Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A dream restored

Many years ago as a young child having been left alone one evening I remember watching a grainy black and white TV programme about an attempt to climb a rock spire. The attempt failed but the fantastical outline of the rock spire was one of my inspirations to start climbing, a dream spire to aspire to.

That rock spire was Cerro Torre in southern Patagonia, Argentina and its climbing history as I was to discover was as amazing as the peak itself. Only 3128 metres high but with the last 1200m of that being near vertical rock, it has long been regarded as one of the hardest mountains in the world. First real attempts were in the 1950s but it was in 1959 when the modern tale begins.

Two Italian climbers claimed to have succeeded in climbing the peak from the north. Unfortunately one of those, Tony Egger, died on the descent and the other, Cesare Maestri was in a very poor state. The climb was hailed as "the ascent of the century" and appeared to be far ahead of its time in difficulty and commitment. Over the years however doubts began to emerge about the climb.

In 1971 Maestri returned to Cerro Torre to silence his critics but rather than raising his game he resorted to hauling a 100Kg compressor on to the South East ridge and placed between 350 & 450 bolts in to the route. Many of these were next to good crack systems which even with the rudimentary kit of the day were protectable and climbable. Quite a few were on pitches previously climbed without by the British attempt. Maestri didn't even summit stating that the summit mushroom "wasn't part of the mountain" and also removed some of the bolts as they descended - the compressor is still hanging from the wall. The climbing world was appalled: Rheinhold Messner wrote his piece "Murder of the impossible"; others spoke of the rape of the mountain.

Following this episode Ken Wilson, then editor of Mountain magazine, interviewed Maestri. The interview was described to me by the interpreter Alan Heppenstall, whom I climbed with for a while in the 1980s, as "abrasive and confrontational".

Maestri's fit of pique backfired as it focused more attention on his previous claim - subsequent attempts on the line failed to rationalise the ground covered with Maestri's description: areas that Maestri described as difficulties of the highest order were found to be simple scrambling and no-one has been able to locate the line taken on the headwall at the grade claimed. Further to this no trace of their ascent has been found above around 300m above the glacier. Rolando Garibotti did a full investigation of the claims and came to the conclusion that the base of the triangular snow-patch halfway to the Cerro Torre - Torre Egger col was their high point.

The true first ascent of Cerro Torre was by another Italian team but from the west side. The SE Ridge route was finally climbed to the summit by two Americans in 1979. Since then the "Compressor Route" as it has become known has been by far the most popular means of climbing Cerro Torre. Incredibly some have seen fit to add yet more bolts - the worst example being David Lama who in attempting to free climb the route added up to sixty more, again in situations where they weren't necessary.

However not everyone was happy with the state of affairs and over the years a series of variations avoiding the bolts were made (usually at a fairly modest standard) that meant climbers could get to the base of the headwall without using any of the bolt ladders. It was only a matter of time. In 2011 two Canadians managed to eliminate all but the last 40 metres of bolt ladders. This year one of those Canadians along with an American partner managed the whole route without recourse to the bolts.

While descending they removed around 100 of the bolts on the headwall. This has angered some people who see it as elitist and denying other climbers of a historic route. In truth Maestri should have left the climb to better climbers - the only real loser has been the mountain itself. After the bolts were removed David Lama returned and free climbed the route at an estimated grade of F8a.

A dream has been restored.


  1. Great post Bob. More tales of alpinism please!

  2. My mum and dad mentioned the other week how they were looking up malham cove and noticed loads of climbing tat all over it. Is this true?

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    Mandie Hayes