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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)

Read our follow up on David Lama’s simultaneous first true free climb of Cerro Torre’s southeast ridge.


* * *

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.

*   *   *

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.

* * *

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.

03-cerro-torre
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.)

02-cerro-torreIt 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 Supertopo.com, 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.”

* * *
04-cerro-torreAt 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.”

 

Comments

  1. Chelsey
    January 29, 2012, 8:26 pm

    This is a wonderful article that looks at all sides of the controversy. It’s a very refreshing and informative piece.

  2. Stephanie Scott
    January 29, 2012, 9:13 pm

    An amazing and insightful article. Provokes an interesting discussion.

  3. Eegrek
    January 29, 2012, 10:50 pm

    Finally, a fair article that shows both sides and doesn’t take one. Well done!

  4. Luray VA Accommodations
    January 30, 2012, 1:42 am

    Sun and ice are there and making the job more adventurous. They both really enjoyed this adventure. Thank you NG for the exposing this trip to the world.

  5. Stefano Lovison
    January 30, 2012, 3:18 am

    This is absolutely not an article critical … read here to understand what is a crusade war of Mr. Garibotti & friends.
    http://alpinesketches.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/pataclimb-when-toponymy-hides-a-crusade/
    The style and motivation of Cesare Maestri that can be defined in many ways indefensible but which are part of that anarchy inherent in going to the mountains and has always been inherent in climbing.
    And precisely because of this anarchy, this freedom, we should not criticize – just to stay on Torre Egger and Cerro Torre – on the routes ‘construction site’ more open seasons, or those made entirely from the fixed ropes on the compressor, as well as on the aluminum box.
    But criticizing Maestri destroying his route means step into his own defects. With no action because Taliban historicizes, with ignorance, historical and human context in which the events took place in 1970.
    Because does not reflect the opinion of the mountaineering community as it did in 2007 thanks to the local climbers led by Vicente Labate
    Because hypocritically takes away the bolt from Compressor route and other uses in their route variation
    I think that as these events were held on climbing and do not make it offends the memory of great climbers, not only to teachers but Steve Brewer and Jim Bridwell, Bill Denz, Paul Pierre Farges, the Italians of the first winter, Pedrini, Reinhard Karl and hundreds of other great climbers …
    The boundary that lies between tradition and innovation, modernity and the past experience is weak, and a strict ethical judgments, however, should not excuse ourselves from than ever, mountaineering and human, towards those who went before us.
    The elimination of a route from Cerro Torre is like the cancellation of the historical memory of a great mountain and mountaineers.
    Thanks
    Stefano Lovison
    Italy

  6. Bruce Hildenbrand
    January 30, 2012, 3:38 am

    Climbing a mountain means both going up *and* coming down. You can’t call it a successful climb unless you accomplish both tasks. I don’t understand why Kruk and Kenedy felt it was OK to call their climb “Fair Means’ which supposedly empowered them to chop some of Maestri’s bolts when they admitted that they used some of his bolts for rappel anchors on the descent. That seems hypocritical to me.

  7. Philadelphia House
    January 30, 2012, 7:43 am

    Those guys are amazing, Wow that’s almost a 90 degree climb

  8. Greg Child
    January 30, 2012, 9:45 am

    A good account, David, but omitted (though alluded to in a posting above by Stefano Lovison) was that the Americans, Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer, made the second ascent of the Compressor Route, and the first ascent that actually completed Maestri’s creation by climbing past the section that Maestri chopped and then finishing the ice mushrooms (by fair-enough means), in the late 1970s. The Bridwell/Brewer ascent was rightly regarded as a big deal at the time, and how many people subsequently went on to summit Cerro Torre via the compressor route? Hundreds – probably more? Does the erasure of the route now negate the validity of those ascents? And what about the compressor – is it still hanging on the wall? Its been removed before, I recall, and later replaced, its dual status as both heritage landmark and embarrassing-crazy-uncle-in-the-attic putting some quirk into the story of Cerro Torre.
    Greg Child

  9. Travel to England
    January 30, 2012, 11:14 am

    Very dangerous adventure, but you can see the true spirit of being a mountaineers.

  10. Keith Bates
    January 30, 2012, 1:28 pm

    This was a totally fascinating story. I have limited experience myself but do have several friends who are serious climbers including Conrad Anker, whom I’ve met, and my very close friend Suzanne Nance, first American women to conquer the seven summits and both poles. These are the kind of people I would like to invite into my social network MyAdventures.com. Great article.

  11. Abercrombie
    January 31, 2012, 12:23 am

    I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post

  12. Seth Thomas Pietras
    January 31, 2012, 12:27 am

    To yield such public controversy is healthy for climbing. For the pursuit is unique in its interplay of intimacy (with the one you’re connected to on the rope, your partner) and solitary athleticism (being just you out on the rope with only the rock and ice). Even when there’s two of you, you’re mostly just out there alone. As such, there is climbing, and there is the sharing of the climb. There is sharing with your friends, and sharing with the world. The farther any route gets away from an honest climb or an honest tale, the less tolerance the community will have for it. It must all be kept true this way because of the mortal risks involved. Kruk and Kennedy have added significantly to the lore and image of the mountain and the particular climb—adding new life to the story and new challenge for another generation—all while restoring some purity to an aging drama. Good for them. And good for us.

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    February 1, 2012, 2:38 am

    I know this is really boring and you are skipping to the next comment, but I just wanted to throw you a big thanks – you cleared up some things for me!

  14. Gregory Crouch
    February 1, 2012, 9:37 am
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    February 2, 2012, 9:40 am

    You can see another french feeling here :
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    (the second part of the text is the translation in english)

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    February 2, 2012, 4:17 pm

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  18. Nobody Climber
    February 2, 2012, 4:31 pm

    @BruceHildenbrand read the article again. They clipped into Maestri anchors, not bolts, on the ASCENT, and at places where building their own anchors were entirely possible. Declaring their use of those anchors (and why) is good style.
    If you’re chopping on the way down you don’t clip into the stuff you’re chopping.

  19. Bill
    February 2, 2012, 10:40 pm

    After reading this article I thing Kennedy and Kruk did a right thing.
    Bill from Wenzhou, China

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    GREAT lifestyle for those guys :)

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  24. Sebastian de la Cruz
    February 12, 2012, 5:23 pm

    Good article ! As one that climbed that route I never felt proud of it because was too easy for a mountain such Cerro Torre. Now the magic is back ! Thanks K & K guys to have made the job ! Seba

  25. Eric
    February 14, 2012, 10:01 pm

    It seemed appropriate, somehow, that by its existence the Comp’ Route was a form of temptation – test yourself, resist, or succumb. Try to convince yourself you’d done a real climb, but know that you were always compromising something.
    In many ways, Maestri’s taint on that mountain contaminates the route to this day; his ghost* darkens the ridge and the hearts of climbers, so that no matter how the thing is approached, something bad and unsavory comes along. The mountain is great, and legendary, but that route is cursed, perhaps best left unrepeated and ignored, whatever one’s ostensible style.
    * even if he’s not dead yet!
    (abbrev. from my post on Greg Crouches site)

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    February 16, 2012, 2:22 am

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  27. Supplements
    February 16, 2012, 7:37 am

    should not excuse ourselves from than ever, mountaineering and human, towards those who went before us.

  28. Luciano Ferrario
    February 16, 2012, 2:09 pm

    Sono felicissimo per quello che avete fatto, era ora che questa meravigliosa montagna venisse liberata da quei vergognosi chiodi che profanavano la sua immensa bellezza. la montagna deve essere pura e l’alpinismo deve essere rispettoso della montagna. chi non sa salire il Torre senza chidi a pressione può stare a casa o salire la Presolana. Chi vuole salire usando un trapano o peggio ancora le trapanate di un altro, non capisce l’alpinismo e non capisce nemmeno se stesso. Grazie, grazie ancora ragazzi.

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  38. [...] Patagonia’s Cerro Torre Get’s the Chop: Maestri Unbolted (National Geographic Adventure Blog) Kennedy Kruk Release Statement (Alpinist Newswire) The [...]

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  40. wade oien
    monterey,ca
    July 27, 2012, 12:40 pm

    i agree with gregg child, my exact thoughts.

  41. Marcello Costa
    Adelaide Australia
    January 5, 2013, 9:42 pm

    I was under the Torre when it was attempted by Maestri, Egger and Fava. I was member of a small expedition coming from the north across the Hielo Continental to join the two lakes San Martin and Viedma. We learned of the death of a climber at the Estancia Madsen where we recovered from the ice fields before returning to Lake Dan Martin via the Laguna del Desierto. On return to Buenos Aires (where I lived then) Cesarino Fava showed us slides. Some were of the ice fields taken from the col where thus they have actually been. He never showed I assume these slides again to prove that at least they made it to the col. He died but perhaps his family may still have those wonderful slides taken by an extraordinary man who could not verify the story of Maestri but at least climbed back from the col all by himself! To defend the name of Maestri he refused to give at least this good evidence.

  42. […] of the Year. David was climbing just after American Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk chopped down many of the controversial bolts placed by Italian Cesare Maestri in 1970. This story is about as dramatic and exciting as climbing […]

  43. […] was climbing on iconic Cerro Torre  just after American Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk chopped down many of the controversial bolts placed by Italian Cesare Maestri in 1970. This story is about as dramatic and exciting as climbing […]