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Interview with David Lama

David Lama is one of the cutting-edge young alpinists of today. His bold free climbing and aid soloing have taken him to rarely visited areas and up many unclimbed walls.

On Sunday, Nov. 2, Gripped caught up with Lama at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Over a few beers, coffees and a radio interview, they covered Lama’s past, present and future climbing plans.

David Lama was already an internationally known climber. He was a climbing prodigy from age five. As a teenager, Lama won the a number of world cups and in 2008 he became the first person to win lead and bouldering. During his years as a competitive climber, Lama believed in balancing his indoor climbing with outdoor and began pursuing alpine climbing at 16. In 2009, while on a trip to South America, he decided he would like to make the first free ascent of Cerro Torre.

Gripped at The Banff Mountain Film Festival

While on the trip, his Red Bull camera crew added bolts to Cerro Torre to fix ropes. The team ignored the mountains delicate history and within a few weeks became the most criticized climbing group in the climbing world. People compared Lama to Cesare Maestri, the man who established the Compressor Route in attempt to prove he made the first ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959 with Toni Egger. It is one of the greatest debates in climbing history. Egger died on the descent and his body was found in 1975, but the alleged camera that was lost with him proving the first ascent of Cerro Torre, was not.

Lama failed on freeing the Compressor Route in 2009 and returned in 2011 for another attempt, failing again, but reaching the summit using aid. Lama said, “That is when I realized how hard the Torre was, how hard alpine climbing is. That is when I went from being a sport climber to being an alpine climber.”

In 2012, Lama returned with the Red Bull film crew for a third attempt. Days before the weather window, the climbing team of Jason Kruk and Hayden Kennedy climbed the face by fair means, up a new route right of the Compressor Route. Their ascent was overshadowed by their removing of the Compressor Route while descending. “We ‘freed’ the mountain,” said Kruk. Their action divided the climbing world and many said they shouldn’t have done it. Lama said, of the removal of the bolts, “I deal with it by saying it shouldn’t have been done like that, but it’s good it was done.”

Cerro Torre by fair means

Lama returned to the Compressor Route two days after the bolts were chopped. This meant his camera crew would have to climb the iced-up, steep, west face, the uncontested first ascent of the mountain in 1974. The film crew then rappelled in to catch Lama freeing the bolt-less upper section of the Compressor Route. The film crew captured Lama free climbing the headwall, a very runout 5.12 pitch gained the upper snowfield. Lama said, “The crux was lower down, going directly up the ridge when the bolt traverse went right. That was 5.13, I fell a few times before I got it. The headwall wasn’t that hard for me, just committing. It was so warm, all the blocks were loose. I climbed over one that, if it had fallen, would have cut my rope and killed my partner, Peter Ortner.”

Lama’s journey and the history of the mountain is captured in the new film, which made its North America debut at the Banff Mountain Film Festival on Nov. 1, called Cerro Torre, a snowball’s chance in hell (trailer at the bottom of page).

Lama told Gripped, “The 2009 bolting controversy bothered me. I didn’t drill the bolts, nor did I need them for free climbing. It didn’t matter, the entire climbing world was angry at me. I didn’t understand why people were angry, no one told me. I was a sport and gym climber, bolts are what we know. People’s criticism of ‘F@*k you Lama, you suck,’ really didn’t help me understand. Eventually, I understood.”

You would never guess it looking at Lama, that he is one of the world’s boldest alpine climbers. After his success on Cerro Torre, he’s confirmed his skill with more notable ascents, many of which he deos on forgotten walls like the Sagwand in the Valsertal. “Yes, I recently spent six days aiding my way up a 600-metre overhanging dolomite wall near my house, alone. I only placed three bolts and I took many falls onto hooks,” said Lama. “It’s a big alpine wall and I will return next summer to free it.”

This year, Lama journeyed to the unclimbed, unattempted northeast face of Masherbrum in Pakistan. “It’s like the Eiger with Cerro Torre on top, only bigger,” Lama said. “We got only a short way up the wall, none of us had ever seen so many grade five avalanches. Even the approach is very threatened. We decided that we want to live another year, so we won’t go back until 2016.”

In 2013, Lama climbed Bird of Prey on Alaska’s Moose’s Tooth 1,500 m, 5.10, M7+, A2 with Dani Arnold. A route that renowned Alaskan climber Jack Tackle said, “That is one hell of a route.” Tackle, along with Reinhold Messner, Stefan Glowacz and dozens of other alpine climbing legends all agree, Lama is a big part in the future of alpine climbing. As Messner said, “If there is a mountaineer who comes from the gym and is successful in the mountains, its David Lama. He freed Cerro Torre, something I would have considered impossible 10 years ago.”

Lama said he is heading to Brazil to surf with his girlfriend for a few weeks before returning to Patagonia. “Yes, I am heading there twice this year. No plans, I just want to go climb and have some fun. To be honest, I wish I could stay in Canada a little longer and get some climbing in.”

David Lama was visiting Banff for the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Gripped editor Brandon Pullan caught up with him after the film’s debut. The film sold out and after the show, Lama received a standing ovation. An interview between Pullan and Lama will be on Banff Centre Radio in the coming weeks.

Brandon Pullan and David Lama
Brandon Pullan and David Lama