Editor's Note

Posted on: July 1, 2010

[Photo] Michael Kennedy

Shadows and Icons

ON RARE, CLEAR EVENINGS, the light strikes Cerro Torre like a golden chord. Clouds hide the iconic Patagonian spire for much of the year. Wind blasts its ridges. Rime encrusts its granite walls, creating fantastic mushrooms of ice. There's no easy way up. Cerro Torre is the aesthetic embodiment of an alpine ideal, and perhaps inevitably it has become shrouded in the mists of history—a catchall for the aspirations, fears and depredations of generations of climbers.

Italian alpinist Cesare Maestri claimed the mountain's "first ascent" in 1959. His partner Toni Egger died on the way down, and questions about the climb soon surfaced. Maestri's accounts were inconsistent; the terrain appeared too futuristic to be scaled so quickly. Eager to silence his critics, Maestri returned to the peak eleven years later. This time, he installed hundreds of meters of fixed rope and used a compressor to drill over 400 bolts on the southeast ridge. He stopped thirty-five meters short of the top and called it good, dismissing the summit mushroom as an ephemeral feature that would "blow off one of these days." To many, the Compressor Route represented an act of defilement: Reinhold Messner decried Maestri's tactics as the "Murder of the Impossible."

Nonetheless, the spire remained an intoxicating symbol of alpinism. In 1974 Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari and Pino Negri completed the West Face, a climb that went unheralded for many years. Then in 2005, Rolando Garibotti, Ermanno Salvaterra and Alessandro Beltrami scaled the terrain of the alleged 1959 ascent in perfect style. When they found no traces of Maestri's passage on the upper wall, they confirmed what many had already come to believe: the 1974 West Face was the first true ascent of Cerro Torre.

Over time, different layers of meaning shifted and settled over the Compressor Route, as it became the most popular climb on the mountain (or as Patagonia veteran Jim Donini calls it, "the world's hardest via ferrata"). In 1979 Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer aided past the relics of the last seven bolts (which Maestri chopped during his descent) on the final headwall. They continued to the top of the summit mushroom to make the first complete and first alpine-style ascent of the southeast ridge. Eighteen years later, Josh Wharton and Zack Smith tried to repeat the climb entirely on natural gear, venturing across a runout face to bypass a 200-bolt traverse. Only in the last four pitches did they resort to clipping the bolts, when the winds blew their ropes straight up into the air.

"HUMAN LAZINESS," WHARTON REMARKED afterward, "and coveting the easy way...is a sad piece of the Compressor Route story." In November 2009, a pair of young Austrian climbers stumbled into this landscape of complex and ambiguous legends. Like Wharton and others before them, David Lama and Daniel Steuerer hoped to replace the original infamy of the Compressor with a more idealistic tale. "Back in the days of old-school mountaineering," Lama said in an interview on his sponsor's website, RedBull.com, "only conquering the peak was important, not so much how this goal was achieved." He planned to make the first free ascent of the route, and he asserted that it was "not in our interest to leave any traces."


After three months of inclement weather, they went back to Austria without freeing the line. Their film crew left behind 700 meters of fixed rope and sixty new bolts. Many of these holes appeared "where there is readily available natural protection and where not even Maestri drilled," says Garibotti. "Ironic, isn't it," adds Donini, "that bolts and fixed ropes should be employed in the process of trying to make a climb more 'difficult.'"

Red Bull later hired four Argentine guides to carry down the ropes, but the bolts remain. The film crew says they'll remove them after the project is finished. A press release declared, "Every step made...was executed in accordance with the rules and regulations as set out by the local mountain guides and the park administration."

Yet the environmental impact provoked the ire of both local Argentines and foreign climbers, like Donini and Garibotti, who have influenced much of the region's alpine history. In addition, the incident flouted two of climbing's most deeply held traditions: climb in a style at least equal to that of your predecessors, and don't add bolts to established routes.

Lama and his teammates may be unaware of an earlier project that set a different standard. As Garibotti points out, in November 1985 Swiss climber Marco Pedrini rope-soloed the Compressor Route in under twenty-four hours of pure, unencumbered joy. Pedrini returned twice that December with Fulvio Mariani to re-create the ascent for a film. In one scene, Pedrini rides the compressor like a cowboy, whooping and hollering as a storm moves in. The pair fixed only three ropes to make Cumbre, without drilling a single hole. It is one of the finest climbing movies ever made.

Maestri's compressor is still lashed to the headwall. Pulling those sixty new bolts and patching the scars will be a labor-intensive and uncertain process. No amount of spin will restore the rock's original state. And whenever a mountain becomes merely a flat backdrop to technological, athletic or cinematic performance, we risk losing something else as well: a richer sense of the landscape as its own place—one that lets us engage with the realities of nature, and with the textures and nuances of profound and untethered dreams.

With reporting by Erik Lambert, Alpinist.com

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