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Cesare Maestri, Legendary and Divisive Italian Climber, Dies at 91

Maestri is best known for controversy surrounding climbs on Cerro Torre in Patagonia---his debunked claim of the first ascent of the peak in 1959, and his subsequent Compressor Route on it in 1970---but his other achievements in and around Europe make him a standout figure in world climbing.

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Cesare Maestri, the legendary Italian climber and the “Spider of the Dolomites,” has died at 91 in Tione, Trentino, Italy.

“This time Cesare has signed the summit book of his Life’s climb,” wrote Gianluca Maestri, Cesare’s son, yesterday, January 19, 2021, on social media.

In the next few hours, an enormous outpouring of grief and remembrance appeared below Gianluca’s post: comments written by people who said that they owed their love and respect for the mountains to Cesare’s mentorship. After having stopped climbing seriously in 1978, Maestri, in addition to devoting himself above all to his beloved wife Fernanda, his son Gianluca, and his niece Carlotta, spent his days writing, teaching environmental education and guiding children on his routes in the Dolomites.

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Maestri is best known for controversy surrounding climbs on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, but his other achievements in and around Europe make him a standout figure in world climbing. He climbed about 3,500 routes in his life, a third of them solo. The Dolomites were his stage: In 1950, at the age of 21, he burst onto the scene by soloing Via Preuss at Campanile Basso. His first solo ascents of the Solda-Conforto Route (5.9 A2, 650 meters) on the Marmolada and the Guides’ Route on the Crozzon di Brentawas, both in 1953, were world renowned. He down soloed routes up to grade VI UIAA (approximately 5.10) on Crozzon di Brenta and Sass Maor. In 1954 he completed a solo traverse of the Ambiez-Tuckett (16 summits in 18 hours), with difficulties up to grade VI. He made a solo winter ascent of the Southwest Ridge of the Matterhorn. The list goes on.

Cesare Maestri. Photo: Guilia Battisti.

Maestri was born in Trento, Italy in 1929, in a neighborhood called Casoni, where as a child he began to climb the walls of buildings and electrical poles—more than a few of which resulted in falls, scratches, and hospital visits. In a video interview with Nereo Pederzolli, Maestri laughed while recalling a hospital medic calling his father Toni and asking, “What happened to little Cesare? It’s been a week that we haven’t seen see him in the hospital, is he ill or what?”

Both of his parents were itinerant actors. His mother died when he was 7 years old, leaving him in the care of his father, Toni. In 1943, a death warrant was issued for Toni by the German Occupying Authority and the family fled to his wife’s hometown of Ferrara. When the Fascist police there were instructed to arrest Toni, the family returned to Trento and the young Cesare joined partisans fighting the Germans.

After the war, Cesare’s father sent him to Rome to study the history of art. There he became involved with Communist politics but, after two years in Rome, gave up his studies and renounced his Communist leanings, returning to Trento. It was then that Cesari began to climb, as a way to escape the daily societal stresses created by World War II.

Soon, his natural climbing talent saw him repeating—and often soloing—historical and difficult routes around the Dolomites. In the style of Paul Preuss, he descended most of them without ropes, down-soloing them after he free soloed to the top. He opened new difficult routes that broke new ground in the Sixth Grade (UIAA grade VI).

Maestri was an innovator, and before long began a new phase in his climbing education. He mastered aid climbing, and started inventing new gear. He used any means necessary—including  bolts—to establish new Direttissimas.

Thus within Maestri’s climbing was an apparent contradiction: On the one hand he loved Preuss’ pure style, but on the other he embraced extreme aid climbing techniques. This dichotomy epitomizes the volcanic, reactive character of Cesare Maestri.

Gianpaolo Miotti, a great Italian climber and writer, wrote in the second volue of his book, History of Alpinism:

Maestri is ambitious, narcissistic, argumentative, jealous, envious, sensitive, intolerant with those who are stronger than him, touchy. But at the same time he is generous as only a few are, simple as a child, 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.

When Maestri started climbing, he wanted to be the strongest, and he was keen to prove it. He made a spectacular series of solitary climbs, accomplished on the most arduous routes of the Dolomites, often carried out without any protection, worthy of the master Preuss. … Indeed, it can undoubtedly be said that he was one of the strongest climbers after the War.

He loved to fit into the “persona” ascribed to him and gave dramatic, embellished records of his climbs, so much so that for the general public he became known as the “Spider of the Dolomites.” Yet if there is a sympathetic character, it is Cesare Maestri. His anger, the fierce polemics, the dictatorial attitudes, the childish reactions, make him too human to define him as unpleasant. Unfortunately, Maestri always lent his side to provocations and came to play, without realizing it, the game of those who provoked him. 

Maestri’s accomplishments were largely overshadowed by a series of controversies, which began with his 1959 Cerro Torre climb, done with ice climbing ace Toni Egger and Cesarino Fava. Fava assisted the other two until the first snowfield, then descended to base camp to wait for them to finish the climb.

There Fava waited and waited. Six days later there was no sign of the two men. Finally, that day, already fearing his friends dead, Fava found Maestri lying in the snow beneath the East Face of Cerro Torre. Maestri claimed he had climbed with Toni Egger to the summit of Cerro Torre—a historic feat—and that, while descending, Egger was wiped out by an avalanche.

Doubts soon arose about Maestri’s claim that he and Egger had summited Cerro Torre. The strongest accusations came from Carlo Mauri—a great climber of the Lecco Spiders, and partner of Walter Bonatti on the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV in 1958.  Maestri issued a whirlwind of ferocious polemics against the growing chorus of detractors in the following decade, and returned to Cerro Torre in the winter of 1970, carrying what became an infamous 60-kilogram gas-powered compressor drill, in an attempt to set the record straight and silence the critics.

That season, Maestri and his climbing partners fought against terrible weather on Cerro Torre for 54 days, inching 600 meters up the Southeast Face, before hitting pause on their siege. They came back again in spring, bolting the upper portion of their new route with the compressor. They stopped near the end of the rock section, declining to climb the final rime-ice mushrooms to the summit. Maestri left the compressor anchored on the wall, and on the descent destroyed some of his own bolts in an iconoclastic and outrageous gesture.

For the rest of his life, Maestri refused to explain more about his 1959 claimed first ascent of Cerro Torre, which is now widely considered fraudulent by the mountaineering community, based on considerable investigation of photographs and comparisons of Maestri’s route descriptions and subsequent ascents of the stated route. In 2012, American climbers Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk chopped over 100 bolts from the Compressor Route after completing the first fair-means ascent of the Southeast Face.

In 1978, Maestri decided to leave climbing behind for good. “The best climber is [the one] who dies in his bed,” Maestri said in his  interview with Nereo Pederzolli.

Tragically, the Cerro Torre controversy entangled Maestri like a spider caught in his own web.

I myself was a staunch opponent of Maestri’s Torre claims. But the mudslinging by many critics often went too far, with some detractors often exaggerating his transgressions and crossing the boundaries of common sense and respect. In Maestri’s later years, there was an obsessive quest by some to draw out a final truth from the aging climber, and attempts to make an example out of him.

Cesare Maestri (left) with Reinhold Messner. Photo: Alessandro Filippini.
Cesare Maestri (left) with Reinhold Messner. Photo: Alessandro Filippini.

His heavily criticized Compressor Route was completed to the summit for the first time by the American climbers Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer in 1979. During the Trento Festival a number of years ago, Luca Signorelli, a good friend of mine, had the opportunity to talk briefly with Bridwell. About repeating the Compressor Route, he asked Bridwell, “Was it a nonsense route, what with all the bolts?

He recalled Bridwell responding,:”Nah, it’s a fucking brilliant climb. Great pitches, great moves. I loved it.”

Alessandro Filippini, the Italian veteran mountaineering journalist, recalled in an obituary post on Facebook that Reinhold Messner, who accused Maestri of having lied about his 1959 Cerro Torre climb, said of Maestri in 2015: “Beyond the great merits for his many climbs and his many solos as an excellent rock climber, it must be remembered that, being a person who spoke openly, Maestri allowed us to open a serious discussion on the development of mountaineering. There are people who say half of what they think and do not allow open confrontation. Cesare was quite the opposite.”

In my personal journey reading and learning about this incredible, complex character, the following passage, from Maestri’s book, 2000 Meters of My Life, is how I shall remember him, as it captures both his divisiveness and passion:

I have always been an advocate of the principle according to which every mountaineer should be free to go to the mountains as he pleases: day or night, with pegs or without, to find God or deny him, for comfort or despair. By doing so we would have as many forms of mountaineering as there are people who go to the mountains and no single form would preclude or lessen any of the others.

The idea of “That is not mountaineering just because it is different from my defintion” is a very serious act of intolerance and presumption that humiliates the whole of our sport. …

Analyzing mountaineering, I tried to discover what were the evils that threaten it, realizing that they are the same ones that undermine our society: intolerance, ignorance, authoritarianism, bigotry. Today, the boundary between permissiveness and freedom is so blurred that it borders on abuse and arbitrariness.

 … We are all driven by a single ideal, to make today’s society a set of men with the same rights and the same duties. That’s why I have climbed and why I continue to climb.


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