To drill or not to drill? The Cerro Torre question

“You’d better know yourself, or you’re gonna die,” says the long-haired craggy-faced wiseman at the end of this trailer about climbing Cerro Torre. Fortunately, trekking to Cerro Torre is not at all dangerous, so you don’t need to know yourself. But appreciating that the mountain is the sight of much controversy among people who do know themselves will make your walk up there a little more exciting.

It’s all about the rights and wrongs of drilling holes into mountains and fixing metal bolts. Or about “interfering with the mountains”, as David Lama delicately puts it. The story is well covered here, here and here, and in a very long-winded and not particularly enjoyable way by Werner Herzog (of course) here. I’ll give the brief version. The context: Cerro Torre is a giant shard of granite that rises over a vertical mile; obviously, it is extremely difficult to climb.


A young Italian climber called Cesare Maestri tells the world that he’s climbed Cerro Torre’s northeast ridge, losing his climbing partner Toni Egger on the way down. People agree that his partner died (they give his name to the peak next door), but people don’t agree that Maestri and Egger make it to the top of Cerro Torre.


In an an attempt to shame the doubters, Maestri hits upon the curious idea of returning to Cerro Torre armed with a 150kg petrol-guzzling air compressor attached to a power drill. Four hundred bolts holes and bolts later and he’s climbed to within 50m of the summit, but Maestri decides that the final, tricky ice mushroom is “not really part of the mountain” so he doesn’t bother climbing it. Hmm. The so-called ‘Compressor Route’ up the southeast ridge is born. Mountain god and certified bear Reinhold Messner says that Maestri has “murdered the impossible” by drilling his way to the summit.


An Italian team decides that the ice mushroom does in fact count as part of the mountain, and they climb up and over it to claim the first undisputed ascent of Cerro Torre. The whole thing takes them two months.


After many ascents without much controversy, including up the snowy West Face (watch the video if you like Argentine accents), a Red Bull crew filming Austrian uber-climber David Lama drills another 60 bolts into the Compressor Route and everyone gets really really angry.


This anger inspires climbers Kennedy and Kruk to go up the Compressor Route by “fair means”, which apparently means using just 5 bolts – those absolutely necessary to ensure survival – rather than 400. It takes them 13 hours. Significantly, they chop off 125 of Maestri’s bolts on their descent. Some call them heroes, others called them philistines (for destroying a bit of mountain history).

Just days later David Lama free-climbs the whole thing – that is, he doesn’t use any bolts at all, climbing a route up the southeast ridge that more or less follows the line of the Compressor Route. People who know themselves forgive him for drilling holes in the mountain in 2010. The trailer above is for a film about his climb, here is the first ‘episode’, and here‘s the second, in which Lama usefully explains the difference between aid climbing and free climbing at the heart of the Cerro Torre palaver.

Cerro Torre routes

Cerro Torre

Cerro Torre: you can see why people get all hot under the collar about it.


One thought on “To drill or not to drill? The Cerro Torre question

  1. Pingback: Cerro Torre Trek – El Chalten – Patagonia | ya vamonos

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