Cerro Torre: Compressor Route Free Climbed (Twice) and Bolts Chopped

posted by dpm on 01/20/2012

Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk have (mostly) free climbed the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre in Patagonia roughly following the historic Compressor Route.  Could this be the final chapter of the 40-year controversy surrounding Cesare Maestri’s Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia?  It’s possible, but probably not.  It’s a story that is so permeated with legend and conjecture that it’s nearly impossible to report on without interjecting some kind of heresy or opinion.  When I heard a few days ago that Colorado climber Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk had free-climbed the route AND skipped all the bolts I was super impressed but a touch skeptical. 

The news report came in from the fastest and most up-to-date online climbing media site (yup, Facebook) via Colin Haley who watched the ascent through a camera zoom lens from base camp.  I sat back and waited for more details, not wanting to jump the gun and present false information.  It was still unclear exactly what path they took up the Southeast Ridge, the site of Maestri’s 1970 Compressor Route which famously sports a huge bolt ladder that he drilled with a power drill run by a gas-powered compressor. 

Cesare Maestri's 1970 Compressor Route is shown above.  Looks tough to me, even with the bolts.  Photo: tetonat.com

More news came yesterday in a post by Rolando Garibotti on Supertopo who stated that the duo did free climb the Southeast Ridge.  During the very fast 13-hour ascent from the Col of Patience they clipped five bolts on lead, none of which were placed by Maestri but by other teams intending to free climb the route.  Garibotti “presumes” that they used some of Maestri’s bolted belays.  He also notes that they incorporated a pendulum (aid) to link over to the last three pitches.  On the way down they chopped the bolts on “a good portion of the Compressor Route.”  Their final route is estimated by Garibotti to be 5.11+ A2. 

Cesare Maestri's compressor.  It might take a couple pulls to turn it over but could still go for a couple hundred on ebay.  Photo: bergsteigen.at

Now before getting into the significance of this ascent, two things are worth noting.  First, regardless of the exact details of the Kennedy/Kruk route, what they have accomplished is huge in the world of alpine mountaineering.  Second, it’s difficult to understand why unless you’ve been following the story of the Southeast Ridge for the past forty years, especially the last ten.  Here’s a very abbreviated bullet-point timeline of the route’s history courtesy of Wikipedia.  (Note: Wikipedia already gives credit to Kennedy and Kruk for a “boltless ascent.”  There are also many oversights in this timeline.  It is intended to give a broad overview of the controversy)


1959:  Cesare Maestri and Toni Egger claimed the first ascent of Cerro Torre via the Southeast Face.  On the descent, Egger was swept to his death by avalanche.  Due to inconsistencies in Maestri’s account and no fixed lines or hardware left in place, most of the climbing community disputed the ascent saying he never even got close to the summit.

1970:  Maestri established the Compressor Route on the Southeast Ridge.  With the help of his gas-powered generator he drilled a 450 bolt ladder up 350 meters of rock and left the compressor at the base of the summit mushroom where he retreated.  It’s hard to understand why he wouldn’t climb the last 100 meters until you see what the ‘summit mushroom’ looks like.  Try to spot the tiny climber near the top of the mushroom at minute 3:30 in this old school video.

Click the image for some sweet aerial footage of Cerro Torre.  Classic soundtrack too.  

1974:  The route was first climbed to the summit by an Italian team.  The first alpine ascent was completed by an American team in 1977.  Since then the route has been climbed by many parties from all over the world. 

2007:  American’s Josh Wharton and Zach Smith make a near-boltless ascent of the route which can be read about in this article at Alpinist magazine.  

2010:  The free attempt that gained the most notoriety was Austrian David Lama’s attempt.  Sponsored by Red Bull, his team of videographers and their guides placed an additional 60 bolts on the ridge.  This instance was the height of controversy and fury among alpinists.  There is much online debate to be found but a good summary can be read here at Alpinist magazine.  Lama’s statement to the media can also be found at Alpinist here.  And finally, Lama’s bolts were chopped, which can be read about at Alpinist here.  

Some of the Red Bull/Lama bolts, clearly placed next to some excellent removable pro.  Photo: ColinHaley.blogspot.com

2012:  Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk complete their ascent clipping only five bolts.  Four were placed by Ermanno Salvaterra in 1999 and one was placed by Jason Kruk on his free attempt last year with Chris Geisler.  They also used bolted belays on their ascent.  On their descent they chopped many bolts on the famous Compressor Route, enough to prompt Garibotti to say on Supertopo that, “the Compressor Route is no more.”


Now, we can delve into the core of the debate that has surrounded the route and the debate that will continue to surround the route in its current state.  When is it OK to apply the accepted ethics of today to the world’s historically significant routes?  Certainly, had Maestri drilled his bolt ladder in 2012 it would be chopped immediately.  In 1970, it was a different story.  He was the first to almost touch the summit, though it required him to adhere to an ethic of ‘any means necessary.’  Look at Warren Harding’s bolt ladder on the Nose of El Cap.  Harding, drilling through the night past that last overhang to reach the summit on the first ascent of El Cap’s Nose is legendary.  Although it now goes free at a modern-day “moderate” level of 5.12c, it won’t get chopped.  It’s a piece of history that signifies the time period (not to mention, the bolts are used to protect the free climb.)  Maestri’s bolt ladder is an altogether different story. 

Garibotti wrote an intriguing article on the Cerro Torre debate that was published in Rock and Ice in 2007.  It can be read here at Pataclimb.com.  The article quotes famed alpinist Reinhold Messner as saying just one year after the Compressor Route was established, “Climbers must be prepared to wait until peaks can be climbed in a better way.”  Another world famous alpinist, Silvo Karo states, “That climb was stolen from the future.”

What Kennedy and Kruk have done is astounding.  Their route is at the cutting edge of what is possible in today’s world, but the world in which they live is very different than the world Maestri lived in.  Kennedy is able to train for the mountains by climbing 5.14 sport routes in Rifle, Colorado.  He’s one of the world’s most talented all-around climbers because of it.  Should today’s ethics be applied to Maestri’s world where the hardest free climbs were 5.11?  The Kennedy/Kruk route is 5.11+, which is approximately the same difficulty as the world’s hardest free climbs in 1970.  That would be like someone coming along in forty years and establishing a gear-protected 5.15 up the face and then chopping the Kennedy/Kruk bolts.  Or would it? 

This photo shows the shrapnel blast of bolts that hit Cerro Torre in 1970.  It's a miracle any rock survived unscathed.  Photo: Pataclimb.com

Seeing the above picture offers better understanding of why many believe that Maestri’s route was over the top even for the time period.  It was just after the ascent that Messner made his quote about waiting until peaks can be climbed a better way.    We probably all have an opinion but the truth is, unless you’ve been up there, it doesn’t really matter much.  As you can see in the video linked above, it’s one of the harshest, most dangerous, and rapidly changing environments on the planet.  Just having the ability and cool head to take time to chop bolts on the way down is a testament to their skill.  The only certainty is that the Kennedy/Kruk route is groundbreaking and at least a temporary climax to what may prove to be a never-ending story.  If DPM offered up an annual ‘Golden Bolt Hanger’ award, it would certainly go to this duo for their ability in the high mountains and their judgment in dealing with this controversial topic.  Congrats to them both.         

What are your personal thoughts on the subject of applying today’s ethics to yesterday’s routes?  Are there other examples that offer perspective on the broader topic?  Does anyone think the bolts should have been allowed to remain?     



Update: 1/23/12

First the big news:  It’s been reported that David Lama and Peter Ortner have free climbed the actual line of the Compressor Route at a grade of 5.13b.  Speculation can never be fully trusted but the claim is that the line went completely free without the use of any aid.  No word yet if the ascent was done without the use of any bolts which has become a critical detail in the ongoing debate of what constitutes a “fair means” ascent.  It is certain that, if they did stick to the line of the Compressor Route, the route was about 100 bolts shy of what it once had.  Which brings us to part two of the update.

Fallout from the bolt pulling by Kennedy and Kruk was far more serious than the two anticipated.  Planetmountain has an excellent write-up on the subject with some links to source information like this one to La Cachaña, an online new source from El Chalten (the small town where trips to Cerro Torre begin.) 

The house in El Chalten with a sign stating, "Go Home!"  Photo: La Cachaña  

La Cachaña reports that when Kennedy and Kruk made their way back to El Chalten they were not greeted with open arms.  In fact, the small house they were staying at posted signs across the front with one stating in English, “Go home!”  Apparently this was just the beginning as they were confronted by an angry mob and the situation deteriorated until the local police became involved and took the two climbers into custody.  Their packs were emptied and a photo was taken of the approximately 100 “bolts” that were removed from the route.  It’s worth noticing that these are not really bolts at all but instead what the article refers to as ‘pressure nails.’  They have no expansion properties and are intended only for direct aid, not holding lead falls. 

The 'Pressure Nails' taken from Cerro Torre.  Photo: La Cachaña

The duo, along with Colin Haley and local climber Rolando Garibotti were interviewed by La Cachaña and some interesting quotes can be found.  At the core of the local communities outrage was the climber’s decision to dismiss the consensus reached in 2007 by an assembly of alpinists in El Chalten.  Forty climbers gathered to vote on the issue and in a reported vote of 30 to 10, it was decided that the nails should stay in place.  Kennedy and Kruk state in the interview that the decision to remove the nails wasn’t reached until they were on the summit.  It was a split second decision that had far more grave consequences then they anticipated.  Hayden remarked, “(We) did not expect this reaction in people” while Kruk added, “We did not expect an angry mob to attack us, so for us it was very sad, unable to speak directly with us. We have lost friends over this development.”

Interesting analysis by the climbers, Haley and Garibotti can be found in the interview.  The free ascent by Lama and team will likely fan the flames of this already heated topic that has become the most disputed ethical debate in the history of modern mountaineering.  We will continue to update this article as details of Lama’s ascent become available.  Stay tuned. 


Update 1/24/12  


Yesterday, David Lama offered a few more details regarding his free ascent of the Compressor Route.  He posted the following photo and statement on Facebook:

I can't believe it… For more than three years I was driven by the idea of freeclimbing the Compressor route on Cerro Torre and now this dream has become true!

My partner Peter Ortner and I started on January 19th from El Chalten and hiked in to Nipo Nino, our first camp. The next morning we climbed up to the Col de la Paciencia, rested there for a few hours and then started our attempt at around 1pm.

We climbed to the start of the Bolt Traverse, but instead of turning right, we went straight up on the technically difficult arête, a few meters left of the Salvaterra crack. I took a couple of falls, until I figured out the right sequence and then was able to send the pitch on my second try from the belay. A few pitches higher we reached the Iced Towers, where we picked a small ledge into an icefield to bivi.

Early the next morning we climbed to the start of the headwall. The fact that Hayden and Jason had chopped Maestri’s bolts a couple of days ago made my endeavour even more challenging, especially mentally as the protection was poor and I had to do long run outs. Climbing on hollow and loose flakes we followed the original Compressor route for three pitches. About 20 meters below the compressor we traversed to the right and then reached a system of cracks and corners that lead us to the summit. Climbing the route in alpine style took us 24 hours from the Col.


To me this first free ascent of the south east ridge of Cerro Torre is the end to the probably greatest adventure I experienced in my life so far. I’m especially proud having it done without adding any bolts. I learned a lot during the past years and climbing in this amazing mountain range has simply been great. Realizing dreams – it couldn’t be any better!      


Update: 1/26/12

Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk, via Alpinist Magazine,  have issued a statement to the press regarding their actions on Cerro Torre:

Kennedy and Kruk on the summit of Cerro Torre.  Photo: Alpinist

"As a society we have removed other mistakes, like the Berlin Wall. History doesn't stop. History is happening right now. Hopefully the bolts are history someday." - Zach Smith

If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Cerro Torre on a rare, clear day, you will understand why many consider it the most beautiful and compelling mountain in the world. Messner called it 'a shriek turned to stone'. The contradiction between its great beauty and its intimidating aspects will make the head spin of any enterprising climber wanting to one day try it.

In mid January, 2012, Hayden Kennedy and I completed the defining climb of our collective careers. But, the mountain and our route have been betrayed by the unfortunate controversy that enshrouds it like the clouds.

We agreed to meet in El Chalten, the gateway town to the range, in early December 2011. In the month leading up to our trip, Hayden and I hadn't talked much. He was in Turkey sportclimbing and preoccupied with a Norwegian girl there. I was in Mexico flying paragliders. Despite seven seasons of cumulative experience in the range and a lengthy wish-list, we hadn't talked about any specific objectives other than wanting to 'climb on the Torres' and do it in our favorite style - fast, light, and as free as can be. We knew the best laid plans would likely be scattered by the Patagonian winds. Better to be adaptable and simply go with the flow. We have always been on the same page, climbing wise, since our first time tying in together a couple years ago. That was at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy which we climbed via a Patagonian classic, the Supercanaleta (1600m 6a+ 85 degrees), a route that on the first ascent was a high water mark of climbing style. It was completed in 1965 by Argentine climbers Carlos Comesana and Jose Luis Fonrouge in perfect alpine style over a three day round trip, stats very impressive by even modern standards, infinitely more so considering the equipment of the time. It was also the second-ever ascent of Cerro Fitz Roy.

It wasn't long upon our arrival in El Chalten before the weather looked good enough for an attempt on something. We chose to climb the classic Exocet (500m 6a WI5 MI3), on Aguja Standhardt, the perfect intro route to the specific nuances of Torre climbing. A week or so later we climbed Punta Herron via Spigolo dei Bimbi (350m 6b MI5) as well as the Huber-Schnarf (200m 6b+ MI3), summiting Torre Egger in a long day camp to camp. In this time we also climbed the classic Chiaro di Luna on Aguja St. Exupery and established a new route on Aguja de l'S.

We were certainly fulfilling our plans to 'climb on the Torres', having completed routes on three out of the four. Remaining only was Cerro Torre, a mountain I had tried to climb the year before. Chris Geisler and I had reached a point some 40 meters shy of the top of the headwall. We had attempted the southeast ridge, the line of the Compressor Route, but had avoided using any of Maestri's bolts. When our best guess at the line of weakness up the headwall dead-ended we had two options: retreat, or continue up the bolt line.

We would not summit the Torre that year. Our attempt was soured by the reawakening of the Cerro Torre controversy that Chris and I were now swept up in. Loving the controversy, all the magazines wanted to know my opinion. The hype became too much - recycled garbage. Eventually I was tired of it all, the idea of comparing myself to someone else sickened me. My plan was never to promote my ascent nor defame David Lama.

Hayden and I would focus our energy on another line on the Torre this season: the north face. The wild face is full of adventure and the unknown. Feeling uber-fit and stoked to the max, we knew we had a shot if the weather continued to cooperate. However, the month of January was uncharacteristically warm in the mountains, and attempting the north face seemed just too dangerous. The most logical line to attempt was now my old friend the Southeast Ridge.

On the morning of January 15th Hayden and I left Niponino basecamp, approached Cerro Torre and climbed the 300m mixed 'approach' to the Col of Patience slowly, conserving as much energy as possible. Here we relaxed in the shade of our tent, and drank and ate as much as possible. With binoculars, we spied discontinuous features splitting the very left of the headwall that would possibly connect the line Geisler and I had attempted with the summit.

We slept through our 11 p.m. alarm, waking at 2 a.m. We pounded coffee, got psyched, and were climbing by 2:45. Joyous, splitter climbing comprises the majority of the lower SE Ridge. We hooted and hollered into the night as we made very quick time in the dark. We reached the Salvaterra-Mabboni variation just before first light, around 5:00am. The integral ridgeline above was attempted as early as 1968 and finally climbed in 1999 by Ermanno Salvaterra and Mauro Mabboni. From here the Compressor Route beelines inexplicably right, across blank rock and hundreds of bolts. Hayden led the beautiful A1 splitter crack above, using a couple knifeblades in between small cams. The climbing on the ridge above is absolutely brilliant - immaculate 5.10 edges in an exposed position on the arete. Short-fixing off a two-bolt anchor, Hayden continued up the arete at top speed while I followed on the jumars as quickly as possible. I reached the belay, an incredible position at an apex above the south face, gasping for breath. Looking right, ice and mixed terrain led through the ice tower features. Grabbing the rack and changing into crampons, we high-fived and I took off, navigating the ice and mixed pitches, short-fixing the rope for Hayden to follow all the way to the base of the WI5 chimney. This long, steep pitch, first climbed by Josh Wharton and Zack Smith, bypasses yet another bolt ladder up a blank wall to its right. The ice was cold, bullet-hard. I ran it out between three ice screws, Hayden followed. We were at the base of the headwall, elated.

Donning rock shoes, Hayden cast off on the steep ground above. The first two pitches were comprised of athletic 5.11- climbing over large, positive flakes. Deviating just right, then left, of the Compressor bolts, Hayden ran it out between solid cams, commenting on the bliss of the quality movement in such an extreme environment. Reaching a mid-way ledge, Hayden free climbed directly left off the belay, finding free-climbable edges where Chris last year, in a weakened state, had resorted to techno-aid. From this point Chris had placed a bolt in a blank section of rock and had climbed right, across a feature that would eventually deadend on us last year. Hayden reached the bolt and lowered to the level of my belay. Running back and forth across the headwall, Hayden stuck an edge at the apex of this King Swing. More edges led down to a small perch on the immediate left edge of the headwall. Cleaning the pitch and lowering out off the bolt, I joined Hayden at this belay stance, a spot so exposed we may as well have been on the moon.

Above, discontinuous cracks, edges, and ice blobs provided passage up perfect red patina granite. Hayden expertly navigated the complex terrain with a mixture of free and ice climbing. The only aid was in the name of alpine efficiency - stopping to stand in a sling to chop a couple cam placements out of iced-up cracks. After another belay, Hayden, still feeling psyched to lead, lead a brilliant traverse a stones throw from the top of the headwall, following a magic splitter crack. The crack dead-ended and Hayden, arms failing from dehydration, hooked the ultimate moves to the top of the headwall. Hayden started screaming and I knew it was in the bag. I followed the pitch with a massive shit-eating grin. We had held our breath till this point, honestly expecting to be shut down at any moment.

We dropped our gear on the summit snowfield and ran up the final mushroom to the summit. We had just done the first fair-means ascent of the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre in 13 hours.

There has been a lot of talk over the years about chopping the Compressor bolts. Undoubtably, it is a lot easier to talk about it than to actually do it and deal with the consequences. After a lengthy introspection on the summit, we knew the act needed to be initiated by one party, without consensus. The tribes will always remain too polarized to reach a common ground. Of course at cocktail hour in El Chalten there was much talk of those 'what ifs' of climbing the SE Ridge. Truthfully, during our climb and the days preceding it, Hayden and I talked nothing of removing the bolts.

Fair means does not mean no bolts. Reasonable use of bolts has been a long-accepted practice in this mountain range. Often, steep, blank granite would be folly without the sparing using of this type of protection. We clipped four bolts placed by Salvaterra on his variation - two in a belay and two for protection. At that point on the route, Hayden was short-fixing with a 35 meter loop of slack, surely a death-fall anyways. He could have clearly skipped them, but that's not the point. These bolts were placed in blank granite, by hand, on otherwise un-protectable terrain. Higher we used the bolt placed by Chris on our attempt last year. Five bolts for four hundred seemed like a pretty good trade to us. We also used two of Maestri's original belays on the headwall. These were in spots in close-proximity to other natural anchor options. Believe us, we know how to build gear anchors. The fact that we were planning on leaving these bolts in anyways, meant it was too silly not to use them on the ascent. Our ultimate goal was respect for the mountain. The headwall rappels could have been chopped and replaced by nuts and pitons. However, considering that on a beautiful and popular line there will inevitably be rappel anchors in place, it seemed more logical to leave the established anchors, rather than remove them, and let the anchors slowly degrade into the 5 and 6-piece rappel anchors of tattered cord that are found on other popular routes in the range.

In the end, we removed the bolts on the entire headwall and on one of the pitches below. Our best guess would count around 125. We would have continued chopping below, if not for our friends Victor and Ricardo, dependent on the bolts of the 90-meter bolt traverse to descend themselves.

The question that remains, is why? Maestri's actions were a complete atrocity. His use of bolts and heavy machinery was outrageous, even for the time. The Southeast Ridge was attainable by fair means in the '70s, he stole that climb from the future.

Cerro Torre, a mountain so perfectly steep on all sides, is the postcard for the ideal that is alpinism. There should be no easy way to the top. The fact that there was a glorified via-ferrata to its summit deeply offended a global community of dedicated alpinists. If Cerro Torre was any more accessible, someone would have chopped Maestri's bolts a long time ago, returning the mountain to its former grandeur.

Who committed the act of violence against Cerro Torre? Maestri, by installing the bolts, or us, by removing them?

As long as the hardware remained it was justification for the unreasonable use of bolts by others. We are part of the next generation, the young group of aspiring alpinists. This is a statement we felt other young alpinists needed to hear.

Our real feelings were confirmed by three young Argentine climbers we passed on the Torre Glacier while hiking out of the range. Their eyes lit up as they told us how inspired they were to climb on Cerro Torre now, to train harder, to be better. To rise up to the challenge that has been restored to the mountain. Two days later they would make a rare ascent of Aguja Standhardt, via Festerville. Respect.

A bunch of people climbed the Compressor Route and had fun, but now it's a new era for Cerro Torre. Days after our ascent, young, talented Austrian alpinists, David Lama and Peter Ortner free-climbed their own variation on the Southeast Ridge. This news was greatly inspirational to Hayden and I, and is further proof that the bolts were unnecessary.

It would be hard to claim more authority than Comesana, who, upon hearing the news of our actions responded:

"In my name and the others that resign the dream to climb for first this fantastic mountain I claim for our rights to delete from the walls of Cerro Torre all the remainings - compressor inclusive - of the rape made by Maestri in the '70's and I think that no one - for any reason - can have more rights than ours."  


Update: 1/31/12

Climb Magazine has an excellent interview with Roland Garibotti.  Garibotti has been active in the region for many years as one of Patagonia's top alpinists.  He offers some insight into why he thinks the bolt removal was a positive act.  Read the full interview with Garibotti here at Climb Magazine.  


Update: 2/1/12

David Lama shares details of his ascent with Alpinist Magazine.

Update: 2/4/12

Colin Haley speaks up in support of the bolt removal