The Greatest Mountaineering Rivalries: Cerro Torre

Cesare Maestri and the Compressor Route

Cerro Torre     Photo: jakobradlgruber/Flickr

Climbers once considered Patagonia’s iconic 10,262-foot Cerro Torre the world’s toughest mountain. It’s rime-covered granite spire foiled climbers for decades until Italian Casimiro Ferrari and three others first officially climbed it in 1974. But another Italian, Cesare Maestri, gained infamy in his earlier attempts to cheat the mountain—along with the scores of climbers who aspired to summit it—of a first ascent and, in doing so, literally changed the face of climbing on Cerro Torre. Maestri first claimed to have made an ascent with Austrian Toni Egger and Italian Cesarino Fava in 1959 but returned with no hard evidence—an avalanche had swept Egger down the mountain, along with his camera. Other teams called his bluff (no lines or hardware were found high on the mountain) even as he taunted them, and climber Rolando Garibotti eventually published an investigative essay in 2004—the 30th anniversary of the official first ascent—called “A Mountain Unveiled,” in which he laid bare the damning evidence against Maestri’s claims.

But at the time, Maestri wasn’t content with simply maintaining his fable. Eleven years later, in 1970, he sought to quiet skeptics for good with a fresh onslaught against Cerro Torre’s dignity in a new summit attempt. This time he lugged a 200-pound gas-powered air compressor up the granite wall and pumped 400 permanent bolts into the face of the Southeast Ridge, which he used to inch his way to within 150 feet of the summit. The crusty rime bested him, though, and he never summited. The bolts and the compressor left dangling on the wall sparked a debate among climbers, many of whom were outraged by the blatant disrespect for the now-tainted peak. Others came to consider it a classic route that gave more climbers a chance at the summit. Reinhold Messner responded with a passionate essay aimed at Maestri entitled “The Murder of the Impossible,” in which he bemoaned the pollution of pure mountaineering. Decades of debate ensued. Then in January of this year, 40 years later, climbers Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk chopped 120 bolts from the Compressor Route to make it useless, perhaps the most effective castigation of Maestri’s tactics.

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