Sunday, February 19, 2012

Farewell Bjørn-Eivind

A week and a half ago I woke up to see a missed call from a Norwegian telephone number that I didn't recognize. Somehow I felt that there had been an accident. I went to my computer, and sure enough, my friend Nils Nielsen had sent me an e-mail when I hadn't answered my phone: Stein-Ivar Gravdal and my good friend Bjørn-Eivind Årtun had been killed while climbing on Kjerag (the same cliff where they had established a fantastic and futuristic big-wall ice climb a couple years ago).

Unfortunately, this isn't nearly the first time I have lost a friend and climbing partner to the mountains. As I've experienced before, I have a hard time consciously accepting that Bjørn is dead - I still somehow expect that I'll see him and climb with him again. I guess that is denial. When I dwell on it, and visualize the scene on Kjerag, and the grief of Bjørn's daughter, Iben, then it hits me hard.

I had a very productive and positive climbing partnership with Bjørn, making two great trips together to the Central Alaska Range. Bjørn was a very strong climber technically, and was also extremely fit, thanks in large part to his background in competitive nordic skiing. Bjørn was also the most motivated climbing partner I've ever had. There was no doubt that Bjørn was very inspired by the mountains, and he was as much of a dreamer as any climber I know of. In fact, the biggest difficulty we faced in our partnership was the disconnect between Bjørn's big-dreaming and my more hesitant inclination and more timid goals. I have Bjørn's overwhelming enthusiasm to thank for some absolutely amazing climbing experiences. On both the French Route on Begguya and Dracula on Sultana, it was Bjørn who convinced me to dream big and go for it. Despite his tremendous motivation and skills, Bjørn was a very gentle, polite and kind person, and that was what ultimately made him so special.

This past summer I went to the Karakorum with Bjørn, and it ended up being a very short trip. We had a number of things go wrong with our expedition from the start, and I developed a bad feeling about risking our lives there. It was the only time my intuition has ever told me to run away, and I decided that I needed to listen to that intuition, so I threw in the towel when our expedition had only barely started. Bjørn was understandably very disappointed that I bailed after so much preparation, and it wasn't until this past season in Patagonia that I got to see him again, and spend some time repairing our relationship.

The end of January was a very crazy time in the Fitz Roy range. I participated in a difficult and futile attempt to rescue Canadian climber Carlyle Norman from Aguja St. Exupery in a storm. Bjørn was one of several other climbers who came up to the Exupery-de l'S col to support the rescue effort, and our brief encounter during the tense frenzy of the rescue effort was our last exchange, except for a brief passing in Niponino the following day. While I was recovering in town from our rescue effort, Bjørn was climbing the west face of the Torre with Chad Kellogg, and then when I went back into the mountains, Bjørn returned to town and flew home straight away.

When I heard the news from Nils, I had been home from Patagonia for about a week, and I had been meaning to e-mail Bjørn. I wanted to congratulate him on his climb with Chad. I wanted to simply say hi, since we never got a chance to say goodbye when he left Chalten. I also wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his friendship, apologize again for bailing on him in Pakistan, and tell him that I hoped we would do more trips together at some point. But I was busy with a million tasks after three months away, and I was a couple days too late to ever tell Bjørn those things.

The vast majority of the people that surround me in my life are constantly risking their lives in the mountains. Losing friends to the mountains is unfortunately something I have grown accustomed to, and I suppose I should grow to expect. The Seattle climbing community has been hit hard in the past several years. Just a week before Bjørn and Stein-Ivar died, a friend of mine in Chamonix, Felix Hentz, perished in an avalanche skiing off of the Aiguille du Midi. But I've never lost a climbing friend who I had shared as many experiences with as Bjørn.

Climbing with Bjørn for the past several years also gave me the great pleasure of getting to know the Norwegian alpine climbing community in general. In a country with a population less than the State of Washington, there is an outstanding group of extremely-motivated, very talented and particularly kind and friendly alpinists. Rolf Bae having died on K2 just a few years ago, the deaths of Bjørn-Eivind and Stein-Ivar are a huge blow to the Norwegian climbing community.

Climbing deaths always cause one to ponder our activity and its risks. For me there is no question that I want to climb mountains and that I accept the risks. However, we CAN put an extra piece in the belay, be extra careful with that loose block, and take a different route when that windslab seems questionable. More than anything else though, I think that losing a friend to the mountains reminds me to cherish the people we spend time with during our brief existence. I really wish I had the chance to say goodbye to Bjørn.

Farewell, Bjørn-Eivind. Alpinism will miss the great dreams you had, and all of us who knew you will certainly miss you and remember you for a long, long time.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Removal of Cesare Maestri's Bolt Ladders on Cerro Torre

A couple weeks ago, climbers Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk completed the first "fair means" ascent of the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre, and on their descent successfully removed a large portion of the bolt ladders installed there in 1971 by Cesare Maestri. This has sparked a large debate within the global climbing community, as to whether it was a wise action, and if Kennedy and Kruk had the right to make it. I would personally love to stay un-involved in this debate, but having climbed in the Fitz Roy range for eight seasons, having descended the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre twice, and having attempted the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre twice by "fair means," I feel it is my obligation to share my thoughts. I will try to break this long-winded essay into separate, more managable subjects, starting with my personal history with Cerro Torre.


I have been dreaming of Cerro Torre since I was twelve years old. I don't remember exactly which photo I saw first, but at that time I was already obsessed with climbing mountains, and I specifically remember being awestruck by photos I saw of this mountain. Cerro Torre became my greatest dream - if there was one goal I wanted to accomplish in my life, it was to climb Cerro Torre. When I was fifteen I tried to convince my cousin Aidan, two years younger and my main climbing partner at the time, that we needed to start training, and go attempt the Compressor Route in two years - when I would be seventeen and him fifteen. By the time I was seventeen I knew I wasn't ready for Cerro Torre, but two years later, in 2003, I finally went to the Fitz Roy range with my friend Bart Paull. We managed to climb three of the easier summits of the Fitz Roy massif, and on our last climbing day, on Aguja de l'S, I finally saw Cerro Torre for the first time. On my second trip to Patagonia, in 2005 with Mark Westman, I managed to climb the rest of the seven "major summits" of the Fitz Roy ridgeline, and I decided that I was finally ready to try Cerro Torre.

In 2006 I went to Patagonia with Kelly Cordes, with Cerro Torre as our main goal. At the time my thoughts on the Compressor Route were fairly ambivalent, and we planned to attempt the West Face mostly because it was more suited to our climbing strengths and interests. Although we spent almost our entire trip festering in camp during bad weather, at the last minute a great weather window arrived. We climbed Cerro Torre via a linkup of the "Tiempos Perdidos" route on the left margin of the south face and the Ragni route on the west face (this was the first integral ascent of "Tiempos Perdidos"). The climb was an absolute dream come true - a beautiful, 1,500m line of fantastic ice and mixed terrain, that played perfectly to our strengths as a team, to a summit that I had been obsessing over for ten years.

Kelly and I descended Cerro Torre via the southeast ridge, which neither of us had been on before, and my thoughts on the Compressor Route changed dramatically. It is difficult to comprehend the Compressor Route without seeing it in person - both in terms of the enormous quantity of Maestri's bolts, and in terms of the bolt ladders' locations, in close proximity to easily-protectable, easily-climbable terrain. After seeing the Compressor Route first hand, I knew I had no desire to climb it, and since then I have never considered an ascent of the Compressor Route to be an ascent of Cerro Torre - the climber on that route is simply too disconnected from engaging with the mountain itself.

The following season, I had the tremendous fortune of being in the right place at the right time, and I got to partner with Rolando Garibotti to make the first ascent of the Torres Traverse. Although I can aspire to greater personal goals since I played a lesser role in the Torres Traverse than Rolo, I don't think I'll ever make an ascent more significant than this first ascent. I think that Rolo is certainly one of the best alpinists of our time, and the best Patagonian alpinist of recent years - seeing him at his peak of performance was an inspiration that continues to drive my progression as a climber today. Rolo and I also descended the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre, and I think that season, 2008, is when I first realized that Maestri's bolt ladders ought to be removed some day.

Last year, in February 2011, I made two attempts to climb the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre by "fair means," the first with Zack Smith and the second with Rolo Garibotti and Doerte Pietron. On both attempts we were turned back by poor weather at the base of the ice towers. On both attempts we carried a small bolt kit which we thought we might use on the headwall, rationalizing that adding a few bolts to avoid a few hundred was a sound trade. In hindsight I think it is fortunate that we were turned back by weather - perhaps if we had been able to continue we would have put several bolts in the headwall, which Hayden managed to lead without placing any. It would have been a perfect, short-term example of "stealing a climb from the future."

Since I first read about the Compressor Route, my cumulation of personal climbing experience, my knowledge of climbing history, and my cumulation of personal experience in the Fitz Roy range have all increased by huge amounts, and my opinion of the Compressor route has accordingly changed from an ambivalent one to a conviction that Maestri's bolt ladders ought to be removed. Because of the obviously controversial nature of removing Maestri's bolt ladders, I have never had the courage to act on my conviction. Now that Hayden and Jason have done what I believed in but was too cowardly to do, the least I can do is voice my support for them.


A lot of the discussion surrounding the bolt removal has been focused on who Hayden and Jason are, where they come from, what style they climbed in, if they can be considered "locals" of these mountains, and what their motives were. To me, this discussion is largely irrelevant to the real question: Do Maestri's bolt ladders belong on Cerro Torre, and if they don't, is it right to remove them 40 years after they were installed? For many people I think it is important that the people who removed Maestri's bolt ladders were the same people who first climbed the southeast ridge by fair means, but to me this doesn't matter all that much. I believe that Maestri's bolt ladders do not belong on Cerro Torre, so it really doesn't make any difference to me if they are removed by a Canadian, Argentinean or Cambodian climber, young or old climber. A few years from now we won't care too much about who removed Maestri's bolt ladders, we will care about what state the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre is in.


Several people have been calling for more respect to be paid to Cesare Maestri, who is now in his old age and of failing health. Sorry to be brutally honest, but I simply don't have respect for liars. Maestri told the biggest lie in the history of climbing for the gain of his own reputation. Alpine climbing often relies on the honor system, and unfortunately people like Maestri ruin the system of honesty for all of us. Dishonesty goes beyond the simple game of besting one's competition - consider for a moment that Maestri's drive to be labeled the winner was so great that he didn't even have the decency to tell Toni Egger's mother and sister the true circumstances of how Toni died in the mountains.

The fact that Maestri also vengefully showed the world the most heavy-handed climbing style it has ever seen - the epitome of the "murder of the impossible" - doesn't help him gain respect.

If Maestri were to come clean in his old age, and tell the world what actually happened during his 1959 Cerro Torre attempt, it would probably require more courage than any climb ever demanded of him. If Maestri could do that, I could respect him.


Many people have been bringing up the very valid point that generally in climbing we respect the style of the first ascent of a route. However, people have been neglecting to keep in mind that Maestri did not make the first ascent of the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre. In climbing mountains, especially such sharp needles as in the Fitz Roy range, a successful ascent ends on the top of the mountain. Not only did Maestri not manage to reach the summit of Cerro Torre, but most evidence suggests that he did not even reach the top of the headwall (Jim Bridwell was the first to note this). Therefore, if you want to ask the first ascensionists their opinions about what should become of the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre, you will have to consult Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer.

Some people will inevitably say that even though Maestri didn't climb Cerro Torre, the style up to his high-point ought to be respected. By that same logic, Maestri would have been violating the style of Fonrouge, Boysen, Burke, Crew and Haston, who climbed half-way up Cerro Torre's southeast ridge in 1968 without placing any bolts. By the time Maestri had reached the same level on the mountain as their highpoint he had already placed hundreds of bolts.


Obviously the concept of "fair means" is very subjective. What one person considers only "necessary" bolts can vary dramatically from what another person considers "necessary" bolts. However, the Compressor Route bolt ladders are far, far, beyond anyone's definition of "necessary" bolts. Even Kurt Albert's routes on nearby Fitz Roy, Aguja Mermoz and Aguja St. Exupery (which have bolted belays every 35 meters or less, and include at least 3 bolts per pitch, immediately next to perfect cracks) are not even in the same realm of over-bolting that the compressor route is. There were some spots on the Compressor Route where a climber clipped to one bolt with a daisy chain could easily touch more than ten other bolts.

How did Maestri put up a climb that was so far beyond anything else in terms of bolting? The answer is that he used tactics that have never been used by another climber before or since. A gasoline-powered air compressor is not climbing equipment - it is industrial equipment. With his compressor Maestri could place a bolt more easily than he could place a chock or piton, so of course bolt-ladders up blank rock, even with crack systems immediately nearby, were suddenly a logical solution for him. Maestri explained that he put a single bolt ladder up the entire 5-pitch headwall because they had forgotten the pitons down below. How does one arrive to 5 pitches below Cerro Torre's summit and only there realize that the pitons were left far below? - only with a gasoline-powered air compressor.

Many people have been comparing the Compressor Route to The Nose on El Capitan. I think that most of these people must not have seen both routes in person. If the Compressor Route were established with the same bolting discretion as Warren Harding used on The Nose, it would have something like 50 bolts on it. On the other hand, if The Nose were established with the same bolting discretion as Maestri used on the Compressor Route, it would have more than 2,000 bolts on it.

I am not extremely anti-bolt. Even Kurt Albert's bolts on the east pillar of Aguja Mermoz (a route which was climbed 90% of the way to the summit without a single bolt, in a single day, before Albert layed siege to it), which go beyond all normal conventions of acceptable bolt use, do not bother me anywhere close to as much as Maestri's bolt ladders on Cerro Torre. I really think it is such a sad shame that the most beautiful mountain on earth (in my opinion), which naturally requires fantastic and difficult climbing to reach its summit, is marred by a via ferrata (And yes, it is a "via ferrata," even if much more difficult than most via ferrata - after all, "via ferrata" means "iron way.").


As in any discussion regarding bolts that some people consider unnecessary, some people have asked why Hayden and Jason didn't just leave the bolts in, and future climbers could always opt to simply not clip them. However, as long as the bolts ladders are there, future climbers are denied an adventure, because the mere presence of the bolts changes one's experience dramatically. With the bolt ladders removed, a climber ventures upward with doubts and fears, constantly trying to gauge where the next protection will be and where the route will go, and climbs with commitment - knowing that a poor route-finding choice might place him or her in a bad situation. With the bolt ladders in place, the knowledge that you can immediately end your fear and doubt at any moment removes the commitment completely. With the bolt ladders in place, the climber is denied the experience of moving fearfully into the unknown, and the elation that comes from finding a good crack or good holds for security. With the bolt ladders in place there is no real adventure; choosing to not clip the bolts can only amount to a contrived game. I certainly am much more inspired to go attempt Cerro Torre's headwall now, as a canvas of natural rock, than I ever was before to go play a contrived game of bolt-skipping.

Thus, climbing for adventure on the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre, and climbing for tourism on the southeast ridge, are completely at odds with each other. As long as Maestri's bolt ladders are in place, one cannot climb for adventure on the southeast ridge, and with the bolts removed, the tourists are denied their easy route to the summit. It really comes down to a question of which you value more, adventure or tourism? I think we can all agree that the currently-popular phrase "adventure tourism" is oxymoronic.

I'm sure that many people will be offended that I refer to the Compressor Route as "tourism," and I'm sorry about that. Ultimately, I think it more important to be honest and potentially offensive than speak tactfully and untruthfully. Quite simply, the Compressor Route is an avenue to "tick" the summit of Cerro Torre without actually engaging the difficulties of the mountain - completely analogous to climbing Everest with supplemental oxygen.


Many people have called Hayden and Jason elitist, because they are forcing future climbers on the southeast ridge to rise to their climbing level, removing the via ferrata which allowed access to climbers who didn't actually posses the skill to climb Cerro Torre's southeast ridge. What then about the poor unfortunate souls who are denied their "right" to summit Torre Egger? What if I went to Patagonia next year and installed a 1,200m bolt ladder up the east pillar of Torre Egger, making it accessible to all the 5.8 climbers who are currently denied their Torre Egger experience?

It is ridiculous to attempt to choose an arbitrary difficulty-level that a route should be dumbed-down to. Here's a concept: just leave the difficulty level as it was naturally!


History is not a physical object. You cannot destroy history unless you are able to burn every book, destroy every hard-drive and erase everyone's memory. At most one can claim that a monument has been destroyed, but history remains unharmed. Maestri showed us the worst example of heavy-handed climbing style that a mountain has ever experienced - it is not something that people will forget. Also, Maestri's air compressor remains lashed to the middle of Cerro Torre's headwall - as long as it remains it will be unmistakable physical evidence of what Maestri did to Cerro Torre (although personally I would rather see it removed).


Of course it would have been much better if Maestri's bolt ladders were removed the year after their installation rather than 40 years after the fact. If that were the case, no one would call them "history" or "Argentine patrimony." However, I think that when the bolt ladders were installed, most of the world wasn't aware of the extent of the bolting. In addition, Maestri's siege on the southeast ridge used 1,000 meters of fixed rope and nine months, so it took a long time before people realized that the bolt ladders could be easily removed in a single day.

For the 40 years that Maestri's bolt ladders were in place, Cerro Torre was a compromised mountain. Very impressive routes that joined the Compressor Route at the headwall, such as Devil's Directissima and Quinque Anni ad Paradisum, will unfortunately always be tarnished by the fact that they ascended the last five pitches of Cerro Torre on a ladder of bolts. This is not the fault of the first ascensionists (Jeglic, Karo, Knez, Podgornik, Kozjek, Fistravek, Salvaterra, Beltrami, and Rossetti - many of the biggest names in Cerro Torre history), because, as I already explained, skipping the bolts immediately in front of you is a contrived game that most alpinists are not interested in. Both of these routes climbed an enormous amount of very difficult climbing to reach the base of the headwall, but the last five pitches of Cerro Torre were stolen from them by Maestri.

The removal of Maestri's bolt ladders was inevitable. If it hadn't been done by Hayden and Jason, it would have been done before too long by someone else. There were other climbers in El Chalten this season who had specific plans to remove Maestri's bolt ladders - and no, it wasn't me or Rolo, but some very strong and accomplished alpinists from Europe.


Some people have told me that anyone who has ever used Maestri's bolts (such as Garibotti, Cordes and myself rappelling from them) cannot support the removal of the bolts without hypocrisy. I think it is almost exactly the opposite in fact - I think that people who have seen Maestri's bolt ladders in person generally have a much better understanding of their physical context than people who have only read about them or seen photos.

Others have criticized Hayden and Jason for using and leaving in place some of Maestri's belay/rappel stations. They did this as a compromise to appease you. If you think that is hypocritical, then feel free to go remove them. There is plentiful natural gear available, and climbing or rappelling the southeast ridge will not be compromised if you remove every last one of Maestri's bolts.


As I said at first, I would personally prefer to stay far away from this controversy. However, I feel that Hayden and Jason have done a great service to the global community of Patagonian alpinists, and it saddens me to see them receive so much criticism for what I consider an altruistic act. Many of the people who agree with the bolt removal are staying quiet simply to stay out of drama (and in fact, some people who have previously expressed their wish for the bolt ladders to be removed, are now back-pedaling in the face of controversy), but I see it as my obligation to speak out in support of them.

I'm sure that many people, particularly on internet forums, will criticize me for writing this essay. Please remain civil. Just because you disagree with my opinion doesn't mean you need to hate me or denigrate me personally. I won't criticize you for lamenting the bolt removal. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.