Italian climber Cesare Maestri, one of the most legendary figures in the sport, has died at 91. Born in Trento, he began climbing at a young age and was given the name “spider of the Dolomites” early in his career.
In 1952, he became an alpine guide and would go on to make bold free-solos of difficult climbs, such as The Solleder Route on the Civetta, The Solda/Conforto Route on the Marmolada, and the Southwest Ridge of the Matterhorn in winter. He made hundreds of first ascents over the years.
Fellow Italian climber, Angelo Elli, said, “Maestri is ambitious, narcissistic, argumentative, jealous, envious, sensitive, intolerant with those who are stronger than him, and touchy. But, at the same time he is generous as few, clear, perhaps naive, sensitive to the point of being hurt by a pin, deluded by certain values in which he believes and which perhaps do not exist. Maestri started climbing and wanted to be the strongest, and he was keen to prove it. He made a spectacular series of solo climbs, accomplished on the most arduous routes of the Dolomites, often carried out without any gear, worthy of the master Paul Preuss. Therefore, Maestri as a free climber had his cards in order. Indeed, it can be said that he was one of the strongest climbers after the war.”
In 1958, the great climber Walter Bonatti climbed to the Col of Hope on Cerro Torre and declared an ascent to the icy summit impossible. A year later, Maestri and Toni Egger (one of the best ice climbers at the time) and a support team, arrived to attempt the first ascent. During a six-day period of stormy weather, Maestri claimed to have climbed Cerro Torre with Egger. During the descent, Egger was swept away by an avalanche, along with their only camera, and his body disappeared. Maestri later said in referring to Bonatti’s ascent of the Col of Hope: “Hope is the weapon of the weak, there is only the will to conquer.” Maestri named the col on his side of the mountain the Col of Conquest.
In 1970, Maestri returned with a compressor-powered drill and sieged his way up the Southeast Ridge. “A mountain desecrated,” read the headline in Mountain Magazine. “How could a man who claimed to have climbed Cerro Torre in such impeccable style in 1959 come back and bolt his way to the top.”
Along with Ezio Alimonta, Daniele Angeli, Claudio Baldessarri, Carlo Claus and Pietro Vidi, they bolted 350 metres of rock and stopped just below the ice mushroom on the summit. Maestri claimed that “the mushroom is not part of the mountain” and did not continue to the summit. The compressor was left, tied to the last bolts, 100 metres below the top. The route Maestri followed is now known as the Compressor Route. It was climbed to the summit in 1979 by Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer. In 2012, the bolts were chopped by Jason Kruk and Hayden Kennedy; and David Lama made the first free ascent of the bolt-free face.
Over the decades, Maestri’s 1959 claim has been widely discredited due to evidence that shows their high point was only a quarter of the way up the peak. The first public doubts were by top Italian climber Carlo Mauri. The topic has been widely covered in books, such as Tom Dauer’s Cerro Torre: Mythos Patagonien, Reinhold Messner’s book Torre Schrei aus Stein and Kelly Cordes’ book The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre. Everyone who examined the facts concluded that Maestri never reached the summit.
Urs Kallen, one of Canada’s most accomplished Canadian Rockies climbers and longtime Calgary Mountain Club member with countless first ascents and difficult repeats, said, “For a long time I was convinced that he really did climb Cerro Torre. After all, Ricardo Cassin believed to his end that Maestri did indeed climb the Torre. Cesare himself did not help his story by going back to ‘prove’ that he climbed it before, by bolting, more or less, all the way; hence the now infamous story of The Murder of the Impossible.‘”
Despite those who say Maestri never reached the summit, he’s long had his defenders who believe that he and Egger were the first to stand on top of Cerro Torre. The first undisputed ascent of Cerro Torre was made in 1974 by the “Ragni di Lecco” climbers Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari and Pino Negri.
“The good mountaineer is the one who dies in his own bed,” said Elli.