Cerro Torre Epics
Besides my Cerro Torre endeavors, I’ve been on five other Patagonian expeditions. I’ve seen rappel ropes caught by updrafts refuse to fall from the sky; I’ve cut a half-dozen others stuck far off route. God alone knows how many times the wind has tossed me off my feet. I’ve lost two tents: The wind blasted one to pieces and a rogue gust simply catapulted another into the night sky, never to be seen again. I’ve long since forgotten the number of 10-day storms through which I’ve sat. Once, I survived five straight weeks of basecamp paralysis. All standard fare, the meat and potatoes of the Patagonian experience. None of my own Patagonian epics have been in any way extraordinary, except that in their multitudes they may have touched me with a bit of anemomania — wind madness.
Perhaps that’s what makes me pity those unlucky few who get to Patagonia and immediately cruise to Cerro Torre’s summit in a rare spell of good weather. Leaving Patagonia unpummelled by storm must taste like a spongy mouthful of day-old bagel: filling, perhaps, but certainly nothing to savor. So much better the endurance of an alpine crusader like Steph Davis, who spent five seasons nailed to the Patagonian cross before finally tasting blessed redemption on Fitz Roy, the summit of her dreams, in January 2002.
In Patagonia, we climbers do not plod into peril. Baited by blue skies, we go in like Pickett’s Division, at full bore, racing upward with the naïve ambition of evading the ultimate alpine counterattack, the next full-muscled storm sweeping in from the cold western reaches of the great south sea. Indeed, there may be nothing more exquisitely beautiful in the entire mountaineering world than a small team charging the granite ramparts of the Torre valley, diamond-hard rays of hope bursting in their hearts, steeled, like the Light Brigade, to face the massed field pieces of Patagonia. Consider this, then, a tribute to four teams who have truly felt the storm.
Silvo Karo and Janez Jeglic on the south face, 1988
The south face of Cerro Torre is Patagonia’s most grotesque obstacle, a 7000-foot-tall vertical and overhanging wine bottle. A steep icefield adheres to the face at two-thirds height. The wall below is dark and monolithic, showing no weakness. The upper third — the bottle’s neck — is smooth and featureless and incomprehensibly exposed, both to the vertical mile beneath and to the austral storms sweeping across the ice cap. Planet Earth may not possess a more daunting piece of alpine terrain.In November 1987, Slovenian hardmen Silvo Karo and Janez Jeglic started up the south face. Karo, a dark, powerful climber with blacksmith’s forearms, and Jeglic, an intense, rangy mountaineer, were veterans of three previous Patagonian first ascents (on Fitz Roy, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre’s east face). Rockfall battered them on seven difficult and dangerous pitches of mixed rock and ice at the bottom of the south face. Above, the Slovenians aided long sections of rotten, overhanging rock interspersed with occasional free moves. They had to chop ice from nearly every placement or handhold. During the next two months of stormy Patagonian campaigning, Jeglic and Karo fixed 2300 feet of rope, but were still 1000 feet shy of the icefield. Their remaining ropes were too ragged to use, so they borrowed a slightly better one from a Swiss team, and readied themselves to blast for the top.The weather had other ideas. For three and a half weeks, no improvement lasted more than a few hours. Finally, an opportunity. The sky was starlit when the two left their bivy below El Mocho at midnight on January 19, 1988, but by the time they reached their ropes at 2 a.m., gusty winds drove dark, angry clouds through the night sky. They sheltered in a crevasse, jammed right up against the limit of their stay — their plane tickets and Argentine visas verged on expiration.
By noon the next day they had climbed beyond the end of their fixed ropes to a point 300 feet below the icefield. A 30-foot-wide band of overhangs that would cut off their retreat lay ahead. “Around us was a true hurricane,” says Karo. Then he noticed that the Swiss cord was hemorrhaging nylon fiber from a trio of core-shots. “We were at the mercy of the wind 800 meters from the ground,” says Karo. “With a rotten rope this was not an easy feeling.”
They cut off the ratty end of the rope and climbed the roofs. At the lip, they were embraced by violent winds and thick fog. Only by climbing up and right to the Compressor Route could they reach another line of retreat.
A hellish roar blasted over the top of Cerro Torre. Rime ice coated their gear. They were disoriented. Both men were cold, but the soul-shearing wind refused to let up or allow them to don extra clothing.
“The storm was completely crazy,” says Karo. “We couldn’t communicate.”
Finally, they reached the icefield, which canted west into the full fury of the wind. Television-sized ice blocks torn off the upper reaches of the mountain tumbled through the storm and exploded beside them. Desperate, they traversed right toward the Compressor Route.
“We had this big idea to make a film, so we were carrying a 16mm movie camera instead of a fourth ice tool,” says Karo. “But it was too windy to use, and too much money to throw away. So I follow with only one tool.”
Far to the right, Jeglic belayed from two stubby ice screws. Buffeted by the terrible wind, Karo began traversing. “The ice was steep, 70 or 80 degrees,” says Karo, “and I had one wool glove, so I froze it to the ice each time to help me hang on better.”
Shortly after he started across, a ferocious gust swatted Karo off the wall. Pinwheeling down the icefield he had two thoughts: “Will Janez be able to hold me?” and “Will the tattered rope break?” Karo felt a huge jolt around his midsection as he whacked into some rocks poking through the ice. He’d fallen 100 feet, stopping only a short distance from the bottom of the ice slope and the edge of the abyss.
“I couldn’t believe I was still attached to the wall,” Karo says. He climbed up to Jeglic, now straight above him after the wild pendulum. “Easier than making the traverse, no?”
Late that evening they reached the Compressor Route. Forty-six pitches of new route lay behind. They had planned to go down the east face route, which they’d first climbed during the 1985-86 season, but realized it was impossible with only one short rope. Neither knew the Compressor Route, but there were no options. Battling through darkness and storm in the wee hours of the morning, they collapsed in a natural snow cave at the Col of Patience, the high col atop 1500 feet of snowy mixed climbing that marks the start of the Compressor Route.
“We couldn’t believe that the storm which had accompanied us for the last 24 hours could touch us,” says Karo. “We were so happy.”
In October 1997, Janez Jeglic vanished near the 25,400-foot northwest
summit of Nuptse after climbing the west face with Tomaz Humar.
Bill Denz alone on the Compressor Route, 1979-1981
In 1959, Italian climber Cesare Maestri claimed the first ascent of Cerro Torre via a brilliant two-man rush up the mountain’s east and north faces. But the feat was marred by tragedy: falling ice killed Maestri’s partner, Austrian Toni Egger. Climbers the world over immediately and loudly pronounced the climb to be the greatest of all time. But in the ensuing decade, others, spearheaded by Ken Wilson and Mountain magazine, began to doubt Maestri’s story.Wounded, Maestri decided to climb the mountain again, an alpine masterstroke intended to silence his growing legion of detractors. So, in 1970, he climbed Cerro Torre’s parabolic southeast ridge. But whereas the 1959 climb, if true, is an immortal alpine accomplishment, in 1970 Maestri’s 10-man team fixed ropes up the entire mountain, raised a 150-pound gas-powered compressor to the top of the headwall with a hand-operated winch, and used the compressor to drill 350 bolts up blank (and not-so-blank) swaths of granite. In a final fit of pique, Maestri smashed the last 70 feet of bolts to prove that his mechanized tactics were needed. Wilson’s next Mountain article was titled “Cerro Torre, a Mountain Desecrated,” although in fairness to Maestri, the Compressor Route features lots of naturally splendid climbing on a fantastic feature.Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer made the Compressor Route’s second ascent, alpine-style, in 1978. On the last headwall pitch, Bridwell deftly hooked, pinned, and hand-riveted his way past Maestri’s smashed bolts.
Kiwi alpinist Bill Denz had attempted Torre Egger, unsuccessfully, in the mid-1970s. Denz was a driven and proven alpinist, with snow and ice skills honed in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. He immediately fell in love with Patagonia, though his big-wall abilities didn’t prove to be the range’s equal. He made a Yosemite pilgrimage to correct his granite deficiencies. In the Valley he fell in with Charlie Porter, the greatest big-wall alpinist of the era. (A sampling of Porter’s first ascents includes the Excalibur, Shield, Mescalito, and Zodiac routes on El Capitan; the West Face of Middle Triple Peak in the Kichatna Spires of Alaska; and the first-ever grade VII route, done solo on Baffin Island’s Mount Asgard.) Under Porter’s tutelage, Denz became a tough and competent wall man.
They arranged to meet in Patagonia in late 1979 to attempt a new route on Cerro Torre. But Porter began his southern adventure with a rowing expedition through the Patagonian archipelago, got horrendously delayed by foul weather and Chilean authorities, and never made the rendezvous.
Denz decided to try Cerro Torre by himself. “So far I have had seven attempts at soloing Cerro Torre [via the Compressor Route],” Denz wrote in a letter home. “The last one was nearly successful.” On that attempt, Denz invested two stormy days chipping a coffin-shaped cave into the Ice Tower (a granite-cored, ice-plastered buttress that is slightly detached from the main wall 2500 feet above the glacier), then spent five days inside. Twice he climbed within 250 feet of the top; storms vexed both efforts.
Not satiated, Denz returned to Cerro Torre for the 1980-81 season, this time with the premeditated intention of soloing. He chiseled his hardware to the bare minimum and left basecamp with four days of food, wallowing through soft spring snow for 16 hours to reach the natural ice cave at the Col of Patience. The weather fouled and Denz spent a day waiting. The barometer nudged up overnight. Denz climbed to the Ice Tower and found the site where he had whittled his cave the year before. The fourth day he climbed to Maestri’s compressor, which remained suspended only 150 feet from the top. Clouds, rime-coated rock, and the gale thundering over the top of Cerro Torre drove Denz back to his Ice Tower hole, but by noon the following day, the clouds had blown away. Denz moved his bivy to the top of the Ice Tower, right at the base of the headwall.
Cerro Torre’s headwall, notorious for Maestri’s bolts spaced two or three feet apart up 500 feet of blank rock, doesn’t actually start with a bolt ladder. Denz began his sixth day with 50 feet of jittery free climbing. A fresh rush of storm swept in just as he reached the first bolt. Denz ballasted his etriers with pitons clipped to the bottom steps, girded for yet another all-out summit bid, and climbed the bolt ladder.
Cold crept into his soul. Wispy feathers of rime ice grew on the rock. “I got to the compressor and the weather really started to cut up rough,” said Denz in an early 1980s slide show. Denz was six days out on four days of food. He had already eaten his last scrap. The fifth bolt above the compressor was the last of Maestri’s bolts. Denz couldn’t find Bridwell’s rivets beneath the gray carpet of rime. He spotted some incipient cracks to the right and swung over. He was stemming off a rime fluting, trying to pound in a Snarg, when the fluting collapsed. Denz tumbled across the face. He went out right again and fished a wired stopper into a crack, then reached around a small corner.
The wind was insane. His gear and ropes were iced, Denz himself frosted. He had three Friends. He dropped one, then leapfrogged the remaining two up a crack. The wind whipped up one of his etriers, including the heavy nest of pitons clipped to the bottom step; they whacked him behind the ear. The crack pinched down to a seam. Denz thought he could connect to some rime flutings. His highest placement in the seam was a #1 RP. He top-stepped and could just reach the lowest fluting. He drove one axe, then the other, into the rime and did a stormy chin-up. The whole fluting sheared off. Denz went flying, tore out his RP, and was fielded by the stopper, the only other runner he’d left behind.
“I had to call it quits right there,” said Denz. “I just couldn’t do it.”
Denz struggled back to the compressor and started rappelling. Time and again his ropes stuck. Unbelayed, he had to repeat most of three pitches to undo the tangles.
While he was downclimbing on easier ground near the bottom, a small avalanche swept Denz off his feet. He failed to self-arrest. “I rolled myself into a ball with my hands around my head, and hoped for the best,” he noted in one of his letters home. He slid 700 feet, dropped over the 30-foot lip of the bergschrund, and “ended up in a stunned heap in the snow basin below.” Shattered, Denz needed two days to travel the eight miles to base camp. (Normally, the trip takes about six hours.)
Two years later, the Compressor Route received its third ascent.
In 1983, Bill Denz died in an avalanche while attempting the West Pillar of Makalu. He was 32 years old. This anecdote is distilled from interviews, excerpts from his letters, and slide show transcripts published in the New Zealand Alpine Journal in 1981, 1983, and 1984.
David Autheman, Patrick Pessi, and Frédéric Vallet on the west face, 1994The west face of Cerro Torre hides from the civilized eye, staring straight into the malignant west winds and showing its rime-spackled countenance only to those adventurous few willing to risk the savagery of the ice cap. It was first tried by Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri in 1959; first climbed by Casimiro Ferrari and his team of Lecco Spiders in 1974; and first climbed alpine-style by John Bragg, Dave Carman, and Jay Wilson in 1977.The route begins in the Cirque of the Altars, an amphitheater opening onto the ice cap and dominated by the towering west faces of Cerro Standhardt, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre. A 300-foot mixed step and a 1000-foot ice funnel punctuate the long glacial slopes that gain the Col of Hope. Three more long pitches reach a snowy platform below the Helmet, a 200-foot-tall meringue-like blob of precipitous rime that blocks access to Cerro Torre’s upper tower. Past the Helmet, a rocky section gains a frozen mixed dihedral capped 1000 feet higher by a plumb-bob vertical headwall smeared with ice. Over the headwall, on the upper shoulder, 600 moderate feet abut 200 feet of vertical and overhanging rime that guard the summit plateau. Once on the plateau, climbers confront a final 30 to 40 feet of overhanging mushroom to gain the ultimate summit.
Cerro Torre’s west face occupies a place in modern mountaineering similar to that once held by the north face of the Eiger: Most every member of the alpine tribe is in some way pulled to the route. It is one of the world’s most legendary climbs.
In 1994, Frenchmen David Autheman, Patrick Pessi, and Frédéric Vallet attempted its fifth ascent. All three were mountain guides. Previously, Vallet had climbed three 8000-meter peaks. Autheman had climbed Fitz Roy. The west face was Pessi’s first expedition outside Europe, although, like the others, he had a tremendous amount of experience on the mountains and crags of his home continent. They attacked light, without sleeping bags, and climbed thousands of feet of intricate terrain, up through the Col of Hope and over the 200-foot rime walls of the Helmet. A storm caught them on the headwall.
Somewhere on the upper shoulder they stumbled across a natural slot in the rime and crawled inside, seeking shelter. “In the hole, it was not too bad,” Autheman says. “No wind, and not too cold.” Though they had no real idea where they were on the mountain, all three felt certain that a long distance remained to the summit. For two days, they huddled in their bivy sacks.
The wind moderated on the third afternoon. Wrapped in cloud, they climbed an easy pitch of rime and a second that was very difficult, and were stunned to discover themselves on the summit plateau. They bivied again, in another natural foxhole.
On top, the Frenchmen decided to descend the (relatively) more sheltered Compressor Route. “And besides,” adds Autheman, “the mountain had not been traversed.” They made three long rappels to the top of the Ice Tower, where a tiny saddle formed by the confluence of two big clefts separates the tower from the main wall. Autheman, Pessi, and Vallet didn’t know the route. They scouted the left-hand cleft and saw nothing. They spotted an anchor a little way down the right-hand cleft and opted to use it. What they didn’t know was that the Compressor Route climbs the left-hand face of the Ice Tower, and that the anchor typically lurks under a six-inch armor of rime.
They rappelled twice and found bolts at each anchor. They made a third rappel, and with the ropes still in place, Autheman announced, “We are on the wrong route.” The clouds parted enough to show that they had strayed far from the southeast ridge, the site of the Compressor Route. They seemed to be dropping down the east face, probably into the upper part of the route first climbed in 1986 by a Slovenian expedition that included Silvo Karo and Janez Jeglic. About 3000 feet of steep, rimy granite hung from their heels. Autheman inventoried the rack — eight or 10 ice screws, one set of nuts, three or four Friends, a handful of pitons — hardly the gear for a Patagonian big wall. The trio held a council of war.
The climbers were too tired for a loud argument, but the extreme gravity of the situation mandated a thorough exchange of opinions. They had no idea whether or not they’d find serviceable anchors below. Vallet was optimistic, saying, “We are okay, this is a route, we’ll find other bolts.” Pessi didn’t have a strong opinion, up or down, but Autheman advocated going back up. “If we cannot find anchors, or if we lose the way, poopf, we are finished,” he says. “I was very, very stressed. I wanted to go up, but I did not have the energy, the strength, to do all the leading back to the top of the Ice Tower. So we pulled the ropes.”
They continued to find bolts and sections of tattered fixed rope, but the wall steepened, and in many places they were forced to leave gear to reinforce suspect anchors battered by nearly a decade of exposure to the extreme Patagonian conditions. “Then we hit an overhanging traverse, and at this place we didn’t know whether to go left or right,” says Autheman. “It was very hard to find the next belay. Patrick was a very strong climber, so he did this pitch. He made a very big pendulum.” They aimed left for an ice couloir that stretched down to the base. Reaching it cost them the remainder of their rock hardware. They were still at least 1300 feet above the glacier.
The ice in the couloir provided other anchoring possibilities, but the couloir also exposed them to new dangers. Small ice chunks falling from the Compressor Route rattled down the cleft; a large block would wipe them out. The Frenchmen rappelled from a succession of single ice screws.
American climbers Conrad Anker, Steve Gerberding, and Jay Smith were in a snow cave below Cerro Torre that day, waiting to renew their assault on Torre Egger’s east face, when they heard voices. “We had no idea where they were coming from,” says Gerberding. “The weather was bad.” No one had walked by; no one was up at the Col of Patience. The Americans knew that no one was on Cerro Torre. “We started talking about the ghost of Toni Egger [the Austrian killed while attempting Cerro Torre’s first ascent with Cesare Maestri in 1959],” says Gerberding. “Finally we see ‘em and they’re like six pitches up the Slovenian Route. We had no clue where they’d come from.”
The Frenchmen used all their ice screws, then whacked their axes into the ice and left them behind, one after the other, to anchor the last rappels. Finally, they lowered over the bergschrund and wallowed 100 yards through the snow to join the Americans, who plied the surprise arrivals with food and drink. “They looked pretty haggard,” said Gerberding, “and way, way relieved.” “And so we arrive at the bottom,” said Autheman, “without nothing. In the mountains, you have to be ready for what you want to do, but sometimes you just need luck.”
Author Gregory Crouch, one of Climbing’s senior contributing editors, chronicled his personal Patagonian adventures in his critically acclaimed book Enduring Patagonia, published by Random House.