David Lama, the young and talented Austrian climber, was the subject of a large amount of criticism last year after his bungled attempt at free climbing the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre, Patagonia.
Now Lama is back in Patagonia and has once again attracted negative attention; he has told some local climbers he is attempting the route again, and he is taking a bolt kit and may rap-bolt some sections of the route.
Last season's attempt at the Compressor route was 'bungled' because Lama didn't free climb the route as he had hoped, but he and his film crew did place around 60 bolts, right next to natural gear placements, on relatively easy sections of the climb.
They also left a lot of ropes and gear on the mountain, which were later cleaned up by local mountain guides who were employed by the expedition sponsor Red Bull to tidy up the mess.
Lama and his team (and his sponsors) were heavily criticised, and rightly so (See this UKC Article from last summer).
But what about this season's attempt?
Obviously this year David Lama should be climbing in a whiter than white style, as he made quite an error of judgement last season.
His intentions for this year are undeniably better, and if it wasn't for the baggage of last year's debacle, I suspect wouldn't raise much of an eyebrow from the world climbing community.
Colin Haley has summed up the style in which they are attempting the route on his Blog (his blog post is fantastic and is well worth a read - it covers the whole story from start to finish):
THE GOOD NEWS:
David Lama and his crew of mountain guides and film makers returned to El Chalten last week, and many of the climbers here were apprehensive of how his expedition would behave this season. Fortunately, they have learned somewhat from their recklessness last season, and this year they have promised that they will not fix any ropes on route (which is good, because besides the obvious fact that fixing ropes is an unimpressive way to climb, the fixed ropes ruin the experience of other climbers on this popular route). They also have promised not to bolt on the established route, and have promised to remove the remaining 5-7 bolts that they left on the route last season. Their plan now is to climb as five people: in front will be a team of three (two mountain guides and one cinematographer), and behind will be David and his climbing partner, Peter. This is a logical way for them to shoot footage of David Lama's efforts to free-climb the route, and an important step forward for them.
THE BAD NEWS:
David Lama plans to bring a small bolt-kit with him, so that he has the option to hand-drill some bolts if necessary. If he adds bolts to the Salvaterra variation it would be totally out of line, as Salvaterra climbed the variation in 1999, and already placed all the necessary bolts (and Josh Wharton and Zack Smith climbed a variation to the variation in 2007, without adding any bolts). It is reasonable, however, that Lama is bringing the bolt kit, because on the headwall they will likely attempt a different line than the blank rock Maestri bolted, and the line they attempt will likely be terrain on which any climber would use bolts. What is not reasonable, however, is the way David Lama plans to use his bolt kit. In a conversation with me, Lama explained that they plan to reach the summit via the normal Compressor Route bolt ladders, and then rappel a separate line of weakness on the headwall, placing protection bolts on rappel. Yes, that's right - rap-bolting the Cerro Torre headwall! I tried to convince Lama that he might place the bolts on lead, hanging from hooks, but he insisted that rap-bolting was his intention. Zack Smith chimed in with, "You know that people will be very upset if you place your bolts on rappel, right?" Lama's response was "I can take it."
As David Lama is currently in Patagonia and could be attempting the route at any time now, we don't know how many, if any, bolts he has or will place on the headwall of Cerro Torre. I suspect (hope) they will be kept to a minimum, as drilling granite by hand is a hard and time-consuming affair.
But if he uses the original Compressor Route bolts to reach the summit, and then inspects and equips his route on abseil, David Lama's ascent will be considered by many not as a step forward, but as a giant leap backwards.
The question of whether bolting on abseil is less acceptable than bolting on lead is an interesting one, and will no doubt be the subject of many a pub debate. In real terms either style can create a fantastic, well thought-out route or conversely a badly bolted or illogical line. It isn't down to the style of the first ascent, but down to the skill of the first ascensionist. It is also worth noting that Lama's suggested style for this season, whilst flying in the face of 'pure alpinism', and perhaps being out of place on Cerro Torre, isn't really anything new. Ground-up bolted routes have been climbed on relatively small faces and rap-bolted routes have been climbed on very large faces.
If at least one positive thing is to come out of this sorry state of affairs, let's hope it is a high standard, top class free route on one of the world's most famous mountains. And it can then be attempted in the best style, by the best climbers.
A word on sponsorship, UKC, reporting and climbers:
Much of the criticism of this expedition's ethical faux pas have been levelled at David Lama's sponsors, especially Red Bull. Some people have stated that UKC should no longer report on any Red Bull sponsored athletes. We don't agree.
Many of the world's top climbers have had useful support from many large companies, including Red Bull, Audi, Nokia and others. These climbers have achieved great things, in brilliant style and we support their climbing.
EXAMPLE: We have been proud to run the fantastic videos and images from the Pou brothers last year. Their ascents are inspirational to many, at the very cutting edge of the sport and they are great ambassadors for climbing. They are sponsored by several companies including Red Bull. They are a perfect example of how it is possible to work with large companies, produce stunning images and videos and climb some of the best routes in the world.
Good luck to them.
HOWEVER: We will run critical or questioning reports on ascents where we think it appropriate, regardless of who is sponsoring the climbers in question.