The Outsiders: Bonatti, Kurtyka, and Twight

Every year, hundreds of people climb on fixed ropes in the Greater Ranges. Climbers pursue minor records, collect 8,000m peaks, and show no interest in new routes.

But a handful of climbers remain eager to explore. Past or present, many share similar ethics: a focus on self-improvement and intimate contact with the mountains. They do not climb for awards, and the summit is not the most important part of why they climb. Below, a personal tribute to three great alpinists.

“When rock climbing was dangerous and sex was safe,” as Barry Blanchard put it. From left to right: Mark Twight, Barry Blanchard, Ward Robinson, and Kevin Doyle in front of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. Photo: Hank VanWeelden

Walter Bonatti

Walter Bonatti was one of the best mountaineers in history. He stood out not just for his abilities but for his ethics.

A young Walter Bonatti. Photo: Walter Bonatti


“He couldn’t fake being their kind,” Jack London wrote in the semi-autobiographical Martin Eden. “The masquerade would fail, and besides, masquerade was foreign to his nature. There was no room in him for sham or artifice. Whatever happened, he must be real.”

The stories of Jack London fascinated Bonatti as a child. He began to climb at a very early age. As a young man, he ascended the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses, the North Face of Piz Badile, the West Face of the Noire de Peuterey, and the east wall of Capucin. He considered the Alps his home and Mont Blanc his father.

At 24, he was chosen to be part of the 1954 Italian K2 expedition. Bonatti and Mahdi, a Hunza porter, had to transport oxygen bottles to the upper mountain. Climbing above 8,000m, they found that their companions, Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli, had moved the tent higher than they expected. Bonatti and Mahdi had to spend a night in the open air. Faced with this dire prospect, Mahdi wanted to jump into the void. Bonatti convinced him to ride it out. Nevertheless, the porter suffered severe frostbite and lost his fingers.

Compagnoni and Lacedelli reached the summit the following day. They were the first to climb K2. Meanwhile, Bonatti accompanied his fellow porter back to Base Camp.

Controversy on K2

Back in Italy, Bonatti found himself embroiled in controversy. Compagnoni said that Bonatti and Mahdi had jeopardized the success of the expedition by using all the oxygen. Bonatti complained that Lacedelli and Compagnoni had not let them enter the tent, forcing them to bivouac in the open. Lacedelli and Compagnoni’s version of events was accepted at the time, but for 50 years, Bonatti continued to insist that the other two were not telling the truth.

In 1993, an Australian surgeon noticed a photograph in which Compagnoni was still wearing an oxygen mask and Lacedelli appeared without ice on his beard. This meant that both of them had enough oxygen to top out and confirmed Bonatti’s assertion that they had lied.

He had firmly stuck to his story and the truth came out, although many years later. Bonatti has always said that lying was the worst thing a mountaineer could do. Honesty was crucial to mountaineering.

Bonatti raises a glass to the mountain. Photo: Swiss National Museum


More than 50 years after the fateful K2 expedition, the Italian Alpine Club wanted to help the climbers reconcile. Bonatti did not attend. He said it was the others who needed to reconcile with him. “Peace? I’ve always had it. If the world was up against me, I had to defend myself. Others may not, but I have always had peace,” Bonatti said.

Walter Bonatti on Gasherbrum IV’s summit. Photo: Carlo Mauri


Bonatti undertook many more high-level climbs. Each Bonatti climb required extreme commitment and exposure. In 1958, together with Carlo Mauri, he topped out on Gasherbrum IV via the Northeast Ridge.

Gasherbrum IV and Voytek Kurtyka

One of the most beautiful mountains on earth, Gasherbrum IV also captivated Voytek Kurtyka and Peter Schauer. In 1985, they made the first ascent of its spectacular West Face, the so-called Shining Wall.

The 2,500m Shining Wall of Gasherbrum IV.


Kurtyka and Schauer stopped at a foresummit, a short distance from the main summit. Although Kurtyka was frustrated that they had not topped out, they had opened the West Face. The summit was secondary. Kurtyka and Bonatti are alike, two climbers with extraordinary talent and flashes of genius. For them, ethics were more important than peak bagging.

Voytek Kurtyka and Robert Schauer at Gasherbrum IV Base Camp. Photo: UKC

A harsh critic

Kurtyka continues to speak his mind. In March, he gave an interview to the Polish newspaper Wyborcza. He criticized the Polish mountaineering system and the current state of international mountaineering.

“Polish mountaineering has won the Hunger Games and the hidden climbing scams,” he said. “This achievement [Winter K2] helps [us] understand the role of the Sherpas in 8,000m mountaineering…For commercial customers, they transport oxygen, build tents, cook. Sometimes, as on Artur Hajzer’s expedition to Lhotse, they lose their lives for one thousand dollars.”

“I do not like egocentricity, which is something that I have arduously battled in myself my entire life,” Wojciech Kurtyka.


He hit back at those who criticized the Sherpas for using O2 on Winter K2. “The Sherpas perfected mountaineering.” Kurtyka says, adding, “I am convinced that exploring mountains is exploring yourself. That is why I will say…that the history of alpinism has only just begun. Even the records of traditional exploration are far from exhausted. The difference between mountaineering practiced in a great conquering expedition, and mountaineering practiced in a small, independent team, is like sex in a brothel and sex in an intimate and personal bond.”

Kurtyka on the Shining Wall in 1985. Photo: Robert Schauer

Mark Twight: beyond limits

Mark Twight’s achievements include the fastest ascent of 7,495m Ismoil Somoni, the highest peak in Tadjikistan’s Pamirs. He climbed alone, 3,000m up and 3,000m down in just 36 hours. He completed the unforgettable ‘Deprivation’ route on Mount Hunter in Alaska, has climbed several extremely difficult lines in the Alps, and finished the Czech route up Mount McKinley in 60 hours. The previous record had been a week.

“Decide. Execute. Become.” Photo: Mark Twight


Twight has always sought to push his limits. The more difficult and committed a path, the more he wanted to overcome it. He described his point of view on alpinism in the book, Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber.

“Deprivation taught me that there was this mystical change in the mountains. It made me wonder: How can I get tired of climbing the mountain if I have become the mountain? I have searched within myself, with both active and passive meditation, for the necessary tools to open this door whenever I want,” he wrote.

Twight defined his style: “True to the principles of punk, I consider the alpine style as a rebellion, against an acquisitive culture, of climbing that is full of tax collectors, against people in all disciplines who settle for less. Alpine style is rebellion but not revolution. I am not talking about something new…I am a conservative preaching a return to the most basic and minimalist way of approaching the mountain. Practitioners [need to] place more emphasis on their own strength and ability rather than use technology as a crutch. No wonder my point of view is not enthusiastically accepted.”

Mark Twight in Chamonix. Photo: James Martin


Twight has always wanted to find his own way, without imitating others.

“I didn’t need to be like anyone else, only to learn from them. And I certainly wasn’t going to live my life hoping that others would like me. I fought on several fronts, against the difficulty of genuine change, the powerful need to be accepted, and against the programming that made my revolution necessary. Confronting myself was the hardest step,” he wrote.

Unfinished routes also occupy an important place in Mark Twight’s heart. He considers his unfinished routes to be the most beautiful. The process of self-improvement and self-realization was more important than completion.