Clarifications about Cerro Torre, David Lama and Redbull

After making my earlier blog post, most all of the climbers in El Chalten headed into the mountains in pursuit of a forecasted weather window. The weather window turned out worse than was forecasted, which was a relief for me because I’ve got a bit of a cold and wouldn’t have been able to climb anything big anyways. Team Redbull climbed a short ways above the Col of Patience on the Compressor Route, and seemed to be doing a bunch of filming. Hopefully they managed to take out the rest of their bolts from last year that Rolo, Doerte and I weren’t able to get. I’m sure that people got up to some good adventures, but not many climbers have come down from the mountains yet.

While most of the climbers here were up in the mountains, it seems the rest of the climbing world caught wind of Lama’s intention to rappel-bolt the Compressor Route headwall, and the internet debates flamed up yet again. I’ve had a chance to read some of the internet forums on the subject, and there is certainly a lot of strong language both against Lama and in support of Lama. More than anything though, what I’ve seen is a lot of people posting on the subject who obviously have some misconceptions about Cerro Torre, about the Compressor Route, and about the controversy at hand. So, since I don’t have time to get involved in every internet forum, I feel obligated to make a follow-up blog post clarifying some things. I’m sorry that I can’t make it more concise, but if you plan to voice your opinion on the subject (on either side) please at least read all of it:


The debate about whether or not it is acceptable to rappel-bolt on Cerro Torre has very little to do with me. I personally would’ve greatly preferred to keep my name out of this controversy, but I felt the climbing world deserved to know what David Lama plans to do, and since I was the one who had a direct conversation with him, it was obviously my duty to bear the news. All that has unfolded on the internet since my blog post is others’ reactions, not mine. I did not start the petition to have Lama’s sponsors drop him, and have not even signed it. And I can only hope that all the people advocating to “kick David Lama’s ass” aren’t serious.


An important thing to keep in mind is that last season’s controversy and the current controversy are very different in both nature and significance. What Team Redbull did on Cerro Torre last season (fix 700 meters of rope on a popular route, and place 34-36 bolts on an established route, next to existing anchors and perfect granite cracks) is recognized by virtually everyone as completely unacceptable. Even Team Redbull themselves have admitted that it was out of line. The bolts that have been chopped by Rolando Garibotti and crew are these ones, and Team Redbull has promise to chop the remaining ones that they placed last season. That Team Redbull has come around and changed their tactics from last year is something to be happy about!

While Team Redbull’s actions last season were very obviously unethical, their proposed tactics this year are a much more nuanced issue. Last year’s travesty was about disregard for the experience of other climbers, bolting next to cracks on an established route and leaving garbage – this year’s controversy, on the other hand, is about climbing style. It is a much less black-and-white issue.


The controversy about David Lama’s tactics this season is not about whether or not he will put more bolts in Cerro Torre – it’s about how he might put them in. Some people feel that bolts have no place in the alpine world, and that in the face of unprotectable climbing one should either bail or completely run it out. While I don’t share this exact sentiment, I do admire it. However, many alpine climbers, myself included, feel that the rare hand-drilled bolt, where no cracks can be found, in extreme terrain, is acceptable. As I wrote in my earlier blog post (but many people obviously missed), I think it is entirely reasonable for Lama to bring a bolt kit and hand drill a few bolts. If I were to attempt a natural line on the Compressor Route headwall (“natural” meaning a line connecting flakes, face holds and cracks, whereas Cesare Maestri chose to simply drill a bolt ladder up two pitches of completely blank rock), I would bring a small bolt kit also.

The controversy is about whether or not those hand-drilled bolts will be drilled while on lead, or while hanging from a rappel rope. There has never been any rappel-bolting on the peaks of the Fitz Roy massif in the past, so it is a new ethical debate here. The reason this has never been an issue in the past is because there are no truly “easy” routes to these summits. Unlike El Capitan, the Verdon Gorge, Medlicott Dome or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, you can’t simply walk up the “back side” and rappel in here. It would be extremely difficult for Team Redbull to rappel-bolt the Cerro Torre headwall if not for the obscene bolt-ladders of the Compressor Route.


Much of the internet debate I have seen makes comparisons to other climbing areas, asking “If rappel-bolting is OK at Rifle, why not Cerro Torre?” Most climbers agree that rappel-bolting is acceptable in some places to some extent and definitely unacceptable in other places. Without a doubt, there is a very large gray area in between. While I feel strongly that rappel-bolting on Cerro Torre is unacceptable, I wouldn’t personally attempt to draw the line in the gray area.

However, I do feel the need to say that comparisons between Cerro Torre and crags are not particularly relevant. Cerro Torre is an enormous, extremely steep mountain, surrounded by glaciers and located in some of the world’s harshest weather. The only thing that makes Cerro Torre remotely pedestrian are the obscene A0 bolt ladders that Maestri drilled into it, and without them it is one of the world’s most difficult-to-reach summits. El Capitan, on the other hand, is a roadside bigwall, with hundreds of days per year of good climbing weather and a dirt trail to the top of it. El Capitan is to Cerro Torre what Rifle is to El Capitan.


Unfortunately, Jason Kruk posted on his blog that Zack Smith and I will also be heading up on the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre. I would’ve rather that not be posted, firstly because I prefer not to pre-spray about climbing I hope to do, and secondly because this is Patagonia – no one knows if they will even get a chance to make an attempt! However, many people saw Jason’s blog post and assumed that Zack Smith and I will also be up there trying to free climb the Compressor Route.

First off, free-climbing the Compressor Route is not a goal of mine, and in fact I think it is a poorly-conceived goal. To free climb the Compressor Route, one would have to make two main deviations from the standard route (one is the established Salvaterra variation, and the other would be a possible variant line on the headwall). The Salvaterra Variation is covered in rime ice about 85% of the days of the year, and the possible variant on the headwall is covered in rime ice about 95% of the days of the year. Alex Huber, who is obviously a gifted big-wall free climber, contemplated free-climbing the Compressor Route. However, Alex has enough experience climbing in Patagonia that he realized the conditions and logistics to free-climb the Compressor Route are so difficult to overcome, that the compromised style necessary to accomplish it is not worth the goal. David Lama, on the other hand, came up with his plan before ever even laying his eyes upon the peaks of Patagonia, and obviously is comfortable compromising good climbing style. I think David Lama would be wise to switch objectives to something on Fitz Roy, such as Royal Flush or El Corazon, which are much more suitable for free climbing.

Basically, Cerro Torre is an incredible mountain, and the Southeast Ridge is a beautiful feature on this incredible mountain. To this day, the Southeast Ridge has never been climbed without the aid of a 500-pound, gasoline-powered air compressor and the 400-or-so bolts that it was used to place. My hope, and the hope of others, is to climb the Southeast Ridge without the aid of the Compressor and its trail of bolt ladders. Ironically, if David Lama carries through with his rappel-bolt plan, even a successful free ascent of the Southeast Ridge would have been aided by Maestri’s 500-pound Compressor.


Many people have asked, “What is so horrible about rappel-bolting the headwall?” In truth, I don’t think anything about it is horrible. I’m not angered by the idea. In the end, someone will establish an alternate variation to Maestri’s bolt ladders on the Compressor Route headwall, and I don’t think the number of bolts placed or their locations will differ drastically depending on if they are placed on lead or on rappel. Establishing an alternate, more natural, route on the headwall is an important step forward for the eventual removal of Maestri’s obscene bolt ladders. So, in some sense, David Lama’s rappel-bolting plans are a wrong step, but a step in the right direction.

However, I do think that rappel-bolting the Compressor Route headwall is sad and pathetic. Almost all of Cerro Torre’s Southeast Ridge has already been climbed without the aid of the 500-pound Compressor – the headwall is the last piece of the puzzle. I think it would really be a shame if the last piece of this puzzle is “discovered” by rappel rather than by climbing. I think it is sad that this terrain might never witness the adventure of a first ascent. I think it is sad that no one might ever have the chance to head up this new terrain wondering when the next crack will appear. No one might ever experience the fear of “going for it” up scary face climbing and the rush of relief when he or she discovers a solid cam placement. It is sad to think that this terrain will be rappelled before it’s ever been climbed – that on the first ascent of this terrain David Lama will already know how far it is to the next bolt, where he’ll find a good rest, and where the next belay will be.

Also, David Lama plans to rappel-bolt the headwall during one weather window, and then go back to try and climb it during a later weather window. Given how infrequent good weather is in Patagonia, and given how infrequently the headwall is not covered in rime ice, even during good weather, there is a large possibility that months or seasons will pass before Lama can return to the headwall with intentions to climb it. A sad and very real possibility is that the alternate line on the headwall will end up, for some time, bolted but unclimbed. And where does this leave other potential first ascencionists? Is it not unfair to rob them of the possibility of a real adventure on this terrain if you haven’t even climbed it?


I think it is important to keep in mind that Team Redbull has admitted their wrongs from last year and has changed their tactics. It is also important to keep in mind that David Lama hasn’t done any rap-bolting on Cerro Torre yet. I barely know David Lama, but every time I’ve met him in person he has been cordial. My goal is not to defame David Lama. My hope is that the climbing community will express to David Lama an opinion about rap-bolting on Cerro Torre, and that it will cause him to reconsider his tactics. In an ideal world the personal attacks on Lama will cease and simultaneously he will decide, “OK, what the hell, I’ll try to do it on lead.”