With a height of 3133 meters Patagonia’s Cerro Torre is more than just one of the most beautiful and difficult mountains in the world. It's a legendary mountain. With incomparable steepness it rises into the stormy sky above the southern tip of Argentina, it could be the watchtower of Mordor, the land of evil in the “Lord of the Rings”. Unresolved events regarding its first ascent are the biggest unsolved riddle in the history of alpine climbing.
In 1952, the famous French alpinist Lionel Terray declared the “Torre” impossible. Its walls seemed too steep, too blank, and then there was the ferocious weather: Without warning, storms roll in from the Pacific in full force. Clouds shroud the summits so often that the famous German climber Reinhard Karl said the mountains in Patagonia were ” ... like atoms. They exist, but one can't see them.”
After Walter Bonatti, the strongest alpinist of his time, didn't reach the summit in 1958, its first ascent was achieved in 1959 by Cesare Maestri from Italy and Toni Egger from Austria. The bad weather had iced up the walls to the point where the two were able to circumvent the rockclimbing: They used ice axes and crampons and climbed the ice.
During the descent though, their success turned into a tragedy. The temperatures rose, the ice peeled off and Egger fell to his death. This is what Maestri reported upon his return. The camera with the summit photo had disappeared with Egger.
When every subsequent expedition to Cerro Torre failed in the following years, doubts about Maestri's thin story emerged. Without photographic evidence of the ascent, Maestri’s claim that he and Egger had climbed to the summit on ice was too easy an explanation for the lack of pitons or other fixed gear noted by other parties that tried the route.
To demonstrate his strength, Maestri returned in 1970, this time with a gas-powered compressor. He drilled himself onto the summit, placing 360 bolts in the process. The alpine climbing community was shocked. More than a few considered the heavy style a disgrace, Reinhold Messner criticized the style as “the Murder of the Impossible”.
Moreover, this ascent obviously did nothing to prove his alleged ascent in 1959. For his second climb he chose a completely different line, which only contributed to the suspicions of his critics. Instead of reinstating his reputation, he ruined it for good. In order to make a repeat of his climb impossible, he chopped his own bolts on the last pitch, something that had never been done before in the history of alpine climbing.
Even this time, the first ascent was not recognized as such: he had not climbed the summit mushroom, but descended from 50 meters below where the rock ends and easy snow and ice lead to the summit. Maestri became a tragic figure and soon quit climbing.
The first unquestioned ascent of Cerro Torre was made in 1974 by his compatriot Casimiro Ferrari. The American Jim Bridwell was the first to repeat the Compressor Route. He was able to climb the last pitch – which is named after him since his ascent - despite the chopped bolts.
Soon after, Cerro Torre made the headlines again: The famous filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Fitzcarraldo”) made the mountain drama “Schrei aus Stein” there. Because Herzog did not approve of Maestri's heavy duty style, he had the compressor removed by helicopter. Protests from the climbing community followed, and the compressor was reinstalled on the wall. The true reason for the protests was not some sort of loyalty with Maestri, but rather that the community prefers to deal with issues on the mountain, and doesn't like amateurs interfering – a fact which would also play a role in the most recent filming.
David Lama's freeclimbing and filming project brought Cerro Torre to the center of attention in the climbing world once again in 2010. At first, there was an outrage when the film crew added bolts and fixed ropes to the mountain, which were later removed. The next outcry from the climbing community came in 2012 when the young climbers Hayden Kennedy (USA) and Jason Kruk (CAN) removed a significant number of bolts from the Compressor Route. What they felt was giving back the mountain the respect it deserves was considered by others to be defacement of a historical route. Kennedy and Kruk’s actions were also widely perceived as arrogance, because the easiest route up the mountain had essentially been removed. In it's current “chopped” state, the mountain certainly is one of the most difficult to climb on Earth.
The peak next to Cerro Torre was named after Toni Egger who fell to his death in 1959. His body was found in 1975, but his camera and the possibility of photographic evidence remains missing. That he and Maestri reached the summit in 1959 is considered confuted today. What really happened back then is still unknown.