What is a First Ascent?

In the good old days before the interwebs ruined climbing and everything had been sent, pre-grizzled hardpersons climbed peaks nobody had ever stood atop. Those were first ascents. A little later, people climbed the same peaks via completely different terrain, maybe via more difficult, enjoyable, aesthetic, or seasonally-dependent condtions. They went to the summit as well. Those, also, were first ascents. But in the days of infinite variations, stopping at the end of "technical difficulties" 1/2way up the mountains, and failed attempts retroactively labeled as new climbs on features that might not really have summits, what is a first ascent?

In the 1990s, the prolific Euro duo of Piola and Anker climbed about 12 pitches, or ~2/3 of the West Pillar/prow of Cerro Pollone, one of the northernmost peaks on the ridge that inclues Cerro Torre, Pierre Georgio, Quatro Dedos, etc. They drilled a single bolt at each belay, presumably by hand. This was despite the presence of very solid cracks at all belays. I don't know how long this would have taken, but I'd imagine that even for ubber-alpinists, fixing this hardware into the dense granite must have taken close to an hour per bolt, though maybe the follower was jugging (off a non-bolt belay?) or doing something productive during the hammering. I wonder if they'd have reached a summit in the short Patagonia weather windows if they'd left the drill at home.

In 1999, the prolific 'Merican duo of Donini and Crouch climbed the entire West Pillar of Cerro Pollone to where the terrain dramatically turns into a narrow ridge with small ups-and-downs on the way to the peak's summit and farther, to the (then) unclimbed East summit. From the Donini and Crouch high point, there is roughly 5 pitches of granite ridge traversing and a bit of 5.10 and/or ice rime and/or overhanging snice mushrooms, in order to reach the mountain's summit. They named their route "A Fine Piece" and described it's FA in the American Alpine Journal.

Our view of the feature we wanted to climb before rappeling our 3 approach pitches. Where else would one begin?

In February, Scott Bennett and I began at the toe of the pillar and traded leads, with the leader freeing every pitch onsight. From atop the two previous high points, we climbed on to the peak's summit, and then East Summit (in betwwen summits using a couple rappels and a point of A1). We thought we had begun with the line of the prior two parties, as it appeared the only thing even remotely climbable on the prow of the pillar. But we didn't see any bolts for a few hundred feet off the glacier, and climbed sustained 5.11 up to 5.11d. We eventually started to see tat and belay bolts. After a bit of correspondence with local guru Rolando Garibotti, it turns out we were left of the first few pitches on A Fine Piece. All the pitches that Donini and Crouch had aided (and described as something like  "maybe a bit of 5.11, maybe not even that hard", we apparently avoided by climbing other terrain that was likely more difficult. So we didn't freeclimb all of "A Fine Piece" but we did freeclimb a route on the mountain. Then we used aid to reach the lower, East summit. So did we do a FFA? An FA? Did we do one? Did Donini/Crouch? Does anyone care?

Here's a video that Scott made about our FA, FFA, or "NA", whatever you choose to label it.

Any label of semantic distinction placed on our climb might be useful for clarification, but it would also likely be reductive of the experience we had and wont change what we accomplished. As the sun set beyond the Patagonian icecap, I remember the elation of realizing that we wouldn't be bivying in a phonebooth-shaped chimney covered in water ice, but that we could sneak out right and find an honest-to-goodness ledge. I remember how happy we were that the looming offwidth we knew we couldn't protect would be avoidable with 5.10 finger cracks, and the total relief upon pulling our final rappel ropes after finishing the traverse. All these things wont be changed by any post script of abbreviated labels. As long as one honestly recounts their experiences, I don't know if the definition of FA is tremendously important for any of us apart from the editors of Alpine Journals, but it does provide some interesting discussion fodder for campfires and car rides.

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