By David Roberts and Kathryn Sall; Photographs by Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk (seen here on the summit of Cerro Torre)
Read our follow up on David Lama's simultaneous first true free climb of Cerro Torre's southeast ridge.
On January 16, 2012, mountaineering history was made. The actors in the drama were two of the best young alpinists alive—a 21-year-old Coloradan, Hayden Kennedy, and a 24-year-old from British Columbia, Jason Kruk. Their deed took place on a savagely steep needle of granite and rime ice in southern Patagonia called Cerro Torre. Kennedy and Kruk knew that what they were trying to do was audacious in the extreme, but they could hardly have anticipated that it would trigger the most explosive mountaineering controversy of the last decade.
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Although it rises to an altitude of only 10,262 feet, Cerro Torre has been called the most beautiful mountain on earth, as well as one of the most difficult. On the border of Chile and Argentina, the peak soars nearly 5,000 feet from base to summit. The indomitable French mountaineer Lionel Terray, who made the first ascent of nearby Fitz Roy, doubted that Cerro Torre would ever be climbed. The greatest Italian climber of his day, Walter Bonatti, failed on an attempt less than halfway to the summit in 1958.
Then in 1959, Bonatti’s bitter rival, Cesare Maestri, came to Patagonia to slay the dragon via its north face. His climbing companions were his fellow Italian, Cesarino Fava, and the Austrian Toni Egger, one of the outstanding ice climbers of his day. The three set out on their attempt and reached a gunsight notch that they named “The Col of Conquest,” 1,800 feet below the summit. Having agreed to act in only a supporting role, Fava retreated alone down to Camp 3. Maestri and Egger prepared an attack on the summit. Fava settled in to wait. After three days, gusts of warm air melted the ice near the top of the mountain and set loose colossal avalanches. After three more days without any sign of his climbing partners, Fava assumed the worst. On the sixth day, to his shock and surprise, Fava discovered Maestri, sprawled and helpless in the snow, a thousand feet from Camp 3.
Maestri had an extraordinary story to tell. After three bivouacs above the Col of Conquest, he and Egger had reached the summit of the mountain that Terray deemed impossible. But on the descent, an avalanche had caught Egger in mid-rappel and swept both him and the climbing rope off the mountain. With a desperate effort, Maestri regained the fixed ropes below the Col of Conquest. But just above Camp 3, he lost his grasp and fell. When Fava found him, he was barely conscious. Fava helped his exhausted teammate stagger the rest of the way down to base camp. With Egger, Maestri claimed, had gone the men’s camera, carrying the only documentary proof of the men’s landmark ascent.
Back in Italy, Maestri recuperated fully and boasted about his amazing climb. At first, the climbing world accepted Maestri’s account and showered the exploit with accolades. Lionel Terray called the first ascent of Cerro Torre “the greatest climbing feat of all time.” But doubts soon emerged. How had Maestri and Egger climbed so skillfully, especially given the horrendous weather? The sheer steepness of the final stretch above the Col of Conquest made the wall look unclimbable, even by the finest mountaineers of the day.
Once a pioneer of clean solo climbing, Maestri turned after Cerro Torre to a new style—bolting everything he touched—that only served to undercut his claim. After a crack British team failed even to come close to making the second ascent of Cerro Torre in 1968, the doubters came clamoring.
Today, Maestri’s 1959 “ascent” of Cerro Torre is widely regarded as one of the most blatant hoaxes in mountaineering history.