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The Tragic Story of the Man Who Claimed Cerro Torre’s First Ascent

He left us with nothing and everything.

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He left us with nothing and everything.

He lives where fantasies arise and ambition thrives, where mountains are climbed and tragedies overcome. This is how it has always been. Since the Big Bang to the Book of Genesis and the teachers of all great religions, as relayed through the Greeks and revealed by Shakespeare, because the tricksters and devils and angels are as old as this world. He is laughing and he is dancing through the spires; he is swirling in our souls. The Spider will never die. Belief is forever.

The world was different then. Our heroes were fierce and strong and they suffered no weakness. They overcame. You always took a fellow climber at their word, because climbers never lied. The bond of the rope implied a code of honor. So perhaps it is fitting that the last time the proud Ragno delle Dolomiti, the Spider of the Dolomites, appeared defeated was on February 3, 1959, far across the ocean, 8,000 miles from home in the shadow of global war. He lay crumpled in the snow beneath the “impossible” Cerro Torre in Patagonia, raised his head in anguish, and muttered three words: “Toni, Toni, Toni.” And then for 62 years he never told the truth to his dead partner’s family.

***

Cesare Maestri was born in Trento, Italy, capital of the mountainous Trentino province, in 1929. His mother died when he was 7, and his father ran a traveling theater. As conflict escalated across Europe, young Maestri and his father sided with the Italian partisans against Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist movement. When the Nazis overtook Trento in World War II, they condemned his father to death and so the pair fled, wandering for a year before returning home. Upon discovering climbing, Maestri found himself; it became his iconoclastic self-expression, perhaps a derivative of the same drive and rebellion that saw him through the war. As with so many of us, the mountains seemed to represent a synthesis of two selves, a duality between our fantasies and our everyday mind, a place where we can make our dreams real.

Maestri grew up to be brash, a showman, a self-proclaimed anarchist. He mostly climbed alone, often soloing up and back down difficult routes, for which he soon became known as the Spider of the Dolomites. On the occasions he did tie in, he insisted on leading—the Spider would follow no one. He trained hard, went to bed early, and followed a strict diet. He boasted, “When I made love to a girl I did so in the press-up position to strengthen my arms.” He would become a great hero. A tragic, complicated hero, and to others a simple liar.

As with all of our heroes and villains, much about Maestri hinges on legend. But to comprehend the famed Spider of the Dolomites, you must know this: By the end of WWII, Italy was desperate for heroes. Italy needed heroes.

Maestri climbing ropeless on the Croz del Rifugio in the Dolomites. He completed a host of standard-setting solo climbs in his early years, such as the first free-solo ascent of the Solleder (5.8, 1,200 meters), on Civetta, in 1952, and the first solo ascent of the Solda-Conforto (5.9 A2, 650 meters), on the Marmolada, in 1953. Photo: Gian Maestri Collection

For the first half of the twentieth century, Italy had been ravaged. Italians endured World War I, Mussolini and fascism, entered WWII on the side of the Nazis, surrendered, switched sides, and then descended into civil war. Their economy was in ruins, their landscape and their cities had been bombed into oblivion.

But the postwar era was also a time of hope and renewal, and with Europe’s deep climbing heritage, climbers were celebrities. Nations took pride in and heaped honor on those who represented them in scaling the world’s highest peaks, and come 1954, only a blink beyond the end of the war, the highest unclimbed peak was K2 (28,251 feet). On July 31 of that year, an Italian team became the first to plant their flag on the summit. At the port in Genoa, a crowd of 40,000 cheering Italians greeted their return. The climbers were national heroes.

“With this mountaineering triumph Italy was able, for the first time, to raise proudly its flag over the debris of humiliation and defeat,” Giovanni Cenacchi wrote in his and Lino Lacedelli’s 2004 book, K2: The Price of Conquest.

But Maestri, despite his growing prowess as a top climber, had been excluded from the expedition. He responded with what would become his trademark strength and defiance. In a single day he enchained 13 peaks in the Dolomites, climbing ropeless, both up and down, totaling some 12,000 vertical feet—the equivalent of climbing from basecamp to the summit of K2.

For all of the public’s focus on the highest peaks, in the 1950s a new undercurrent was emerging among the vanguard. Rather than large, nationalistic sieges, top climbers began looking at steeper, more technical peaks and climbing them in lightweight style. It was an evolution that saw climbing as more of an art form, and less of a conquest, opening alpinists’ eyes to beautiful lines on steep mountains at lower altitudes.

A remarkable example of the new ethos came in a then-remote region called Patagonia, near the bottom tip of South America. An Italian missionary named Alberto María de Agostini had explored the region multiple times in the 1930s, and in 1941 published a book, Andes Patagónicos. It caught the eye of many top European alpinists, including the French superstar Lionel Terray. In 1952, Terray and Guido Magnone made the first ascent of Cerro Fitz Roy (11,168 feet), the highest peak in the striking Chaltén Massif. After fixing a modest amount of rope, from a high shoulder they ascended 2,000 feet up the steep, cold south buttress (shaded in the southern hemisphere), climbing snow, ice and rock up to 5.10 A3. Their final two-day dash to the top was praised for its impressive style and speed. From the summit, in amazement they stared across the valley at a slightly lower (10,262 feet) but far more daunting and spectacular mountain: Cerro Torre.

On their way home, Terray gave a presentation at the Italian Alpine Club branch in Buenos Aires. In attendance was Cesarino Fava, an emigree from Trentino. Terray showed photos and told stories of their expedition, and said he had seen the most beautiful mountain in the world, Cerro Torre. Terray labeled it “impossible.”

A couple of years later, Maestri’s solo enchainment made the news, and was published in a magazine spread. Fava, like many ex-pats, read papers from the motherland. Though Fava and Maestri were from nearby villages, they had never met. But Fava sent a letter home, rumored to have been addressed simply to Il Ragno delle Dolomiti, Trentino. Inside, he described Cerro Torre, and used an Italian saying that meant he had a mountain worthy of Maestri’s reputation. “Come here,” he wrote, “You will find bread for your teeth.”

The Spider needed neither K2 nor convention. He would forge his own path, to the glorious and impossible Cerro Torre.

Maestri became known as the Ragno delle Dolomiti (“Spider of the Dolomites”) for his bold ascents in northern Italy and surrounding areas. Photo: Gian Maestri Collection

When Cesare Maestri died in January, at the age of 91, a friend asked what I felt. I had to pause. Nothing. At first I felt nothing. How strange, in a sense, given that Cerro Torre came to define his life, and his actions came to define Cerro Torre, a mountain with which I became intimately familiar some 50 years after him, knowing the players, climbing it myself, and spending two and a half years writing a book on Cerro Torre, The Tower.

In 2012, I traveled to Italy for research, and to speak with many of Cerro Torre’s most accomplished climbers—the mountain had become practically synonymous with Italian alpinism. I remember my awe of the landscape, the artifacts of eras past, and the Dolomites soaring skyward. I could feel the history. Perhaps it was only in my mind, but the connection to Cerro Torre, an ocean away, felt as real as the blue sky. I remembered my own ascent of the tower, which to this day feels like a dream, with its impossibly steep walls topped by rime mushrooms the size of buildings, jutting wildly into space, somehow defying gravity and logic with otherworldly shapes plucked from a Dr. Seuss book, and literal tunnels, carved by wind, occasionally yielding passage inside the mountain. I was actually there? My pulse slowed and I giggled aloud in sheer joy at the absurdity. Fantasy, I thought to myself. Pure fantasy.

But upon hearing the news, I had no emotion because I never knew Maestri—and very few did, at least truly. I realized that what I and nearly everyone else knew of him was not the real man, but the myth. I then felt a twinge of sorrow, as I often had when studying him, for how I imagined his inner life to be: that of a prisoner.

Maestri in the Brenta Range in the Dolomites, where he made several seminal ascents including the first solo ascent of the Guides’ Route (5.8, 850 meters) on the Crozzon di Brenta in 1953. In 1956 he made the first down-solo of the route as well. Photo: Gian Maestri Collection

No place on earth is more difficult to reach today than was Cerro Torre in the 1950s. Maestri partnered with the Austrian ace Toni Egger, who in many ways was Maestri’s opposite—typically understated and with a humble, quiet confidence. Egger had made a name for himself with fast and bold ascents near home, such as a link-up of the north faces of Cima Ovest and Cima Grande in eleven hours, the Solleder on Civetta, a one-hour solo of Spigolo Giallo on Cima Piccola, and many others. In 1957, he ventured to Peru and made the heralded first ascent of the 19,993-foot Jirishanca.

Egger and Maestri traveled from Europe to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they met Cesarino Fava in late December 1958. Fava, the Trentino expat who had sent Maestri the letter, and with whom Maestri would forever be loyal friends, enthusiastically helped with logistics and labor. The team headed south, eventually establishing basecamp near Cerro Torre, where savage storms blasted the range. The mountain towered for 4,000 vertical feet overhead. But during brief breaks in the weather, over several days they fixed ropes up the initial 1,000 feet of the lower east face, heading toward a high col and the daunting north face, an objective substantially steeper and more technical than any alpine route yet climbed anywhere. The climbing left Maestri physically and mentally depleted, and he fell ill from overexertion. Then a storm raged for 10 days.

Finally, the weather broke. Maestri, in various interviews and writings, including his autobiography, Arrampicare è il Mio Mestiere (Climbing Is My Trade), described the next six and a half days. The storm had left the mountain’s sunny, north face cloaked in a freakish sheet of climbable ice (in contrast to the ephemeral, unbonded rime often present after storms), a phenomenon not seen since. They started climbing. Their packs weighed 55 pounds each, but they made good time to the col. High on the north face, as the climb grew ever steeper, Maestri, for the first time in his career, relinquished all of the leading to Egger. The terrifying veneer of ice proved difficult to protect, but they pounded pitons, wooden wedges, and ice screws, and hand-drilled around 70 bolts. Egger’s mastery was magnificent. They climbed upward, racing the clouds and another incoming storm, finishing the face and entering the wildly overhanging rime mushrooms of the summit ridge. Egger persevered, leading ahead with his single long, straight-picked bamboo ax, the cutting-edge equipment of the day, as Maestri followed as fast as he could. Higher, the clouds parted and Egger paused to scream back to Maestri: “La cima!” Soon, in a worsening storm, after a miraculous three-and-a-half days, they stood on the summit of the impossible mountain. They hurriedly snapped photos and began their descent.

Not far below, they shivered away the night on a tiny ledge, listening to avalanches echo throughout the cirque. Egger turned to Maestri and said, “Let’s hope we don’t die a white death.” Late the next day the avalanches still roared and the sun dipped toward the horizon. Egger thought he saw a ledge below, where they might bivouac. Maestri began lowering him. Suddenly he heard a horrible sound, rumbling from above “with a whistle of death.”

“Toni, look out!”

Maestri pinned himself beneath a small overhang as the avalanche roared past, and he held the belay strand, grasping it tight, waiting. Then, he wrote, “Everything stops. I feel only the howl of the wind, and the rope recoils without weight.”

Fava had been waiting faithfully for the pair’s return, but the storm had raged for too long. There was no hope. One last time, he gazed into the tempest enshrouding Cerro Torre, and through a parting of the clouds he saw a figure lying crumpled in the snow. But only one. He raced up the slope to find Maestri, barely alive. Maestri raised his head and muttered only three words: “Toni, Toni, Toni.”

Maestri during his 1970 ascent of the Compressor Route, on the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre. After questions arose surrounding his 1959 claimed first ascent of the mountain, Maestri returned with a gasoline-powered air compressor and drilled his way up the peak, though he still retreated 200 feet from the summit. Photo: Gian Maestri Collection

Maestri returned home, traumatized. Weary. Their climb was otherworldly. None other than Lionel Terray proclaimed it “the greatest mountaineering feat of all time.” But Maestri had no proof. What about the camera, which held the summit photos? Maestri claimed it was with Egger when that “whistle of death” took him away. Toni Egger’s body was never recovered.

Their ascent was so hard, so ahead of its time that, despite Patagonia’s incredible remoteness back then, the regional correspondent for the American Alpine Journal wrote, “With this ascent the Golden Age of Patagonian mountaineering has ended.”

It would take 47 years, and dozens of attempts from some of the best alpinists of each ensuing generation, until another party would climb the north face of Cerro Torre.

Fans, photographers, and reporters greeted Maestri upon his return to Italy. Presentations and meetings were held in his honor. He accepted lucrative book offers, was hailed by his peers, and celebrated in the press. He received a medal for bravery. While little could compare to the national pride of K2 in 1954 Italy, now, up north, in the tight-knit, autonomous Trentino province, they had their own hero. Il Ragno delle Dolomiti, Spider of the Dolomites, hero of Cerro Torre.

In old climbing photos Maestri looks comfortable, happy, at peace. It’s hard to say when, exactly, that began to change.

X marks Maestri’s high point. Copious amounts of fixed gear were found to here, but no trace has ever been discovered beyond this point. Photo: Rolando Garibotti

The years were not kind to Maestri’s story. After prominent climbers failed on easier aspects of Cerro Torre and expressed their doubts about his 1959 claim, Maestri, in a bizarre response, returned to the mountain in 1970 with a gasoline-powered air compressor. Over the course of two seasons—winter and summer—he sieged the southeast ridge with thousands of feet of fixed rope and, ignoring climbable features, jackhammered-in nearly 400 bolts, most of them spaced close enough to be used as ladders. Although he retreated some 200 feet from the top, he returned once again to a legendary reception in Trentino. Cerro Torre not once, but twice. Their proud and defiant hero.

Thanks in part to his prolific bolt ladders, more and more climbers visited Cerro Torre and its surrounding spires. Top alpinists tried and failed on the north face, covering ground where Maestri claims to have left anchors and bolts. The initial thousand feet, where the 1959 team fixed ropes, were littered with gear. Above, on far harder climbing, nobody found a trace, and Maestri’s descriptions so differed from the terrain as to border on absurd. Questions atop questions surfaced, books and articles were written, contradictory details uncovered, discussion panels held. Maestri delivered confounding and often defiant answers, or none at all.

In the late 1970s Maestri retired from serious climbing, but remained a celebrity in the eyes of many.

On the 10-year anniversaries of 1959, in Trentino they often held celebrations. Come 1999, one such gathering occurred in the charming mountain village of Malè, and many of Cerro Torre’s finest climbers were invited. Several visiting American and English climbers expressed surprise at how little 1959 was critically discussed, which seemed odd given the rising doubts, and given that a mountain only has one first ascent. They had heard and read of Maestri’s legendary strength and pride. But then, there, in their presence—among climbers who had been high on Cerro Torre, including on attempts at the claimed line of 1959—Maestri seemed withdrawn. Where was the confident hero?

In 1976 John Bragg, Jim Donini and Jay Wilson had become the first to retrace the lower half of the Egger-Maestri line, climbing to the col before branching off and making the first ascent of the neighboring Torre Egger (named in Toni Egger’s honor). They’d found zero traces of prior passage above the 1959 fixed ropes, and the terrain climbed drastically different from how it looked from below. Their findings cast serious doubts on Maestri’s claim. “He did not seem the conquering hero, the man who did what might very well be the greatest climb of the century,” Bragg noted at the time. “He seemed very insecure, emotional. He seemed to need the approval of the other climbers. Where was the pride, the strength, the arrogance, that I expected?”

The world changes; a mountain of evidence arose. Patagonia is now bustling with climbers, and documents in every imaginable language are available with only a click. A 7,800-word, impeccably researched and cited thesis was published in 2004 (“A Mountain Unveiled: A Revealing Analysis of Cerro Torre’s Tallest Tale,” by Rolando Garibotti), thoroughly dismantling any wishful notions affixed to Maestri’s claim. Beyond Garibotti’s compendium of detailed sources and on-mountain evidence, there is also the simple fact that modern ice axes, and the resultant two-tool technique, were still a decade away. Even if the sunny north face was covered in ice, the idea of racing up thousands of feet of what would be sustained, modern WI 5 and WI 6—a difficulty not yet established and physically impossible with a single long, wooden axe that had a straight, toothless pick—can only be explained as fantastical, bordering on delusion.

In 2005, Garibotti, Ermanno Salvaterra and Alessandro Beltrami succeeded in finally climbing Cerro Torre from the north. The terrain bore no resemblance to Maestri’s descriptions, and they found zero signs of Maestri’s claimed passage in the upper 3,000 feet of the mountain, above the virtual museum of gear of Maestri and Egger’s lower fixed lines. Their ascent was front-page news in Italy.

Beltrami worked as a mountain guide in Maestri’s hometown, at the same outfit where Maestri still led easy treks as a celebrity. Beltrami wisely remained silent. Garibotti and Salvaterra were open about what they found—and what they did not. In a published interview Maestri called them “sons of bitches.” He threatened to sue Salvaterra for libel.

Salvaterra, perhaps Cerro Torre’s most devoted climber, was born and raised just down valley from Maestri. He had long believed the 1959 story, as was normal in Trentino, and had come to know Maestri. Salvaterra sat down and wrote a letter to his old friend. He spelled out everything he now knew. It was time for Maestri to tell the truth. “We can lie to others but not to ourselves,” Salvaterra wrote.

Soon after mailing the letter, Salvaterra received it back, marked “return to sender.” Words scribbled on the envelope said, “I do not open this letter because I am sick of it all,” and ranted of the “evil you are doing to my family.” But the envelope had been opened, and then sealed again.

Colin Haley, in 2007, climbing wild, wind-carved tunnels high on Cerro Torre. Maestri would have taken a similar path on his 1959 claimed route, climbing with a single, straight-picked and toothless wooden axe, as modern ice tools had yet to be invented. Photo: Kelly Cordes

Over the years, as I grow old, I have often wondered who we truly are in our private lives. What becomes of our heroes when the parades stop and the lights flicker out? I try to imagine his inner world—not of Il Ragno delle Dolomiti, but of Cesare Maestri. Like an unwritten letter of my own: Do you think back to that day on the Torre Glacier, to Toni’s final moments on this earth? One moment. In one terrible, grieving moment, the words came out, but it was a good lie, an honorable lie. You gave the glory to your partner. Tell it once and you become a prisoner. Now you are alone with the truth.

Not only the truth about the climb, because maybe it’s only a climb and this means you can rationalize it away. But Toni’s family, because they deserve an honest account of what happened. You never gave answers; perhaps you never could, because then everything would unravel, and so you bury it away, carrying the burden like a thousand-pound weight. But heroes are strong.

Hayden Kennedy with many of the bolts that he and Jason Kruk removed from Maestri’s Compressor Route, after the pair’s “first fair means ascent” of the southeast ridge, in 2012. Photo: Mikey Schaefer

The golden jubilee of the supposed first ascent of Cerro Torre came in 2009, and, naturally, the Trento Film Festival held a grand celebration. Reinhold Messner, who has thoroughly studied the Maestri affair and had just written a book on Cerro Torre, was an honored guest. When I interviewed him in Italy, he recalled his astonishment at the Festival’s plans. “I think that 50 years after 1959, it is time to discuss it,” he told the organizers. Not allowed, they told him. “In the evening they make huge festival, 500 or a thousand people, around Cesare Maestri, cheering, clapping, ‘You did this!’” Messner said, shaking his head. “It’s incredible.”

In 2012, the Compressor Route—Maestri’s gasoline-powered installation from 1970—was effectively dismantled. From its inception, the route had been renounced by climbing purists. But it had also become, by far, the most popular on the mountain. The ghosts of Cerro Torre rose again, with another global controversy erupting around the once-impossible tower. Most of the Italian climbing world was enraged, though the University of Verona enacted a more measured response, and awarded Maestri an honorary PhD.

I tried to meet with Maestri during my visit, though I knew that for years he had refused to discuss 1959. He declined. His friends said that even they could no longer mention Cerro Torre to him, because it caused him too much pain, citing, as one of his close friends told me, “the torture of hearing Cerro Torre mentioned … the Torre controversy has devastated his life.”

Maestri’s compressor, a relic from his 1970 climb, still hangs on Cerro Torre’s headwall. Photo: Hayden Kennedy

In the climbing world our collective interest in first ascents, style, and ethics form a foundation from which introspection and progress flourish. These notions rely on individual integrity, and they therefore matter, but life and death matter more.

Maestri brought flowers to Egger’s family after returning home in 1959, and told his story. Egger’s sister, Stefanie, asked about her brother’s diaries—Toni had always kept a journal. Nothing of Toni’s was returned, and Egger’s parents never again heard from Maestri. They went to their graves without an honest account of their son’s death.

In 2015, Garibotti made an astounding discovery, perfectly matching a photo, which Maestri had long presented as Egger climbing Cerro Torre, to the flanks of a small tower a mile away. The very premise of Maestri’s photo is bizarre, since he claimed that their only camera vanished with Egger. The true location is dangerous to reach and impossible to mistake or forget. It is the last known photo of Toni Egger. Egger’s remains, some of which later emerged from the glacier below, included a perplexing rope configuration that could suggest anything from a failed rescue attempt to a rudimentary self-belay. But why would Egger be soloing? Or was it a crevasse fall? Some sort of accident? Only one person could be sure. When confronted with the photo discovery, Maestri denied and deflected, before going silent.

The finding went largely ignored—if not dismissed—in Italy, where Maestri’s supporters once again came to his defense. But for them the story of 1959, the story of their hero, was never about the truth. Belief is forever.

At the time of this writing, Stefanie Egger is still alive. She is in her nineties, and for decades has lived in a small Austrian village just over the border from Maestri. Journalist Ed Douglas spoke with her after the new discovery, and showed her the photo evidence. She recounted Toni’s life and his passion for the mountains, their family and their upbringing, and the call from her mother in 1959, telling her that Toni was never coming home. She never believed Maestri’s tale, and she has been waiting for answers. “It would be the greatest present to know the truth,” Stefanie said.

But Cesare Maestri took the truth with him on January 19, 2021.

Kelly Cordes climbed a new link-up on Cerro Torre in 2007, and his award-winning book, The Tower, chronicles many of the mysteries, controversies, and history surrounding the spectacular spire.