“The siege tactic used on Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route [in 1970] is perhaps the most egregious example of alpinism’s egoistic ‘manifest destiny’ philosophy, one that calls for conquering the mountain by any means, then leaving in place the pitons, bolts, ropes and cables. This debases a route, leaving it accessible to those without the skill or nerve to climb in good style. It is the alpinist’s equivalent of hunting with headlights.” —Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, February 15, 2012
AFTER TWO FAILED attempts to free-climb Patagonia’s iconic Cerro Torre, via its controversial Compressor Route, things weren’t looking good for David Lama, a 21-year-old World Cup–winning climber and alpinist from Innsbruck, Austria. His sponsor, Red Bull, had been pouring money into a film about the project that was going nowhere, and climbers around the world were pissed that he seemed to view the famed 10,262-foot mountain as his personal movie set. And yet, on January 12, 2012, there he was again, ready to make a third attempt.
The Compressor Route goes up more than 4,000 feet of vertical rock and ice on the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre, which sits in a disputed border area between Chile and Argentina. When people talk about the route, what they’re actually referring to is a series of more than 400 closely spaced bolts that were controversially placed in 1970 and now allow climbers using nylon ladders, called étriers, to effectively skip the hardest parts of the mountain. Lama wanted to use the bolts like he would at a rock-climbing gym, clipping into them for safety purposes only, while becoming the first person to free-climb the nearly blank granite that everybody else had avoided. If successful, Lama’s climb would stand as a crowning achievement in the region’s alpine history.
There was just one problem: the Compressor Route wasn’t there anymore. Three days before Lama planned to hike in to start the climb, roughly a quarter of its bolts had been chopped out by American climber Hayden Kennedy, 21, and Canadian Jason Kruk, 24. These climbers believed that the bolts desecrated the mountain, and they were suddenly being called heroes or vandals, depending on who was doing the shouting.
For Lama, this hiccup had immediate consequences. In addition to climbing the blank wall, he and his partner, 28-year-old Peter Ortner, would have to carry and place more of their own removable cams, nuts, and pitons for safety—a much riskier proposition.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is how it is,’ ” Lama recalls of the now significantly more difficult task ahead of him. “ ‘We gotta do it without the bolts.’ We brought more pieces of gear and decided to try anyway.”
TO UNDERSTAND the bizarre events that took place last winter in Patagonia, it’s necessary to look at Lama’s previous attempts on the Compressor Route and at the entire history of climbing on Cerro Torre. January 2011—when Lama made his second of three attempts—is a good place to start.
Climbers were feeling stir-crazy that season. The small dirtbag enclave of El Chaltén, at the foot of the massif that shares its name and harbors Argentina’s two most iconic peaks—Cerro Torre and its neighbor to the east, 11,073-foot Fitz Roy—had been socked in for a week. Top American alpinists Colin Haley, 27, and Zach Smith, 35, had been waiting to try a new line up Cerro Torre’s southeast ridge that would bypass the Compressor Route when Lama and Ortner arrived in town. On January 21, Haley and Smith went to Lama’s crash pad to sort out their plans and any potential differences.