonatti continued to persist with the Traditional ‘Alpine’ techniques of the thirties and consistently rejected the use of devices that make success certain, or make climbing too easy – this went against his ideas of purism, adventure, and ‘the impossible’ for him. Bonatti regarded some modern climbing equipment as unethical and unacceptable, and so found himself centre-stage in the battle between two valid climbing styles: Alpine ‘Traditional’ (climbing routes once with all your own gear, camp and kit in tow, in small groups) and Expedition (climbing routes multiple times between camps, climbing fixed lines, with higher safety margins, in larger groups) >> I guess it’s a bit like the difference between touring/racing/riding a bike totally unsupported, vs. supported with a van carrying all your own stuff, and feeding you? I can’t comment, as I’m not a climber, but he sure did ruffle a few down feathers. Whilst the French recently (2009) honoured him with the Lifetime Piolet d’Or (Golden Axe), back in the 60’s he fell out big-time with a lot of the climbing fraternity, even to the extent of having his car tyres slashed in Courmayeur (apparently!), and so chose to hang up his climbing shoes in 1965, and get away from it all.
For such a successful, and revered climber, Bonatti’s career was somewhat short, lasting only from 1948-1965. It seemed like he fell out of love with the pursuit he loved; out of love with many of the people involved in it who doubted/hated his outlook. In the end, he quit pro-climbing and guiding to focus on his personal solo climbing – where he was able to discover and develop his own version of solo mountaineering – “learning to substitute himself for everyone else; to make his own decisions, alone; to measure himself against his own standards; to pay with his own hide for his own mistakes” – and a career in (photo)journalism, with Epoch magazine.
Walter Bonatti passed away in 2011, at the age of 81.
What would Bonatti have taken with him on a trip like this?…
…is something that we considered replicating, until we realised that it was probably a good idea to take SOME decent kit, and especially a down jacket which is the sort of item Bonatti mentions not having access to in his earliest winter climbing days. Given the nature of our mini-tours in the mountains, we always carried stuff to be self-sufficient – bivvy/sleeping bags and basic food supplies – incase we did get stuck, or we liked a place enough to change plans and camp-out. As we found out with frequent evening storm rumblings, if things turn at 2000m+ it’s not ideal, but something Bonatti seemed to relish as one of ‘the unknowns’.
The three of us all rode Specialized 2018 Diverge Comps, which were loaned to us by Specialized UK. They were ace on the road, and coped well (pretty much at their limit) for all the gravel sections we escaped on. The 20mm of headtube travel on the Diverge and hydraulic disc brakes helped, for sure. If wanting to head further off-the-beaten track in this terrain, we’d recommend a 40c+ tyre, and a few more teeth on the cassette / few less on the front. Or, probably both…
“Our equipment consisted of food for three days, a liquid-gas stove, two bivouac sacks of rubberized cloth, woolen mittens, spare socks, balaclavas, a first-aid pack, a litre bottle of water and a small flask of brandy, forty pitons, thirty iron carabiners, three stirrups and rope loops, three hammers, some short pieces of cord, and two hemp ropes of 130 feet…”
|Bike||Diverge Comp 2018 (Specialized)|
|Saddle||Cambium C17 (Brooks England)|
|Water Bottle(s)||Cascade Series (Swift Industries)|
|Saddle Bag||Pika (Revelate Designs)|
|Frame Bag||Tangle (Revelate Designs)|
|Handlebar Bags(s)||Sweetroll & Pocket (Revelate Designs)|
|Touring Hip Pack||Sitka (Swift Industries)|
|Bivvy Bag||Survival Zone (RAB)|
|Sleeping Bag||Neutrino 200 – Summer (RAB)|
|Sleeping Mat||Synmat UL (Exped)|
|Sleeping Liner||Silk Mummy (RAB)|
|Down Jacket||Ultralight Hoody (Patagonia)|
|Waterproof Jacket||Flashpoint (RAB)|
|Washbag||Dry Bag (Pannier)|
|Pot / Mug||Titan Kettle (MSR)|
|Spork||Titanium Spork (Light My Fire)|
|Coffee Maker||Helix (Soto)|
|Coffee||Ember (Pannier x Forge)|
|Water Filter||Trailshot (MSR)|
|Pump||Sterling SG (crankbrothers)|
|Levers||Speedier Levers (crankbrothers)|
|Map||1:50,000 (Kompass 55, 85, 105)|
|Micro Compass||Carabiner Compass (Silva)|
|Camera||Fuji X-Series w/ 35mm(F1.4) + 18mm(F2)|
|Power||Backup Battery Pack|
|Notes||Sketchbook & Pen|
|Supplies||Mountain Cheese, Bresaola, Bread, Jam, Grappa, Campari|
Alpinists of Bonatti’s ilk already had my respect, but stepping outside the Bonatti Hut and looking over Grandes Jorasses to see the twinkling of a solitary light perched above the glacier, seemingly from the Bivacco Jachia, my respect for all mountaineers was well and truly hammered and bolted that first stormy night. The three of us were quite happy to retreat into the bustling, warm atmosphere of our post-dinner refuge, ready for another day of riding the valleys and roughstuff of the Mont Blanc area, in the mere shadows of the peaks that Bonatti conquered.
If this Journal piece whets your appetite make sure to grab a copy of Mountains Of My Life – alpine climbing exploits not only make for fascinating storytelling, but an in-depth look into human nature. I, for sure, am keen to retrace some of our own tracks with some climbing kit strapped to the bike…
WORDS & ILLUSTRATION
RIDERS / ADDITIONAL PHOTOS
The Mountains Of My Life – Walter Bonatti
Walter Bonatti: The Vertical Dream – Angelo Ponta
Mont Blanc (no.85) 1:50,000 – Kompass Maps
Lecco (no.105) 1:50,000 – Kompass Maps
Cortina d’Ampezzo (no.55) 1:50,000 – Kompass Maps