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South America, Argentina, Southern Patagonia, Chalten Massif, Cerro Torre, Southeast Ridge, Attempt by Fair Means

Cerro Torre, Southeast Ridge, attempt by fair means. In early February 2007 Josh Wharton and I emptied our bank accounts and traveled south. Our goal was to climb the Southeast Ridge (Compressor Route) of Cerro Torre in the best style we could imagine. This meant climbing in a single push and, more importantly, avoiding as many of Maestri’s 400 bolts as we could. After a week and a half of typical Patagonian weather, we started up our objective, leaving high camp at 8 p.m.—a proper alpine start. We toiled up fresh snow and then climbed the lower crack pitches through the night. Just as the sun rose we stopped and brewed up where the “Monumental Bolt Traverse” makes an illogical rightward traverse across blank stone. Above us, right on the crest of the arête, was a vertical splitter seam. Unfortunately, it was covered in places with a meter of atmospheric ice, too unstable to climb directly. For several hours Josh aided around it, onto the south face, eventually doing a wild pendulum onto the “Ice Amoeba” and then hacked through it to ascend the crack. Two more pitches of perfect rock, with occasional 5.10 runouts, led back onto the Compressor Route. In 1968, two years before Maestri, a strong British/Argentine team attempted this same line, retreating after the aid seam. In 1999 the successful Patagonian climber Ermanno Salvaterra established the excellent face pitches higher, though ultimately retreating.

After a few classic moderate mixed pitches through the Ice Towers we came to the second major bolt ladder. We continued to the right of this, then up a wildly overhanging crack that terminated in unclimbable s’nice mushrooms. The sun came around and started melting the unstable features. It was 3 p.m., and the weather was perfect, plenty of time to descend a pitch and go up the bolt ladders to the summit. After a brief discussion we placed a cam and began our rappels to the ground. At one of the belays we stopped. Without moving my feet I could touch eight bolts. Many were next to hand cracks. We pulled a cat’s claw from the pack and for the first time in our lives attempted to remove a bolt, to see if it would be possible to return Cerro Torre to its original state. After several minutes it barely budged. We returned to town. Some climbers slandered and threatened us for our 10-minute experiment and barely mentioned our attempt on the ridge. Many were afraid of the idea, while others were excited by the possibility.

Five days later we got another chance on the ridge. This time it was a lot colder, and sometimes on the lower cracks I was forced to stop and warm my hands, even in direct sun. The “Ice Amoeba” aid pitch went a lot faster, and Josh did an amazing job sticking the delicate and scary slab moves in huge wind gusts. This round we went left at the second bolt ladder and entered a deep chimney system that we had scoped before. The 60m pitch was 50' deep into the bowels of Cerro Torre, 3' wide, and filled with bullet blue ice. If this pitch were at a crag, it would be world famous. We got spit out right at the belay of the headwall, where the bolts began again.

Our original goal was to make it to this point without clipping a bolt, which we did. Looking up at the headwall it was obvious it would go further without the bolts. The weather was drastically worsening throughout the day. Wind repeatedly body-slammed us against the wall while we organized the rack. Below we could see several parties descending.

The first pitch went without bolts, with a combination of small gear, free-climbing, and hooking large flakes. In less-icy conditions this pitch would probably go at 5.9 or 5.10. The variations we made below the headwall felt natural and warranted, but here it felt ridiculous to be placing sketchy gear mere inches from bolts. Eventually I started clipping the bolts. Instead of feeling thankful that they allowed me to continue, I felt angry that the climbing on the headwall was ruined. I clipped a hundred bolts, sometimes a foot apart. Occasionally it was faster to free-climb around them, even wearing boots and gloves. All around us were difficult yet climbable features. We arrived just below the fixed compressor, where the rock blanked out, and the bolts were finally justified. The last pitch is referred to as the Bridwell Pitch, because he re-established this section on the second ascent with copperheads, dowels, and hooks, after Maestri chopped his own bolts. [The 1979 Brewer-Bridwell ascent was actually the first to summit Cerro Torre via this line, and to even complete the rock headwall. On his infamous 1970 climb, Maestri chopped his own bolts on this final section as he rappelled from his highpoint, which was on vertical ground just below the top of the rock headwall—Ed.] This perfect line on one of the most iconic alpine peaks in the world could be climbed with 60' of holes instead of hundreds of holes.

At the top of the headwall the full force of the storm hit us. The final snow mushroom can be WI6, but this year it was a 50' steep hike. Nevertheless, we decided to keep our fingers and toes and, like Maestri and many climbers before us, didn’t continue. Twenty-four hours after leaving, we escaped the wind in our cave at advanced base camp.

Politics aside, the variant we did produced some amazing, varied climbing at a reasonable grade. Maybe the bolts will be left to fall out on their own, and our intended statement will fall on deaf ears. Or maybe, next season, when a team climbs the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre and someone asks them down in a café, “Did you climb the mushroom?” they will also ask, “So, how many bolts did you clip?”

Zack Smith