Old Patagonia: A photo tells a story

I’m awestruck by the stories of Old Patagonia. You can read them in the AAJ and other climbing periodicals, maybe hear some ‘round campfires, and you can find others in books – one of my favorites is Enduring Patagonia, by Gregory Crouch. I encountered scores of these stories during my Patagonia research; my selected bibliography contains 256 references (many more informed my thinking), and I conducted in-person interviews in seven different countries.

Yet sometimes you’re taken by something as simple as a hastily-snapped photo. This, for me, is one such picture:

Foto archive©Silvo Karo_Fitz Roy_Devil's Dihedral_ 1983(LR)

Photo © Silvo Karo

The photo belongs to the great Slovenian climber Silvo Karo, and he’s allowed me to post it here. On the left is Francek Knez, on the right is Stane Klemenc. The year was 1983, and they’re establishing a difficult and dangerous new route on Fitz Roy, which they called Hudičeva Zajeda (Devil’s Dihedral).

Take a moment. Study the hardware, the wool mittens, the fur-lined parkas. The atrocious conditions. The expression on Knez’s face, and the snow-filled helmet that he isn’t bothering to wear. Think, 1983 – no sat phone, no helicopters, no rescue crew. The town of El Chaltén didn’t even exist at the time. Much less weather forecasts. Which, as you can deduct from my last post, New Patagonia, is why they’re stuck climbing in a storm.

It isn’t that bad weather no longer happens in Patagonia – it does, and several deaths in recent seasons were related to exposure after things went wrong on a route. Rather, if all goes right, you now have the means to avoid the storms. Rolando Garibotti, the undisputed climbing expert of the area, told me, “Before, any day with any clouds was not a climbable day. We would all wait for the splitter weather, at least to start up on climbs. These days any day with lower winds is a climbable day, even if there are clouds and humidity in the air.”

One of the most astounding outings from the 2014–15 season points to how top climbers can thread the needle like never before. Here’s Rolo, discussing Colin Haley and Alex Honnold’s initial attempt at a one-day ascent of the Torre Traverse (they succeeded in 2016): “On day one it rained until 5 a.m., they started climbing anyways, knowing it would improve, they got to near the summit of Cerro Torre by 3 a.m., in 22 hrs, but the weather shut them down. Wind that was supposed to arrive at noon arrived early. This was a 20-hour window. Before forecasts, you would not have even done the approach.”

But to the historically bad weather: Has it improved in recent years?

Seems like it. But while anecdotes and uncontrolled observations suggest longer weather windows since the mid-2000s, I’m hesitant to jump to conclusions. Stories can be invaluable in shaping our understanding of different times, people, belief, and a number of things I dealt with in my book. But with this, stories aren’t enough. I want evidence.

Consider, for instance, that within the last decade exponentially more climbers have visited the Chaltén Massif, many staying the entire season. They rely on an infrastructure in town that did not previously exist, and are ready to strike at even the narrowest weather windows – even climbing in cloudy weather, so long as the winds are low and the clouds aren’t storm clouds. And then, with the advent of social media, any alpine activity today is infinitely more visible to the outside world. All of these things influence our perceptions.

Furthermore, despite our suspicions of better weather likewise arriving in the last decade, it’s important to remember that it surely isn’t black and white. Meaning, if the weather has improved, it probably didn’t jump from Old Patagonia to Palm Beach.

We shouldn’t mistake anecdotes for objective truth. Even if such assumptions prove correct from time to time, as a rule it’s a lazy way to think, one laden with traps. You don’t want to drift toward the mouthbreathers who dismiss the expert consensus on global warming because it got cold that one weekend last June. Even if it did fuck up your NASCAR lawn party.

The problem with Patagonian weather is that, far as any of us know, we don’t have good comparative data. Rolando Garibotti might be getting close, though. Rolo has some data summaries from 1977–2002 for Punta Arenas, the nearest longstanding weather station south of El Chaltén. The two places likely receive similar weather. And he rounded up some raw data from 2002–14, though they might not be comparable and we don’t know how to process it. Any weather experts out there?

Anyway, I’m getting a little off track. That photo of Silvo Karo’s, and Old vs. New Patagonia.

During my research, one evening at Silvo’s house in Slovenia our conversation drifted into an entire era. That era included the pinnacle years of Slovenian alpinism, of which Silvo was an integral player. Soon I barely spoke, just listening, completely rapt, as if I had a seat beside Moses as he recounted stories from the days of the tablets.

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Here’s the part about Patagonia, an expanded excerpt from Chapter 24:

Silvo Karo has climbed in both Old and New Patagonia. He endured vicious days while establishing difficult and dangerous new routes on the east face of Fitz Roy in 1983, the east face of Cerro Torre in 1986, and the south face of Cerro Torre in 1988; all three routes are unrepeated. By the time of his January 2005 trip, Internet weather forecasts had just arrived. He and fellow Slovene Andrej Grmovšek started at the base of a connecting formation three thousand feet of technical climbing below Cerro Torre and raced up to the Compressor Route, which they took to the summit. It was as if they were in a playground. Their linkup became known as the Slovene Sit-Start, a half-joking reference to the world of bouldering, where the emphasis is on pure difficulty on small rocks, and climbers often start seated in the dirt and pull onto the first holds.

cordes - silvo IMG_6710(crop)One night at Karo’s place in Osp, Slovenia, fall 2012, we were talking after dinner and a day of cragging. I asked about the old days in Patagonia. Karo’s hulking shoulders were slouched over his plate and wine glass, and then he leaned back to talk. He’s built like a linebacker but climbs with ballerina grace. He recounted the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Slovenian alpinists—this tiny country, then a part of Yugoslavia—set standards in commitment and difficulty that have yet to be eclipsed. Karo was a core part of the crew. It came at a cost; a staggering proportion of his friends and partners died in the mountains.

He said, “I think the thing that has changed a lot in Patagonia, the weather forecast, no? In 2005 was the first weather forecast, or one year earlier. I remember at that time, we were all down—it was so nice, the weather forecast, uff. You could just go and climb. Before? Nobody know.

“I remember, Jay Smith. He was also in Patagonia a couple of times [Smith established several new routes in Patagonia, including the first ascent of Cerro Standhardt in 1988], and one time he decide, OK, now I will start to write the details. All that change in the sky, I will just mark it. And maybe for one month he write the details: wiiiiindy from this side…clouds come from this side today, and tomorrow it is like this weather and then barometric pressure, he follow pressure and everything. But finally he didn’t find any signs to tell him, ‘OK, this-means-that-weather-will-be-good.’ Zero. And he decide, no, not possible. Not possible. Even local people living in town don’t know. But then, satellite and all these things…very precise, and then in advance they tell you.

“I remember last time in Patagonia, they have a weather forecast that will be: tomorrow start period of good weather for three days. And man, it’s just perfect. You just go to the wall at night, no problem, you sleep well, no shaking all the time with the weather, ooooooooh, it start snoooowing.” For a second his eyes drifted, like he was back on a tiny bivy ledge thousands of feet up when a storm arrived. Then he gently returned and smiled. “It’s tooootally different, no? Now to climb big climb in Patagonia it’s much, much, much more easier. And you don’t need to take anything just in case for protection, extra things, extra food. You know that next three days the weather will be good, and you will do it.”

I suggested that maybe something has been lost.

“Other things is gained, of course. You need to go with the time,” he said with a lighthearted laugh.

I agreed, while thinking of how everything changes and the future builds on the past. I mentioned that we still can appreciate the stories of old.

He nodded his head and started to speak. Then he paused, stared into an invisible distance, and didn’t say a word.

New Patagonia: The Winds of Change

By now we know well that everything changes. And still, after the mind-blowing ascents of recent Patagonia climbing seasons, I feel like we’re witnessing something special, almost like seeing leaps into the future in present tense. Perhaps I’m overstating things. Time will tell.

When researching for my book, and reflecting on history through the lens of today, I was frequently struck by the futility of predicting the future. Here is one example, from an editor’s note in the 1959 AAJ after they received word of the supposed Egger-Maestri climb:

1959 AAJ (bigger)

Armed with today’s perspective, I shouldn’t be surprised at the phenomenal recent ascents. I am, however, awed. Regardless, and with full respect to the current rate of progression and the next-level skills of today’s top climbers, I think it’s fair to say that the single biggest change in the history of Patagonian climbing occurred far from the mountains, circa 2005.

Below is an article I’ve been meaning to post for some time. It’s similar to a piece I originally wrote for the 2014 Alpine Journal (U.K.), and is mostly a stitched-together excerpt of my chapters 17 (New Patagonia) and 24 (Demystification of a Massif). It’s about that massive change I just mentioned – the delineation between Old Patagonia and New Patagonia, and the story of how it happened.

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cordes - P1000913 newpatagpost

New Patagonia: The Winds of Change

Imagine yourself weary and worn, camped in the woods of Patagonia, just back from an attempt where a sucker-window of weather had slammed shut as you were three thousand feet up your climb. It was as if the fury of the gods had suddenly descended upon you, but somehow you’d survived. Your body went numb, the wind slammed you into the wall, and you couldn’t hear your partner yelling at you from three feet away. Every second of every hour for the next twelve was laced with a primal fear. Then, you staggered back to camp and crashed out, deep into a dreamless sleep. You hadn’t slept in thirty-some hours and as the storm raged, you hoped for only one thing: that it would continue, so you wouldn’t even have to think about going back out there. But in the middle of the night you had to piss. You’d rolled over and mumbled, unzipped the tent door, and staggered outside. Through bleary eyes your gaze strayed to the gaps between the lenga trees, and you’d seen stars shining bright. Fuck.

In 1975, following one of his many Patagonian expeditions, Ben Campbell-Kelly wrote: “An expedition should be prepared to be spending a minimum of three months in the mountains, particularly if they have chosen a difficult objective.”

crouch - poles on CR GC025 LR

A Polish team racing the wind and incoming storm high on the Compressor Route in 1996 (Gregory Crouch photo).

In 1995 on Infinito Sud, an incredibly difficult new route up the center of Cerro Torre’s south face, Italians Ermanno Salvaterra, Roberto Manni, and Piergiorgio Vidi hauled a 200kg aluminum box for shelter as they went, to wait-out storms. Salvaterra, Cerro Torre’s all-time greatest climber, had been worried that regular portaledges would be destroyed by the wind.

In his 2000 book, The Big Walls, Reinhold Messner wrote: “The big problem on Cerro Torre is the storms. Every big face there should really be measured twice.”

But that was then. Old Patagonia. Before the arrival of the single biggest change in the history of Patagonian climbing, which wasn’t the bridge over the Río Fitz Roy, or the airport in El Calafate, or the paved roads, or even the evolution of modern climbing gear.

This change affected every element of Patagonian alpinism, even – or perhaps most of all – the attention paid to the area’s most infamous and bizarre route: The Compressor Route, on Cerro Torre. Over the course of two trips in 1970 (often misreported as 1971), Italian climber Cesare Maestri used a gasoline-powered air compressor to jackhammer some four hundred bolts, most of them spaced to be used as ladders, into the mountain’s southeast ridge. Maestri placed many of his bolts beside perfectly usable cracks, while elsewhere he launched up blank stone, seemingly determined to avoid natural features.

Though Maestri returned home to terrific fanfare, the greater climbing world was less impressed. Most climbers considered his tactics an affront to the spirit of alpinism and to long-held notions of fair play.

But in the ensuing decades, something curious happened: The Compressor Route became the most popular route on Cerro Torre.

Few climbers even attempted other routes on the mountain. Until the mid-2000s the Ragni Route, the next most popular route and Cerro Torre’s line of first ascent, was summited only four times.

Even as more climbers came and tried, multiple years would pass, often consecutively, without Cerro Torre seeing a single ascent. Each summit-less season, each nightmarish attempt that ended in a hellacious storm, and each rare success further embedded the Compressor Route as part of Cerro Torre’s lore. For many climbers, the moral affront of Maestri’s prolific bolt ladders became easier to overlook.

Tales of terror were omnipresent. Since storms race in from the west, if you were high on the Compressor Route, you wouldn’t know you were in trouble until it was too late. Eyelids froze shut. The wind would send ropes sailing horizontally into space before shifting and launching them back into the wall like wild, slithering snakes, twisting them irretrievably around flakes and forcing climbers to cut their ropes and make ever shorter rappels with what remained. Climbers would stagger down to the safety of the forest looking like battle-worn soldiers, their eyes fixed in thousand-yard stares.

In 1980 Kiwi climber Bill Denz made thirteen attempts to solo the route. He endured a seven-day bivouac trapped on a tiny ledge a thousand feet below the top on one attempt. Another time, his best attempt, Denz retreated only two hundred feet below the summit.

Each previous suitor validated the next, particularly when many were renowned figures – starting with Jim Bridwell’s 1979 true first ascent of the route (Maestri, it was later learned, retreated from below the top in 1970), which effectively bestowed the blessing of climbing royalty.

salvaterra - mauro 4 tiro 3 (LR)

Mauro Giovanazzi attempting a new route on the east face of Cerro Torre in 2001 (Ermanno Salvaterra photo).

As testament to Cerro Torre’s inherent difficulty, aside from the four complete ascents of the Ragni Route, until 2005 every other climb to the summit depended upon using the bolts of the Compressor Route to get there. The three routes on the south face descended upon intersecting the southeast ridge, while the two routes on the east face finished to the summit via the Compressor Route.

By the time a nearly two-week-long stretch of clear skies hit the Chaltén Massif in late November and December 2008, the number of Compressor Route ascents had grown too many to count, but stood at well over one hundred.

That late 2008 weather window, however, was different. Not only because of its duration, but because everybody knew it was coming.

In his Chaltén Massif summary in the American Alpine Journal, Rolando Garibotti wrote: “The big news was that the Ragni di Lecco Route on the west face of Cerro Torre had six ascents (nineteen climbers), more than all previous ascents of the route combined. In contrast, the season saw only one ascent of the Compressor Route. It is as if overnight everyone stopped climbing Everest with oxygen, fixed rope, and Sherpa support. While Maestri’s hundreds of bolts remain in place, the climbing community appears to have finally given them a cold shoulder. The list of non-Compressor Route ascents of Cerro Torre has now grown to fourteen.”

Weather balloons had probably been going up around Patagonia long before anyone made forecasts, Jim Woodmencey told me. He’s a climber, skier, and former Grand Teton National Park ranger who owns a forecasting company called MountainWeather. He says each country has weather service stations, and they launch balloons that gather data at various points in the atmosphere. There are other ways to gather data as well, like surface observation stations, ocean buoys, and satellite photos of clouds at different elevations and time intervals, which indicate things like wind speed and atmospheric moisture concentration. Even though data is comparatively sparse in less-populated places like Patagonia, virtually nothing stands between the storms brewing in the Pacific Ocean and the Chaltén Massif. Thus, unlike many prominent alpine destinations, the data collected allows for incredibly precise forecasts.

Data alone means nothing, though. It’s computer models that actually analyze the data and make predictions – forecasts – and they’ve improved tremendously over the years. Data transformed into a forecast answers the key question: Is it climbing weather, or not?

In the 2004–05 season, German climber Thomas Hüber decided to see if his weather guru, Karl Gabl, could provide forecasts from afar. Forecasts for the Chaltén Massif were unprecedented. “We had no idea if it would work for Patagonia,” Thomas told me. “But it worked, so everybody was looking at me to see if I’d go or stay, because the climbers thought I knew via Innsbruck the secret about the weather. I had a great first season. Not only for Patagonia but everywhere, weather reports changed a lot in alpinism.”

As Gabl’s forecasts have shown over time, accurate mountain forecasts require specific knowledge. Even if you could teach yourself how to do it, you’d need the ability to access the information, which requires functional Internet access.

The Internet didn’t come to El Chaltén until 2003. Even then, it was scarce, and it barely worked. The first locutorio (Internet cafe) arrived in 2004; climbers would come to check the weather on NOAA, but they’d struggle because the connection was so bad.

Local resident Adriana Estol recalls, “I came here in 2006 and it was almost impossible to have Internet at the house, but some houses were lucky.” One of the lucky houses belonged to Bean Bowers.

Bowers, a tough-as-nails alpinist and full-on lifestyle climber from the U.S., was always the do-it-yourself sort. For several consecutive years, he’d lived the entire season in El Chaltén, and he’d scraped together enough money to buy a small house there. In 2011, at age thirty-eight, Bean died of cancer, but several of his friends remember how he figured out the weather. He guided in the Tetons in the summers, where, one season, Climbing Ranger Ron Johnson showed him how to read weather models. Bowers then took a course from Woodmencey on mountain weather forecasting.

Doug Chabot, an accomplished alpinist and avalanche forecaster, also helped out. “I gave Bean the weather basics on forecasting in 2004 since he was keen to learn. In fact, during his first trip there [to El Chaltén], he would call me to check on a few weather models. I was avalanche forecasting; I’m used to looking at weather models every day.” He added, “Most importantly, I had a real job and was reachable by phone.”

Climber Josh Wharton remembers well the first season of forecasts, as he and the late Jonny Copp were climbing together in the massif. Many climbers expressed gratitude to Hüber for sharing his forecasts that season, and soon the gratitude would shift to Bowers. “Bean was reading the navy maps a friend had showed him, but he was still pretty new to it, so it wasn’t always that spot-on. Thomas Hüber was using a satellite phone to call his Austrian meteorologist, and between the two I remember growing increasingly confident throughout the trip. In fact, when Jonny and I started down Poincenot [the final tower in their fifty-two-hour linkup of Agujas Saint-Exupéry, Rafael, and Poincenot], the wind came up harshly right on queue, almost to the hour Thomas’s guy had predicted three days earlier. It was an ‘ah-ha!’ moment!”

cordes - weather forecast

As he was learning, Bowers kept his dirtbag forecasting knowledge close to his chest, mostly sharing it with friends. In 2006 he taught it to Rolando Garibotti, and soon climbers were knocking on their doors asking for forecasts and how-to instructions. After all, knowing the weather in Patagonia was like having a golden ticket – and it was especially good because it was free.

Climbers literally lined up at Garibotti’s house wanting to learn, so he typed up a how-to email (now he has a weather forecasting section on his pataclimb.com website). Before long, everyone could get a spot forecast for the massif. Just follow the steps, punch in the data on the right websites – the location coordinates for Cerro Torre, by the way, are -49.3° and -73.1° – and you get frighteningly accurate projections for precipitation, temperature, and, most importantly, wind speed.

It was as if the walls shrunk.

5.0.2cordes - el chalten IMG_7970(LR)

 

 

 

 

Left: El Chaltén in January 1986, less than one year old, with the red roof of the town’s only building faintly visible (Sebastián Letemendia photo). Right: El Chaltén, January 2013 (KC).

Within a few years of that 2004–05 season, the forecasts had become so accurate that climbers could confidently leave behind most of the storm gear they used to carry, making for lighter loads and faster climbing. Around the same time, interest in the Compressor Route rapidly subsided. Maybe it took the clarity of blue skies to bring to the fore what most climbers objectively knew: The Compressor Route was so compromised that it was hard to consider it a valid climbing route. Detractors of the route had long argued that having the entirety of difficult climbing covered in bolt ladders removed too much of climbing’s innate natural challenge. When doing it in perfect weather, they were right.

Yet it’s an interesting interaction, because weather and conditions are integral to alpine climbing. Climbing the Compressor Route in Old Patagonia meant something different than getting up it in New Patagonia. Remove the crippling fear of being caught in one of those legendary storms, and the change in Patagonian climbing is impossible to overstate.

Nowadays in El Chaltén (nobody camps in the woods anymore), between bouldering sessions climbers can be heard saying things like, “Yeah, looks like sixes and eights tomorrow, then dropping to twos on Wednesday.” They are talking knots of wind speed at the lower, forecast elevation, which translates into nay or yay for climbing at the higher mountain elevations.

In early 2007, I remember staring over Bean Bowers’s shoulder as he pulled up the weather map on his computer: The mother of all high-pressure systems was coming our way. The skies were clearing from there to Australia for four days, and so Colin Haley and I headed for Cerro Torre, where we completed an oft-attempted link up of François Marsigny and Andy Parkin’s 1994 route Los Tiempos Perdidos to the summit via the Ragni Route. Despite the exposure to the ice cap, and the harrowing story of Marsigny and Parkin’s epic retreat from high on the route, Colin and I climbed with ten-pound backpacks. Our only concern was whether or not we could climb the route; we didn’t worry about storms (someday a forecast will be deadly wrong and trap climbers like us). While it was one of the best climbs of my life, I also realize that we were playing an entirely different game than the climbers of Old Patagonia.

I was again struck by the difference, the evolution, when I visited El Chaltén in 2013. A friend had been monitoring the forecasts from the U.S. and saw a window coming. He took advantage of today’s increased accessibility, hopped a plane and a few days later climbed the Ragni Route. Around the same time, a pair of strong young Slovenians arrived, dropped their bags at their hostel – the forecast was perfect – and, without sleep, ran up the trail to Fitz Roy and established a hard new route. Afterward, in town over dinner and at the bars, while storm clouds thundered through the peaks, in comfort we all swapped stories of our ascents.

Practically overnight, climbers could avoid the most horrifying and brutal component of Patagonia climbing while resting and bouldering in the shadow of the mountains, ready to strike when the weather clears.

The place would never be the same.

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. 

KC_Homepage_draft

Snapshots

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 alpinist.com, 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.

From Pataclimb.com:

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.

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