In this news report Jack Geldard sums up the recent, and not so recent, events on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, from the contested first ascent claim in 1959, through to David Lama's free ascent of the infamous Compressor Route.
It started with the death of a man. Austrian climber Toni Egger was killed on the then unclimbed Cerro Torre in 1959 attempting the north east ridge, partnered by fellow Italians Cesare Maestri and Cesarino Fava. All three climbers had made it to the large breche between Cerro Torre and Torre Egger (the Col of Conquest), but from there Fava had descended, leaving Maestri and Egger to continue. Egger never made it down alive, but Maestri survived the route - just - and he was found at the foot of the face six days later, half buried in snow, by Cesarino Fava.
Maestri's claims to have summited the mountain on that attempt are now widely dismissed as false by the climbing community due to the sheer difficulty of the climbing above the col, and the lack of any equipment (pitons, ropes etc) left by Maestri and Egger.
A decade later Cesare Maestri returned to Patagonia, again with Cerro Torre in his sights. In the intervening ten years, the mountain had still not seen a successful ascent. Perhaps tormented by his own lies, or by the death of his old climbing partner, or perhaps neither, Maestri proceeded to climb the mountain in a very unusual and controversial style. If climbing is an art form, Maestri was painting with a machine gun.
Equipped with a petrol-powered compressor drill, Maestri and team slowly ground their way up the mountain, placing hundreds of bolts to allow their progress (over 400 bolts were placed in total). Stopping around sixty metres short of the summit, the route was declared finished. The desperately difficult snow mushroom looming overhead did not need to be climbed as it was regarded by Maestri as an ephemeral feature and not part of the mountain proper. The compressor was abandoned tied to the highest bolt belay, and the mountain was conquered. The icing on the cake was Maestri's smashing of the last few of his own bolts on descent, leaving the final seventy metres before the mushroom unclimbable. This section was skirted just to the side by Jim Bridwell on the route's first repeat (and first full ascent to the summit) and is now climbed at A2.
Despite the obvious ludicrousness of his actions, what Maestri did create, besides the ethical storm that has plagued him for several decades, was by far the most popular route to the summit of one of the world's most iconic mountains, but ever since those bolts were placed, there has been talk of them being removed.
(It is worth noting that whilst being described by some as a 'glorified Via Ferrata', The Compressor Route was still a long and fairly serious mountaineering proposition, and also provided a means of descent for all other routes on the mountain.)
In 2007 Americans Zack Smith and Josh Wharton paved the way for future climbers with a valiant bolt-free attempt on the line, but had to resort to the original bolt ladders on the final head wall due to poor weather.
Wharton commented, "All told, a route with over 400 holes could be brought down to less then 20 very reasonably, and it would without doubt change the nature of the peak and its difficulty considerably."
In the 2009/10 season David Lama, undoubtedly a world-class rock climber, arrived in Patagonia with the goal of free climbing the Compressor Route. When it emerged that David's team had placed extra bolts on the route, to protect their film crew, David himself came under the ethical spotlight.
The young Austrian was sponsored by Red Bull, which, although a great source of revenue for many of the world's leading climbers, is a controversial partnership due to the commercial and non-climbing specific nature of the fizzy drink company. A Red-Bull-sponsored-bolt-placing-film-crew were an easy target for ethical snipers and Lama felt the full force of criticism rain down on him. He failed in his objective to climb the mountain free, gained himself a lot of negative publicity, and left, abandoning some haul bags of gear as he went. Many climbers expected him never to return.
The 2011/12 season arrived and news of another ground-breaking ascent on the Compressor Route swept the internet, just a few days ago. Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk climbed the route without using the protection bolts placed by Maestri. They clipped around five bolts whilst leading, all of which were on slight variations to the original Compressor line, and not on the original bolt ladder. The team made one pendulum and reached the summit via a route that was around 5.11 and A2 in difficulty.
The pair chopped around 100 of Maestri's bolts on their descent, now leaving the Compressor Route defunct. Instead of being hailed as heroes upon their return to the ground, the pair were met by an angry group of local climbers, and a police presence. Back in 2007 a consensus of alpinists voted to leave the Compressor Route as it stood on the mountain, and these two young climbers had ignored that agreement. The bolts were confiscated from them. You can read more about this in the El Chalten 'Austral Parakeet' Online Newspaper (in Spanish).
The first free ascent;
David Lama was also back in Patagonia this season, on his third visit to the area specifically to free the Compressor Route. Just days after the bolt chopping by Kennedy and Kruk, Lama realised his 'free dream'.
Commenting on his Facebook Page on the 24th of January 2012 David Lama explained:
"I can't believe it... For more than three years I was driven by the idea of freeclimbing the Compressor route on Cerro Torre and now this dream has become true!
My partner Peter Ortner and I started on January 19th from El Chalten and hiked in to Nipo Nino, our first camp. The next morning we climbed up to the Col de la Paciencia, rested there for a few hours and then started our attempt at around 1pm.
We climbed to the start of the Bolt Traverse, but instead of turning right, we went straight up on the technically difficult arete, a few meters left of the Salvaterra crack. I took a couple of falls, until I figured out the right sequence and then was able to send the pitch on my second try from the belay. A few pitches higher we reached the Iced Towers, where we picked a small ledge into an icefield to bivi.
Early the next morning we climbed to the start of the headwall. The fact that Hayden and Jason had chopped Maestri's bolts a couple of days ago made my endeavour even more challenging, especially mentally as the protection was poor and I had to do long run outs. Climbing on hollow and loose flakes we followed the original Compressor route for three pitches. About 20 meters below the compressor we traversed to the right and then reached a system of cracks and corners that lead us to the summit. Climbing the route in alpine style took us 24 hours from the Col.
To me this first free ascent of the south east ridge of Cerro Torre is the end to the probably greatest adventure I experienced in my life so far. I'm especially proud having it done without adding any bolts. I learned a lot during the past years and climbing in this amazing mountain range has simply been great. Realizing dreams – it couldn't be any better!"
So the 'Compressor Route' as it has stood for forty years is no more, with around a hundred of its bolts missing on the crucial upper reaches of the mountain. The approximate line now goes free at a reported 8a standard with minimal protection, or can be climbed with some aid at 5.11/A2.
David Lama has driven a rocky road to success, dodging potholes of commercialism and bolting along the way, but now he is standing proud, and his ascent will certainly be marked down in the chequered history of Cerro Torre.
But will this be the end of the story for the iconic Patagonian monolith? Most likely not, for as long as there are climbers, there will be controversy. But one thing is certain, from now on there will be fewer climbers able to reach the magical mushroom summit of Cerro Torre.
David Lama has several sponsors including Mammut and Red Bull
Note: The photos of David Lama that accompany this report are from his attempts in 2010.