Cerro Torre

For a beautiful and iconic peak, Cerro Torre certainly has one bizarre history.

A few days ago, Jason Kruk and Hayden Kennedy climbed the SE Ridge of Cerro Torre. They finished off a project that had been tried numerous years by many different climbers, which was to follow the obvious ridge line taken by the Maestri Compressor attempt (eventually successfully climbed by Bridwell and Brewer).  Jason and Hayden then smashed out over 100 of the bolts on the compressor route's headwall (of a parallel height to where their line took a new path). Amid all the controversy, the climbing world went nuts after someone facebooked about having watched this through a camera lens. What a crazy 21-st century internet alpinism phenomenon to have sparked such outrage and anger. I never considered climbing Cerro Torre on my two season in Patagonia, but I have climbed on a much easier satellite peak and know some of the folks involved. It seems like many of the rants and arguments are based on false premises, so here are some facts and dates:

  • 1959 - Cesare Maestri claimed to have climbed the Northern aspect of Cerro Torre (CT) for the mountain's first ascent. Maestri lost his camera and his partner died on the mountain. His claim to have climbed CT is now mostly dismissed as a lie.
  • 1970 - Maestri returned to CT, which had not seen a "2nd" ascent. His team climbed up the SE Ridge of the peak, placing hundreds of bolts next to 5.7-5.10 cracks, and eventually abandoning the more featured and protectable ridge to drill long bolt ladders rightward across a blank wall near the summit. His team stopped atop the rock and didn't summit the peak's ice and snow pitches. He also removed ~2 dozen of his own bolts on the decent. This route was soon repeated (with rivets and aid climbing used to overcome the broken-bolts sections) and the climbers (Bridwell/Brewer) did summit the peak for the first ascent of the "Compressor Route".
  • 2010 - David Lama made a big fuss of his pre-climb and pre-trip proclamations that he was going to climb the compressor route and then create a bolt-protected freeclimb up the CT headwall, equipping pitches with more bolts placed on rappel. Faced with massive controversy, he agreed not to rappel-bolt, and eventually didn't do much of anything apart from run around town with a scary-looking posse and cause a lot of noise and concern that there'd been an accident when his Red Bull Helicopter spent weather windows in early 2011 swooping in and out from the peaks near his party as they aided the Compressor Route.
Last season when I was in Patagonia, at least two teams (one USA one CAN) were attempting to complete what they and others had begun calling a "fair means" ascent of CT's SE Ridge. I asked Colin Haley about the term, and he described it as not using any of Maestri's bolts for upward progress. The Canadian Team was Jason Kruk and Chris Geisler who (last season) reached a new high point on this multi-year project. They added somewhere between 1-4 bolts and esatblished new pitches on more naturally-featured rock which they described as the line's logical continuation, well to the left of the Compressor bolt ladders. This season, Jason Kruk succeeded, joined on this route by Hayden Kennedy. Congrats on an awesome ascent!

On the way down, Jason and Hayden removed over 100 bolts from the compressor-placed bolt ladders. This makes their SE Ridge finishing pitches now the only established option in this part of the mountain, and will likely be the end of the line for the wild and weird Compressor saga.

Here are a bunch of mistakes I've seen folks make when arguing about the route:

  • They didn't free climb their route. They used aid to ascend the rock. Mostly clean aid, some bolted aid (bolts added by them or by Kruk/Geisler last year).
  • There were no guided ascents of this route. Local guides aren't suddenly out of work over this. This wont hurt the local economy. 90%+ of the visitors to El Chalten are not even climbers.
  • These "bolts" were more like pitons than modern expansion bolts. Jason and Hayden were able to easily remove the whole unit from the wall, nothing left in place. Since the remaining tiny holes aren't adjacent to their variation, they'll only be seen by folks descending the mountain. Any negative visual impact would be minuscule compared to the previous situation.
  • There weren't teams of climbers lining up to get on this thing, or who would now have spent/wasted thousands of dollars just to try the compressor. Sure there might be 2-6 people every year who made this route a primary goal, but I'd be surprised if it were even that many.
  • They didn't climb along the terrain of the bolt ladders without using the bolt ladders. They continued pushing new pitches up terrain well to the left of the blank, right-trending compressor bolts.
  • They did place bolts (somewhere from 1-5) or used the ones Jason's team had placed on a previous recent attempt.
  • They are Canadian, American, and removed bolts placed by an Italian. If you're bothered by Americans removing bolts in Argentina, are you equally bothered by Italians placing them? Is it ok for visitors (however defined) to place bolts, but only for locals (however defined) to remove them?
  • With an ascent of CT now requiring more skill, longer weather windows, and much more rare conditions, folks will be looking to other overlooked peaks for adventures.
It seems agreed upon in climbing that the superlative style is onsight, ground-up, free, and without any bolts. To me, any ascent closer to this style is a "better" ascent than one further from this style that reaches the same point. By this measure Hayden and Jason's ascent is a big accomplishment. I am left with a few questions about the ascent and descent, but I've met and hung out a bit with Hayden and Jason and certainly give them the benefit of the doubt. 

A few things I am still wondering about:

  • If the "Fair Means" ascent was merely defined as not using even one of Maestri's bolts for upward progress, wouldn't hand-drilling a bolt or rivet ladder off to the side of Maestri's qualify as a successful fair-means ascent? This didn't happen, but to me, the definition needs to be more precise. 
  • If Hayden and Jason used any bolts at all for "upward progress" then the implication is that some number of bolts is acceptable but Maestri used too many. If so, how many is ok and how or by whom should that decision be made? Is it always a judgement call made in the moment?
  • If one considers it acceptable to remove the compressor bolt ladders, would it be logically consistent to EVER argue against the removal of a bolt ladder when variations were established that reached the same point with fewer bolts?
Without a bunch of self-imposed rules, we'd all just summit peaks of our dreams via helicopter, so as as stilly as much of this can seem, I think it's interesting and important to the sport.


  1. A climb is what you make of it; what you want your own personal experiences to be. A climb should never be about someone else…It’s all about you and what you gain and what you take back from it. A bolt is a bolt, you can choose to use one or not. I believe in leaving a place as you found it but hey what’s a few bolts. If you really want to get on your high horse why not go up to Everest and clean up that mess and stop worrying about a few bolts. There are other fish to fry.

  2. Very nice article. I'm not a climber but became aware of Cerro Torre trough a TV programme about the comrpessor controvercy. So, inadvertently, I suppose, Maestri has done some good as I will be spending 4 days in El Chalten this December(2016). It is a dream I have had since long before I moved to South America.
    You raise the question of fair means and its definition. Would a rope be fair means? Look at Ueli Steck running up the North Face. But then he's using crampons and ice picks. Where do you draw the line?