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Cerro Torre Murdered Again?

Cesare Maestri's gas-powered compressor and 450 bolts on Cerro Torre have become the most debated relics in the history of alpinism.

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In 1970, Cesare Maestri hauled a gas-powered compressor drill to the base of the southeast face of Cerro Torre and proceeded to bolt his way to within a pitch of the summit. His 450 bolts, thanks in part to Reinhold Messner’s famous 1971 essay Murder of the Impossible, have since become the most debated relics in the history of alpinism. Rock faces are no longer overcome by climbing skill, Messner wrote, but are humbled, pitch by pitch Impossible’: it doesn’t exist anymore. The dragon is dead, poisoned, and the hero Siegfried is unemployed.

Messner’s polemic was, and remains, influential. Various heroes grabbed Siegfried’s standard and confronted alpine dragons in good style. Patagonia saw a resurgence of relatively clean climbing and on February 18, 2007, Americans Zack Smith and Josh Wharton managed to climb the majority of the Compressor Route without Maestri’s bolts [see Murder of the Possible, No. 161].

This winter, however, the southeast face was again besieged as the 19-year-old Austrian sport-climbing champion David Lama and a team of guides, filmmakers and photographers mugged the peak with the hope of filming a first free ascent. Lama’s team, bankrolled by the energy-drink manufacturer Red Bull, added 60 bolts to the face and fixed 2,300 feet of rope, which they abandoned at the end of their three-month attempt. Local climbers hired by Red Bull later removed the rope, but the bolts remain.

After an article by Patagonian activist Rolando Garibotti describing the crew’s tactics appeared on the Spanish magazine Desnivel’s website in May, a firestorm of comments burned up climbing-website forums as mostly anonymous alpinists attacked Lama.

Some comments were vicious. One poster suggested that climbers: Beat this a-hole to a pulp. Knock out his front teeth next time you get within arm’s reach. This douchebag is screwing up the future of the whole sport so he can spray to his sponsors. Yeah, go to the Valley, and add 60 bolts to the Nose. I hope you get beaten till your bowels unload in your pants. I hope Red Bull tastes good in your hospital bed.

Given the inflamed tenor of the posts, it would seem that Lama has truly desecrated the already beleaguered peak. And yet, after talking with people present on the expedition, I don’t think his transgression warrants an ass-kicking. Lama did not place any bolts, the Austrian guides did the drilling. No bolts were added to the route, the bolts consisted of anchors placed for the film crew. And Lama has vowed to return next year and remove the bolts. So it isn’t accurate to blame David Lama or suggest that his crew has screwed up the entire sport. Every free route on El Cap has added bolts and nobody has suggested that Tommy Caldwell or Alex Huber be beaten till he craps himself. Anchor stations are routinely beefed up, and the Nose has had dozens of bolts (and chipped holds) appended since its first ascent.

Yet there are 60 superfluous bolts on Cerro Torre, and to me that’s bogus. Instead of investing so much energy on berating and blaming, Patagonian climbers should join together in the spirit of conservation and act. Haul down the compressor, remove the bolts placed next to cracks and clean up fixed tat and pro.

If alpinists are really so incensed and heartbroken over the pathetic state of the 40-year-old Compressor Route, they should drop the rhetoric, pick up the hero’s standard and do something about the trash. And Red Bull would do well to fund the effort.