Cerro Torre, Argentina, Patagonia. David Lama and Daniel Steuerer attempted the iconic peak this season hoping to make the first free ascent of the infamous Compressor Route. In the process, their film team added roughly 60 bolts to the line and abandoned about 700 meters of fixed ropes, stirring controversy. Both the climbers and film crew involved have denied wrongdoing. [Photo] Leo Dickinson
Austrian wunderkind David Lama set off for Argentine Patagonia in November 2009 with a noble plan. The 19-year-old and his partner, Daniel Steuerer, would try for the first free ascent of Cerro Torre’s southeast ridge: the Compressor Route. After three months of bad weather and failed attempts, the climbers and their film crew left, but about 60 new bolts and 700 meters of fixed lines remained.
In 1959, Cesare Maestri claimed the first ascent of Cerro Torre. His assertion was met with incredulity and disputed heavily over the next decade. Maestri returned in 1970 to prove he could reach the top–but did so at the expense of the mountain. His team installed about 450 bolts, including a bolt ladder on the headwall, with a compressor-powered drill. These are perhaps the most infamous and debated bolts on earth. Partly in response to Maestri’s climb, Reinhold Messner wrote “The Murder of the Impossible” in 1971, proclaiming, “Times change, and with them concepts and values. Faith in equipment has replaced faith in oneself.”
In an interview with Redbull.com on November 17, 2009–the day before he departed for Argentina–Lama compared the ethics of today with Maestri’s: “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… Back in the days of old school mountaineering only conquering the peak was important–not so much how this goal was reached.” Lama added that he planned to make the first free ascent of the Compressor Route and return home without leaving any noticeable mark on the iconic peak. He stated that it was “not in our interest to leave any traces.”
However, to capture the footage they desired, the Red Bull film crew documenting Lama’s ascent installed about 60 new bolts. The crew bolted a new rappel line to the ground from the Col de la Patiencia. They also added a number of new bolts above the col, according to Horacio Graton, an Argentine guide. Many were in locations “where there is readily available natural protection and where not even Cesare Maestri drilled in 1970,” said climber and Patagonia historian Rolando Garibotti.
At the end of the season, Graton and three others were hired by Red Bull to clean up what the film team left on-route. The four carried away gear from the col and 700 meters of rope from the route. A press release from Red Bull Media House stated that “only bolts and one haul bag have been left to allow a quick completion of the project” next season.
In an email to Alpinist, Lama said that bad weather and “danger of avalanche” kept the team from removing the gear before departing. Lama plans to return next Austral summer to finish freeing the southeast ridge; the film team then plans to remove the bolts they placed.
Despite these promises, climbers have noted that the bolts, even if removed, will leave permanent scars. Others remain skeptical that the metal will be removed at all. Just as conditions kept the film crew from cleaning up this season, bad weather could again stymie hopes of dismantling bolts.
Of greater concern, perhaps, is that new bolts were placed at all given that the Compressor Route qualifies as one of the most renowned climbs on earth.
“I would like to know what would happen if this summer I visited Austria and added dozens of bolts to Locker vom Hocker, Wolfgang Gullich and Kurt Albert’s well known route, or to routes from Mathias Rebisch or Albert Precht,” wrote Garibotti in a recent editorial for Desnivel.com on this subject. “In relation to the fixed ropes I wonder how people would react if I left fixed ropes for an entire summer on routes like the Fish on Marmolada, or the Philipp Flamm on the Civetta, or on the American Direct on the west face of the Dru, or any other classic hard route in the Alps.”
Leo Dickinson filming on the Compressor Route in 1971, a year after Cesare Maestri bolted Cerro Torre’s southeast ridge. Dickinson left only a few pieces of clean protection at his highpoint (the headwall ice towers) and no additional fixed gear. [Photo] Leo Dickinson
In 1971, a year after Maestri’s ascent, videographer Leo Dickinson climbed and filmed on the Compressor Route. Dickinson left only a few pieces of clean protection at his highpoint (the headwall ice towers) and no additional fixed gear. While he and the rest of the team did not reach the summit, his reaction to the bolts on the Compressor Route compelled him to travel to Italy to interview Maestri. The result was a film entitled Cerro Torre–The Rape of a Mountain. In a recent email to Alpinist, he wrote: “In my view all bolts should be stripped from Cerro Torre and it declared a bolt free zone by the National Park. The rock of Cerro Torre and Fitzroy is eminently suitable for gear [that] can be removed.”
Coming from a different perspective, Lama and partners stated that they had local permission for their ascent and therefore blanket approval, including acquiescence to new bolts on Cerro Torre.
“Please know that every step that was made by our team in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and the Cerro Torre was executed in accordance with the rules and regulations as set out by the local mountain guides and the park administration,” the Red Bull release stated. “I don’t believe that we did anything wrong, as for everything done we had the permission of the people in charge,” Lama added.
“It is not the legality of the bolts they placed that is at stake here,” Garibotti said. “The Park does not regulate bolting, much in the same way that Yosemite National Park does not. Legally I could place hundreds of bolts on the Nose–as long as I did it by hand–without any legal consequences, but that does not make it OK within the community. Not adding bolts to existing routes, especially historic routes, is one of the best known unwritten rules of climbing.”
Another long-time Patagonian activist echoed this sentiment. “I am appalled at the consequences of the Lama debacle,” Jim Donini said. “Ironic, isn’t it, that bolts and fixed ropes should be employed in the process of trying to
make a climb more ‘difficult.’ The climbing world seems far too attached to the rating affixed to a climb.”
Lama ended his email to Alpinist by writing: “The most respect though I have for Cerro Torre itself, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful peaks in the world, and this should stay the same…”
The Cerro Torre group at sunset, as viewed from Innominata. [Photo] Leo Dickinson