In this guest editorial, which was first published on his blog, Kelly Cordes expresses his personal opinion on David Lama's recent attempt on the Compressor Route, Cerro Torre, Patagonia. Lama has been widely criticised for leaving the mountain in a mess after an attempt to make a Red Bull extreme sports film.
Kelly Cordes is the Senior Editor of the American Alpine Journal. He is a vastly experienced alpine climber, with several major first ascents to his name. He also has quite a bit of Patagonian experience...
"In 2007, Kelly and Colin Haley made the long-sought first link-up of the Marsigny-Parkin and the upper West Face ice routes on Cerro Torre, one of the few ascents of the peak to gain the summit without using the Compressor Route's bolt ladders. Their superlight climb took them 32 hours to the summit, part of an exhausting two-day round-trip from camp." More info - Patagonia.com
This latest Cerro Torre controversy hit the internet some weeks ago and UKC got in touch with David Lama via his PR officer straight away, but had no response. Which is why there is no reply from David to go with this article. If David does get in touch, we will gladly publish his side of the story.
Cerro Torre, David Lama and Red Bullshit
Are the days gone where anybody mans-the-f*ck-up and apologises? I'm talking a real apology, not one of these politician apologies (I'm sorry if anyone misconstrued my construed intent...). Does anyone anymore just say, “I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. I messed up, I won't do it again, and here, please, let me try to fix it.”
Another Cerro Torre controversy. What is it about that spire? If fantasies build any peak, they make Cerro Torre. It is beautiful, hostile, otherworldly. Were it not for its bolt-ladder Compressor Route, with its sordid history, it would surely be the most difficult spire in the world. It attracts not only the obsessed, but also the crazies. And now, the commerce-hungry corporate-funded junkshow. Sure, in many ways it already has been commercialized, as photos, film and stories from Cerro Torre have inspired so many of us. But where to draw the line? How badly does its incomprehensible beauty and inhospitable nature clash with our hubris? Especially when someone's willing to trash it to make a commercial.
In a nutshell, 19 year-old rock climbing phenom (mostly sport and competition climbing) David Lama, from Austria, and heavily sponsored by Red Bull energy drink, wanted to free the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre. Red Bull hugely pimped it up, complete with big talk from Lama, like:
“Back in the days of old school mountaineering only conquering the peak was important – not so much how this goal was reached.”
“Cesare Maestri, who made the first ascent in 1970, left an entire highway of bolts and pitons in the mountain's south-east face, which has nothing to do with today's climbing ethics.”
“Daniel and myself will be carrying all of our stuff into the park and out again. Transport flights are forbidden, but it's not in our interest to leave any traces anyway.”
OK, whatever. Lama and team (film crew with guides, etc) got pretty much nowhere in their three-month expedition. But what they blatantly omitted reporting was that they fixed 700 metres of rope and abandoned them. Subsequent people had to clean what they could of the mess. They also added 60 bolts (they claim less, like 30, but that hardly matters) to the already most overbolted route in the world. Since the route went up 40 years ago, it's been climbed likely more than a hundred times, attempted far more, and all without the addition of another bolt – until these clowns showed up. Basically, they built a ton of hype, brought in their movie crew, trashed the place, and left.
Back on May 6, on Red Bull's Lama-hype page entitled “A Snowball's Chance in Hell,” about Lama's plans, I posted a comment. At the time, there were only three other comments, all fanboy type stuff. I asked some questions about their mess, as I'd heard of it from rock-solid sources, and I also emailed Red Bull. On June 10 I got a reply, a canned response that they sent to others:
From: Red Bull
Date: June 10, 2010 12:35:05 PM MDT
To: “Kelly Cordes (AAJ)”
Subject: David Lama's free climb
The Red Bull Media House is producing a film featuring David Lama's attempt to free climb the compressor route on Cerro Torre. Due to bad weather, the production had to be stopped and is currently on hold waiting for the next Patagonian summer.
Red Bull takes the protection of nature and the safety of human lives very seriously and has a long history in producing high quality productions in extreme circumstances and exposed areas. The entire shoulder and wall has been cleaned of our — and older — material which was found. Only one haul bag and 30 bolts, which had do be used due to falling ice and to protect the main climbing route, has been left. Every step of the whole endeavour was planned and executed in close accordance with the local administration of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. After completion of the project, everything will be removed.
Have a soaring day,
Word got out, and scores of outraged comments appeared on Red Bull's site (it's now up to 83 comments, almost all condemning Red Bull and Lama, many harshly so, and many from Argentina – though Red Bull has also deleted many comments). Argentine climbers started a Facebook page, “RED BULL, CLEAN UP THE MESS LEFT BY DAVID LAMA IN PATAGONIA!” that has 362 members and growing.
Lama posted a similarly lame comment as Red Bull's email reply (above), clearly showing that he doesn't get it. He and Red Bull miss the point completely – it's not just about the park's rules. Lama and Red Bull sound like they should be working for British Petroleum. Of course some extra metal on the world's most beautiful spire isn't as damaging as the BP oil spill disaster, but we should care about the things we love. Otherwise, if we play the “it's not as important as...” game, why not just throw your garbage out the window?
For what it's worth – not much, I'm sure – I replied to Red Bull:
From: “Kelly Cordes (AAJ)”
Date: June 22, 2010 10:35:00 PM MDT
To: Red Bull firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Re: David Lama's free climb
Thank you for the email, but you sound like you should be working for BP. Just because it may have been “legal” doesn't make it right — that's the disappointing thing here, is that Red Bull is so woefully out of touch with the climbing world that you/RB simply don't get it. Lama, while obviously a phenomenal climber in his specific genre, clearly doesn't get it either. Imagine if someone went to the Alps and trashed one of the most iconic routes there? It would be legal, sure, but it wouldn't be right. And you all did this for one reason — commerce. How lame.
Others have come before you and produced terrific media in Patagonia, and specifically on Cerro Torre, without trashing the place. Dozens, if not hundreds, of climbers have bailed off Cerro Torre in far more extreme circumstances and exposed areas than your RB team encountered.
I, and all climbers, sincerely hope you do remove everything, as you say you will. But based on the team's utter failure to clean up after themselves last time — and after what, three months? — I think you've got a lot to prove.
How can you not see that you (RB) screwed up? Seriously? Instead of the BP tactics, perhaps you should consider actually apologizing to the climbing world — a real apology, not a B.S. “I'm sorry if the climbing world misconstrued our Cerro Torre soaring day intentions...”, and not only cleaning up, but doing something extra for the area and local conservation efforts. Maybe help with some trail building or one of the other projects going on down there. I'm sure that your marketing department could even figure out a way to gain publicity from it. It's not required, of course, but it would be the right thing to do. Something to think about.
American Alpine Journal
At least Maestri was an obsessed maniac, wrong but deeply passionate. For those who don't know, in 1970–71, Cesare Maestri fixed thousands of feet of ropes and placed some 450 bolts, solo, while hauling up a gas-powered compressor, in his attempt to “conquer” Cerro Torre. He littered bolts near perfectly good cracks and used them deliberately to avoid natural features via extensive bolt ladders. His assault was largely the impetus behind Messner's classic diatribe The Murder of the Impossible. For a fascinating, impeccably researched article on Maestri and Cerro Torre, check out Rolando Garibotti's article from the AAJ 2004, A Mountain Unveiled (free download here). But Red Bull and Lama? What's their excuse?
And they can't even apologise – really apologise, not a politician's apology – and do something to right their wrong? Maybe they will. I hear they're working on it. We'll see – the expedition happened last winter and now it's late June – just how many meetings with their spin doctors does it take to come out and say “We screwed up, and we'll fix it”? It's both Red Bull and Lama's mess – they'd both reap the rewards if they'd have succeeded, and they need to take responsibility for their mess.
Thing is, commerce and marketing can exist in the mountains. Fine, insert puking sound here, but I'm not going to give it a blanket condemnation because, as with most things, it exists on a spectrum. So, what's commerce? Taking a camera? What if you don't sell any of your photos, though? OK, but what if you had hoped to sell some, but your photos just sucked? Did you write an article? (Sellout!) Did you tell anyone? Commerce and marketing can be, often are, extensions of storytelling. I love good storytelling. It doesn't have to be a rape-and-pillage Red Bull junkshow. My friend Rolo Garibotti, unquestionably the single greatest authority and historian on Patagonia climbing, and unquestionably one of Patagonia's greatest climbers (and he's still in his prime...), reminded me of some examples that show stark contrast to the Red Bull fiasco, such as Werner Herzog and crew making a film on the Compressor Route without adding bolts; the phenomenal imagery of professional photographer and climber Thomas Ulrich from his climb of the route, and also of the West Face; and, as Rolo wrote: “In 1985 Fulvio Mariani made one of the best climbing movies of all time when he filmed Cumbre, documenting Marco Pedrini's solo ascent of Cerro Torre. They did so fixing three ropes, and nothing more, without placing a single piece of fixed pro. Obviously, as Lama and his entourage prove, there has been a big regression since then.”
In the end, the unfortunate reality is that this probably won't hurt Red Bull or Lama, and they'll learn no lessons and they'll keep selling their adrenalized cough syrup not to the climbers that they use for marketing and whom they disrespect by actions like this, but to frat boys and hipster douchebags slamming it with vodka. Ahhh yes, guys, have a soaring day.
Back in 2000, Christian Beckwith, then-editor of the AAJ, commissioned an interesting article, Commercialization and Modern Climbing, with three authors (Will Gadd, Steve House, and the great Russian alpinist Pavel Shabalin) expressing their views.
Shabalin's piece, appropriately titled Barbie in the Mountains, had one of my all-time favourite passages:
“Alpinism was exceptional and sacred because it was closed to the masses. And now it finds itself in the same historical situation as is love. When love was poetry, it was exceptional and sacred. When mass media put love in TV and magazines, it became pornography.”
It doesn't have to be that way, of course, as sharing gives us inspiration. Art inspires. Mountains, nature, poetry. Respect. I suppose we all draw our own lines between love and pornography. And for Red Bull and David Lama, at least in the case of Cerro Torre, it seems clear where they drew theirs.