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Cerro Torre’s east face, showing the Compressor Route (VI 5.10 A2, 900m, Alimonti-Angeli-Baldessari-Claus-Maestri, 1970), Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Patagonia, Argentina. On February 18, Americans Josh Wharton and Zack Smith ascended all but the final four pitches without using a single bolt. Their bolt-less highpoint was over 100 meters above Ermanno Salvaterra and Mauro Mabboni’s similar attempt in 1999. [Photo] Rolando Garibotti

On February 18, Josh Wharton and Zack Smith made a near-boltless ascent of Cerro Torre’s famed Compressor Route (VI 5.10 A2, 900m, Alimonti-Angeli- Baldessari-Claus-Maestri, 1970), Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Patagonia, Argentina. Wharton and Smith worked out slight variations to the route with natural gear to get to the headwall without relying on bolts (aside from belays, which Wharton said would be “refixed anyway” if the bolts were chopped). Although they reached the top of the route, Wharton and Smith began clipping bolts in the final 400 feet (four pitches) due to weather complications.

The infamous Compressor Route is the most traveled line on Cerro Torre, but it has never seen a boltless ascent. Wharton and Smith’s recent attempt, which required innovative climbing on runout faces and ice chimneys, marks the highest point a team has ever reached without bolts (Ermanno Salvaterra and Mauro Mabboni avoided clipping bolts until reaching the ice towers ca. 700 feet from the summit in 1999), and their near success offers promise for a boltless ascent in the near future.

Cesare Maestri’s disputed first ascent of the tower in 1959 was the beginning of Cerro Torre’s magnetism for ethical dissent. Maestri returned eleven years later to establish the Compressor Route on the spire’s southeast ridge. He and his team hauled along a compressor to power their drill, over-bolted the face, then chopped a line of their own bolts on the descent (Jim Bridwell pioneered a 20-meter A3 aid route alongside the chopped bolts that now serves as the standard route through that section). Maestri’s bolt bonanza incited Reinhold Messner to write “The Murder of the Impossible”, a short essay in Mountain that denounced the premature rush to bolt direttissimas; debate over whether to chop Maestri’s remaining bolts continues today.

Wharton and Smith followed in Salvaterra and Mabboni’s footsteps by hooking through a pitch of A2 and keeping cool on two pitches of 5.10+ R face climbing to avoid the “mandatory” 80-meter bolt traverse (the traverse alone has nearly 200 bolts), located nine pitches below the summit. Reaching the ice towers, where Salvaterra and Mabboni continued on bolts in 1999, Wharton and Smith ventured into an ice chimney for over 200 feet of climbing up to the headwall. It is likely that this is the ice chimney’s first ascent.

A severe storm doused the pair’s aspirations for a boltless ascent one pitch up on the headwall, Wharton said. “As ropes and aiders blew straight up and fingers froze, [Zack] was forced to use the bolts. From there we struggled to the top in miserable conditions.” Storms are common in the area due to a microclimate caused by the Patagonian Ice Cap. For the three remaining pitches on the headwall, the pair had difficulty climbing in the wind, despite relying on the final bolts. Wharton and Smith soloed toward the summit after completing the route but decided to turn back about twenty feet from the top, as the wind made the final steps on the snow mushroom too dangerous to attempt.

Wharton noted that the excessive bolting–there are about 450 bolts on Maestri’s line–could, relatively safely, be reduced to fewer than twenty. “I’m glad we climbed so much of the route without bolts,” Wharton said. “I’m also excited to see that the 120 meter headwall (in better conditions) will go with perhaps only 30 meters of aid–20 of which are the legitimate aid climbing of the Bridwell pitch. And I thought we did a great job struggling onto the top in horrendous weather. I’m disappointed, however, that in the end we took the easy way out, using the bolts to gain the top in what would otherwise have been unclimbable conditions. Human laziness, and coveting the easy way to the top is a sad piece of the Compressor Route story, and although Zach and I nearly avoided this path, in the end we fell just short. So for me the southeast ridge still needs some attention, and our ascent… despite many hearty congrats, will feel a bit bittersweet.”

Sources: Josh Wharton, Rolo Garibotti