Acquaintances made mid-air have a habit of throwing up interesting tales. I first heard Walter Bonatti’s story from my friend, Filippo while hanging alongside him on the climbing walls of Malmo in Sweden. “You must visit Walter Bonatti’s hometown,” Filippo said, when I told him of my plans to hike in the Alps. “Bonatti only took on mountains that offered almost impossible challenges.”
New to climbing, I was intrigued by Bonatti’s story, a man who quit professional climbing at the peak of his career at 35 and retired to Courmayeur in the Italian Alps in the 1950s. He was known for mastering technically difficult climbs—and for one specific story.
In 1954, at age 24, Bonatti was chosen to join the Italian expedition to K2, the second-highest mountain peak in the world and part of the Himalayan range. All was well until he and his Pakistani porter, Amir Mahdi, had to spend the night out in the open; an experience they barely survived. Bonatti claimed that the senior climbers leading the expedition had intentionally moved camp out of sight so he might face trouble. They, of course, denied the claim, and bitter memories of K2 haunted Bonatti for several years afterwards. The more I read about him, the more interested I got.
I had to pay homage and search for the hut Bonatti lived in, which is how I found myself in the town of Courmayeur a while later. Nestled at the foot of Mont Blanc in northern Italy, Courmayeur was slumbering when I arrived. The snow had melted but summer had not yet dawned. The streets were lined with shops, residential quarters, and palatial chalets, but I ignored them and immediately began hunting for Bonatti’s home. I had read that it was three miles from the base of Mont Blanc. Several hours later, I was still hopelessly walking the streets. Eventually, an old woman at the tourist office told me the way in broken English. She pointed to a place called Rifugio Bonatti, which was at a 12-kilometre uphill trek from Courmayeur. Of course! Why would a great mountaineer live in a town!
En route to Rifugio Bonatti, a 12km trek from Courmayeur. Photo: Heather Cowper (www.heatheronhertravels.com)/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)
With no public transport available that early, an Italian shepherd riding his mini-truck, with an open rear for carrying alpine ibex, offered to carry me to Val Ferret from where the trek to Rifugio Bonnati started. Amidst dung and farm equipment, I settled my backpack while the Piaggio truck hobbled uphill. At Val Ferret, with goodbyes in place, I stepped on an unpaved track.
Above me rose the snow-capped peaks of Bianco, Dolent, and Maudit in the Mont Blanc massif, whose granite vertical slopes are the stuff mountaineering legends are made of. Filled with awe and gratitude, I began my climb up. Gradually, the snow began to appear, first as ice and then morphing into powdery nothingness. My altimeter showed that I was close to 2,000 metres above sea level. The trees gave way to grass slopes, and hours later, far off at the top, the outline of Rifugio Bonatti began to appear.
The chalet, dedicated to the master climber, tells the story of Bonatti’s life. Photo: Heather Cowper (www.heatheronhertravels.com)/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)
Flanked by snow-covered mountains on either side, this stone-walled chalet stood alone. Not melancholic, but proud. Stepping in, warm air enveloped me and the smell of fresh coffee wafted through. I chatted with the middle-aged caretaker who explained the rules of the house: boots should be left out, dinner is communal, and most importantly, silence after 10p.m. She also quickly dispelled the notion that Bonatti had lived here. “No, no! He did not live here, but visited the place,” she told me gesticulating, “We loved him so much. That’s why we dedicated this refuge to him.”
The chance discovery of this chalet turned out to be fortuitous for it told me more about Bonatti than the books that I had read. For within its stone walls is the story of Bonatti’s life. Shelves stocked books that Bonatti had written and wooden walls mounted with photographs of Bonatti in his element—sitting alone on mountaintops, with aborigines in Patagonia, hanging on to mountain cliffs, legs dangling in the air or trudging in the snow on his wooden skis. Unsurprisingly, none of the pictures captured his K2 climb—bitter memories of which had haunted Bonatti for several years after.
Bonatti had returned to Courmayeur turning his back to the climbing community that once revered him as a hero. He found solace in the peaks that surrounded him and went on to write many books. In The Mountains of My Life, he writes, “Some people see no more in climbing mountains than an escape from the harsh realities of modern times. This is not only uninformed but unfair. I don’t deny that there can be an element of escapism in mountaineering, but this should never overshadow its real essence, which is not escape but victory over your own human frailty.”
As the sun set, I walked further up. With only the sounds of gurgling brooks and rippling wind for company, I sat down on a rickety wooden bridge to watch the stream below. Here, like Bonatti, I too found peace, and liberation from the life I live 2,000 metres below.
The chalet offers stunning views of sunsets in the region. Photo: Heather Cowper (www.heatheronhertravels.com)/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)
Getting There Courmayeur is in Italy, 215km/3hr from Milan and 100km/1.5 hr from the Swiss city of Geneva. Travellers can rent a car and drive there, though public transport facilities are also available.
Best Time Courmayeur is open for trekking in the summer and for skiing in the winter. Most of the trekking routes start from Val Ferret, a tiny village outside Courmayeur.
Hiking Tips If you decide to take the 18 km, 11 days, Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) circuit trek, Autour du Mont-Blanc (www.autourdumontblanc.com) is a good source to plan your trip. Rifugio Bonatti (www.rifugiobonatti.it) is a leg on the TMB. Carry waterproof clothing, heavy trekking shoes, sleeping bags, quick drying tees, hiking pants, waterproof shoes and a micro towel.
Accommodation Shelters on the trek normally cost €50/₹3,700per night per person.
is an adrenaline rush-seeking travel writer who lives in Malmo, Sweden. He hopes to travel the world in a boat.
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