American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Cerro Torre Solo

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1987

Cerro Torre Solo

Marco Pedrini, Club Alpino Svizzero *

THE ENORMOUS advances in free climbing achieved in the last ten years have also raised the standard of classic alpinism, especially in regard to light expeditions and major ascents undertaken in alpine style. Fortunately in Patagonia as well, expeditions of the “Himalayan” type are becoming increasingly rare, even though this year there was a Yugoslav group which climbed a new route on the east face of Cerro Torre with fixed ropes all the way to the summit and an unsuccessful Italian group on the south face of the Aguja Poincenot.

In January 1984, during an attempt on the 1970 Maestri route on Cerro Torre, Romulo Notaris and I were blocked at the altitude of the ice towers by an unusual and difficult layer of spongy ice, which, covering the smooth vertical plates, hid Maestri’s bolts, essential to further progress. For eight hours we vainly tried to continue before renouncing the attempt. Only a few weeks earlier Thomas Wiischner1 and Daniel Anker had passed this point without any problem: cosas patagónicas!

On returning to Switzerland, I resumed free climbing, my preference in mountaineering. However, I could not forget my defeat on Cerro Torre and so I decided to try again, only this time alone. Since the difficulties were relatively moderate (5.9) on rock, 85° to 90° through an ice gully and A3 on the parts nailed by Jim Bridwell, it was above all a psychological problem. I particularly dedicated myself, therefore, to climbing brief, difficult rock routes without rope.

Before me, the solo climb of Cerro Torre had been tried by Bill Denz and Pierre Farges. Denz had reached the ice towers, where he was pinned down for five days by a storm. On the buttress below the shoulder where the Maestri route begins, he had fallen 250 meters while descending. Great fright and a dislocated shoulder! Farges had set out from Base Camp, and after a week of fine weather he was found dead, killed by the collapse of a sérac on the glacier halfway between Base Camp and Cerro Torre. Was he climbing toward his snow cave when he was struck by the sérac, or was he returning after a victorious ascent?

Inspired by a feat like Bridwell’s2 and in keeping with my customary habit of solo climbing, I decided to aim at speed and lightness, seeking to limit self-belaying as much as possible. No stove, therefore, nor bivouac gear, but rock shoes for the rock and plastic outers to wear over them for the ice, one 8mm rope and another of 6mm for rappels. What was involved was climbing the 900 vertical meters from the shoulder to the summit (to reach the shoulder, one has to overcome a mixed buttress of 400 meters) and then redescending in 24 or at most 36 hours without sleeping and almost without eating. If something didn’t go, I’d have to descend as fast as possible.

Swiss Television was interested in my attempt. I left in company with Fulvio Mariani, a movie-cameraman and professional photographer, as well as a superlative climbing companion, and his wife Lucia. If I succeeded on the solo, we would reclimb Cerro Torre together to reconstruct the climb and film it in 16mm.

By mid November I had made a first attempt, but 400 meters from the top excessive winds drove me down. Notwithstanding, I could now see that everything was functioning well and I was convinced that the tactic of speed and lightness was doubtless the best. Then I had to wait for good weather. When it cleared, I immediately set off during the night for the snow cave. At 7:30 A.M. on November 261 began to reclimb the two fixed ropes left by who-knows-what expedition and the third I had placed the week before. On each long, difficult pitch, I climbed without my rucksack, which I left hanging on a skyhook. From the top I hauled it up with the 6mm rope.

It was very warm—indeed too warm. I climbed in T-shirt, trying to avoid the ice chunks that fell from the wall. Thanks to the rock shoes, I could climb quickly and do the aid pitches without using stirrups, going from bolt to bolt. In a few hours I reached the ice traverse, followed by the gully. At four in the afternoon I attacked the final wall and reached Maestri’s compressor. This was certainly the strangest thing I have ever seen in the mountains. Anyone who would throw it off the slope after having climbed up to here solely thanks to the bolts driven by it would be a hypocrite.

For the next 30 meters Maestri had chopped his bolts while descending. Bridwell replaced them with aluminum dowels, knifeblades and copperheads. I drew out the other rope and belayed myself. After 25 meters of A3 on various rugosities and bits of rotten rope, I reached the snow tongue that descends from the summit mushroom. I found the rest of Maestri’s broken bolts, which proves to me that in 1970 he reached the summit of Cerro Torre3. For the umpty-umpth time I put on the outerboots and crampons over my rock shoes. Then everything became soft and I exited onto the snow with crampons and ice axe and climbed onto the frightful ice mushroom which covers the summit of Cerro Torre.

At 8:30 in the evening I was at the top. The sun set behind the Hielo Continental, the boundless, level glacier which is more than 400 kilometers long. Six hours of rappels during a marvelous night with full moon brought me back to the snow cave. A little later, at dawn, the weather turned foul.

A week later, with Fulvio Mariani, I returned to the snow cave to climb Cerro Torre again and film a reconstruction of the climb. There we found Kurt Lochner and Martin Moosberger, two Swiss who had just descended from the summit. In the middle of the night the roof of the snow cave collapsed, burying us. Fulvio and I still had our heads out but Kurt and Martin had a meter and a half of snow on top of them and could not even breathe. Fulvio and I struggled out of our down sacks and, half nude in the dark, began to grub among the blocks of snow. After a couple of minutes we freed their heads. They were as red as peppers and their eyes were popping out of their sockets. Coughing and choking, they barely could gasp, “Thanks, thanks!”

The following morning Fulvio and I climbed up to bivouac near the top, under the edge of the mushroom. We descended in bad weather without filming anything but fog.

On another try on December 12, we began at two A.M. By noon we were on top. Even though it was not snowing, the mist had returned. We decided to film anyhow. At nine that night we were again at the snow cave; I was beginning to know the route like the back of my hand. We shot a few more meters of film on the first part of the ascent and returned to Base Camp. We had finished.

On December 28 the weather became beautiful again. Fulvio and his wife left. At Río Blanco, the Fitz Roy Base Camp, I found Kurt, who with Martin, had just returned from a luckless attempt on the Chouinard route on Fitz Roy. I agreed to do the north buttress with him. We planned to ascend the Casarotto route and descend by the French-Argentine route, thus traversing the mountain from north to south, all in 24 hours without a bivouac, naturally.

On December 29 we began the mixed gully (400 meters of 60° ice and UIAA Grade IV rock) and then the buttress. We ended by putting up a new variant4 in rock shoes and with chalk. At eight P.M. we were on the top of the buttress, having to cross the small col which separates it from the final 300-meter-high wall. We still had three hours of light and so we continued, planning to descend by night.

Since the traverse was easy, I told Kurt to stop belaying. Beneath me was the ugly gully climbed by the Slovenes the previous year. Just then I slipped on verglas and plunged down 20 meters of the gully. The result: a dislocated shoulder, a dysfunctional leg and blood everywhere.

Kurt helped me back up and we decided to bivouac and descend from there the next day. How I longed to see the stars through the cloud-covered sky. At dawn we set out and took four hours to climb back the 60 meters to the top of the buttress, then 32 rappels to descend. We bivouacked again on the glacier at the upper col and on the evening of December 31, we were at Base Camp for the eve of Saint Silvester. The next morning everything hurt: a bad end of the old year and a worse beginning of the new.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Patagonia, Argentina.

Ascents: Cerro Torre, 3020 meters, 9908 feet*, via the Southeast Buttress (1970 Maestri Route), November 26, 1985 (Marco Pedrini solo in less than 24 hours); December 3 and 12, 1985 (Pedrini, Fulvio Mariani).

Fitz Roy, 3375 meters, 11,072 feet*, attempt via a variant on the North Buttress to the top of the buttress about 1000 feet from the summit, December 29, 1985 (Pedrini, Kurt Lochner).

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1 With Daniel Danker, Wüschner climbed in December 1983 the 1970 Maestri route on Cerro Torre, the Chouinard route on Fitz Roy, the Aguja Mermoz and other small peaks. In November 1984 with Martin Moosberger he ascended the English route on Poincenot and the Buscaini route on Saint Exupéry. He was killed with his daughter in a snowslide during a walk on the Alpstein in Switzerland in December 1985.

2 In February 1979 Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer tackled the southeast buttress (the Maestri route of 1970) alpine-style, aiming for lightness and therefore speed. They ascended and descended in only three days, an exceptional exploit.

3 Bridwell, in his account published on pages 375 to 386 of the American Alpine Journal of 1980, expressed the opinion that Maestri may have halted 30 meters from the top of the summit mushroom. (See also 2000 Metri della nostra vita by Fernanda and Cesare Maestri, published by Garzanti.)

4 After the approach gully, our route climbed 100 meters in common with the Casarotto route. Then it continued for another 200 meters on the line of the ridge, finally traversing slightly in the second pitch behind and to the right of the ridge itself. It rises 700 meters and was entirely free climbing without pitons and with only nuts and Friends. It presented constant difficulties of 5.10 and had several pitches of 5.11a. It is actually the most difficult route technically on Fitz Roy.

* Tragically killed August 16, 1986 on the American Direttissima on the Petit Dru above Chamonix, France.

* It is often difficult to be sure of which altitudes are the most reliable. The altitudes given above are those which have for many years been accepted. However the Spanish Catalan Servei d’lnformació de Muntanya has made a careful survey of existing maps and publishes in its monograph, Cuadernos de alpinismo—Chaltel, an altitude of 3128 meters or 10,263 feet for Cerro Torre and 3441 meters or 11,289 feet for Fitz Roy.

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