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Americans Zack Smith and Josh Wharton made a bold attempt to climb the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre in Patagonia without using the protection bolts that were power-drilled by Cesare Maestri during his 1970 attempt on the granite needle. Maestri’s “Compressor Route” has become the standard route on the mountain, but it relies on hundreds of feet of artificial bolt ladders.
On February 18, Smith and Wharton climbed the ridge without clipping any protection bolts until the route’s 400-foot final headwall. They avoided Maestri’s 300-foot bolt traverse with a pitch of A2 and two pitches of 5.10+ R face climbing, a variation pioneered earlier by Ermanno Salvaterra. They also bypassed the 230-foot bolt ladder that gains the headwall via an ice chimney, likely a previously unclimbed line. Other bolts were skipped via minor variations or by using removable gear instead of bolts.
At the headwall, however, the weather deteriorated severely. Smith managed to lead the first pitch of the headwall without bolts, but as the wind blew the climbers’ ropes and aiders straight up into the air the two opted to move onto the bolt ladder to finish climbing the spire.
Wharton said in emails that he believes all but the last 100 feet of the headwall on Cerro Torre’s Southeast Ridge could be climbed without bolts quite reasonably in better weather, through a combination of aid and free climbing in corners and flakes on either side of the bolt ladders. However, the final 100 feet below the rime-ice mushroom on the summit is comprised of two sections of very blank rock. Above the gas-powered compressor that Maestri left on the wall, he bolted 70 feet of rock, then smashed his bolts during his descent; in 1978, Jim Bridwell established an A3 variation to the ruined bolts, using copperheads, rivets, and hooking, and this is the line taken by all climbers today. Below the compressor, there is about 30 feet of nearly blank rock that would require runout hooking or very hard and runout free climbing to avoid using bolts.
Still, Wharton wrote, “All told, a route with over 400 holes could be brought down to less then 20 very reasonably, and it would without doubt change the nature of the peak and its difficulty considerably.”
Wharton said he had mixed feelings about their climb. “I’m glad we climbed so much of the route without bolts. I’m also excited to see that the 120-meter headwall (in better conditions) will go with perhaps only 30 meters of aid—20 of which are the legitimate aid climbing of the Bridwell pitch. And I thought we did a great job struggling onto the top in horrendous weather. I’m disappointed, however, that in the end we took the easy way out, using the bolts to gain the top in what would otherwise have been unclimbable conditions. Human laziness and coveting the easy way to the top is a sad piece of the Compressor Route story, and although Zack and I nearly avoided this path, in the end we fell just short.”
Date of Ascent: February 18, 2007
Source: Josh Wharton