It’s been several weeks now since Korra Pesce died while descending Cerro Torre. The circumstances of his death were brutal and it makes me sad to dwell on them for too long. Much has already been said about the accident, and the fantastic ascent that preceded it, so I won’t write much about either. A few weeks ago here in Chamonix we had a party to remember Korra. It was great to see so many friends from the Chamonix alpine climbing community and celebrate our memories with Korra. It was great also to hear stories of Korra’s earlier life in Italy from one of his sisters and from one of his brothers.
Korra was mostly known as a badass ice and mixed climber, and that he definitely was. However, the Alps are full of badass climbers, and Korra nonetheless stood out to me. He was different from most anyone else, with some special and unique qualities that I’ll attempt to convey.
I met Korra in 2006, during my first full winter season in Chamonix. Like many climbers from around the world, I met Korra for the first time in Snell Sports, where he worked in the climbing department for several years. I worked for several years in climbing stores in Seattle, and, like me, Korra was happy to geek out on climbing gear. We chatted every time I stopped by to look at all the gear I couldn’t afford. This was before anyone outside of northern Italy or Chamonix had heard of Korra, and before anyone outside of WA or BC had heard of me, and before either of us got any free climbing gear. When I climbed Cerro Torre for my first time one year later, the ice axes that I chose to use I chose based purely on Korra’s recommendation. That winter I would also run into Korra periodically at the bouldering cave in the Centre Sportif, which was exceptionally crappy, but cheap and open to everyone (unlike the ENSA and EMHM climbing gyms, which require annual memberships). He had only moved to Chamonix a couple years earlier, so even though he was much more established than myself, he was still a relative newcomer to the town at the world center of alpinism.
Korra and I went climbing together just one time during that winter of 2006. He invited me to go ice climbing with him, and I said yes, with no idea of where we were going. Korra had “Shiva” in mind, the most spectacular waterfall climb on the rive droite side of the Argentière Glacier. We approached by skiing down part of the Pierre à Ric, then descending onto the lower portion of the glacier, and skiing up to the climb. Shiva is a two-pitch route that wouldn’t especially stand out in the Canadian Rockies, but is nonetheless a quite cool waterfall route, with a sustained free-standing pillar. I led the easier first pitch, and Korra cruised up the WI6 second pitch. I was climbing on the original Quarks, with wrist leashes, and Korra was the first person I ever saw climbing with leashless tools (I forget if he had the Simond Scud or the Quark Ergo). That day he was also the first person I ever saw take a picture with his cell phone. I only got my first cell phone the year beforehand, and wasn’t even aware that cell phones with cameras existed.
That first day of climbing together I got a few impressions of climbing with Korra that stayed the same over the following 16 years: 1) He didn’t really discuss strategy, tactics, route-finding, or general plan like I generally do, but just charged onward without much communication. 2) He definitely was a bit more lax than me with safety. 3) He was fucking good at climbing with axes and crampons.
At some point during that winter of 2006, Korra told me about his climbing in the Canadian Rockies, where he had spent the entire previous winter. He told me about a bunch of the climbing he had done, including a bunch of hard solos I believe, but one story stuck in my mind: In 2005, as an unknown, early-20’s Italian, dirt-bagging for the winter in Canmore, he had made a solo attempt on M-16, making it halfway up the east face of Howse Peak. I think the first half of M-16 is probably quite a bit easier than the second half, but nonetheless I think that was a pretty audacious attempt. Even in 2022, attempting to solo M-16 would seem pretty audacious, and 2005 was a totally different paradigm. The storied route had been established only 6 years earlier, over five days by three legends of North American climbing, without attaining the summit, and with Barry Blanchard getting helicopter rescued off the face during the descent. By the time I departed Chamonix in the spring of 2006 it was obvious to me that Korra was a badass ice climber, but also kinda fearless/crazy!
I didn’t visit Chamonix for three years, and didn’t see Korra again until I returned to Chamonix in 2009. Since then we have done a smattering of climbing together over the years, on Dent du Requin, Grand Capucin, Mont Blanc du Tacul, days of cragging in rock shoes and in crampons, plus approaching a couple other objectives in Chamonix and Patagonia but bailing before getting on route. Considering how long we knew each other, considering how much time we spent in the same spots (Chamonix and El Chaltén), and considering that many of the same climbing objectives appealed to both of us, we actually climbed together very little. Korra asked me to go climbing much more often than I accepted. I actually really would have liked to climb more with Korra, because he was always fast, was a skilled climber on a variety of different types of terrain, and I enjoyed his company. However, we simply had different levels of risk tolerance. Almost every time that I climbed with Korra I would arrive to a belay station that, for my level of risk tolerance, was not solid enough, and even though I really liked other aspects of climbing with Korra, those sorts of compromises to safety were too much for me. Many times I tried to politely convey that I required a more conservative approach, but Korra had his ways, just as I have mine. I want to be clear though that Korra wasn’t clueless – He was smart, and very well-informed in climbing techniques. There is no right answer as to how much risk one should accept in climbing (after all, it all accomplishes nothing and all involves at least some risk), but it is nonetheless important to climb with people who have a similar risk tolerance, since so many decisions affect the safety of both people.
Even though Korra and I never developed a productive climbing partnership, I greatly appreciated spending time with him. He had a very witty sense of humor, often refreshingly inappropriate. He had zero tolerance for pretentious bullshit, and had very little reservation about speaking his mind. The climbing world is full of people reciting some pretentious rhetoric that they heard from others, often stating that one kind or climbing or style of climbing is superior to others, often wading in hypocrisy in the process. Korra was much more open-minded, and could appreciate badass accomplishments made in all sorts of different climbing styles. I think this is partly due to the fact that he was extremely well read. Although Korra didn’t come off as a bookworm in his demeanor, I think he might have read more about climbing than anyone else I’ve ever met. I personally have been extremely obsessed with climbing since I was a teenager, and it is relatively uncommon that someone tells me about an idea or tactic that I hadn’t heard of before. The main exception was Korra. I felt like almost every time I hung out with Korra I learned something new, whether about a new piece of equipment, a different climbing tactic, a bit of climbing history, or simply an original perspective that could come only from Korra’s mind. Because he never wrote a book the knowledge will unfortunately be lost, but I think Korra was actually one of the most knowledgeable climbing historians in the world, at least when it comes to climbing in the Alps. More than anything else, this is what I appreciated about Korra: He was so full of knowledge, unique ideas, and unique perspectives. Hanging out with him was such a pleasure because I always learned new things.
Korra did a lot of badass climbing, but his ascents of so many different routes on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses are certainly one of the main feathers in his cap. I highly recommend reading his report of climbing Directe de l’Amitié with Martin Elias: https://www.planetmountain.com/en/news/alpinism/grandes-jorasses-directe-de-lamitie-by-corrado-pesce-and-martin-elias.html. To me, this article is more interesting than at least 95% of the articles I see in climbing and mountaineering magazines. Korra’s thoughtfulness shines through, as well as his incredible knowledge of climbing history, and his respect for all the talented climbers who came before him, from various different places, and climbing in various different styles. A couple excellent excerpts from the article:
“in just one month in 1977 these three great problems were solved; alpinism had reached its apex. Curiously, just as something different, not necessarily better was brewing on the horizon: helicopter assisted solo climbs, extreme bolt-protected slabs, steep skiing. There’s a real rift between the alpinism that took place on Mont Blanc during the late 70’s and that of the 80’s, but the ideal, the quest to climb the most difficult routes as clean as possible remains … A search for an alpinism that is perhaps less flashy, but more honest.”
“These two ascents give a great indication as to the Russians’ ability at climbing this sort of terrain efficiently, rapidly dealing with any obstacles that may lie in their path. Often wrongly criticized, their ascents on certain Himalayan giants prove that in order to climb extremely difficult faces at altitude, one needs to train on other, similar faces elsewhere. It certainly isn’t running up snow slopes and jumping off with a paraglider to then go cragging that you manage to solve the biggest problems in the Himalayas.”
Korra’s old blog (http://korrapesce.blogspot.com) also offers a glimpse into the over-active mind of this special character. There are so many gems:
“Rapping down the Colle dell Conquista – the real conquest will be not to fuck up the descent.”
“I couldn’t avoid thinking about the pioneers of those places . Donini and Bragg , Salvaterra and Garibotti, Burke and Proctor, Ponholzer and Bonapace, the Slovenians…We reached the top of the lower dihedral not far from where, Toni Egger had his deadly accident . I can’t even imagine how badass must have been even trying to get up there in 59, those people were visionary. All of those lines are from another world. We stood on the glacier below Cerro Torre by full moon. It’s over, but I already would like to get back up. Descending I can’t stop turning back and watch up those unreal walls. One hour later at midnight we crawled into our sleeping bags at Niponino. Today was a good weather day on the Torres. Today was a good day.”
“We were not sure what to do until just a day before we left. We were sitting in front of a coffee. The pinnacle at the top of the route in front of me on the back cover of the brand new guidebook showed a climber from longtime ago. A climber that travelled trough an entire continent in a van only to surf and climb, lost in frost covered rock on a pinnacle of vertical rock 1400m above the ground with a bunch of pitons. No cams no goretex no guidebook and no weather forecast. Just climbing. We decided to go for Supercanaleta.”
“as for Cham if someone need to know if a certain route is in conditions better to ask people that climb, not the guides.”
“We also witnessed a special display of absolute lack of competence and a minimum of attachment to the life, when some climbers randomly choosed to start climbing around midday, with no idea of the risk involved. I tried to discourage them by throwing small pieces of ice while they were on the ground. Unfortunately they were Italians and seemed willing to accept their fate and started climb The Cimetière des elephants at 12h. Twenty minutes later a big rock detached from the upper wall. I watched mesmerized the rock narrowly missing the belayer at the base. The belayer took off his atc and started running all i could hear was a fading lament of “Vaffanculooooo”. The climber was left on the waterfall preparing his own retreat. In a half an hour of winter Alpinism they took more risk than me in a couple of years, i could only imagine their feeling goin back to the car. Killer mountain?? no…mountains if are really to have a soul, have also a better karma than Mother Théresa of Calcutta, helping often people in taking the right decision before they got high enough on the climb to hurt themselves falling down.”
“Jeff also was back from a successful trip in the US . Jeff, the Ergo swinging, RedBull sipping, T-Shirts of Alpine Celebrities ripping, mixed climbers abusing, was stoked as usual so we tried to scope something interesting to climb.”
“I always heard about Guides saying “You’ll see when you’ll become a Guide your climbing will be over” i always said “Fuck That” and so far it works.”
“I generally try to avoid posting only pics of me climbing, but Andrea’s choice of clothing doesn’t match the standard of this blog.”
“In awe and stressed about the amount of the living legends around me, and the legendary pitch 2 above my head, my attempt of onsight the pitch smelled the FAIL as Shaquille stepping on the free throw line . I must say that I really wasn’t lucky having a bomber placement fall apart by some strange reason. So let’s talk the pictures.”
“End of March ,town is no longer filled with black snow, days are longer, girls less dressed, and is nice to hang out on the terraces and enjoy Cham life…but Cham life is useless if staying in the terraces make you feel guilty for not being up there feeding rats.”
“The beasts from the East come and gone with my project in the bag i got to reinvent myself but Chamonix has plenty of potential mixed free climbing projects! No rush or race for these projects when the only other person around who is interested in collecting them is actually attached to your rope. Thanks god gas and autoroutes are expensive so the Slovenians are not here too often.”
“Curiously the many belaystations we encountered went missing after the route actually got quite interesting.”
“Some people love flowers others love clouds i love dihedral.”
“We secretly hope the route would go free even tough the topo talked about big chimneys and micro cracks, who generally translates into pain in the ass while dry tooling.”
“I was thinking that it might felt frustrating for people who climbed hard on pitons and wooden wedges to discover it could have been so much funnier later on when cams were invented, i mean by then some people already walked on the moon and people were still struggling try not to kill themselves on a size 3 crack.”
“The Grands Charmoz north face was first climbed by Ryan and Lochmatter by a very bold line on the right of the face. Consensus in Alpine History tends to tag Welzenbach and Merkl with the first real ascent of the north face. Before their epic ascent a solid attempt was made by Tezenas de Montcel and Paul Fallet until some 100mt from the summit. Nowadays the criteria people have to define a succesful ascent are really not that stricts, this is particularly the case for first ascents in Himalaya and Patagonia. The route on the Vallot was given an unimpressive D+ in French rating. The difficult of the climb has inflated to more appealing 4+ and M5 maybe because the couloirs got really leaner and steeper during the last decades or maybe because modern climbers tends to pretend they can climb D+ without struggles (after all the north face of Les Droites similar in difficulties was given a ED grade by Rebuffat now with modern gear should get a D+). I have nothing to bring into the grading concept only i can suggest people to do lots of D+ routes from the early 20th century if they want to be comfortable on “ED” routes. Most of these Classics in the Vallot topo are kickass . ”
“Once on the Nantillons glacier we climbed up Spencer Couloir, which is lame because is the kind of stuff people ski… fortunately nobody did skied down it that day”
“I always wanted to climb this route as i heard it’s amazing and i really enjoy it until the 2nd or 3rd pitch when Jon kinda admitted he forgot the Gaz at home. I had with me a grand total of 0cc of water. From there it was clear it wouldn’t be a laughable affair.”
“Martin has already climbed the lower buttress and he was keen to second showing me the wrong way from basically the first meter on. Note to self: if your partner already climbed the route it does not mean he will remember shit about it and will probably be keen to climb that other crack on the left or right depending on his political preferences.”
“The bivy atop of the lower buttress is one of the reasons why this route’s so popular, it’s just so comfy, it definitely take real mountaineers to do something dumb like leaving the gaz at home to make it a bit badass.”
“The descent was funky with Martin who didn’t bother to use the lightest thing into a climbers pack: the energy contained into the battery of his headlamp. His headlamp probably lighten the bottom of the backpack for two days and was dead well before dusk. Chamonix always have something to teach climbers. Always take some Jamon.”
“It’s April the winter is gone, in Cham you can tell it’s April when you go by the Midi cablecar and feel like the all world is there. Skiers have more gear hanging around the harness they go for steeper stuff. The PGHM avalanche dog work less but the crevasse dog and the slip-on-a-icy- slope dog works a lot. You can tell is April when sitting outside Elevation you heard the recognizable voice of Marko Prezelj and discover is already that time in the year
he complain for the piolet d’or they gave himthe Piolets d’Or events starts.”
“A first pitch with good ice then a red steep wall, Martin starts up and tried some drytooling, i heard the noise of a piton falling down the face, strange i have the pitons with me. It was the pick of his ice axe broken neatly! shit!”
“Big congrats to Grison and Grammond for their early (1984) first repeat and winter ascent. Karo, Jeglic, Sveticic for the second repeat in summer 85. Then to the party Benoist-Thinières. Christophe Moulin’s team, Glairon-Rappaz and Perillat-Merceroz for their January ascent. And off course to those who have done and didn’t bother sharing it with everyone else or those who think secretly that they done it because it’s cool to say they’ve climbed Rolling Stones on Jorasses but they didn’t.”
“Manitua is a very respected route and one of the most sought after Jorasses Routes is a household name one that made tons of climbers rave about. It was one of the many masterpieces of Slavko Sveticic, one of the heads in my own Mount Rushmore of Alpine Climbing.”
“How dangerous? hard to say. Let’s say that is enough dangerous to push people like me well away for years, to then finally say fuck it, let’s do it, for others like the friends who made the 2nd day ascent one day after it was just an afterthought, for most is no hell i’m not going there in summer! i understand them.”
“We jumped on the train at 17h with the new weather report under our eyes, freezing level at 5000mt…daffuq! what we do? we jumped off the train before it even took off it was possibly the lamest most hilarious attempt at a climb on Jorasses ever.”
In addition to all those gems, I always smile thinking of Korra’s description of Renato Cassarotto:
“God with a moustache.”
My last day of climbing with Korra was just a few days before his fateful departure for Patagonia. Like our first day ever climbing together, it was at the Rive Droite of the Argentière Glacier. Korra was fast and loose as usual, nearly dropping his ski off a giant cliff, and belaying me on a non-locking carabiner. He was also, as usual, badass with axes in his hands, easily cranking up a funky pitch of WI6 in his ski boots. That evening I hung out with Korra at his apartment for a couple hours. We talked about gear, and talked about alpinism in general. He and I are basically the same generation, and we shared many similar perspectives and dreams. Korra had a copy of Ermanno Salvaterra’s new book, and was drooling over the stories and photos in it. He was clearly very stoked for his Patagonia trip, to try to finish the line on Cerro Torre that he had been attempting with Tomy and Jorge.
From their previous attempts on the route, Korra knew that the line on Cerro Torre’s north face was dangerous to attempt in warm temperatures. He was very clear that he intended to wait until late February, when there would hopefully be less rime left on the face, and longer, colder nights. Clearly Korra and Tomy were too tempted by the major weather window that arrived in late January, and decided to go for their line even though they knew it was too warm. It was absolutely not a clueless mistake, but a conscious decision to accept a greater risk in exchange for taking advantage of a huge weather window. It was a decision that sadly cost Korra his life. I think it is important to talk about these things, even though it is never a comfortable thing to mention when a climber dies. Before too many people chime in with the cliché that Korra died “doing what he loved,” I’ll just point out that Korra was the sort of person to never agree with such polite bullshit. In fact, the last evening that I hung out with him we talked about this very cliché, and Korra said. “They died doing what they loved? What, they loved dying?”
More than a badass climber, Korra was an incredibly thoughtful, interesting, and often hilarious person. I will definitely miss hanging out with him, and the Chamonix community is for sure less rich without him. Korra wasn’t the sort of person to talk much about his feelings, so our conversations never really went in that direction, but I’m left with a regret for never telling him how much I appreciated him as a friend, for his always engaging company, his knowledge, and his unique insights.