On January 16, Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk stood on the summit of Cerro Torre, a 10,262-foot-high, sheer-walled granite tower on the border of Argentine and Chilean Patagonia. The pair had just completed the first "fair-means" ascent of the Compressor Route, up the mountain's southeast ridge, climbing it without the aid of about 400 bolts drilled into the rock face in 1970 by the route's first ascensionist, Italian mountaineer Cesare Maestri.
As Kennedy and Kruk descended, they pulled out Maestri’s bolts. The partners gave each piece of metal a half-dozen whacks with a hammer until it slid easily out of the rock. They removed roughly 125 bolts in all, completely erasing the route's upper pitches. After the climb, they returned to the nearby town of El Chaltén, which serves as a jumping-off point for expeditions to Cerro Torre.
After news of their actions spread through the town, a mob of angry locals gathered at Kruk and Kennedy's cabin on January 19 to protest. They papered over the windows with posters bearing messages like "Out of El Chaltén!" and "Jason and Hayden Go Home." The situation escalated when a group of 40 people caught up with Kruk in an Internet café and threatened to "lynch" him, according to local news site La Cachaña. When police arrived, they detained the pair, confiscated the bolts, and brought Kruk and Kennedy into the station for questioning.
"We talked about [removing the bolts], and we knew that there were going to be a lot of people who weren't going to like it, and that there was going to be a lot of talk on the Internet about it," Kennedy told La Cachaña. "But we didn't expect this type of reaction in town."
To understand how a handful of 42-year-old bolts could cause such a controversy, it helps to go back to the beginnings of the Compressor Route. In 1959, 29-year-old Maestri claimed to have made the first ascent of Cerro Torre after a four-day push with Austrian Toni Egger, who died in an avalanche during the descent. While climbers at first accepted his claim, Maestri's vague descriptions of the upper parts of the mountain, coupled with the failure by subsequent expeditions to find any of his fixed ropes or bolts, eventually led most to dismiss his ascent as a fabrication. Eager to shut up his detractors, Maestri returned to Cerro Torre in 1970 to climb its southeast ridge.
Rather than looking for a natural line up Cerro Torre's steep headwall, Maestri and his team used a gas-powered compressor to drill a closely-spaced line of bolts up the blank face, a controversial contrivance known to climbers as a bolt ladder. Setting a bolt ladder is a mechanical process: you add a bolt into the rock, you clip an aider—a short stepladder made of webbing—into that bolt, stand up in it, and then reach up and drill another. Besides permanently altering the rock, bolt ladders dumb down climbing by making it possible to ascend any face through sheer manual labor instead of skill. Maestri claimed to have been forced to drill because he left his pitons at the base of the mountain—a claim that seems implausible, given that he remembered to winch a 400-pound compressor up.
In many climbers' eyes, Maestri had cheated his way up the mountain, stealing the first ascent of Cerro Torre from more skilled alpinists, who could have climbed it free or on natural gear. Maestri didn't even top out the ice mushroom perched on the summit. While Kruk and Kennedy simply ignored the bolts on their ascent, they say that the manufactured route detracted from their experience and set a dangerous precedent. "As long as the hardware remained it was justification for the unreasonable use of bolts by others," Kruk wrote in a statement on January 26.
Kruk and Kennedy say that by removing the bolts, they were returning the mountain to its more natural state, but not everyone agrees. While an overwhelming majority of climbers say that Maestri should never have bolted the Compressor, many believe it was worth preserving for its historical value. In February 2007, an assembly of Argentine and foreign climbers in El Chaltén voted 30–10 against chopping the line. "[Maestri] put up an artificial route on a mountain that could have been climbed naturally," Brazilian climber Edemilson Padilha wrote in a blog on January 23. "On the other hand, the route is from 1970 and is part of the history of this intriguing mountain. And the Americans simply didn't consult with the climbing community."