Sweating hard, I took another step and plunged boot-deep in the soft snow. The rope pulled sharply at my harness.
“You need to slow down dude, I can’t go as fast as you,” Chris urged. He was right; we were gaining nothing by working this hard on the approach. It was 11:00 am, the sun, a rare sight in this mountain range, was shining brightly down on us. The snow was isothermal. The mighty east face of Cerro Torre leered above, taunting me. This was the culmination of a season spent biding time, waiting for conditions and weather to allow us to attempt our dream project. I was amazed we were finally getting the chance. I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach, the feeling of uncertainty.
Only 24 hours before, my partner Chris Geisler and I had cashed in our chips. Our trip was over. We staggered back into camp and packed our bags, defeated. Our new route attempt across the valley from the Torre ended after two punishing days. It was going to be our consolation prize of the trip, as the Torre, our main objective, was still caked in unclimbable rime ice. I got sick on the route. We were both fried. After a freezing open bivy without a stove or bivy gear our decision to retreat was easy.
We were punched on the walk out of base camp. Chris had to catch the bus out of town that afternoon to make his flight home. Mid-way across the glacier we stopped for a drink at a small glacial stream. Sitting on my pack I stared up at Cerro Torre one last time, my eyes drawn immediately to the upper headwall, a stretch of overhanging stone encased in rime ice 98 per cent of the year. It had shed quite a bit of its frosty exterior. Our route looked to be coming into climbable shape.
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“What exactly is stopping us from trying what we came all the way here to try?” Chris asked.
I thought for a long time before answering. “Well, you have to catch a plane to get home to your wife, daughter and job”.
Both polite Canadians, we were avoiding saying exactly what we felt. But Chris’s good nature was betrayed by the look in his eyes. We needed, at least, to try.
Chris dropped his bag on the glacier, we high-fived, and he howled with delight as he ran off to make the 30km round trip to town and back to change his flight.
I shuttled our packs back to base camp and resurrected our tent. When I finished packing, all that remained was to wait. It was still light out when I retired to my sleeping bag in a futile attempt at sleep. My mind raced. More than any climb I had yet attempted, this one had the biggest build-up, the most bullshit. To understand, one must understand a little bit of the history of Cerro Torre. For the keenest reader, much has been written on the subject. Here is my abridged take on it all.
“The story of Cerro Torre is the story of a defeat”. Or so said Dougal Haston after his attempt of the SE Ridge in 1968. Certainly, it has become the most controversial peak in the world of alpine climbing.
In 1959, Italians Cesare Maestri, Cesarino Fava, and Austrian Toni Egger attempted the North Face of Cerro Torre. Fava turned back part way up, at the Col of Conquest. Egger perished at some point during the attempt. Fava found Maestri six days later lying in the snow after a fall, severely frostbitten and near death. Maestri claimed to have been successful, making what was then the greatest ascent in history. Despite being one the premier climbers of his generation, Maestri’s claim was heavily scrutinized. It is now globally accepted that Maestri made nothing more than a monumental lie.
For reasons that can only be attributed to the inner workings of an unhinged mind, Cesare Maestri returned to Cerro Torre, in 1970, with a gasoline-powered air compressor and thousands of metres of fixed rope. Maestri started up the unclimbed south east ridge of the mountain. When he hit ice part way up the ridge, he deviated from the natural line. Utilizing his 180 kg compressed air drill kit he drilled a 90 m bolt ladder across the blank, overhanging east face and continued bolting up the blank stone above. When Maestri intersected the ice tower features, he drilled up blank stone beside a WI4 goulotte. On the headwall, Maestri drilled continuous pitches of bolt ladders despite many climbable features, because the pitons had been left at the bergschrund. Between 300 and 400 bolts were placed. The resulting effort is now known as the Compressor Route.
Maestri didn’t summit. He descended from the highest rock on the headwall, not even allowing his climbing partners to join him at his high point. While rappelling his last pitch, Maestri chopped a long section of the bolt ladder (which was re-drilled with rivets by Jim Bridwell when he and Steve Brewer made the third ascent of Cerro Torre in 1979).
It’s truly unbelievable. To fully fathom the insanity that Maestri left behind on Cerro Torre, one must experience it first-hand.
I remember when I was 10 years old, showing my stepfather a photo of Cerro Torre in a climbing magazine and telling him that Patagonia looked cool.. Since then, I’ve always wanted to climb the Torre. My partner Will Stanhope and I even briefly discussed attempting the Compressor Route during our first trip to the mountain range. Lacking the skill set for any other route on the mountain however, we soon abandoned any notion of a try, dismissing an ascent of the Compressor as invalid.
In 2010, I applied for the John Lauchlan Memorial Grant with partner Chris Geisler. “Our team hopes to climb the Torre by fair means – a new route done without using any of the Maestri bolts up the natural line of the SE ridge” I wrote in my proposal. Never expecting to win with such a wacky objective, we were blown away when they told us we’d won the money.
Climbing the South East Ridge of Cerro Torre without utilizing any of Maestri’s detritus, what is now labelled the ‘Fair Means’ project, is a difficult thing for the general population to understand. Compounding the problem was the recent hype in the media surrounding the young Austrian David Lama, Red Bull energy drink and the Torre.
Lama arrived in Patagonia during the 2009-10 climbing season on a Red Bull-sponsored expedition accompanied by a large crew of filmmakers and guides, intent on freeclimbing the Compressor. Unfortunately, the team chose to add approximately 30 bolts to the route in places not even Maestri deemed necessary, as well as fix ropes along the ridge to the 90 m bolt traverse. Here, they were thwarted by poor weather and conditions and retreated. They abandoned their ropes and haulbags on the mountain, and the team returned to Austria. It would be more than a month before Red Bull paid local Argentine guides to remove the trash, but they failed to remove it all. As a keen observer who happened to be in the range at the time, I was shocked that these heavy-handed tactics were still being deployed in the mountains and wondered when the media was going to catch on to this story. News spread; the climbing world was outraged and Lama was vilified, especially in North America.
In 2011, Lama returned to Patagonia, admitting the wrongs from the year before. Things would be different this time, he claimed. One detail that managed to leak, however, was Lama’s intention to climb the Compressor to scope the headwall section, then rappel bolt the line of least resistance.
I was shocked. I thought this tactic would directly inhibit my planned attempt. I appealed to the power of social media, and blogged about Red Bull’s plan. The response was much greater than anticipated. Loving the controversy, all the magazines wanted to know my opinion. The hype became too much. Recycled garbage. Eventually I was tired of it all, the idea of comparing myself to someone else sickened me. My plan was never to promote my ascent nor defame Lama.
Still awake, my eyes wide and staring at the yellow fabric of my tent, waiting for Chris to show up. I had a lot to think about when all I really should have been thinking about was the route. The hell with everybody else. Cerro Torre was deeply personal. That’s why I was doing this. Finally, I was able to sleep.
“Yo, Kruk!” It was Chris, back from his epic round trip.
He had been on the move now for a long time. Taking a long pull off a bottle of whiskey, he described his odyssey: the ordeal of changing his flights last minute, getting hopelessly lost alone on the Torre Glacier. His eyes were lit up, but his body looked worked.
“I think we should move now, before the snow softens up,” Chris said.
I thought about it. It was 3:30 in the morning, a very reasonable time to go alpine climbing. Climbing the initial 300 m of mixed terrain before the sun reached it would make for easier travel, safer too. But I also thought about how tired Chris must be, especially considering our climbing the previous two days.
We agreed to sleep for 4 hours. We woke at 9:30, brewed cowboy coffee, and devoured a massive steak Chris had hiked in from town, along with soggy French fries and a wilting salad. We started hiking towards Cerro Torre at 10:00.
Here we were, postholing on the glacier, playing tug-of-war on the ends of our shortened rope. I apologized. I was anxious. We were finally going to touch Cerro Torre.
We wove our way through fresh-looking serac debris at the start of the mixed climbing. I dropped the coils of rope that were around my shoulder and we started simul-climbing up the steep snow and ice, placing infrequent pieces of rock gear in the buttress to my right. I spied the first real pitch of climbing and led towards it. Slinging a horn as my belay, I pulled the rope in to Chris, then handed him the rack. Chris, with steel crampons, would lead this section. I would follow with the heavy pack and aluminum crampons that threatened to fall off my boots with every front-point move.
Isothermic conditions required creativity to manage, but we quickly reached the Col of Patience, the broad shoulder of snow where the SE ridge proper begins. Here, I switched from boots to rock shoes and led and short-fixed my way up the ridgeline. Chris followed with the jumars, getting more and more frustrated by the tedious nature of jugging less-than-vertical terrain with a large pack.
Our friends Colin Haley and Zach Smith, who were trying the same project up the SE ridge, rappelled past us, bailing. They told us it was too cold and windy and they only had lightweight sleeping bags.
We watched our friends rappel out of sight. Chris and I chatted about the possibility of descending. We only had one lightweight sleeping bag between us. After all we had been through to get to this point, we were committed. We were not bailing now. We continued, at a slow pace, making up the difference between our tired bodies and our high psyche.
We bivied just below the 90 m bolt traverse the first night. I spent a long time chopping a ledge into the ice barely big enough for us to sleep on, repeatedly having to force my hand open finger-by-finger from its death grip on my ice tool. The night was cold but luxurious compared to the horrible bivy we had two nights previous.
On day two we encountered our first crux. The integral ridgeline above the 90 m bolt traverse was attempted as early as 1968 and finally climbed in 1999 by Ermanno Salvaterra and Mauro Mabboni. Here I climbed bullet hard granite at the apex of the ridge, the unrelentingly steep south face dropping away immediately to my left. I tacked my way through perfect, scooped edges on bold 5.11 climbing protected by only a handful of bolts and thin gear. Salvaterra placed a handful of bolts in total, skipping hundreds of Maestri bolts in the process.
Chris’ s morale was starting to dive. I was leading granite perfection, hooting with delight at the intricate climbing, while he was sentenced to the jumars as the pack mule. At the ice towers Chris took over and led up an easy mixed pitch with renewed vigour. Moderate ice led to the entrance of the 60 m WI4 chimney, a perfect cleft of vertical blue ice pinching down to a width barely big enough to fit through. Bobbles of rime ice were being funnelled through the chimney feature. Chris battled through, occasionally getting his bell rung by softball-sized chunks of ice, running it out between the only three screws we brought.
Topping out the chimney, we were finally at the base of the headwall, the overhanging tombstone of decomposing granite capping the mountain. Looking up, incipient edge features linked hanging flakes – a far cry from the high-quality granite we had become accustomed to. Maestri’s bolt ladder went straight up, our line climbed right. Chris led on, gingerly laybacking the hollow flakes and stuffing dubious cams behind the creaking granite. The pitch devoured gear, so Chris stopped short, fixing the rope for me to jumar. Ice clung to the wide flakes above, forcing Chris left. Now, climbing mostly on aid, Chris swung into a perfect thin-hands splitter. What could have been freeclimbing terrain was mostly aided in our deteriorating state. Chris brought us up to a two-foot ledge of sloping ice mid-way up the headwall. The only horizontal sanctuary on the headwall, and what would be my resting place for the next eight hours.
Above, the climbing looked tenuous – definitely the realm of the modern aid technician. Chris was the man for job. He did early repeats of El Cap terrors and established and repeated the most serious of the Squamish big wall aid climbs. He hadn’t done this type of climbing for several years so I was curious to see how he would do. I breathed easy as I watched him delicately shift his weight between his aiders and methodically work his way from hook placement to hook placement.
When it became dark Chris continued climbing. I patiently belayed. The hours ticked by and the cold darkness of a Patagonian night surrounded us. The rime ice bobbles whipped around the headwall carried by the venturi effect and pummelled me constantly where I sat on the ice. Every couple minutes a softball would connect with my knee or my shoulder, awakening me from my half-sleep with sharp pain. I tied knots in the rope below my belay device, not really trusting myself to give an attentive belay.
Suddenly, I heard a scream from above; Chris was airborne, the rope came tight. The edge he was hooking on had ripped, sending him for a massive whipper through the darkness.
“Now we’re climbing!” I yelled up at Chris. He pulled up the jumars on the tag line to re-ascend to his high point.
Our best guess at the line of weakness dead-ended just above here. Chris was on the lead for eight hours straight, climbing through the night, before he came abruptly to a blank impasse. Chris placed a quarter-inch bolt, the second bolt placed on the pitch, and I lowered him to my stance. We were unsure on what to do. Chris was mentally fried after being strung out on the sharp end for hours of techno-aid. We were painfully close to the top though, approximately 40 m from the top of the Cerro Torre headwall.
Our decision was made for us when storm clouds, hidden from us at our vantage point high on the east face, blew in from the west. Instantly, our clothes, ropes, and beards were coated in a white layer of frost. The wind picked up even stronger and whipped around the tower. The full fury of a Patagonian storm was unleashed and we were so exposed on our little perch that we felt like we were on the moon. We were going down.
I led the long way down slowly and methodically in the storm, Chris was thankful for the break. The plentiful bolts quickened the pace. Many hours later we reached our starting point. Basecamp was a ghost town, we were the last tent remaining.
Early the next morning Chris hiked to town to catch his bus to the airport. I slept in and hiked out that afternoon with a crippling load on my back. I had plenty to contemplate to take my mind off the labour. I was unsure of what the outside world’s reaction to our attempt would be, but I didn’t care, I was proud of our climb.
What is the difference between two bolts and 2,000? We had brought along a small bolt kit and drilled two bolts in blank sections of rock impassable even with the tricks of modern aid. A few bolts placed where absolutely necessary seems pretty reasonable to me.
Choosing to use Maestri’s bolts for our descent was easy. If one can ascend without bolts, they can certainly descend. If the ultimate goal is respect for the mountain, why leave more trash beside usable anchors? If the South East Ridge had been completed initially in a reasonable style there would be fixed gear for rappel in situ anyways.
Ultimately, I feel we were successful. We chose to forge our own path up one of the most beautiful mountains on the planet. We accepted the possibility of failure, instead of following Maestri like hundreds have before us. After all, it’s that queasy feeling of uncertainty that keeps me coming back. Where’s the fun in a sure thing?
Jason Kruk is a climber and guide based in Squamish.