Book Review: The Tower – A Chronicle Of Climbing And Controversy On Cerro Torre By Kelly Cordes
Patagonia’s Cerro Torre (10,262′ | 3,128 m) is one of the “most beautiful and compelling mountains in the world.” It attracts elite, technical alpinists from around the globe who dream of climbing the towering and legendary peak. Yet, unlike most mountains, the history and controversy of Cerro Torre is baffling and complex.
In The Tower: A Chronicle Of Climbing And Controversy On Cerro Torre, Kelly Cordes dives into the mysterious history of Cerro Torre and sheds some light on the controversies that are synonymous with this Argentine peak. This fascinating journey through the climbing history of Patagonia is one that both climbers and non-climbers are sure to enjoy.
“The first and most important of their alpine climbing tutorial: “Buy the fucking ticket.” Once you do, you’re committed. You’re going. Everything else falls into place” (220).
Cerro Torre is part of the Chalten Massif located at 49 degrees south. Located in the million square kilometer Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile, the Chalten Massif is like nowhere else on earth. The Chalten Massif is made up of “two parallel rows of north-south mountains: the Torre group and the Fitz Roy chain” (38). The pinnacle of the massif in the Fitz Roy Chain is Fitz Roy (11,168′), but the focus of this book is the rime covered Cerro Torre (10,262′) of the Torre group. These peaks are picture perfect. They are the type of mountains that will make everyone want to become a climber.
“It’s like emerging from a secret passage into a world where you’re certain to see goblins and hobbits playing banjos” (231).
Cerro Torre gets battered by extreme weather as its rocky, rime covered, face climbs thousands of vertical feet straight out of the glaciers. Cordes describes it as “sheer, more vertical, with summit mushrooms of snow and ice spilling beyond the walls below, resembling the top of a shaken champagne bottle, its exploding contents frozen in place” (38). It’s a mountain that needs to be climbed, but it’s climbing history is beautifully riddled with errors and question marks – which makes for an intriguing read.
Braving the weather and the remoteness of Patagonia, Italian Cesare Maestri and Austrian Toni Egger claim the first ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959 with the help of Italian Cesarino Fava. Unfortunately, Fava did not climb and Egger died on the descent. Maestri has no proof that he actually climbed the peak. Based only on his word and the climber’s code of trust, he claimed he stood on the top of Cerro Torre, but the evidence claims differently.
“That’s the thing with alpine climbing – conditions and simple luck play a role. If you’re fortunate enough to get good conditions, and you have the physical and psychological ability to pull it off, you might just be lucky enough to score big” (226).
Enraged that others doubted his claim, Maestri made statements like, “If you doubt me, you doubt the history of mountaineering” (222) or “There are no impossible mountains, only men who are not able to climb them” (323). Then with the support of his sponsor, Maestri returned to Cerro Torre in 1970.
This time he brought a compressor and bolted the entire SouthEast ridge. Over the course of two expeditions, Maestri scarred the mountain with over 400 bolts spaced only feet apart. The bolts stopped just short of the summit. The Maestri bolt ladder became known as the Compressor Route and allowed nearly anyone to “climb” Cerro Torre. As you can imagine, this sparked a new outrage and further controversy.
Over the next 50 years, other elite climbers headed to Patagonia to attempt to climb Cerro Torre. Many came close and a handful stood on the summit. As the reports came trickling in, no one could find any evidence of Maestri’s first ascent claim. There were no bolts on his claimed route, no equipment left on the mountain, no photos, no witness, his descriptions were vague. Maestri couldn’t even identify his original route on a model of the mountain, not to mention that the evolution of alpine climbing tools didn’t allow for such a steep and icy ascent. The climbing world continued to question the greatest ascent in history.
“If you’re not scared, you’re not having fun.” – Birdwell (150)
In 1974, Italians claimed the first true ascent of Cerro Torre via the Ragni di Lecco Route. In 1979, two Americans were the first to complete Maestri’s Compressor Route all the way to the summit. As weather forecasting and Internet service creeped into the relaxed town of El Chalten, more and more people began to summit Cerro Torre.
Finally in 2012, Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk climbed the SouthEast ridge by fair means to the summit. They didn’t use any of Maestri’s bolts, but decided to remove 120 of the ancient bolts on their descent. This caused a furious whirlwind of debate throughout the global climbing community. Did they have the right to this? Did they destroy mountaineering history? Only days after Kennedy and Kruk’s ascent, David Lama and Peter Ortner (with a little funding help from Red Bull) free climbed the southeast ridge (Watch Cerro Torre: Snowballs Chance In Hell). It’s amazing how the world of alpine climbing has evolved.
“Perhaps without Maestri’s bolts the next generation of climbers will go in search of unclimbed terrain. On Cerro Torre, these futuristic routes lurk, waiting for the bold to disbelieve the impossible” (291).
The history and controversy of Cerro Torre is fascinating. Cordes does an excellent job chronicling this Patagonian peak’s legendary status. Whether or not you believe in Cesare Maestri’s first ascent is up to you, but Cordes makes a strong case against it in The Tower. His case is supported by interviews, photos, and personal climbing experience on Cerro Torre.
Cordes is an excellent writer and happily brings his readers into the climber’s world – painting a vivid picture of what climbing in Patagonia was like then and is like now. If you’re a climber, an alpinist, or an armchair adventurer, read The Tower. It’s highly recommended.
The Tower: A Chronicle Of Climbing And Controversy On Cerro Torre by Kelly Cordes is published by Patagonia Books. It is 400 pages and includes numerous full color photos, maps, and appendices.
Kelly Cordes is from Estes Park, Colorado. His resume includes climbing bum and editor of the American Alpine Journal. His climbing resume is impressive and includes a summit of Cerro Torre with Colin Haley in 2007.
Learn more about author, climber, writer, and margarita specialist, Kelly Cordes, at www.kellycordes.com.
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