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Patagonia’s Cerro Torre Gets the Chop: Maestri Unbolted (Photos)

On January 16, 2012, mountaineering history was made. The actors in the drama were two of the best young alpinists alive—a 21-year-old Coloradan, Hayden Kennedy, and a 24-year-old from British Columbia, Jason Kruk. Their deed took place on a savagely steep needle of granite and rime ice in southern Patagonia called Cerro Torre. Kennedy and Kruk knew that what they were trying to do was audacious in the extreme, but they could hardly have anticipated that it would trigger the most explosive mountaineering controversy of the last decade.

By David Roberts and Kathryn Sall; Photographs by Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk (seen here on the summit of Cerro Torre)

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Although it rises to an altitude of only 10,262 feet, Cerro Torre has been called the most beautiful mountain on earth, as well as one of the most difficult. On the border of Chile and Argentina, the peak soars nearly 5,000 feet from base to summit. The indomitable French mountaineer Lionel Terray, who made the first ascent of nearby Fitz Roy, doubted that Cerro Torre would ever be climbed. The greatest Italian climber of his day, Walter Bonatti, failed on an attempt less than halfway to the summit in 1958.

Then in 1959, Bonatti’s bitter rival, Cesare Maestri, came to Patagonia to slay the dragon via its north face. His climbing companions were his fellow Italian, Cesarino Fava, and the Austrian Toni Egger, one of the outstanding ice climbers of his day. The three set out on their attempt and reached a gunsight notch that they named “The Col of Conquest,” 1,800 feet below the summit. Having agreed to act in only a supporting role, Fava retreated alone down to Camp 3. Maestri and Egger prepared an attack on the summit. Fava settled in to wait. After three days, gusts of warm air melted the ice near the top of the mountain and set loose colossal avalanches. After three more days without any sign of his climbing partners, Fava assumed the worst. On the sixth day, to his shock and surprise, Fava discovered Maestri, sprawled and helpless in the snow, a thousand feet from Camp 3.

Maestri had an extraordinary story to tell. After three bivouacs above the Col of Conquest, he and Egger had reached the summit of the mountain that Terray deemed impossible. But on the descent, an avalanche had caught Egger in mid-rappel and swept both him and the climbing rope off the mountain. With a desperate effort, Maestri regained the fixed ropes below the Col of Conquest. But just above Camp 3, he lost his grasp and fell. When Fava found him, he was barely conscious. Fava helped his exhausted teammate stagger the rest of the way down to base camp. With Egger, Maestri claimed, had gone the men’s camera, carrying the only documentary proof of the men’s landmark ascent.

Back in Italy, Maestri recuperated fully and boasted about his amazing climb. At first, the climbing world accepted Maestri’s account and showered the exploit with accolades. Lionel Terray called the first ascent of Cerro Torre “the greatest climbing feat of all time.” But doubts soon emerged. How had Maestri and Egger climbed so skillfully, especially given the horrendous weather? The sheer steepness of the final stretch above the Col of Conquest made the wall look unclimbable, even by the finest mountaineers of the day.

Once a pioneer of clean solo climbing, Maestri turned after Cerro Torre to a new style—bolting everything he touched—that only served to undercut his claim. After a crack British team failed even to come close to making the second ascent of Cerro Torre in 1968, the doubters came clamoring.

Today, Maestri’s 1959 “ascent” of Cerro Torre is widely regarded as one of the most blatant hoaxes in mountaineering history.

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To silence his skeptics, Maestri returned to Patagonia in 1970 to climb the mountain he claimed he had already conquered. With a large team, he took on the southeast ridge. Instead of climbing in conventional alpine style, Maestri fixed thousands of feet of rope. Even worse, he used a gas-powered air compressor—a device never before employed in the mountains—to drill no fewer than 400 bolts into the route, many of them on the dead vertical headwall, effectively engineering a series of bolt ladders up the beautiful granite spire. Maestri stopped only a hundred feet short of the summit, as a gigantic mushroom of rotten rime ice loomed above him, but still claimed the second ascent. Later, he dismissed that mushroom as “not really part of the mountain,” because “it’ll blow away one of these days.” Leaving the compressor bolted to the wall as a taunt to his critics and to the climbing community at large, he rappelled the route.

Maestri’s bizarre stunt backfired. The “Compressor Route,” as it is known today, only reinforced his skeptics’ suspicions that the 1959 “first ascent” was an outright hoax. In all likelihood, then, the true first ascent came in 1974, when a four-man Italian team led by Casimiro Ferrari succeeded on the west face, the route first tried by Bonatti in 1958.

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During the four decades since Maestri put up the Compressor Route, scores of climbers have repeated the climb, relying on the bolt ladders. And in recent years, some of the best young mountaineers in the world have tried to climb the southeast ridge by “fair means,” without placing new bolts or using Maestri’s.

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In December 2011, Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk arrived on the scene. Each of them had climbed in Patagonia during three or more previous seasons. After making fine ascents in fast times on other peaks in the Fitz Roy massif, they turned to Cerro Torre. And in January of this year, they made their lightning strike on the Compressor Route. On the 15th, they reached the Col of Patience halfway up the mountain (the name itself a pointed rejoinder to Maestri’s Col of Conquest on the north face). Then on the 16th, in the astonishingly fast time of only 13 hours, they completed the first “fair means” ascent of the southeast ridge, clipping only five bolts, none of which had been placed by Maestri, in places where the route would have been impossible without them. (They did admit to using two of Maestri’s bolt anchors, where it would have taken much longer to build cam and piton anchors right next to them.)

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It was the descent, however, that turned a breakthrough climb into a historic controversy. As Kennedy and Kruk rappelled the route, they chopped some 125 of Maestri’s bolts from the headwall and from one of the pitches below it. In a single day, they effectively demolished the Compressor Route.

The news immediately circled the globe, thanks to online posts by such witnesses in Patagonia as climbers Colin Haley and Rolando Garibotti. On the popular climbing website, Garibotti, an Argentine climber who has made as many major first ascents in the Fitz Roy massif as anyone, started a thread; in only five days, it had generated more than 1,200 responses, though still without a word from Kruk or Kennedy. A storm of pros and cons erupted amidst their silence. At first, the responders lauded the young climbers’ deed, congratulating them on restoring the mountain to something like its original state. Garibotti, their most unequivocal supporter, said that he was “impressed beyond words” by the chopping of the route. Maestri’s “act of vandalism,” he claimed, had “diminished the challenge and appeal the mountain originally and naturally presented.” By removing the bolt ladder, Garibotti felt, Kruk and Kennedy had done much “to restore the grandeur that Cerro Torre always had.” Cheers erupted across cyberspace, echoing Garibotti’s praise.

But then the critics began to emerge. Who, some wondered, were these young punk North Americans to erase a historical route and determine what was right for the rest of the climbing world? Steve Schneider, who has attempted the Compressor Route on four separate occasions, erupted: “They f*#cked a historical route that was put up before they were born.” Schneider added, “Other people think Jason and Hayden are heroes. I think they’re assholes for [chopping the route].” Gregory Crouch, author of Enduring Patagonia, describes the Compressor Route as “spectacular climbing, with plenty of superb mixed terrain, not just some 5,000-foot bolt ladder.” Crouch’s reaction to the news was “not anger per se, but disappointment, even hurt.” The Compressor Route was indeed, as Crouch put it, a “monument to the folly of man.” But Kruk and Kennedy “decided to choose for everybody else. I’m not sure that’s a wise thing to have done.”

The reaction abroad was equally vituperative. Jean-Pierre Banville, editor of the influential French journal Grimper, wondered whether Kruk and Kennedy had been seduced by the “illusion of their own importance.” He added, “These excellent climbers have deliberately destroyed a historic route that was a landmark of alpinism. These dimwits have destroyed our past.”

Yet others continued to support the pair’s bold deed. Conrad Anker, the legendary American mountaineer and North Face spokesman, who has climbed Cerro Torre, chimed in on Supertopo: “Hayden and Jason have given the mountain some of its strength back . . . and in turn have stirred the hornet’s nest . . . . This is a good progression.” Leo Dickinson, filmmaker on the 1968 British attempt and one of the first journalists to accuse Maestri of fraud, posted: “Perhaps the saddest piece of Maestri’s legacy is denying his fellow Italians their rightful place in history. Now that this ridiculous via ferrata has been removed, an ascent of Cerro Torre will have meaning once more. It will take its rightful place as one of the world’s most inaccessible summits. Please let no one put back the bolts.”

At the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Reinhold Messner, the most famous mountaineer alive, heard the news from Patagonia. According to top American climber Cedar Wright, who was there, “When asked what he thought about the ascent, Messner was very excited about it and endorsed the chopping of the route with a big smile and two thumbs up.” In 1971, outraged by the Compressor Route, Messner had published a polemic called “The Murder of the Impossible.” It remains one of the most influential declarations of mountaineering ethics ever written.

Colin Haley, who watched the climb from the base of the mountain, later weighed in: “The Compressor Route was THE biggest mistake in the entire history of climbing, and it was committed on the world’s most beautiful mountain. People have been talking about removing Maestri’s bolts since the day they were put in, over forty years ago. Until Hayden and Jason came along, no one had enough skill (and luck with the weather) to climb the line without Maestri’s bolts, and no one had enough courage to remove them.” Some authorities, however, confessed to mixed feelings. Ermanno Salvaterra, who in 2005, with Garibotti and a third partner, finally made the first ascent of Maestri’s alleged 1959 route on the north face of Cerro Torre, said, “What [Kruk and Kennedy] have done is so special, for they have shown the world that that line was actually climbable in a [clean] way, even in 1970.” But he added, “Personally I would have wanted to do something similar [to chopping the bolts], but at first I would have discussed that with Cesare Maestri.”

Salvaterra, who knows Maestri well, adds a beguiling footnote to the controversy. “In 1970,” he says, “Maestri himself wanted to chop all the bolts on his route. He wanted to remove them so that people coming after him would have not been able to climb the route.” But his partners, fearing bad weather, demanded an immediate retreat. Before heading down, Maestri did chop the last twenty bolts below the compressor—a final “up yours” to his critics and rivals.

Jim Donini, former president of the American Alpine Club, was a member in 1975 of the first team to repeat Maestri’s purported route up to the Col of Conquest. What he found there convinced him that Maestri, Egger, and Fava had not even reached the col, let alone climbed the mountain. Says Donini now, “The Compressor Route is an abomination that mars an otherwise nearly perfect mountain. A mountain of such stature should only yield its summit to parties willing to and capable of climbing by fair means.” But, “I have always felt that the Compressor Route should be dealt with by the Argentinians themselves.” In 2007, in fact, a conference of local climbers and guides was held in El Chalten to debate chopping the bolts. Thirty out of the forty present voted to keep the bolts intact. Gregory Crouch comments, “People would go crazy if a group of Italians chopped the bolt ladder at the top of the Nose on El Cap. I don’t see the moral difference between what just happened on Cerro Torre and that hypothetical event.”

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At last, on January 26, Kruk and Kennedy emerged from their silence, issuing a statement written by Kruk. Its tone was unrepentant, even defiant. “Maestri’s actions were a complete atrocity,” wrote Kruk. “His use of bolts and heavy machinery was outrageous, even for the time. The Southeast Ridge was attainable by fair means in the 70s, he stole that climb from the future.” Rhetorically, he added, “Who committed the act of violence against Cerro Torre? Maestri, by installing the bolts, or us, by removing them?”

The Kruk-Kennedy statement only unleashed a new spate of online controversy and further polarized the responders. One called the two young men “climbing Ghadhafi i.e. Kennedy and a climbing Saddam Hussein i.e. Kruk.” Others demanded that Kennedy and Kruk be banned from climbing in Patagonia until they put the bolts on the Compressor Route back in themselves.

In a separate interview with National Geographic Online, Kruk elaborated on the decision to chop the bolts: “In El Chalten over many seasons and cocktail hours with many climbers, we had talked about the pros and cons of bolt chopping. But our decision to go through with it was in fact made on the summit, where we discussed it for 30 or 45 minutes. To talk about the bolt removal beforehand or during the climb was in our minds calling our ascent a guarantee. We had no guarantees up there; in fact, I had been shut down just forty meters from the top last year. This time, I held my breath till the top. On top, we said, ‘Gee, we did it . . . . Now what about those bolts?’ ”

What does this controversy portend for the future of mountaineering? Does Kruk and Kennedy’s feat present the next generation with a shining example of purist style in homage to a formidable objective? Or does it plumb the anarchic core of the age-old quest for distant summits, which decrees that nobody can tell anyone else what to do in the mountains? Curiously, Maestri himself, alive and compos mentis at the age of 82 in his home in the village of Madonna di Campiglio, has yet to comment on the new controversy.

Whatever the ultimate fallout in this latest chapter in mountaineering history, it’s clear that the magnitude and fervor of the reaction to their bolt-chopping extravaganza stunned Kruk and Kennedy. Those who know the young men well see them as anything but the arrogant poseurs their detractors have vilified. Says Rolando Garibotti, “I like both of them. They are not selfish, and they are not egomaniacs. Hayden is the most good-natured, modest, and kind person I know.” Jim Donini concurs, “I don’t know Jason, but I know Hayden quite well and find him to be an exceptional young man.” And in spite of his dismay over the bolt chopping, Gregory Crouch, who does not know Kruk and Kennedy personally, concludes, “From everything I hear, they are both really good guys. They’re so damn young and so damn talented. I hope this isn’t what they’re remembered for.”