The Ark of the Winds

Posted on: July 1, 2006


The author on Cerro Torre's summit mushrooms during the first ascent of El Arca de los Vientos ("Ark of the Winds"). In 1959 Cesare Maestri claimed to have made the first ascent of Cerro Torre with Toni Egger by climbing the east face to the Col of Conquest, then continuing up the north and northwest faces. In 2005 Alessandro Beltrami, Rolando Garibotti and the author climbed the terrain Maestri had declared his own, finding none of the sixty pitons he mentioned leaving on the route. The 2005 team finished with the Ragni di Lecco route up the west ridge, climbed in 1974 by a team of Lecco Spiders and now regarded as the first ascent of the mountain. Note axe: Salvaterra brought a special tool with him to tackle the rime ice of the mushrooms. [Photo] Rolando Garibotti

Some routes have halos surrounding them, a certain radiance that suggests all their stories have something to do with you. For me the north face of Cerro Torre is such a route. A spire of golden granite, clouded with ice, wind and storm, the mountain appears 1200 meters above a glacier, like a tower in a legend. Near the top, colossal ice mushrooms guard a summit enveloped by mysteries, doubts and dangers. In 1959, when Cesare Maestri claimed to have climbed the mountain with his partner Toni Egger, who died on the descent, their feat entered almost immediately into the realm of fable. As the 1959 American Alpine Journal (AAJ) noted, "...with this ascent the Golden Age of Patagonian mountaineering has ended." A line that had appeared impossible, on a mountain that had seemed unclimbable, had apparently been finished.

Even as other climbing legends were inspired to make their own historic ascents on the mountain, Maestri's accomplishment remained mythic, unprecedented and unfollowed. As early as the 1960s, however, doubts started to arise about Maestri's ascent; and although, over the next few decades, several groups of climbers attempted to prove or disprove it, no one was ever able to repeat his line. Maestri's climb, it turned out, marked not the end of the Golden Age, but the beginning.

Long before my own first attempt on Cerro Torre's north face, I felt Patagonia's numinous allure. Twenty-three years ago, as I crossed the pampas and slowly, slowly approached the mountain, the distance enkindled my imagination. In those days you left Rio Gallegos and drove nearly 700 kilometers before reaching the place where El Chalten now stands. The trip was longer and more uncomfortable then, but it had an indescribable flavor. After a wild, arid expanse, lakes and rushing rivers appeared. Sheep meandered. Ostriches ran when they heard the car coming, and llamas watched you uncuriously. At the end of the highway, if you were lucky, you saw the mountains: Fitz Roy, Poincenot, Cerro Torre. If you weren't lucky, you could only imagine their invisible outlines beneath the thick and looming clouds.

The time I've spent behind those clouds beguiles me with an enchantment that has become a part of my being. After so many journeys to Cerro Torre, so many attempts and ascents—ever since the first time I stood on its summit in 1983—its stories have merged with my own. Its mysteries are embedded in my unconscious. Solving them has become as important as understanding myself.

Of all the mountain's unknowns, the north face compelled me the most. It is a logical line, a historical line, a line that, once you get it into your head, becomes the most beautiful line in the world.

Rolando Garibotti (left) and Ermanno Salvaterra at their first bivouac on the route, El Arca de los Vientos,1200m. Though the men are arguably the two greatest living Patagonia protagonists, their efforts on the north face of Cerro Torre marked the first time they had climbed together. [Photo] Alessandro Beltrami

In October 1992 Guido Bonvicini, Adriano Cavallaro and I made our first attempt on Cerro Torre's north face. We got as far as the English Dihedral, some 550 meters, but turned back because the wall was covered with snow and a huge avalanche had passed close by us. In November, when we made a second attempt, the weather and the wall were clear; but on our second day we woke once more to storms.

I asked my climbing partners to let me climb a little higher. I wanted to get at least as far as the Col of Conquest, the gap between Torre Egger and Cerro Torre; I was simply curious to see it. At the shoulder above the Col, the rope came to an end. I fixed it and untied, then moved on, a little farther, as the winds buffeted me and obscured my vision.

In a 1959 article, "E Venne la Morte Bianca," ("Cometh the White Death") for L'Europeo, Maestri claimed to reach the Col of Conquest with Egger and Cesarino Fava. Beyond it, Maestri says he and Egger climbed up a sheet of ice, "which was carried by the wind and pressed against the blank slabs of the north ridge. For 300 meters we go up climbing on air." As my future climbing partner, Rolando "Rolo" Garibotti, would write in the 2004 AAJ, "nobody has ever found the ice conditions Maestri described."

Through the storm I could only see about ten meters of the wall above me: the rock was almost vertical, without any ice sheet. When my partners and I reached our belay on the north ridge, an ice-snow mix lay above us. We determined that it was possible to climb ten meters of it, but no more.

Salvaterra (in light blue) and Alessandro Beltrami at a belay on the northwest face. In the evenings the sun warmed the rock so much that the team was able to collect water without melting snow. On the other hand, there was also a constant stream of falling ice. In the background can be seen the west face of Torre Egger. [Photo] Rolando Garibotti

I am a trusting person. For a long time I defended Maestri, Egger and Fava. Not only did I voice my belief in bars and public debate that they had climbed the north face, but I also argued furiously with Maestri's most vociferous accuser, Ken Wilson, the editor of the English climbing magazine, Mountain. Even after my 1992 attempt, I still supported them. I had known Maestri for a long time, and I admired his strength and stubbornness. It hadn't occurred to me yet that those very qualities, combined with his drive to succeed, might overpower his ethics.

In 1994 I tried the face again with Tommy Bonapace. By the afternoon we had reached Maestri's gear cache and some fixed ropes at the base of the triangular snowfield, some 300 meters above the glacier, the last place where any sign of Maestri and his partners had been discovered. On this attempt Tommy's dropped harness and my fall from a bivy ledge meant we wouldn't get much farther. Although Tommy retrieved his harness and neither of us were hurt, he said to me, "Finish, Ermanno. Never more." I knew then that his relationship with the route had come to an end.

Mine had not: the route still seized me. But little by little I began to change my mind about Maestri. As I reread Maestri's accounts of the 1959 climb, comparing them to the descriptions of subsequent climbers who attempted his route, more and more discrepancies appeared.

In November 2004 I returned home from Patagonia after completing a new route on the east face of Cerro Torre. Two months later I celebrated my fiftieth birthday. The years were passing, but my desire to climb the north face remained strong. With all the rumors about its impossibility, I knew it would be hard to find partners.

Toward the end of that winter, Rolo wrote me proposing a different Patagonian project. He'd suggested that we climb together in Patagonia before, but I'd always declined; he was much younger and stronger than I was. Now as we chatted about Patagonia, we found ourselves finishing each other's sentences. I discovered that, like me, Rolo didn't just think about the practical side of climbing, he loved to experience the emotions it evoked.

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