A quest for honest heroes

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Kelly Cordes

Chaltén Massif

A quest for honest heroes

‘The Tower’ tells the truth behind mountaineering’s tallest tale, and other controversies surrounding the coveted Cerro Torre by Elizabeth Miller



20 December 25, 2014

f you were going to go to war over a mountain, Cerro Torre would be the one to do it for. No one has ever lived on the sides of Cerro Torre for more than a few days, and yet the peak has been home to mythic accomplishments, heated controversy, a battleground of climbing ethics and philosophical questions on the innate value of truth, the freedom of climbers and the legacy of mountaineering. The peak, the tallest in the Chaltén Massif, a jagged shard of skyline in Patagonia, was deemed impossible by the first of those who ventured toward its flanks. Then an Italian claimed to have climbed it, and 1lost11/14/14 10:59 AM his Austrian partner in the process.

Then, decades later, an expert on the Chaltén Massif debunked that longdoubted claim, compiling into a single American Alpine Journal article the various evidence, from the fact that no ropes or pitons or any other trace of their ascent was ever found on the upper reaches of the peak to the improbability that after filling his journals with descriptions of tedious progress and overbearing exhaustion, the climbers were suddenly able to sprint to the summit. “We all want to believe in the impossible, we want to believe in the greatest ascent in history, and that makes it really easy to dismiss inconvenient evidence,” says Kelly Cordes, author of the recently released book The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre. “To look at it

purely objectively, it’s almost comical that anybody believed it, it so clearly did not happen.” In addition to picking up where previous books and articles about the region have left off, Cordes takes Cerro Torre’s history an introspective question further, asking about the basics of what makes us human and how the need to believe what we believe shapes what we see when we look at the highlights of human history on the mountain. That history goes like this. Following the enticements of fellow Italian climber Cesarino Fava, Cesare Maestri began traveling to Patagonia in search of unknown challenges. In 1959, Fava, Maestri and Austrian ice climber Toni Egger set off for Cerro Torre. Fava assisted in hauling gear for the initial

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portions of the climb before turning back to wait for the climbers on the glacier below. Maestri made what is now commonly accepted as a fraudulent claim to the first ascent in 1959 with Egger, who he says was killed in an avalanche while being lowered on their way down from the summit. Doubt of Maestri’s claim to that ascent fueled his return in 1970, this time hauling hundreds of bolts and a compressor to power his bolt gun. He drilled one of the world’s most beautiful peaks like it was target practice, stringing up some 400 bolts that built a ladder to the summit — the Compressor Route, on the southeast ridge, considered an abomination by alpine climbers who prioritize climbing with the use of natural protection and turn to manmade hardware Kelly Cordes only as a last resort. The engine block for the compressor is still fixed to the wall, nearly a mile up. In 1974, what is now the accepted first ascent was made by a team of Italian climbers who completed the Ragni di Lecco route. Then in 1979, American climbers Steve Brewer and Jim Bridwell completed the Compressor Route — discovering in the process that Maestri didn’t actually reach the summit via that route, either. The controversies haven’t stopped. In recent years, David Lama’s attempt to free climb the Southeast Ridge drew criticism primarily for the Red Bull film crew that wanted to hover near him. While he attempted to climb using hands on rock, a clean approach, his film crew lashed ropes to the mountainside and drilled new bolts into it —

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leaving a huge footprint. When criticism persuaded them to abandon that method, they instead used a helicopter that buzzed the mountain so persistently other climbers compared it to climbing through Vietnam. That same year, 2012, saw climbers Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk able to complete the southeast ridge by “fair means” — using natural protection, not the 400-bolt ladder to the summit, which often ran near the cracks and flakes a climber could use to set gear and protect a fall. On the way down, Kennedy and Kruk removed 120 of the bolts, having now proved them unnecessary. When they returned to town, they were harassed and sent to jail, though no crime had been committed. “It became such a fascinating story to me, one of those things that, the more you dig, the more you uncover,” Cordes says. “Then in a moment of bad judgment I thought it would be a good idea to write a book about it, but it was too damn much work.” For two years, Cordes conducted interviews across multiple continents and with translators helping with several languages. He reviewed documents and photographs — 150 are included in The Tower. Cordes recounts the various ascents of Cerro Torre, including his own climb to establish a new route with Colin Haley in 2007, with a proximity that leaves the reader feeling as though they’re watching from within arm’s reach of the rock, grasping the tiny ledges Lama pinched to ascend his 5.13 route to the summit, or dancing up the icy chimney Kennedy and Kruk found

when they climbed the southeast ridge without the Compressor Route’s bolts, or elbow-deep in the mushrooms of rime ice that top the peak and almost every summit venture must weather. While the book records those other ascents, the bulk of it goes to addressing Cerro Torre’s tallest tale — the ascents claimed by Maestri and now generally accepted as disproven. Cordes is a former editor for the American Alpine Journal, which published an account by renowned Chaltén Massif climber and Cerro Torre history expert Rolando Garibotti that, from a technical perspective, debunks Maestri’s claimed 1959 first ascent beyond any reasonable doubt. “Only the most irrational person could read it and look at Rolo’s [Garibotti] level of research and still have any doubts,” Cordes says. “When you start looking at this thing, and you start looking at the evidence, it’s almost funny how people have believed it at all.” And yet, some people seem to. Or there is, at least, the wish for it to have been true and a protectiveness over Maestri’s handiwork on Cerro Torre: the Compressor Route. Time and again, Cordes reports his interview subjects saying something to the nature of, Maestri and Egger probably didn’t finish the route, but if they had, it would be one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of mountaineering. Italian alpinist Maestri, called “Spider of the Dolomites” and renowned for fantastic accomplishments in Europe, claims that after a storm coated the peak’s southeast face in ice, he and Egger reached the mountain’s summit in 1959. Egger was killed in an avalanche on the way down, and with his body went the camera that included their summit photos, proof of their ascent. But all traces of their climb vanish just a fraction of the way up the mountain, Maestri’s description of the route doesn’t fit what others have experienced

when climbing it and isn’t consistent from one telling of the story to the next. Then there’s the question of the gear available and the conditions described. Maestri says a freak storm coated the face in ice and Egger, the stronger ice climber of the two, led the way to the summit, but no one has seen conditions set up that way on the peak in the decades that have followed. Even if a perfect sheath of ice had covered the face, the ice tools climbers used at the time wouldn’t have facilitated that kind of climbing. “Everyone for years, for decades, has been talking about, ‘Well, we’ve never seen those conditions happen again, but if it did happen, yeah, it’s possible. It would be hard ice climbing, but yeah, it could happen.’ However, the modern ice ax hadn’t been invented yet,” Cordes says. At the time, climbers used a single, long ax and chopped holds. Ice at a ramp-like and pleasantly skiable angle of 50 degrees was considered extreme. “Quite simply, the capability to do it didn’t even exist,” Cordes says. “Everyone talks about, is it possible for Maestri to have climbed it in 1959, and I think as climbers, there’s a camaraderie, maybe. We want to give the benefit of the doubt, and I think as humans we want to believe that anything is possible on any given day. … We never want to say that something’s impossible as humans. However, ice climbing is utterly dependent on the equipment and, in 1959, it truly was impossible. Not only impossible for Maestri and Egger, impossible for anyone in the world to climb the north face of Cerro Torre if it were coated in ice in 1959. … With a single 80 cm wooden ax on grade six ice, you’re going nowhere.” Like Garibotti before him, Cordes chips down Maestri’s claimed ascent with one piece of evidence after another see CERRO TORRE Page 22

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CERRO TORRE from Page 21 Kelly Cordes

— all of which arrives at the vertrapped,” Cordes says. “It takes a dict that Maestri just isn’t telling really big person to some day the truth. Where Garibotti’s artibreak all of that, but when that’s cle was a mountaineer’s technical your most famous accomplishassessment of how the climb ment, the thing that you’re best couldn’t have happened as known for, I don’t know. I can’t Maestri claims, Cordes’s work is pretend to know what’s going on an investigation into why people with him, but it could feel like cling to Maestri’s claim on the your whole life is a lie.” peak, both that 1959 ascent and Maestri’s friends say he’s bitthe 1970 establishment of the ter, tormented, his life ruined by Compressor Route. The de-boltthe Cerro Torre controversies. ing earned Kruk and Kennedy The people defending his serious harassment around town ascent in the face of the evidence, for having damaged a piece of Cordes says, are probably prohistory, or “vandalized” the peak tecting something of their own, — a curious turn, since their something that’s become interwork was to undo alterations to twined with their identities in an the natural features, not the other unbreakable way. way around. “I think an argument could be The Tower is threaded with a made that the people who really strong undercurrent of the care about Cesare Maestri would research Cordes did into human encourage him to tell the truth Colin Haley approaching the Col of Hope, with the rime formations of the Rangi Route (west face) rising belief and how our existing because I think that’s the only above. beliefs shape what we see when way that he’s going to find peace, evidence is in front of us. Those if he’s as tormented as he says he altered perceptions are both maddening, Maybe all that matters is that Egger world today that are harder to reach with is and as they say he is,” Cordes says. “I he says, and somehow a central part of died trying to climb an unclimbed don’t think it’ll ever happen though. It’s our modern transportation than Cerro what makes men, men instead of mountain. But Cordes himself gets carTorre was in 1959,” Cordes says. “I guess too engrained, too deeply entrenched machines. ried away playing through the baffling that it makes me wonder about all kinds one of the problems with lies is that you “I’ve always said, I would have loved facts and trying to make sense of the of things, what sorts of things am I stuck can never see the future and you can for the story to have been true, but it confusing rope configuration found with never know how you’re going to be disin my own brain where I can’t see out of. simply wasn’t, and at a certain point it Egger’s remains when they surfaced in covered. Maestri had no way of knowing I’m sure I have them.” became so ridiculous that I became a the glacier more than a mile from where that there would be a town there, that Maestri refused to take an interview little detached from any emotional Maestri says an avalanche swept him with Cordes. He sent him a letter — there would be people crawling all over desire for it to be true,” Cordes says. He away. And about those remains — glaand even called a mutual friend to conthe mountain. It was so hard to get to recalls having a conversation with a ciers move at varying paces, to be sure, firm that Cordes had received it. Cordes and so impossible to climb given the friend in 2002 — he hadn’t yet done but if Egger fell to his death where techniques, the equipment they had, that was at her house when the call came. much research on the peak, and Maestri says he did, based on the traces Maestri’s last interviews on Cerro surely he thought nobody would ever Garibotti’s article had not yet been pub- of him found on the glacier near Cerro Torre and the letter he sent to Cordes come, nobody would ever know.” lished — and the friend asked, “What Torre, his remains moved more than a have moments in which, as Cordes One thing Maestri and Cesarino do you think, do you think Egger and mile in 16 years, and then only 300 feet describes, Maestri “goes off the rails” — Fava, who climbed a portion of the Maestri really climbed it?” Cordes in the 29 years to follow. route with Maestri and Egger in 1959, ranting, pointing fingers and flinging recounts, “and I was like, ‘Man I don’t “There’s any number of scenarios have never wavered on is that Egger and accusations that make little sense. know…. I hope so.’” that your mind can run away with and Maestri reached the summit. Fava, who “I don’t have any doubts that he’s a died a few years ago, maintained that Hidden behind this obfuscation, the we don’t know if any of them are true. tormented guy,” Cordes says. “He’s cerWhat we do know without fail is that story to the end. His children, three of lies and the tall tales is the reality of tainly a mystery in himself, at least to whom live in El Chaltén, do as well. how Toni Egger died — and it was not, Maestri’s story is not accurate,” Cordes me, but I would argue even to some of But then, Fava has taken Maestri’s apparently, as Maestri had said, while he says. “I think there’s a big problem with those who say they know him best. … the fact that Maestri came home and word. He descended and waited on the was coming down from the summit. For all that [Maestri] says he doesn’t told a lie to a dead man’s family” glacier while Maestri and Egger climbed care, and these people are meaningless to “Even more than the fundamental It’s not that he suspects anything on for days, and then helped home a belief that the truth is important, there me, I wonder. I wonder if when he’s at other than that Egger died while climb- weakened Maestri who returned alone, is the incontrovertible fact that Toni home alone, and his wife is ill — it’s sad, ing. But how and when and why he moaning Toni’s name. Egger died and his family never got an you know, it is sad, and I can I totally died aren’t clear as long as that story is Only Maestri knows. honest answer about how their son, feel this compassion and sadness for lost behind Maestri’s myth of them havWhat they were hiding or why they their brother died. And Toni Egger’s him. And then, that’s what makes it so ing reached the top. lied, Cordes doesn’t want to speculate. sister is still alive in Austria. She knows complicated and why he is such a tragic Maybe Maestri thought Cerro Torre To him, Maestri’s a tragic character. that it didn’t happen the way Maestri figure, because then also I think, ‘Wait, was so remote, and so difficult, no one “It’s not hard to imagine one terrible wait, wait, Toni Egger’s family deserved said. She’s been waiting for an answer would ever come close enough to its moment of grief where you tell a lie to all of these years, and she still doesn’t an honest answer about how he died.’ summit to disprove his claim. It took honor your dead friend, and — I’m a have it. I think that matters,” Cordes And I don’t know how to rectify those months to get to the base of the peak in cynic for sure — and there’s a strong says. “I guess I do have a fantasy of my two things. I guess they both exist.” the 1950s. The town near the Chaltén side benefit of you having done the own that is probably as ridiculous as Maestri is listed in the acknowledgeMassif, El Chaltén, didn’t exist until the greatest ascent in history that comes some fantasy people are buying into ments for The Tower, in gratitude, if 1980s, when Argentina established it to with that lie to honor your dead friend, with Cerro Torre, but this fantasy that nothing else, for contributing one of the hold the ground from Chile’s claim to but the thing about it is, with a lie this Maestri will come clean and that wildest stories in all of climbing history, the territory. big, you tell it once and you have to Egger’s sister will get an honest answer. Cordes says. “There are probably few places in the keep telling it. Effectively, you’re But I don’t think it will ever happen.” Strong feelings still surround that 22 December 25, 2014

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adventure story on all sides — the climbers furious of tourists in a way that resembles Estes at the lies, furious at the machinery used Park, where he lives, and the herds of on a pristine peak, and the locals who slow-driving tourists who stop to photowere irate in 2012, when Kennedy and graph every wild animal within sight of Kruk removed bolts from the the road. And having grown up in State Compressor Route. Taking those bolts College, Penn., where football was king, down effectively dismantled the bolt he had classmates from the Paterno famladder people used as a route. ily, was friends with one of the Sandusky “The route was falling into oblivion kids and was junior high football coach anyway and some of the people who are to Mike McQueary, who blew the whismost angry in El Chaltén, with a gun to tle on the cover-up. He’s seen how pertheir head they couldn’t draw the line of sistently people can work to continue the Compressor Route. I really don’t believing in what and who they have think it was about the actual two-inch always believed in. pieces of metal that had been fading The people who still believe in into oblivion,” Cordes says. “I think it Maestri were so kind, he says, he worwas about feel- Kelly Cordes ried about ing disrespectthem, knowing ed by outsiders, what he wrote and, with that, wouldn’t be combine a complimentary healthy dose of to their friends stress in a small and family. town that’s “I tried to being overrun write the truth by tourists. You as best I could came to this while still being beautiful landcompassionate,” scape to get Cordes says. “I away from it think it’s all, have a little important to more balance stick to the in your life and truth. now all sumSometimes it’s mer long you’re not easy to do working nonthat.” stop with peoAs a few of ple coming in the initial and out on responses have buses and come back — Colin Haley leads into a wind-carved tunnel of rime on the upper Ragni Route. demanding he was on partheir sandwich ticular lookout now, goddamfor comment nit.” from Mirella Tenderini, an Italian Outsiders had no right to make that author well-connected in the climbing decision, the locals argued — but in community and editor for Cesarino fact, for decades, the only people to Fava’s autobiography. She was the one have climbed Cerro Torre were foreign- who facilitated his letter exchange with ers. And in mountaineering, there is no Maestri, and took that call to confirm process for checking in with locals — or he’d received it. When she came back anyone else, for that matter — to with compliments and noted his compassion, he says, “The human side of me approve a route before it’s completed. “Climbing is a self-regulated system, was really relieved. And in a way that’s what this whole story is about, maybe, is so what brought us Cesare Maestri also belief and objectivity — where do they brought us Jason [Kruk] and Hayden intersect, where do our human elements [Kennedy], and you can’t have it both intersect with those two things.” ways. You can’t say it’s OK for Maestri Will we suffer for losing this one to do this but not for Jason and Hayden legendary ascent — the greatest ever, if to do that,” Cordes says. “We don’t only it were true? always like what people do. I don’t like Cordes doesn’t think so: “I think what Maestri did and I did like what that we have enough phenomenal, Jason and Hayden did, but I underinspiring, mind-blowing examples of stand, and if someone wants to go put things that really did happen to provide the Compressor Route back in, they’re us with a lifetime of inspiration and free to do it.” that’s far more powerful than believing He’s tried to handle it all with some in a fairy tale.” empathy — commiserating with El Respond: [email protected] Chaltén’s annual overrunning population Boulder Weekly

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