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The Beauty, the Tribe and the Choppers

Once upon a time, there was a tribe. They were special tribe. They looked at the world, and from their heights enjoyed watching the adventures of the living beings below. They were always the first to see the sunrise and the last to witness the sunset. Sometimes they felt alone … and other times they wanted company … but their only friends were the eagles and the condors …

Among humans, the members of these tribes were called “Mountains.”

One day, something special happened. Those little animals, human beings, started to get closer to the arms, the chest and the head of the smaller Mountains. The humans tickled the mountains’ skin, sometimes with their fingers, sometimes with their pitons, sometimes with their bolts. The mountains observed these little humans. Sometimes the mountains laughed at how the little humans fought over insignificant and trivial issues. If they used fixed or movable metals, it didn’t matter for the mountains. What did matter was to be considered, pursued and seduced.

Within the mountains tribe there was a special monolith. She was one of the most beautiful, perhaps she was THE MOST BEAUTIFUL mountain on earth. But she was a narcissist, and all she wanted was to be the center of the humans’ attention.

From this point our story starts. When the first humans began to enjoy itching the mountains’ skin, their next step was to figure out HOW to climb them. Some of the humans, like Paul Preuss, believed that mountains should be climbed without protection. Other climbers were convinced that the use of pitons allowed climbers to face more difficult vertical challenges and be more creative. With time, what had once been considered impossible, became “just” difficult, and eventually “easy.” It was a natural evolution of climbing, due to the knowledge from the past and the advent of new technologies. When the lines became too difficult, climbers started to make holes in the rock and place bolts to protect themselves from a fall or to aid the ascent. In this way it was possible to climb everywhere. For two decades, the fifties and the sixties, many routes were characterized by the presence of bolt ladders. This occurred in several areas of the world on vertical or overhanging lines, but especially in Yosemite, and even more in the Dolomites. The Dolomites were a realm of not only extreme free climbs, but also of very steep aid climbing routes. It was the place where Cesare Maestri learned to free and aid climb. For his time, he was an outrageous and anarchic rebel, who free-climbed when it was necessary to free-climb and aid-climbed when it was necessary to use artificial aids for the ascent. This was the ethic that he adopted when, angry from the mistrust he received by a part of the climbing world, decided to force the ascent of Cerro Torre in winter 1970. Staying fifty-four days with his team on the wall was not sufficient to reach what he considered the summit. Perhaps it was not the best ethics ever used, but it was an expression of incredible will power and human toughness. He had to come back during the Austral summer when he managed to ascend the stone, placing bolts, pitons and wooden wedges. To place the bolts he chose something which was beyond anything that could be accepted in those times. He carried a compressor of about one hundred kilograms plus fuel, food, water and gear. The total weight was perhaps more than one thousand kilograms.

Some people who climbed Cerro Torre know that sometimes the cracks and the rock are covered with ice, and it is not possible to climb without the bolts. Therefore we don’t know if Maestri placed so many bolts because of the weather conditions were harsh or simply because they didn’t care. But a large part of the climbing community of the time strongly criticized the style used on the Maestri’s Compressor route. Maestri’s reputation paid a high price for that ascent. Nevertheless, with time the Compressor route became the classic normal route to the summit of Cerro Torre. Even some climbers, who later opened new routes, first became familiarized with the mountain via the Compressor route. But after thirty years, the criticism against Maestri’s route has escalated, especially recently through the words of Rolando Garibotti and Colin Haley. Maestri became a vandal and his bolts a sign of insanity. Perhaps Garibotti and Haley ignored that, on other big walls, other climbers used bolt ladders to overcome “impossible” sections. Perhaps they were not aware that other climbers preferred to improve rather than erase history. This was the example of Lynn Hill, Todd Skinner, Alex Huber, Alex Honnold, Hansjorg Auer, etc, who were able to free climb, or even free solo, routes that were opened with artificial aid in the past. They did not remove one bolt or piton, but were able to elevate history by bringing old standards to a new level and using a different climbing paradigm. The historical routes didn’t kill the future, but offered new opportunities to younger generations. Especially thanks to Garibotti’s and Haley’s propaganda, the Compressor route underwent a different destiny with respect to other historical routes.

A democratic meeting in 2007, where thirty of forty climbers voted to keep the bolts, (and the desires of the village of El Chalten to keep the Compressor route unchanged) was totally ignored by Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk. After using Maestri’s bolts, they claimed to have climbed the route “by fair means” because in their words, “fair means does not mean no bolts, but a reasonable use”. According to their inconsistent report they decided, either on the route or on the summit, to chop Maestri’s bolts. They decided to trample an historical line, by chopping the bolts of a route in a foreign country, against local opinion.

Their action undoubtedly raises several questions. To what extent is it correct to ignore the decisions of locals? Does a better performance justify the destruction of a historic route? Up to what extent is it correct to insult a climber who opened routes more than forty years ago just because his style doesn’t match with the current, or personal, ethics? Kennedy and Kruk have set a precedent. Anyone may now go to a foreign country and ignore or even go against the opinion of the locals. The climbing world is small. Social networks enable us to communicate from the opposite sides of the planet. Therefore, I believe that now is time to establish some principles so we can avoid and prevent arbitrary and useless chopping or bolting, not just within one country, but beyond international boundaries.

Some believe that Cerro Torre will either benefit, or suffer for the last events. I think she is just happy to again be the center of the attention. On the contrary, I believe that the first victims of this story are Kennedy and Kruk. They have already been considered persona non grata from the village of El Chalten. Climbing history will remember them as the choppers of Cerro Torre. I guess no serious company would sponsor two athletes with such an elastic concept of what “fair means” is, and with such a low respect for climbing history and our predecessors. In the meantime something will happen for sure around Cerro Torre. She hates to be ignored, and she loves to be in the news as much as possible. So, we don’t know what but, for sure, something will flame up again in the future and climbing debates will rage. All just to keep Cerro Torre at the center of the stage.

The story of Cerro Torre as a beautiful narcissist has been inspired by the book of Gino Buscaini and Silvia Metzeltin, “Patagonia”.