Monday, February 6, 2012

Cerro Torre and the Mountain as a Work of Art

There has been a lot of debate swirling around Patagonia since the recent "fair means" and free ascents of Cerro Torre, the first by Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk, the second by David Lama. The ascent of the Southeast Ridge, commonly known as The Compressor Route, sparked the most controversy not so much because of what happened on the ascent but because the team removed hundreds of bolts on the way back down, causing considerable local uproar and even a visit with the local constabulary. Even more remarkable was the emerging consensus, seen most obviously in a 2007 Patagonian climbers' vote, against removing the bolts.

Outside Magazine does a decent summary here with lots of links.

Maestri's Compressor from

The justification most often cited was that of preserving history, that is, the complex and even tragic history of Cesare Maestri's encounters with the mountain, first in 1959 and then in 1970, when the bolts were put in on the Southeast Ridge. For many, the bolt ladders and the compressor itself formed a kind of archive, I suppose, a tangible reminder of the Maestri controversy, a controversy marked by the classic essay, "Murder of the Impossible" written by Reinhold Messner and published in Mountain in, 1971.

Reinhold Messner at Outdoor Retailer learning from Michael Kennedy what Hayden did on Cerro Torre
I have been thinking of the relationship between the mountain, its history and the traces left by its climbers. These observations are strictly from the sidelines in terms of climbing Cerro Torre but I have some experience in thinking about culture and history and this situation presents a couple of fascinating problems.

The first of these is the paradoxical nature of adventure in climbing. I have already written about the demise of the impossible and I stand by the argument. While it is obtuse and destructive to install bolt ladders on just about anything these days, it is also getting harder and hard to envision any ascent as carrying genuine historical significance beyond a kind of closing of the frontier. That is to say that any piece of rock or ice that is climbable will be climbed sooner or later. It is inevitable. The murder of the impossible has been superseded by the obsolescence of the impossible. Conceptually speaking, everything is merely a project.

It is incredible to me to read of the debates about bolts on a jagged ice-encrusted spire at the other end of the world. Is it possible, even likely, that wherever debates like this rage, the bluebird of adventure (or to quote Hegel, the owl of Athena) has long since flown away? Not to say that people can't have a really hard or scary time in Patagonia, or anywhere else, but isn't the adventure now merely personal, not historically significant.

So were/are the Maestri bolts historically significant? I think they were as they clearly sounded the deathknell of heroic siege-style alpinism. This was echoed in two other contemporary ascents, that of Warren Harding on the Dawn Wall and the Annapurna South Face British expedition. All were more or less successful (Maestri never gained the true "summit, the Annapurna expedition missed the 2nd ascent, and the Harding route earned the wrath of Royal Robbins) but they all seemed to point to a dead end. This dead end was not merely the application of massive amounts of time and material but that of the mega-climb in general. Ensuing decades have confirmed this with light fast ascents of the most remote and difficult routes all over the world. I think they mark the dead-end of an attitude toward climbing rooted in conquest and an old vision of history.

So if the bolts are historically significant should they remain in situ? I think this debate is perhaps a sign of the senescence (or to be more fair, the maturity) of the sport, that there is any discussion of the historical significance of fixed gear on any route beyond a strictly utilitarian purpose. Those in favor of the bolt removal regard the bolts as an act of vandalism, a kind of desecration that should never have happened in the first place. Those against argue that the bolts are as much part of the route as the geological feature that, for now, we call the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre. I have to admit that the vandalism argument has some merit but not all vandalism is created equal. The bolt ladders, fixed pitons and fixed cables, even huts, that adorn a significant number of important mountains and faces point to an impulse to leave substantial signs of human presence in otherwise remote and wild places. Yet no one is calling for the removal of huts and cables from say the Matterhorn, which is strikingly like Cerro Torre in its form and tragic events surrounding the first ascent.

So there is something different about the Cerro Torre bolts, something that creates a special case. I would suggest that their lack of utility, the seemingly random profusion of them, phenomena that many have commented on already, that arouses a particular ire. They have no utility, no clear sense of purpose. The purpose of alpinism seems to have been lost somewhere up there, the meaning of climbing warped or rendered null and void. Something very strange happened up there, something that has haunted the life of Cesare Maestri and the minds of anyone who has either climbed or thought about the mountain since.

The second problem is the idea of the climb as the work of art, a notion that many have appealed to over time. There are many ways to respond to the Cerro Torre situation using this analogy, that the mountain was a blank canvas, or a beautiful painting, that was defaced by an incompetent climber. I am not so sure this analogy holds up under investigation. I don't believe that Cerro Torre can be considered a work of art but if we did, we would want to remember the complex and flawed aspects of even world-renowned masterpieces, works which are often, unbeknownst to the average viewer, composed of re-assemblies and  restorations with complex and difficult histories of their own. There is no such thing as the pure work of art and holding up this ideal does a disservice to the reality of being human, our flaws and our irrational natures.

I don't have an easy answer to these questions. The ideals of pure alpinism and adventure climbing are, as I have argued above, are falling victim to their own success. The frontier is closed. The rules and objectives are understood. Though I ultimately think Maestri's hardware should not remain on the mountain, I do not consider the mountain somehow reconsecrated or purified. That is in the minds of true believers and I am an agnostic on the point of whether mountains or nature or climbing can ever be considered pure. What interests me is the story of how we sometimes succeed and all too often fail in our desires to make more of ourselves than what we are. Maestri's bolts and compressor are mute testimony to how far that irrational desire can take us until, halfway between heaven and earth, climbing on an idea as much as anything else,  reality and the ideal collide and we see that in the end, we are not gods but merely human.


Scott said...

Damn Peter, you nailed it.

Before I started climbing, I was briefly into backpacking and made several solo trips out to Big Bend. With each trip I made a point to learn more about the area that I was spending so much time alone in and learned about the human history of what is regarded as the last frontier to be settled in the United States.

When Big Bend is framed in these terms, I think the notion that the NPS felt it necessary to attempt to remove all signs of modern human settlement was short sighted, as the very settlement itself, regardless of what it may look like now, are historically significant and valuable to the human narrative's role in the history of the area.

At first, when I read about the bolt removal, I was for it. But when Mario Conti weighed in, it reminded me of Big Bend and the time I'd spent there, and the signs of history there, some ugly, some hauntingly beautiful. And then realized the impact the bolt removal has on the Patagonia's history.

But at the same time, this just adds more to the narrative. People do love drama.

Anonymous said...

So there is something different about the Cerro Torre bolts, something that creates a special case. I would suggest that their lack of utility, the seemingly random profusion of them, phenomena that many have commented on already, that arouses a particular ire. They have no utility, no clear sense of purpose.

I would say the opposite is true:

The bolts, like bolts anywhere, are entirely utilitarian, their purpose being to enable or abet passage.

Remember that the Compressor Route was the most popular route on the mountain, and had enjoyed this status since its inception.

Peter Beal said...

"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.”

Granted that Garibotti is not an unbiased observer but photographs make clear that a substantial number of the bolts were not placed with efficiency or utility in mind.

See the photo at:

Arizona Teacher said...

What we have is two climbers who did what they wanted just because it's what they wanted.

"In February 2007, an assembly of Argentine and foreign climbers in El Chaltén voted 30–10 against chopping the line. "

That's 75%.

I wonder if these two guys would do the same thing to Dawn Wall in Yosemite. The not such a different scenario.

Also, by fair means in this case means they didn't even follow the line where the bolts were, they climbed a various on the existing line, then chopped the original line.

This wasn't their call to make. All they did, like the David Lama Situation awhile back, is create more negative press about climbers and the attitude/ego we have.