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Remembering Cesare Maestri (1929-2021)

Cesare Maestri [Photo] Courtesy of Giulio Malfer

Cesare Maestri [Photo] Courtesy of Giulio Malfer

Cesare Maestri, one of the most legendary figures in climbing history, died January 19 at age 91. The most famous questions surrounding his life have to do with a certain tower in Patagonia–Cerro Torre–and his expeditions to its walls in 1959 and 1970, though there was much more to the career of the man known as the “Spider of the Dolomites.”

In 1959 Maestri claimed to have completed the first ascent of Cerro Torre by the tower’s “east face to north ridge” (as described in Maestri’s curriculum vitae published by Alpinist in 2002). At some point during a six-day period when the men were climbing on the tower, his partner Toni Egger disappeared in an avalanche. (Jim Donini found Egger’s remains in 1974.) In 1970 Maestri’s next act was to siege the tower with a gas-powered air compressor up the southeast ridge, hammering in some 300 bolts up the prow to a point just below the summit ice mushroom. The team left the compressor lashed to the wall, where it remained until fairly recently.

In a 2015 article titled “Completing the Puzzle: New Facts About the Claimed Ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959,” Rolando Garibotti wrote, “Maestri was undoubtedly a phenomenal climber and an independent thinker, a vanguardist who deserves respect for his contributions. However, this should not preclude examination of his Cerro Torre claims.”

Following extensive research by Garibotti and American alpinist Kelly Cordes (author of The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre, published in 2014) and others, it is now generally believed that Maestri and Egger did not even come close to summiting Cerro Torre in 1959. The 1970 Compressor Route was ultimately chopped by Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk in 2012 after they completed the first “fair means” ascent of the route without using the extensive bolt ladders. (Their action infuriated so many people that Kennedy and Kruk were taken into protective custody by police when they returned to El Chalten, Argentina.) Days afterward, David Lama free climbed the line at 5.13b, braving long runouts where the bolts had been.

In 1971, Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest climbers of all time, published a famous essay in Mountain magazine titled “The Murder of the Impossible,” in which he argued against siege tactics and heavy bolting. But in an Italian article published by Alpinistie Montagne Gazzetta following Maestri’s death, Alessandro Filippini quoted Messner’s description of Maestri as someone who also sparked important conversations about the future of the pursuit: “Beyond the great merits for his many climbs and his many solo climbs as a rock climber of excellence, it must be remembered that, being a person who spoke openly, Maestri allowed us to open a serious discussion on the development of mountaineering. There are people who say half of what they think and do not allow open confrontation. Cesare was quite the opposite.”

Though Cerro Torre has shadowed many biographical accounts of Maestri’s life, he made other, undisputed contributions to alpinism (check out Alpinist’s curriculum vitae here for a list of highlights).

Cesare Maestri (front) with Mario Cristofolini during a rescue in the 1960s. [Photo] Wikimedia

Maestri (front) with Mario Cristofolini during a rescue in the 1960s. [Photo] Wikimedia

Luca Signorelli, an Italian climbing historian, shared the following perspective with Alpinist:

I have to admit I became interested in Maestri quite late in my life. For my parents’ generation, he was a myth, just a tiny bit less than [Walter] Bonatti, but for us born in the 1960s, he was already an old story, and he seemed to have linked his name with aid climbing, [which was] for us a dead-end in climbing evolution. Also, my main climbing interest is related to Mont Blanc, and there Maestri did nothing.

The rekindling of the Torre discussion in late 2000, however, made me curious to check into the reality of Maestri’s career and to read again Two Thousand Meters of Our Life, the book he co-wrote with his beloved wife Fernanda [in 1972]. So if you ask me what I think about Maestri’s real place in Italian climbing history, here’s what I think:

Maestri’s climbing career in the Dolomites was stunning. We’re talking of HUNDREDS of routes climbed, almost half of them free soloed. Some of them were feats at least two decades ahead of the time–particularly his solo of the Solda-Conforto Route [5.9 A2, 650m] on the Marmolada and the full linkup of 16 Dolomiti Del Brenta summits in less than 24 hours in 1954. He was also instrumental in making aid climbing “modernized” into a fairly conservative environment, and he opened dozens of new, hard lines, often in winter. In this respect, Maestri was second to none, at least if you consider the Dolomitic environment, and should be honored as one of the all-time greats.

Besides the mere technical achievement, Maestri also did much to “knock the cobwebs” out of the Italian climbing establishment. His strongly progressive left-leaning political views (he had been a partisan [a member of the resistance] during World War II), and the fact that he was a very well-read man, coming from a family of theater actors, made him less timid in challenging many hypocrisies and silences surrounding climbing and mountaineering. His lifelong marriage with his beloved wife Fernanda gave him the will to “give a voice” to “the others,” the people (often spouses) who more often than not had to endure [absences] instead of enjoying their husbands/partners climbing activity. Two Thousand Meters of Our Life, the book he co-wrote with Fernanda about the 1970 Cerro Torre climb, is in this respect revolutionary because it anticipates some of the themes (the loneliness, the misunderstandings, the disappointments) of being married to an alpinist that were later explored by others in the ’80s. And it must be said that Maestri was never shy of saying what he thought, but on the other hand, never refused to accept the consequences of his outspokenness.

An Italian associated press article reports that Maestri’s son Gian first announced his father’s death on Facebook, saying, “Cesare has signed the summit book of the climb of his life.”

Cesare Maestri, 1969. [Photo] Wikimedia

Maestri, 1969. [Photo] Wikimedia