Snapshots: Cerro Torre

Preface: I keep meaning to post, have ideas and drafts, but too often time escapes me. I don’t typically get attached to dates: my birthday, holidays, anniversaries of climbs, none of them matter much. I rang in the new year sipping a drink and reading a book. Exciting man I am. But today, for whatever reason, I noticed the date. Right now in 2007 Colin Haley and I were climbing Cerro Torre. I wrote the below for a digital publication called Explore. I called it “Snapshots,” which also happens to be the title of my last entry. Anyway, today seems as good as any to repost it here. 



First light fluttered from darkness, glowing on the horizon like baseline fires across the curve of the earth. We barely spoke. I racked the gear, checked my knot. Nearly a vertical mile of climbing towered overhead.

Deep breath.

It was my first trip to the storied Chaltén Massif of southern Patagonia, where spires jut into space like parallel rows of sharpened teeth. For decades, climbing legends have risen and fallen here with the ferocious winds. For sixty-five million years, these granite spires have reached toward the sky like temples of the gods.

Our trip had started like so many others: long on ambition, short on action. Cloudbanks of fury obscured the mountains and the wind so scoured the earth that on some days even approaching the glacier was unthinkable. We’d retreat to the forest and pass time with our friends.

Just before our flights home, the skies cleared. A perfect window.

It’s funny how time passes. Two days can go slowly, without recollection. Passing normally, placidly, mundane days like any other.

So often, I recall only fleeting moments. Sometimes, when standing in line at the bank or sipping coffee or driving to the store, the molecules in my brain that hold the memories of my mind flash before me, transporting me to a dreamlike world that I know is real. On Cerro Torre I remember my heartbeat pounding in my ears as we raced up thin ice that would disappear the very next day, melted by the fierce southern sun when we were higher on the route. I remember shivering away the night without sleeping bags in a snow cave three pitches below the top, drifting between sleep and hypothermia. Waking and climbing through rime-ice mushrooms, gargoyles, and house-sized sculptures jutting outward in gravity-defying forms like images pulled from a fantasyland. And, of course, tunnels. Tunnels? Yes, tunnels. Treasure-hunt tunnels carved by the wind, allowing passage through the impossible seeming mushrooms, until we sat on the summit under perfect skies, almost unbelievingly, knowing we’d been lucky.

Exactly two days after we left, we staggered back to our tent as silhouettes of giants towered overhead. Before crawling inside and collapsing into a dreamless sleep, I remember staring once more at the stars while the wind calmed to a whisper, as if the gods themselves were pausing between breaths.

cordes - IMG_8223 LR crop

Snapshots: Mt. Huntington

Scotty -- Kelly on Htngtn

While sifting through old images, moments captured in physical form that release memories in my mind, I came upon this, from Mt. Huntington in 2001. The photo belongs to my climbing partner Scott DeCapio, and shows me heading toward the upper slopes on the West Face Couloir route. We’d soloed the opening bits, and then Scott — the most efficient climber I’ve known — led the spectacular ice couloir in a long simulclimbing pitch. We swapped leads and I headed into the horrific flutings of the final thousand feet to the top. Conditions vary with alpine climbing, of course, and that upper section felt like vertical trenching through collapsing sugar. I remember trying to run the rope sideways across flutings (probably pointlessly), since we were tied together with no protection — I kept thinking that every bit of snow and ice just ahead would offer pro. It never did, but we never fell. Finally we gained the upper ridgecrest, and then Scotty led a shorter, final pitch through cornices to the top. The 4,000 vertical feet from our camp on the Tokositna to Huntington’s summit took nine hours, then another seven to get down. While no big deal by today’s mind-blowing standards, at the time it was the fastest ascent of the peak, and likely its first one-day ascent.

I remember standing on the summit, exhausted and absorbed in swirling emotions like terror and elation. We both knew that soon we’d have to descend terrain we’d climbed without anchors, but for the moment we stared in awe at the expanse of the Alaska Range, unfolding in every direction. Suddenly, Scotty broke our summit silence: “I want my mom so bad right now. I hate alpine climbing.”

We made it down, and our vows to quit alpine climbing didn’t last. Reflecting on our climb, and the curious prevalence of summit-less “ascents” of the peak, I wrote: “Now I understand why folks sometimes stop at, ahem, ‘the end of the difficulties’ on Huntington.”

Afterward, down on the glacier, a friend asked how we could safely climb Huntington in two and a half pitches? As I type this now, as I’m older and less bold, I better understand his incertitude. I also know now, as I knew then, that safety, while sometimes an illusion, can be inseparable from a reality-based belief in one’s self.

On one hand, we were reckless because we could have fallen to our deaths. On the other, recalling my thinking at the time, I knew that we did it right.

Perhaps both are true.

Inspirations: Alaska and beyond

A coincidence leads to today’s post, in that yesterday I corresponded with two people who’ve had a powerful influence on me. The first came as a surprise, when Jonathan Waterman, whom I don’t know and haven’t met, but whose writing I’ve long admired, posted the following on my Facebook page:

Just finished The Tower and found it riveting, beautifully written and incredibly researched. An instant classic. Congratulations.”

Some writers, like some climbers, like to claim that they don’t care what anybody else thinks. They do what they do exclusively for themselves. It’s a nice idea, but as an absolute I think it’s usually bullshit. Most of us care what other people think about us and what we do. For me, with the massive, draining, two-plus year effort with my book, praise feels good, especially from people I respect. I’ve received wonderful, surprise compliments from climbing writers I’ve looked up to but didn’t know, such as Dick Dorworth, Lito Tejada-Flores, Jon Krakauer, and David Roberts, all of whom I consider masters of the craft. Roberts reviewed my book in the new AAJ, which intimidated me – his razor-sharp mind and willingness to criticize are traits I admire, and he’s likely our greatest living American climbing writer. But when such a person critiques your work, well, it’s understandable that you might be a bit nervous. The AAJ just came out, and his review is perhaps the highest praise I could have imagined. Blew me away. OK, enough of that.

Soon after Waterman’s note, Jack Tackle and I emailed as he was in the airport, en route to India for an alpine climbing expedition. If you know his history (you can get a glimpse of Jack in this recent Enormocast episode), all he’s done and all he’s endured, you just have to shake your head at his resilience. But it’s more than resilience that makes Jack special to me.

So it dawned on me that awhile back I’d written about both of these guys and the things they’d written. The following originally appeared in January 2008 on, as part of a series they ran on literary influences. Given that I’ve been largely unmotivated to write original stories since my book, I thought I’d post my article here. Feel free to leave a comment about some of your influences – we’re all products of our environments, and I find it illuminating to learn about the influences of others.

Inspirations: High Alaska

High Alaska, the classic from Jonathan Waterman, started it all for me.

But different writings have influenced me in different ways at different times. For me, influence has come from photos, words and people. These have led me to places of inspiration. Photos are obvious: Hey, what’s that, and has this line been climbed? Bradford Washburn was, and still is, the greatest photographer. I can’t imagine that anyone else has influenced and inspired American alpinists the way he has. You always know a Washburn shot when you see one, and I saw plenty of them in High Alaska and the American Alpine Journal.

I can’t remember exactly when I first bought High Alaska, but it was within a month or two of when I first started to climb, the winter of 1993-4, in Missoula, Montana. In May of 1994 I went to Alaska for the first time, aiming for Denali’s West Buttress. I was so inept that the Butt was over my head. Still, it meant everything to me then, at least as much as anything I’ve done since. Even more, all the stories of obscure badass routes and real-deal climbers (unlike me at the time, for sure) inspired me beyond belief. All of my heroes put in their time there. I wanted to be like them.

I’d see something in High Alaska and crave more. More about a specific route. More offshoot conversations sparked by the words and photos. Soon I’d call Gray Thompson (FA of the American Direct on Denali back in 1967, along with a million other great climbs, and a Missoula local) and his wonderful wife, Eloise, to ask if I could come over for a half hour or so to look up something in the AAJ. They’re always generous, and they had all the Journals; their bookshelf was the epicenter of new beginnings for me. My “half hour or so” always became five or six hours, because I’d look at one thing and it would lead to another.

I’ve always loved all climbing periodicals (even those that supposedly make you cooler if you say you don’t like them, evoking the timeless “I’m a hardman” phrase: “aww, I never read them mags”). However, the AAJ was, and I’d like to think still is, in a category all its own. As an aside that I never could have imagined back then, Christian Beckwith, then AAJ editor and co-founder of Alpinist, hired me to be his editorial lackey back in 2000, and I’ve been with the Journal ever since [update: I stopped working there in 2012].

cordes - trailer park descent

Scott DeCapio descending from London Tower, in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge in 2000, after the first ascent of The Trailer Park, Ruth Gorge, Alaska.

Mark Twight, the undisputed king of rants, has influenced an entire generation or more of alpinists. I first read his story “Twitching with Twight” (in his Kiss or Kill collection) when I moved to Estes Park in 2000, and paid $65 each month to live in a shack. I’d just gotten divorced and struggled hard to get myself together. I had no “real” job, and The Shack was a dump, but it was cheap and two miles from Rocky Mountain National Park—even closer to Lumpy Ridge. Part of me feared I was rolling into a go nowhere, do nothing life, battling with myself over what I loved to do and what I wanted to be rather than following the generic recipe. I love this passage from “Twitching with Twight”:

“Give up this renaissance man, dilettante bullshit of doing a lot of different things (and none of them very well by real standards). Get to the guts of one thing; accept, without casuistry, the responsibility of making a choice. When you live honestly, you can not separate your mind from your body, or your thoughts from your actions.”

The article was over the top—that was the point of it, I think (Mark says so in his Author’s Note after the article)—but some parts hit me hard, with power. The other day, while climbing in the Park, a friend and I talked about this article. It still influences me, even with the little things—when I get self-conscious about my gray hairs and deepening wrinkles around my eyes, this line fires me up to always try my best: “Don’t worry about the gray. If you’re good at what you do, no one cares what you look like.”

One of the greatest articles I’ve ever read is Jack Tackle’s “The Accidental Mentor,” in the Voices from the Summit anthology. It’s an awesome story about an insanely desperate situation, camaraderie, trust, inspiration and the bond of good partnerships.

At one point in the story Jack writes of an evening in Talkeetna, when he finally met Bradford Washburn. Jack was nervous, as meeting one’s heroes can be dangerous: “My lessons with other ‘heroes’ stuck vividly in my mind. In their cases, the book was definitely better than the movie.” Not so when he met Brad, and they talked until 5 a.m. A few hours earlier, Jack, feeling bad about taking up Brad’s time, said he should let Brad get to bed. “I can always go to bed. I can’t always talk to you,” Brad replied. I’ll never forget that line.

Jack wrote of the impact Mugs Stump (from an earlier part of the story) and Brad Washburn had on him: “I am sure they had little or no idea of what influence they had on my life, especially at that time.”

I first met Jack in Missoula, where he gave a slideshow. I’d been climbing for only a year or so, and I watched in awe, taken not only by his accomplishments, but by his overall demeanor and humility. After the show, I wanted to talk to him, but I was afraid—after all, he’s Jack Tackle, and who am I? Finally I summoned the nerve. He made me feel so big, genuinely asking about my life and my climbing ambitions. Jack Tackle! These days Jack and I are good friends. He still inspires me.

When I first poured over the stories in High Alaska and the AAJ, it was just the climbing that made me want to be like those guys. Over time, perhaps I’ve matured a bit, and I feel like I’ve grown into my own person. But, at least when it comes to people like Jack Tackle, yeah, I still want to be like those guys.

All that Noise: A Summertime Rant from Estes Park

A party on the Upper Great Face, seen from atop the Lower Great Face at The Crags, Estes Park.

A climber on the Upper Great Face, seen from atop the Lower Great Face. The Crags, Estes Park.

Audibly, I suppose today in Estes Park was like any other here in summer, with blaring sirens, incessant noise pollution from everybody with a compensatory complex and a Kid Rock fantasy (giving double meaning to the term “hog”), and, of course, the town’s summertime mating call: car alarms. As climbers, however, we can usually get away from such obnoxiousness. At least some of it.

I love climbing for a lot of reasons, including the silence. There’s silence like the absence of human noise, replaced by the sounds of birds and the wind. It enhances another silence, an invaluable silence: the quiet in my head while climbing. The greater experience of climbing, of course, extends far beyond the physical. After all, I can do cool moves in a climbing gym, which I enjoy and do regularly, but getting outside, away from the road, is different. I tend to think that climbers who venture beyond the trailheads share these values. It often lends itself to an immediate connection, knowing you’re there for the same reasons. That very thing happened today, in fact, up high at The Crags. We’d done some climbing, saw another party across the way, enjoyed a friendly chat, then the afternoon storms came. They headed home while we waited out the rain, and then began hiking toward a sub-section called Wizard’s Gate. It has terrific climbing, and, with a 45-minute approach, a great vibe with glorious views. One of my favorite summer spots in Estes.

As we rounded the corner, we heard something different, another party. Orgasmic-sounding grunts from her. Loud “Yeah, fuck yeah!” repeating from him. My climbing partner and I exchanged puzzled, bizarre looks. Then they came into view: they were in the cave area, which probably magnified their sounds. No, they weren’t fucking. She was climbing. Trying hard (which is rad, of course – there’s my obligatory nice statement), with him completely unaware, it would seem, of his location or of even the slightest possibility that anybody but them might be trying to enjoy the day within, oh, like a couple of miles. Maybe Rifle was closed for the weekend, I don’t know. She kept going, kept trying. He kept bellowing. Like, top of his lungs bellowing, “Fuck yeah, you got his! Breathe, breathe, you own this, it’s all you,” “You’ve earned this, relax, yeah, get it back, FUCK YEAH!” and, my personal favorite from the day: “Stay positive, you’re here for the right reasons – to fucking crush this thing!”

Hey, I’m all for encouragement. But when you’re out there, just so you’re not the climbing version of the jackweeds on their obnoxious Harleys, I’ll offer some advice: Maybe think about fucking crushing the silence button. Just a little bit. Not meaning destroy the silence, no, definitely not that. I mean “crushing” in the annoying parlance of our (climber) times.

Anyway, so then, finally, we heard her first words: “Fuck. Let me down.” She was close, good effort. Maybe next time. A blissful silence followed as she lowered and they made out at the base (I’m not making this up), and once again I could hear the birds singing. Ahh, so nice. For a couple of seconds, anyway, until they were drowned out by douchebag Neanderthals in pirate costumes roaring through in the valley below, advertising their diminutive manhood to the world.

Who, I wonder, wants to be like that?

On days like this, autumn can’t come soon enough.

Captain Fun Pants and the Sketchy Kelly Cocktail

While looking for an excuse to introduce an ingenious drink recipe, I remembered these photos, which I had forgotten. Here goes.

Back in the fall, some friends and I went to Devil’s Tower for a couple of days. I wore my hot pants, the fun pants, the Wyoming You ain’t from around here, are ya, boy? pants.

scariot - kc on bloodguard (9 of 42)

Bloodguard. Craig Scariot photo

Or, to continue the movie theme, You think a route would get sent by a guy wearing these bad boys? Forget about it…. 

One day, CFS shot photos while I tried an amazing, 160-foot thin crack pitch called Bloodguard.

A hair away from the onsight, I blew it. In fairness to the route and despite my self-spray at my failure, I blew it right where it got hard. As I did, I let the rope sneak behind my leg. Bad move, it’s a mistake I sometimes make. Problem is, sometimes it just happens, like, you have your foot here and it’s fine, move it a couple inches this way and suddenly it’s not, and in the moment of the move you fuck up. I do, anyway, and from observing others I know I’m not alone. Most of us just don’t fall in that particular wrong moment. But I did.

Then, as the problem goes, you flip upside down, which can be dangerous. A few years ago I smashed open my head and face rock climbing, though that was a different form of a flip, the fall-out-of-a-heel-hook fall and flip. (Friends don’t let friends heel hook, someone told me later.) Merely a flesh wound, that one. And this one, on Bloodguard, produced no blood, no injuries.

Didn’t even smack my noggin, though this flipping potential is why I usually wear a helmet. Though I’m not one of those non-critical-thinking morons who seems to insist that always wearing a helmet will prevent every injury; that said, I suppose it’s usually a good idea. (Even in the gym?) So is top-roping. Then you eliminate the potential of flipping falling altogether. Maybe we should have gotten to the top and rappelled in to Bloodguard. Or aided up it on perfect gear for two hours, then set a TR. Next time.

Wait a sec. Hold on, what? Oh, OK, yeah, sorry. That was the voice inside my head telling me I got off on another tangent.

Anyway, I was fine, got back on and finished the route, and later saw pictures. Check out the zoomed-in evidence shot of where and how I fucked up. See? If not, have a couple of Sketchy Kellys and look again. See? Also notice the old boxing instincts – keep your chin tucked (but your eyes up) when someone’s swingin’ at ya.

Rad route, dipshit move, fun pants. Cool pictures by CFS, though the light wasn’t great. Later I saw some not-so-cool, wholly unholy pictures that those cretins you see below took with my camera while I was climbing. Friends like these, huh Gary?

That’s right, dude.

Anyway, enough of my senseless prattle. Here’s the goods:

The Sketchy Kelly

“What kind of guy names a drink after himself?” a friend fired at me.

“A guy like me, that’s who. I think I invented it.”

It’s hard to believe that there’s anything new to invent, especially when it comes to booze. Then again, they probably said that before climbing gyms and belay gloves. To be sure, I popped the ingredients into Google, gave it a page, didn’t see anything, and called it good.

As some might know, back in the Missoula days when I started climbing, I’d earned myself a nickname: Sketchy Kelly. As in, “Whatever you do, don’t climb with that Kelly guy, he’s sketchy.” And I was, no doubt. I had no clue about placing good pro, building anchors, safety systems, any of it. I just loved climbing and had far more ambition than skill or sense. Among some friends the nickname stuck, nowadays jokingly (I think…). Here’s an article about the Sketchy Kelly days that I wrote for Alpinist a few years back.

And if I may brag for a moment (why sure, go ahead), I’ll have you know that the Sketchy Kelly is well known to the hotel bartender at the Ventura Beach Marriott. (That’s where I stay for Patagonia meetings.) It’s a fine alternative to non-homemade margaritas. That’s the thing, you can’t trust any old marg, and I have standards. Gin & tonic? That’s hard to fuck up. The Sketchy Kelly is essentially a tasty variation to the G&T, and thus a good option when traveling, or just when lazy. It’s odd, I know, how I’m too picky to drink a marg with anything but fresh limes, but sometimes too lazy to squeeze them.

Without further ado (finally), I’d like to introduce you to my self-discovered, self-named drink. And if it already goes by a different name, dammit, I don’t want to know.

Sketchy Kelly proportions. In a plastic cup with ice combine:

1 part Limeade (1/2 oz) — can’t remember if that’s reconstituted a tad or purely frozen. Basically, it’s sugary lime juice.

1 part Cointreau (1/2 oz) — or a touch more. Like a healthy splash.

4 parts gin (2 oz)

Diet tonic to the top

Diet tonic?, you ask. What kind of man are you? Easy now. Remember, diet makes it taste stronger. Besides, we don’t want sketchy sodapop sugars messing up our upstanding drink.

Don’t fall while drinking it. But if you do, keep your chin tucked and keep fighting.

The Soft Passage of Time

I’ve gotten soft. I have proof. But let’s talk about the weather.

Yes, we’re spoiled here in Colorado, where we’re so accustomed to sunshine that after a couple of consecutive rainy days we grumble, “Might as well move to Seattle with this bullshit.” But now, seriously, for weeks the weather has been better in Seattle. Here in the ‘Rado (brah), it’s snowing, alternating with sleet, as I type this.

Which leads to my said sad softness, which isn’t exactly breaking news. It does, however, allow me to feel better about myself for my love of climbing indoors (on well-set gym routes, anyway) and going for walks (in the rain, lately). I laugh when I imagine the look of abject disgust on the face of my younger self at hearing those words. I remember going for a walk at Lumpy once about fifteen years ago, just to clear my head a bit. It was a rare occasion. On the trail, two of my buddies walked past after their day of climbing, and muttered only an awkward, “Hey Kelly.” They looked confused. When I saw them in the bar that evening, they asked what I was doing. Just going for a nice walk, I said. One of them paused, again looking puzzled. “But you don’t have a girlfriend.”

Anyway, ankle fusion rules, I highly recommend it. I walk for an hour or more on most days, marveling at the simple joy of walking without my bones grating together, and I’ve climbed some longer routes outside without pain. It’s amazing. Maybe I’ll post some photos and an ankle update soon. I’ve got a sweet drink recipe I’ve been meaning to post, though, and I’ll do that first. Tomorrow. Before I climb in the gym.

Maybe this aging-softness thing is all about a state of mind. About being OK with one’s self. It’s a show of growth, of acceptance, yes, passive acceptance as we circle the drain, life’s steady drubbing leaving us alone with no hopes, no dreams. Ahem. I mean, it’s OK if you’re that kind of person, anyway. (And apparently I am.) Pass the Doritos, namaste.

kc - glove IMG_2010 kc - gym IMG_2002

In the gym the other day, my friend commented on my glove. Yes, as further proof of said sad decline I use a belay glove. It’s nicer on the hands (see opening sentence). Ya know, don’t want to muss my manicure. When she smirked and said “nice glove,” naturally my mind went to Spinal Tap. You know, their album Smell the Glove, and What’s wrong with being sexy? SexIST! Yes, the shack days never die, and it’s true that we boys communicate primarily through movie lines. Then I looked down and thought about that ratty old glove.

I don’t get sentimental about clothing, like a special stinky Capilene worn on this or that climb or whatever. I had the experiences I had, and with this glove I’d ripped out the liner and cut off the fingers. But standing there in the gym I chuckled to myself as, for the first time, I thought about the experiences I’d had with this tattered piece of leather. My mind drifted. Breaking into the kitchen atop the Aiguille du Midi with Jonny Copp, before getting busted and being banished to the bathroom bivy; our terrible epic on the north face of Les Droites in winter; our new route, Going Monk (Zoolander fans take note), in Alaska; Jim Earl and I surviving hallucinations, a whipper off the summit, and Jim’s pulmonary edema, with a descent neither of us fully remember in our exhausted states, after putting up a new route in Peru.

These days I dream less about the mountains, though their pull and their enchantment never dies. Sometimes I think how I might like to grow old if I can remain active, can continue doing the things I love.

In the gym that day, it was only for a moment that I paused to stare at my gloved hand. But nostalgia moved through me, feelings of different times and places in my life, many with Jonny. The sweet sorrow of missing somebody rose and then drifted away, even as it stays with me always, and I put my friend on belay for more plastic pulling fun. As I did, for only a moment I thought that this ragged glove is still holding on, I guess, just like the rest of us.

Closer to Truth

Fifty-six years ago, February 3, 1959, went down in history as the day the music died. In the climbing world, this date carries significance as the day when Cesarino Fava allegedly found Cesare Maestri lying at the base of Cerro Torre, muttering Toni, Toni, Toni. We now know that the word “lying” in this context has multiple meanings.

Earlier today my friend Rolando Garibotti released a massive, new piece of the puzzle surrounding Toni Egger’s death. Nobody knows the Chaltén massif like Rolo, and his knowledge of the terrain is unmatched. To pinpoint this location is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Except, with Rolo’s intimate knowledge of the place, a place he loves and cares for, he could study that haystack for a bit, then basically go, “Oh! Yeah, that needle – here it is.” Truly amazing.

I’d hounded him to dig into this mysterious photo. I’d wondered if it might reveal something. Errol Morris has a book called Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, which I read while researching my book, and I was struck by his dogged pursuit of truth. In Garibotti, Morris has an equal.

Those versed in mountain terrain will notice the exact location match of both photos. What does this mean? It means that in 1959, after failing on the east/north aspect of Cerro Torre, Toni Egger and Cesare Maestri continued north, crossed the Standhardt Col, and investigated the western part of the Torres. Maestri never mentioned a word of this foray, a significant venture impossible to mistake or forget. It had to happen during the only unaccountable time of the expedition: the six and a half days when Maestri claims they climbed and descended Cerro Torre. We’ve long known Maestri’s claim to be false. We now also know that their camera was not lost, or at least not the roll of film. And that Cerro Torre is almost certainly not where Toni Egger lost his life.

Below, I’ve re-published the article and photos from Rolo’s website.

While Cesare Maestri was certainly a brave climber, he returned from Cerro Torre and lied to his dead partner’s family. This photo brings us one step closer to the truth that Maestri refuses to tell. The rest relies on the integrity of Cesare Maestri, Il Ragno delle Dolomiti, the famed Spider of the Dolomites. Relies on his ability to summon courage beyond climbing: The courage to finally tell the truth.


Completing the Puzzle

New facts about the claimed ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959

By Rolando Garibotti, with help from Kelly Cordes, 2/2/2015.

Over the past four decades, Cesare Maestri’s claimed ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959 with Toni Egger has been widely discredited (*). An abundance of evidence has shown that their high point was only a quarter of the way up, 300 meters, near the so-called “triangular snowfield.” What has remained a mystery is where Egger and Maestri (supported by Cesarino Fava) actually went during the six days that Maestri said their round trip required — seven including the final morning, when Fava supposedly found Maestri lying in the snow — and from which Toni Egger never returned.

Maestri was undoubtedly a phenomenal climber and an independent thinker, a vanguardist who deserves respect for his contributions. However, this should not preclude examination of his Cerro Torre claims. In doing so we are trying to establish the facts relating to the first ascent of one of the world’s best known mountains. In the past, some Italian circles have taken offense at the examination of the facts, unwilling to accept the misstep made by a figure they hold in such high regard. To this day the defense of Maestri’s Cerro Torre claim has been exclusively emotional. Nobody has ever mounted a fact-based defense, countering the contradictions, inconsistencies, and evidence piled against Maestri’s 1959 Cerro Torre story.

But proof of Egger and Maestri’s whereabouts during those six days was out in the open all along. The previous days of the expedition, with the team portering gear, making day trips to the lower east flanks of Cerro Torre and fixing ropes to the triangular snowfield, were all accounted for and corroborated by Fava’s journal, the journals of the three young college students who accompanied them on the expedition and by Maestri’s own accounts. In Maestri’s book Arrampicare e il Mio Mestiere (Milano, Garzati, 1961) a photo (on a non-numbered page, adjacent to page 64, effectively page 65) taken by Maestri shows the late Toni Egger climbing on what the caption claims are “the lower slabs of Cerro Torre’s wall.” Two years ago Ermanno Salvaterra and I had noticed the photo while working on a yet un-published book; Ermanno and I knew the terrain, and it was clear that the photo had not been taken on Cerro Torre. What remained unclear was the actual location. The photo had been cropped in such a way that very little of the background could be seen. About a year ago Kelly Cordes asked me to look into it again, and he recently insisted, so I put forth a more decisive effort. After many hours studying images of the entire valley, with the help of Dörte Pietron, we recognized a feature that matched the photo in question. Bingo!

Maestri’s photo of Toni Egger was in fact taken on the west face of Perfil de Indio, a small tower north of the Col Standhardt, between Agujas Standhardt and Aguja Bífida, on the west side of the massif, the opposite side that they claim to have been climbing on.

What is the significance? In Maestri’s many accounts of his 1958 and 1959 expeditions, never does he mention climbing on the west side of the massif. The six days when Maestri claims that he and Egger made their final push on Cerro Torre from the east are their only unaccountable days. What really happened during those days? This photograph provides another piece of evidence, and unequivocal proof of a place they went during their expedition that, curiously, Maestri never mentioned. Indeed it is nowhere near the location of his claimed ascent, and certainly no place one would unintentionally wander. Or forget. Perhaps in light of the massive difficulties faced from the east, the pair considered the west face of Cerro Torre, where Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri had found a line of weakness and made good progress a year earlier. From their east-side base camp, the only possible way to reach Cerro Torre’s west face would be to climb the slopes to the Col Standhardt, and then rappel west (decades later, this would become one of two most common approach routes to the west face). In Maestri’s photo, Egger is shown climbing below (west) and immediately north of the Col Standhardt, obviously returning to the east side of the massif. It is an impressive lesson in route finding. In the last decade parties trying to return to that same col from the west have needlessly battled with steep, hard climbing directly up to it. The line chosen by Egger and Maestri is far easier (III˚). From the Col Standhardt, the pair faced a return down the wind-loaded, avalanche-prone slopes that feed into the bottom of the Upper Torre Glacier – where Toni Egger’s remains were later found.

Toni Egger’s death remains a mystery. Based on this new information it seems possible that he suffered an accident descending from Col Standhardt. The one person who knows what really happened refuses to speak, leaving us to try to piece together the truth. The most troubling aspect of Maestri and Fava’s story is that they told inaccurate information to Egger’s family regarding his death. Toni’s sister is still alive. She still begrudges the fact that upon their return Maestri and Fava did not bring back any of Toni’s clothes, equipment or diaries (Toni was well known for writing detailed entries in his diary). She is in her late 80s, living alone in a small town near Lienz, Austria. It is long overdue for Maestri to provide her, and the world, with a truthful explanation of what happened during those six days in 1959.

Toni Egger’s last lesson to us is that of clever, ingenious route finding. Hopefully Cesare Maestri’s last lesson will be one of integrity, coming clean once and for all.

What the photo proves:

– that this photo, which Maestri used in his book, was not taken on Cerro Torre as he claims.

– that Egger and Maestri visited the west side of the massif, the opposite side to what Maestri claims, likely to attempt the west face of Cerro Torre (what other objective could have possibly made them want to head that way?).

– that, because no days were unaccounted for, undoubtedly they went there during the six days when Maestri claims they were climbing and descending the east and north face of Cerro Torre.

– that the camera was not lost as Maestri claimed.

* The first publicly expressed doubts were from Carlo Mauri, a renowned alpinist from Lecco, Italy. Later the case was picked-up by Ken Wilson, then editor ofMountain magazine. Much has been written about the many inconsistencies in Maestri and Fava’s accounts, and about what might or might not have actually happened. On top of Wilson’s excellent articles, some key publications include Tom Dauer’s book Cerro Torre: Mythos Patagonien, my article A Mountain Unveiled, first published in Dauer’s book, later reprinted and expanded in theAmerican Alpine Journal, Reinhold Messner’s book Torre Schrei aus Stein, and more recently Kelly Cordes’ book The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre. All who examined the facts have reached the same conclusion: Maestri’s account is but a tall tale.

Leo Dickinson, Colin Haley, Dörte Pietron and Ermanno Salvaterra also contributed to this article.

Rhythms of Grace

When I woke this morning, again I marveled at starting my day without impending dread of my foot touching the floor. Then I realized the date: February 1. Five years ago today I destroyed my ankle, had my lower leg flopping to the east. In an instant, everything changed. And then, about two months ago, when my talus and tibia were bolted together – my fifth ankle surgery – the pain (in my ankle; I’m still a bit of a wreck in other areas) lifted like a disappearing fog, a fog that had crept into my life and infused my every waking moment. I’ve always wanted to be strong, and I’ve tried to be tough. It was important when my sport was boxing, it’s important in climbing, and it’s important in life. But some things, some times, can be too much.

Tomorrow I’ll get an update from my surgeon after we take Xrays, and if all is as it should, I’ll continue my return to living the life I love. It’s a feeling that was slowly flickering and fading in the face of chronic pain, yet for the first time in years I’m optimistic, even eager. Though maybe a little bit afraid to feel too excited.

I’d meant to reply to all of the kind comments on my recent surgery post, but damn, time flies when you’re having fun. So, with complete sincerity: Thank you.

As I type this, I’m aware that a bunch of grown men are having fun doing similarly pointless things as we climbers do. They’re chasing around a funny shaped ball and knocking the hell out of one another. I’m not into it, go figure. But they love it, and most of the country does, too. I don’t follow most mainstream sports, and I mostly find TV to be a mind-numbing waste of time. Don’t get me wrong, I know all about wasting time. I just have far superior means of wasting mine. Ahem. Anyway, maybe the Super Bowl will go into extra innings – I’ve heard that’s never happened. As with any aspect of human performance, mainstream sports, despite their many problems, have moments that can lend us great inspiration.

One of the best broadcasters of mainstream sports is a man named Al Michaels. I mostly know that because I love audio, and I found the recent Fresh Air interview with Michaels tremendous on several levels. He’s probably best known for his call of the U.S. vs. Soviet 1980 Olympic gold medal ice hockey game, a call that, when replayed during the interview, still gave me chills. The interview gives insight to story, emotion, the value of silence amid crazy moments, and includes some priceless, laugh out loud Howard Cosell stories. The one that starts just before minute 22 is all-time. Hint: Cosell, with his cigar and his canary yellow blazer, hops out of his limo to intervene in an inner city street fight.

I’ve written before of my affinity for good audio stories and interviews – like Terry Gross’s interview with Maurice Sendak near the end of his life. I have to be ready whenever I return to pieces like that, as they leave me in tears. Two of my other favorites include her interview with Jay-Z and her interview with Trent Reznor.

Not since the Sendak interview, however, have I been so moved by audio as with Gross’s 2014 interview with Sam Baker. Baker was like so many of us who are reading this, a traveler and adventurer – including climbing – until one day in 1986 as he sat on a train in Peru, and a bomb set by the terrorist group the Shining Path exploded overhead. Seated beside Baker were a young boy and the boy’s parents. All three were killed, and Baker, too, was blown apart. Somehow he survived, but with severe, lasting damage. He became a musician, and his songs are stories, often like hymns with qualities both elegant and haunting. One critic aptly described his music as “Simultaneously beautiful and broken.”

Toward the end of the interview, before playing his song Pretty World, Baker spoke of his attempts to live a simple, structured life, even as he struggles with post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. He said, “In those days, once I was kind of getting through the worst parts of the surgeries, there were moments that were exquisitely beautiful. One of the things about seeing so much sorrow and so much suffering is that when there is an absence of suffering, sunlight off a rose is incredible.”

I’ve probably listened to Baker’s most recent album, Say Grace, more than a hundred times. It plays in my head daily, for which I’m grateful. I’m reminded of Terry Gross’s words toward the end of the interview. She’s interviewed hundreds of people, yet her tone carried original sincerity as she told him, “Sam Baker, I’m just so happy I know your music now. I found out about it pretty recently and I’m so glad it’s a part of what I know. It’s so good. Thank you so much.”

Guess I don’t have an overriding point to this post, or much more to say. I hope your team is playing well, and you’re inspired. I feel the same. I think I’ll listen to some music, read, and patiently, gratefully await tomorrow morning.


Perfect Storm Spurs Cottage Industries: A Dawn Wall Analysis

Who’d have ever predicted that a rock climb, no matter how amazing, would capture the world’s attention? Tommy and Kevin’s tenacity, along with the nearly unimaginable continuous difficulty of the Dawn Wall, blows my mind. But the general public? Well, regarding the mainstream, I’m just glad to see public appreciation of real climbers climbing hard technical terrain for a change, rather than the mind-numbing coverage of people getting dragged up mount-fucking-everest. But how did this happen? Who really knows. I suspect a confluence of factors came together, much like a perfect storm:

Roadside bigwall, allowing people to watch from below. Roadside bigwall, allowing easy access by filmers so we can watch from above. Best cell phone reception in the Valley, allowing the climbers to keep in touch with family, friends, and the outside world. Including updates on social media. Sponsors, proud of their athletes, publicizing their efforts. Tommy’s phenomenal personal story and legendary determination, applied to the hardest bigwall free climb in history, all mixed with the above, makes for a fucking great story.

Still, tons of great stories never catch hold. Most people, including Tommy and Kevin, do the massive majority of their activities away from the public eye. (And, to be clear, most of us aren’t doing anything near as interesting, or anywhere near as hard, as to warrant outside interest in the first place.) But climbing is growing, and media outlets are forever on the lookout for new and engaging stories. El Capitan just happens to be a spectacular, plainly visible icon of our national parks. The story hadn’t been isolated to the climbing media, either. Back in 2011, Alex Lowther, a terrific rock climber and writer,  wrote an article in the New York Times about Tommy, on-route social media, and the Dawn Wall. It bears repeating that El Cap is a roadside crag. A massive, impressive one, but nonetheless a roadside cliff (or, in mainstream verbiage, a sheer vertical cliff face with tiny nubbins to clench). And then, in winter 2014–15, as success appeared possible, a couple of places took further notice and ran stories. In the media, as with much of life, nobody wants to be left out. Like that, the tinder box of mainstream-ready combustibles exploded into a media blaze probably unseen in American rock climbing since Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) topped-out the same general hunk of granite back in 1970.

Pretty wild.

Almost as impressive is the way in which the Dawn Wall spurred a micro-economy, a thriving cottage industry, unseen in American climbing since the fabled Yosemite gold rush. Er, maybe not that big. For those who don’t know, in Yosemite’s high country in 1977 an airplane carrying tons of marijuana went down, and Valley dirtbags got high as kites and rich as kings (by climber standards, anyway). Likewise though less dramatic, the Dawn Wall media frenzy fed plenty of 2014–15 Valley dirtbags with $300-a-day gigs guiding reporters up the trail to the top, even better pay rigging for camera crews, and generally lesser pay writing stories.

I got in on the action when National Geographic asked me to write a piece on influential rock climbs. Nat Geo? Uhhh, OK. But damn, the article wasn’t so easy. Readers love lists, publishers love readers, and writers — at least those trying to earn a living — need to work with their publishers. Thus, I made a list. But how do you do such a list? My mind: Well, if this, then surely we have to include that, and then… etc, etc, etc, etc. Of course everybody will gladly tell you what you left out, what you should have included, and so forth. But try to do it. Go ahead, make the perfect list. The inarguable best. You’re allowed ten. No, OK, fifteen. Or, the way I did it, eleven. Photo availability, ideally photos from the FA, is crucial (remember, they’re paying you, this is work, not big talk from your internet podium). It’s due in like three days. You want your selections spaced at reasonable time intervals, you want to include different forms of the craft, and naturally you’re limited by your own knowledge, biases, and time to research. Not to mention the time to write. Remember, for each climb you include, you have to consider how it fits with the overall list. Hubble? Of course. Wait, that was 1990, and Action Directe was 1991. Turned out to be a bit like a puzzle. Anyway, here’s the link to my Nat Geo piece (by the way, I didn’t choose the title — my positioning for the piece comes in my first sentence). 

Anyway, I’ve saved the best for last. In a level of awkwardness somehow reminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s “The Chris Farley Show,” a clueless yet endearing ABC reporter interviewed Alex Honnlove. That’s right. Honnlove. Remember that game in high school where you invented your own pornstar name? Only, most of us don’t get ours broadcast on ABC. How would they even know? Imagine:

“Sir — sir, excuse me. Are you a climber? May we interview you? Great, great, thanks. OK, first, your name?”

“It’s Alex.”

“Last name?”

[slight pause as Alex realizes his opportunity for true glory]


Whether or not that’s how it happened, or if the ABC affiliate simply needs an editor, I don’t know. (NOTE: They’ve subsequently fixed the glitch, but I caught a screen shot.)


I do know, however, that if you’ve gotten this far then you’re clearly not short on time. For you, my friend, it is well worth watching the entire seven-minute interview, in all its awkward glory. Alex’s subtle grin as he’s like “Yeah, I know El Cap pretty well” reminds me of comedy skits where the actor is trying not to laugh. And from about 5:20–6:30, where Alex explains how he’d get Fitz (Tommy & Becca’s infant son) to the top of El Cap, is priceless. “The baby would be in the backpack.” “Put him in the backpack…I mean, he’s only a 25-pound baby.”

Unfortunately the video doesn’t want to embed here. I’ve tried and tried, and given up. So here’s the link to the ABC7 News San Francisco•Oakland•San Jose interview, which is well worth your time (since you’ve read this far) — if not, I owe you a marg.

Thus develops the ultimate cottage industry to emerge from the Dawn Wall: The Alex Honnlove School of Babysitting.

And as they say in the media circus: That’s a wrap.

Chapter One

From time to time here I’ll post book-related content, from material that didn’t make the final cut but that I still found interesting, to stories from my writing process, as well as short passages. For starters, here’s the opening chapter — which, I suppose, qualifies as a short passage. The second chapter is considerably longer, and rewinds time to the fierce competition among Italian alpinists and expats in the 1950s, and to days even earlier, back when time began in Patagonia.



The howling Patagonian wind calmed to a whisper. The afternoon sun beat down and I blinked hard against
 a haze of exhaustion, the kind of blink where a black screen seems to linger behind your eyelids and you wonder how much time you lost.

I stared past thousands of feet of golden granite disappearing beneath me. A vertical mile below flowed the Torre Glacier, bending, cracked, cracking — growing and shrinking with the years. At its terminus, only
 a short way down valley, it calves into Laguna Torre and flows into rivers feeding forests and rolling pampas.

Scattered estancias dot a landscape where not long ago pumas and wild horses roamed. A giant condor soared overhead, riding the thermals. Sheep grazed on the barren grasslands that extend eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.

Cordes - P1010043 LRA hundred feet above, enormous structures of overhanging, aerated ice, vestiges of Patagonia’s brutal storms, held guard over Cerro Torre’s summit. They loomed like multi-ton sculptures pulled from a land of fairy tales, like whipped cream frozen in place, jutting wildly outward in gravity-defying, wind-forged blobs. On the opposite side of the mountain Cerro Torre faces the Hielo Continental, an Antarctic-like world comprising massive sheets of flat glacial ice that spill into the Pacific Ocean.

Just before sunrise, thirty-some hours earlier, we had started climbing. We raced up ephemeral ice beneath a sérac, then weaved through gargoyles of rime. We fell short of the summit as the sun set and the wind roared, and we shivered away the night in a snow cave in the starlit blackness of Cerro Torre’s upper crest. Come morning we struggled over the summit, and then started down the other side. Both of us carried only ten-pound backpacks, but we also carried fantasies, a dose of self-delusion, and a shred of hope. Without those, we’d have never left the ground.

I blinked again, and my gaze returned across the landscape, from the distant pampas to the beech forests surrounding Laguna Torre, to the golden granite falling away beneath my feet. And then to the rusting engine block on which I stood. The only stance on Cerro Torre’s headwall. A 150-pound, gas-powered air compressor, a goddamned jackhammer lashed to the flanks of the most beautiful mountain on earth. Above and below ran an endless string of climbing bolts — ancient two-inch pegs of metal drilled into the rock and spaced to be used like ladders — courtesy of the compressor and a man possessed, that for four decades allowed passage up this impossible tower.

The wind remained at a whisper. Exhaustion pulsed through my bones and I stared into a clear, cobalt sky, and knew that we’d been lucky. Calm around Cerro Torre never lasts.