At 11:15 p.m. on November 13, 2005, climbers Rolando Garibotti, 34, Ermanno Salvaterra, 51, and Alessandro Beltrami, 24, stood in the bitter cold and snow of one of the planet's most inhospitable places. The brilliant stars overhead had disappeared, and gusts of wind—that legendary, terrifying Patagonian wind that locals call "the Broom of God"—now swept across the summit. Over the past two days they'd climbed 4,000 vertical feet (1,219 vertical meters) and 37 roped pitches of granite with ice-filled cracks and aerated snow up Cerro Torre's daunting northern flanks. Not only did they make a magnificent ascent, they produced new evidence in a 47-year debate.
An Unclimbable Peak
Located in the Patagonia region of southern Argentina, 10,262-foot (3,127-meter) Cerro Torre's sheer granite walls rise more than 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) from the glacier to a summit guarded by enormous mushrooms of air-puffed snow. Because of its brutal steepness, violent weather, and lack of a clear line of ascent, many climbers had thought Cerro Torre unclimbable. That is, until January 31, 1959, when legendary Italian alpinist Cesare Maestri claimed that he and ace Austrian ice climber Toni Egger made the first ascent of the otherworldly spire. Maestri and Egger's alleged ascent—just two men in four days to the summit during an era of massive sieges by large teams on less difficult peaks—boggled the collective mind of the climbing world. Many hailed it the greatest ascent of all time.
But as the years passed, contradictions and discrepancies emerged from Maestri's stories, and he had no hard proof of an ascent that seemed light-years ahead of its time. Their only camera, he says, perished with Egger on the descent—and few of Egger's remains have been found. Despite subsequent ascents of the spire by different routes, nobody had succeeded in repeating the alleged first ascent route, where Maestri claimed evidence of their passage would be found up high, until Garibotti, Salvaterra, and Beltrami's climb last November.
The Evidence on High
Garibotti, Salvaterra, and Beltrami weren't the first group to search for clues on Cerro Torre. In 1976 Americans Jim Donini, John Bragg, and Jay Wilson retraced portions of the supposed Egger-Maestri line while en route to the first ascent of the adjacent Torre Egger, named in memory of Toni Egger. Cerro Torre and Torre Egger share a saddle between the two peaks named the Col of Conquest. The Americans found abundant 1959-era gear throughout the initial 1,000 feet, up to the first snowfield, and terrain exactly like Maestri described. More than ten subsequent parties, including some of the world's best alpinists, tried the Egger-Maestri line, but none made it beyond 3,000 feet (914 meters), just past the col. And all encountered the same evidence—not a trace of Egger and Maestri's passage above the first snowfield, and terrain dramatically different from Maestri's descriptions.
As suspicion grew within the climbing community, Maestri angrily denounced his critics and refused to address any of their questions. He'd only evoke the longtime climber code of accepting fellow climbers at their word. As Giorgio Spreafico, an award-winning Italian journalist specializing in Cerro Torre and editor in chief of La Provincia, has encountered: "He only repeats: 'If you doubt me, you doubt the story of mountaineering.'"
In 2004 the American Alpine Journal published the most definitive piece on the topic to date, a 7,800-word study by Garibotti entitled "A Mountain Unveiled: A revealing analysis of Cerro Torre's tallest tale." Previous articles on the topic had merely scratched the surface, but Garibotti, a linguist and scholar of Patagonian climbing history, dissected the case, examining print and recorded references in English, Italian, French, and Spanish, leaving little or no doubt in the objective mind.
But emotion doesn't necessarily follow logic, and fervent support for Maestri remained—especially in Italy, where climbing makes headlines like baseball does in the United States. "He is one of the most famous alpinists of the past," explains Spreafico. "In a word, a legend. Is it possible to debate a legend?"
Maestri's supporters held strong, but others didn't buy it. "If you had done the hardest climb in the world, wouldn't you want to talk about it? Why is it that Maestri refuses to discuss the 1959 climb? The fact that he refuses to answer any questions about 1959 damns him to utter darkness. He has destroyed the historical record," argued Ken Wilson, former editor of Mountain magazine, in a 1998 Climbing magazine interview.
With more than 20 expeditions to Patagonia, Italian Ermanno Salvaterra had established two new routes on Cerro Torre, made its first winter ascent, and climbed a host of other difficult routes. He'd already tried the Egger-Maestri line three times. Salvaterra had long believed Maestri, but over the years he changed his mind—the evidence became too overwhelming. If, however, he could find any trace of Egger and Maestri high on Cerro Torre, it would be enough for him to vindicate his countryman. Before leaving, he said, "If I find one of their pegs [pitons], I'll fling it in the world's face, but first and foremost in mine." Beltrami, on the other hand, went to Patagonia believing Maestri.
Garibotti was certain that Maestri had lied. A fiercely passionate and talented climber, he has long been known among serious alpinists for his ascents of enormous, technically difficult mountains in ultralight style. Born in Italy, Garibotti grew up in Patagonia, but now lives in the U.S.
Despite his historical interest in the Egger-Maestri story, Garibotti had no personal desire to climb the route: "Cerro Torre was never a dream of mine. I never thought it would be the kind of mountain that would allow me to climb it in a style I would be pleased with." Cerro Torre is so steep, and has such sudden, violent storms, that establishing a new route in minimalist style seemed unlikely. But Salvaterra convinced him to try.
The View From the Top
Three days after an initial failed attempt in which they gained 3,000 vertical feet (914 vertical meters) before retreating in a storm, the weather cleared. Though still feeling battered, they set off again. Now familiar with the terrain and moving like a well-honed team, they made incredible time. Salvaterra praised Garibotti's technical expertise on the vertical granite: "Rolo climb[ed] with missile-like speed." Despite increasingly difficult and dangerous climbing the higher they went, they pressed on through the dreaded mushroom cap of overhanging snow guarding the summit. One single 60-meter (200-foot) pitch near the top took four hours to overcome. But finally they'd done what no one else, despite all the attempts, had done: They'd climbed Cerro Torre from the north. In addition, they climbed thousands of feet on the alleged 1959 lines (in his contradictions, Maestri had claimed three different lines up high) and scoured the area.
"There is no gear of Maestri's and the terrain has nothing to do with his descriptions. Between our attempt and ascent we covered most of the north ridge and a large part of the north face and there is no trace of the 60 bolts he claims to have placed above the col. One thing is clear: they climbed 300 meters (984 feet) on Cerro Torre and nothing more. That is it," says Garibotti.
Back in Italy the November ascent made front-page news across national papers. Beltrami, who works in Madonna di Campiglio in the same guides' office as Maestri, would have preferred to validate Maestri. Instead he faced a contentious and emotionally charged environment caused by their findings.
Salvaterra hasn't been shy: "Had I found something—not necessarily close to the summit, but even just beyond the first snowfield—it would have been enough for me and for the mountaineering skeptics. But this was not and I say it."
"Salvaterra's open statement to Maestri to stand up and be counted has been backed by a number of major movers and shakers, including Reinhold Messner," says the venerable Lindsay Griffin, an editor at the British magazine Climb.
But Maestri, now 76 years old, still refuses to discuss the climb. In a recent newspaper article, his lawyer hinted at suing Salvaterra for libel. Maestri did, however, grant one of Adventure's contributors an interview, which will be published in the April 2006 issue (available on newsstands on March 21).
"One thing is for sure, Cerro Torre made Maestri. It elevated him to a much greater standing and produced much greater financial rewards," says Griffin. And though Cesare Maestri had that for nearly 47 years, it doesn't change the facts about Cerro Torre.
Kelly Cordes is a senior editor at the American Alpine Journal.
Pick up the March 2006 issue for more secrets of the Southwest, nine Caribbean adventures, the best gear for runners, and our World Class outfitter trips.
Subscribe to Adventure now!