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Some thoughts on Maestri's Compressor route bolts

The following article was written in 2007 after Americans Zach Smith and Josh Wharton climbed a Fair Means variation to the Compressor route on Cerro Torre’s SE ridge. During that climb they attempted to remove one of Maestri’s bolts and although they did not even manage to take it out their intentions generate a heated debate. This article was originally published in Rock and Ice magazine in 2007.

For more thoughts on the Compressor route read the Ragni route text, the intro to Cerro Torre and the description of the Compressor route.

What’s in a summit?
By Rolando Garibotti

The controversy over the Compressor Route bolts has ignited a firestorm, scuffle included, and raises the question of why we climb in the first place. Like most things in life, the why relates to the how. It is important to realize that more than 95 percent of the southeast ridge could be climbed following the natural line, and protected with cams and nuts. To be sure, Patagonia’s notorious weather and conditions can still make the Compressor Route challenging, and it still requires some “real” climbing, but that misses the point. Cesare Maestri drilled the many long bolt ladders not to connect natural features but to avoid them, tackling blank rock that he could overcome at a 15-bolt-per-hour pace with his compressor and drill, altering Cerro Torre’s natural challenges in a way unseen on any other mountain of such magnificence. Most of the 400 bolts he placed are unnecessary by anybody’s standards, even those from back in 1970 when he placed them. Maestri acknowledged as much when, referring to the upper headwall, he wrote in a 1971 Mountain magazine article that, “We could have climbed many sections with normal pins, but we had left them at the bergschrund 3,000 feet lower, so we had no alternative but to drill.”

In 1952, after making the first ascent of neighboring Fitz Roy, Lionel Terray described Cerro Torre as “an impossible mountain,” a label hardly accurate today. Thanks to the many bolts, the 2,800-foot Compressor Route’s recommended rack— five cams, 10 nuts and one ice screw—is smaller than that needed for the Red Rocks classic Epinephrine. At age 17, in 1988, with hardly three years of climbing experience and a youthful lack of introspection into why I was even there, I managed to climb to within four pitches of the top of Maestri’s creation. It was obvious to me that my attempt fell well outside the realm of sportsmanship and, when I paused to think about what drew me to the mountains, my experience felt empty and I was never interested in going back. As Reinhold Messner said in a 1971 Mountain interview published alongside his well-known manifesto “The Murder of the Impossible,” an article inspired by the Compressor Route, “Climbers must be prepared to wait until peaks can be climbed in a better way.”

Our willingness to use the bolts displays an ardent desire to reach a specific geographical point, the summit. But if that is the case, why bother pretending? A helicopter would be more expedient. Or, if that’s too far from the natural experience of a physical workout, maybe a jumar line. The late Galen Rowell suggested as much when, in a letter to the editor of Mountain in 1971, he said “Maestri would have saved himself a lot of work by having a fixed line strung over the summit by helicopter. The net result would have been the same.” Even if it can be amply exciting, an ascent of the Compressor Route bears similarities to the much-derided ascents of Everest with oxygen, Sherpas and fixed rope, tactics that Mark Jenkins, in a 2005 Outside article, compared to “using a step ladder to dunk a basketball.” Some might argue that climbing is supposed to be fun, and that the Compressor is a good time, but something beyond fun must drive people to push themselves to exhaustion in such an inhospitable environment. If climbing’s richness is rooted in its challenges and a search for meaning through experience, why would we be so willing to bypass the natural predicament that a mountain presents?

To understand the Compressor Route properly, you must understand Maestri’s motivation for establishing the climb. In early 1970, after another unsuccessful attempt on the mountain’s west face, the Italian mountaineer Carlo Mauri sent a telegram saying, “We return from the impossible Cerro Torre safe and sound but defeated.” This commentary, published in one of Italy’s biggest newspapers, Corriere, was a missile aimed at Maestri, who claimed—and still claims—to have reached the summit in 1959. This was the first time that doubts about his 1959 claim were publicly expressed in Italy. Maestri responded, writing in his book 2000 Metri della Nostra Vita, “I return and will attack their routes, the routes they were not able to climb. I will humiliate them, and they will have to feel ashamed of having doubted me.” Perhaps the most important word in his statement is “humiliate.” Apparently, Maestri did not return to Cerro Torre because he liked the peak or because the southeast ridge was an inspiring line, he returned driven by vengeance.

The rules of climbing are ill-defined, and most of us would agree with Maestri when in a 1972 Mountain interview he stated, “For me the mountains are a space of freedom in which each one of us can behave as he pleases as long as he respects the freedom of the others.” But, as Ken Wilson, the then editor of Mountain, explained, “Putting all those bolts on Cerro Torre does interfere with other people’s enjoyment.” Some might argue that chopping the bolts will have the same negative effect on climbers, or that the bolts can just be avoided, but there is something deeply contradictory about such an overwhelmingly manufactured pathway, on such a fantastic peak, existing merely so that a few people can stand on top. If we accept such a climb because some of us might enjoy it, then it would logically follow that it should be made accessible to those who climb 5.4, or even those who don’t climb at all.

Many people have criticized Josh Wharton and Zack Smith for being foreigners trying to impose their ways in a country that is not theirs. First we must remember that Maestri, himself a foreigner, did not discuss his plans before charging ahead, and second we need to establish whose country it really is. Is it the Argentines, including myself—if not by birth by upbringing—who have occupied that land for less than 150 years after killing off all the Tehuelches who lived there for over 10,000 years? Who decides the fate of Maestri’s vengeful bolts? Do the locals decide, those who live in Chalten but hardly ever venture into the mountains? Or should the decision be left to people that know the nuances of the discussion a little better, people like Ermanno Salvaterra, who has spent more time on that peak than anyone? An opinion is only as valuable as it is knowledgeable, and knowledge is usually derived from experience. I believe the foreigners in this discussion are those who, regardless of nationality, give opinions without being familiar with the subject. That was certainly not the case with Wharton, who has collected a myriad of phenomenal ascents in the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre massifs.

When asked about the Compressor Route, the legendary Slovene climber Silvo Karo, responsible for two new routes and one major link up on Cerro Torre, responded, “That climb was stolen from the future. Without all those bolts the history of that marvelous mountain would have been very different. I am convinced that in alpinism how you have climbed is more important than what you have climbed, and I have no doubt that the best are those that leave the least amount of stuff behind.” Surprisingly, Maestri agreed with the last part of Karo’s statement. In his 2000 Metri della Nostra Vita, Maestri recounts that, before making the first rappel from the high point of his attempt (he stopped 100 feet below the summit) he decided to, “take out all the bolts and leave the climb as clean as we found it. I’ll break them all.” After chopping 20 bolts, and in the face of the magnitude of the enterprise, Maestri changed his mind. Mario Conti, responsible in 1974 for what is now known to be the first ascent of the mountain, agrees, writing in the 2006 book Enigma Cerro Torre, “Only by taking out the bolts one can imagine the mountain as it was, as it should still be.” I believe it is time to finish the job Maestri started, placing his historic bolts where they belong, under the roof of a museum. Maestri’s desire for vengeance and the complacency of the hundreds of repeat ascents are weak arguments to justify keeping in place a disfigurement so severe to a mountain as grand as Cerro Torre.

En el mes de febrero de 2007 dos escaladores norteamericanos, Josh Wharton y Zach Smith escalaron el espolón sureste del Cerro Torre, completando una variante que evita mas del 60% de los clavos a presión de Maestri. Se propusieron también sacar los cuatro cientos clavos de presión que coloco Maestri, pero luego de probar sin éxito en uno de ellos desistieron. Si bien no llegaron a sacar siquiera uno, la intención fue razón suficiente para generar un debate enardecido. Lo que sigue son ciertas consideraciones sobre el tema. Este articulo, un resumen del articulo original en ingles (ver a la izquierda), fue originalmente publicado en la revista Desnivel en el 2007.

Para mas consideraciones sobre la vía del Compresor ver el texto sobre la vía Ragni en la cara oeste, la introducción del Cerro Torre y el texto de la vía del Compresor.

Que vale una cumbre?
por Rolando Garibotti

Para aquellos que no lo conozcan cabe aclarar que el 95% del espolón sudeste que recorre la vía del Compresor puede ser escalado usando seguros móviles. Maestri coloco los 400 clavos de presión no para conectar líneas de fisuras, sino para evitarlas. El mismo admite: “Hubiésemos podido escalar muchas secciones con clavos normales pero los dejamos 1000 metros mas abajo en la rimaya y por lo tanto nos vimos forzados a taladrar.” En 1952 luego de completar la primera al Fitz Roy Lionel Terray describió al Cerro Torre como “una montaña imposible” un titulo que lamentablemente no es adecuado hoy en día. Gracias a los clavos de Maestri el Torre puede ser escalado con menos equipo del requerido para repetir el Flip Matinal en el Pic du Midi d’Ossau – bastan 5 friends, 10 empotradores y un tornillo de hielo.

Para evaluar el valor histórico de esta vía hace falta recordar que Maestri no volvió al Torre porque le gustaba la montaña o porque le apetecía escalar el espolón sudeste. Volvió con la sola intención de humillar a aquellos que expresaban dudas sobre su supuesta ascensión en 1959. El mismo escribe, “Volveré y atacare sus vías, aquellas que no pudieron escalara (en referencia a Carlo Mauri y a los Ingleses). Los humillare y tendrán avergonzarse de haber dudado de mi”.

Si estamos dispuestos a usar los clavos de Maestri para alcanzar la cumbre porque no usar un helicóptero directamente? Galen Rowell sugiere que: “Maestri se hubiese ahorrado mucho trabajo de haber colocado una cuerda fija desde la cumbre con un helicóptero” y explica que “el resultado final hubiese sido mas o menos el mismo.” Una ascensión de la vía del Compresor se asemeja mucho a las ascensiones del Everest con oxigeno, cuerdas fijas y sherpas, que Mark Jenkins tan perspicazmente describe como similares a “usar una escalera para jugar al baloncesto.”

Estoy de acuerdo con Maestri cuando explica que “las montañas son un espacio de libertad donde cada uno debe poder comportarse como quiera mientras que se respeten las libertades de los otros”. Sin embargo su lógica hace agua al no poder entender que tal como lo explica Ken Wilson: “Todos esos clavos en el Torre interfieren con las libertades de otras personas.” Algunos argumentaran que sacar los clavos tendrá el mismo efecto, pero si los aceptamos como validos porque ciertas personas pueden llegar a disfrutar de la vía lógicamente tendremos que estar también dispuestos a hacerla accesible a aquellos que escalan cuarto grado, y también a aquellos que no escalan.

Muchos han criticado a Wharton y a Smith por ser extranjeros que intentan imponer “su verdad” en tierras ajenas. Personalmente prefiero adjudicar el concepto de extranjería basándome no en el país de pertenencia, sino en el conocimiento de causa o lugar. De ser así, debemos admitir que Wharton puede ser considerado un local, habiendo visitado la zona en numerosas ocasiones y habiendo realizado muchas ascensiones importantes tanto en el macizo del Fitz como en el del Torre.

Al preguntarle sobre la vía del Compresor, el legendario escalador Esloveno Silvo Karo explico, “Esa vía ha sido robada al futuro. Sin todos esos clavos la historia de esta magnifica montaña hubiese sido muy diferente. Estoy convencido que en el alpinismo el ‘como has escalado’ es mas importante que el ‘que has escalado’, y no tengo duda que los mejores son aquellos que no dejan rastro detrás de si.” Sorprendentemente hasta Maestri esta de acuerdo con Karo. En 1970, antes de hacer el primer rappel, Maestri decidió: "Sacare todos los clavos y dejare la pared limpia tal como la encontramos.” Luego de romper unos 20, y en vistas de lo quijotesco de la empresa, desistió. Sorprende darse cuenta que la intención de Wharton y Smith no era ni mas ni menos que la del propio Maestri. Mario Conti, autor en 1974 de la primera ascensión de la montaña también esta de acuerdo, “Solo sacando los clavos podemos imaginar la montaña como era, como tendría que ser.” Personalmente creo que es hora de terminar el trabajo que Maestri empezó y colocar estos clavos históricos en un lugar seguro, bajo el techo de un museo.

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