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Posted on: June 1, 2007
[Illustration] Jeremy Collins
The Restoration of the Impossible
In 1970 Cesare Maestri stood alone, thirty-five meters below the apex of Cerro Torre. Above, the final ice slopes stretched to the summit mushrooms, those white, fantastic forms that seem to billow in the Patagonian winds like gigantic clouds of rime and snow. He would later dismiss the terrain between him and the top as trivial: "it's just a lump of ice, not really part of the mountain; it will blow away one of these days." For him, the real importance may have been below, past where his team members waited on the smooth, granite headwall, beyond the dizzying 1200 meters to the glacier where the body of his partner and friend from his last Torre expedition, Toni Egger, lay somewhere interred and—in Maestri's view—maligned. Climbers around the world had questioned vocally their 1959 alleged first ascent; now everyone would have to believe that Maestri could, in fact, put a route up on this mountain.
For on this line he had left his trace—abundantly. Each of the some 400 bolts he placed, as well as the 200-pound compressor that he used to drill them, would remain as incontrovertible "proof" of his passage. His purpose had been, as he would later write in 2000 Metri della Nostra Vita, to "return [to Cerro Torre] and attack [his detractors'] routes, the routes they were not able to climb. I will humiliate them, and they will have to feel ashamed of having doubted me and having insulted the memory of my fallen partner."
Now, instead of letting his partners join him at the high point, he had a sudden impulse. "[A] devilish plan comes into my mind: I'll take out all the bolts and leave the climb as clean as we found it. I'll break them all, so that whoever tries to repeat our route won't even be able to benefit from the holes we've drilled." On rappel, Maestri chopped some twenty of his bolts; he disabled the compressor, and "toss[ed] down the face anything that might be helpful to others: pitons, carabiners, ropes."
In a 1972 interview with Mountain (23), Maestri would explain what drove him to dedicate his life to climbing: "I wished to use climbing as a way of imposing my personality." On this ascent, the one-time protagonist of bold Alpine solos had forced a vision of brutality unprecedented in such a high, remote realm. Warren Harding's Wall of Early Morning Light on El Capitan had used a similar number of drilled holes, but it had included aid so difficult that its would-be bolt chopper, Royal Robbins, changed his mind. Many modern-day climbers who have been on the so-called Compressor Route, however, have estimated that only about ten percent of Maestri's bolts, on a featureless part of the headwall, may actually be necessary. Although it has become the most popular route on the mountain, it remains for numerous alpinists a symbol (as the 1972 Mountain headline screamed) of "A Mountain Desecrated."
Cerro Torre is one of the world's most iconic mountains; without Maestri's bolts, it would likely be one of its most difficult. With them, it is, in American alpinist Jim Donini's phrase, the "world's hardest via ferrata." Today, movements are afoot that could remove the vestiges of Maestri's work from the peak. In 1999 Ermanno Salvaterra and Mauro Mabboni climbed all but 215 meters of the Compressor Route without using the bolts. Seven years later, with Rolando Garibotti and Alessandro Beltrami, Salvaterra made the first ascent of El Arca de los Vientos, the route Maestri had claimed as his and Egger's in 1959, and one of only three on the mountain that does not rely on the final bolt ladders to attain the summit (the others are the 1974 Ferrari West Ridge, now acknowledged as the line of the mountain's genuine first ascent, and Kelly Cordes and Colin Haley's 2006 enchainment, featured in this issue's "Climbing Notes"). Though they found abundant evidence of Maestri and Egger below a triangular snowfield 300 meters from the glacier, they found nothing at all above it. It is now generally accepted that Maestri and Egger never made it higher than that point.
This season Josh Wharton and Zack Smith tried to climb the Compressor Route as close to its natural state as possible, intending, if they succeeded, to remove any superfluous bolts on the way down. During their first attempt, they brought with them a modified cat's paw, and tested it out unsuccessfully on a bolt at a belay stance that included five others in a five-foot radius. Meanwhile word spread that the two were considering stripping Maestri's line. Incensed, Steve Schneider dissembled their tent, threatened to throw their gear into a crevasse and to attack them—and later, after an altercation with Bean Bowers became physical, headed to the hospital for X-Rays (Schneider, who was not seriously hurt, has since apologized for his behavior). At a meeting held in El Chalten, attended by Argentine and international climbers, an informal vote passed (40-10) in favor of keeping all the bolts. When Wharton and Smith made a second attempt, they left the cat's paw behind, not wanting to engage in further drama. Though they clipped some of the route's bolted belays, they led all but the last 120 meters on trad gear, before the cold and windy weather pushed them onto Maestri's ladders (it also kept them from the top of Maestri's "trivial" summit mushroom).
Schneider, who has made three attempts so far to climb the Compressor Route's bolted version, insists that we "have to respect the history of this classic route," a sentiment echoed partly by the president of the El Chalten Alpine Club, Cesar Acuna. While Acuna criticizes the ethics and motivation of the route's first ascent, he argues that it's "a piece of climbing history."
Garibotti counters that the bolts would be better preserved in a museum. According to him, the argument to make the route less accessible is not necessarily an elitist one. "The question to ask ourselves regarding this matter is why we climb.... If it is a kind of tourism in which reaching a specific geographic point is extremely important, why wouldn't we take a helicopter to the summit...? Or if the process actually counts, why would we ever want to facilitate it to the point of completely changing the character of the mountain?"
Reinhold Messner, in his 1971 essay "The Murder of the Impossible," accuses glaring excesses such as Maestri's bolts of destroying the very notion of an unclimbable mountain. Messner admonishes, "It's time we... searched again for the limits of possibility—for we must have such limits if we are going to use the virtue of courage to approach them." If climbing is to continue to have meaning, Messner's "limits of possibility" must be endlessly deferred. A world in which everything can be universally understood and achieved loses the potential for uncertainty and the longing for the unknown that drives our most visionary pursuits. Yet these days, such "murders" seem to be more and more the rule. In Switzerland, in a movement known as plaisir ("pleasure") climbing, the government pays for the retrobolting of classic routes to encourage more traffic and more work for guides. In the Himalaya, modern expeditions use fixed ropes, Sherpa support and bottled oxygen on routes that had been opened without all three (as Pavle Kozjek notes in this issue's "Borderline"). Chopping Maestri's bolts would help restore the possibility of the impossible—and, ironically, return the Southeast Ridge to the state its first ascensionist had, at least momentarily, intended.