Cerro Torre, David Lama and Red Bullshit

Are the days gone where anybody mans-the-fuck-up and apologizes? I’m talking a real apology, not one of these politician apologies (I’m sorry if anyone misconstrued my construed intent…). Does anyone anymore just say, “I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I messed up, I won’t do it again, and here, please, let me try to fix it.”

The magnificent Cerro Torre. The Compressor Route roughly takes the spine along the upper half of the spire (starting off to the right), visible in the center of the photo.

Another Cerro Torre controversy. What is it about that spire? If fantasies build any peak, they make Cerro Torre. It is beautiful, hostile, otherworldly. Were it not for its bolt-ladder Compressor Route, with its sordid history, it would surely be the most difficult spire in the world. It attracts not only the obsessed, but also the crazies. And now, the commerce-hungry corporate-funded junkshow. Sure, in many ways it already has been commercialized, as photos, film and stories from Cerro Torre have inspired so many of us. But where to draw the line? How badly does its incomprehensible beauty and inhospitable nature clash with our hubris? Especially when someone’s willing to trash it to make a commercial.

In a nutshell, 19 year-old rock climbing phenom (mostly sport and competition climbing) David Lama, from Austria, and heavily sponsored by Red Bull energy drink, wanted to free the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre. Red Bull hugely pimped it up, complete with big talk from Lama, like:

“Back in the days of old school mountaineering only conquering the peak was important – not so much how this goal was reached.”

“Cesare Maestri, who made the first ascent in 1970, left an entire highway of bolts and pitons in the mountain’s south-east face, which has nothing to do with today’s climbing ethics.”

“Daniel and myself will be carrying all of our stuff into the park and out again. Transport flights are forbidden, but it’s not in our interest to leave any traces anyway.”

OK, whatever. Lama and team (film crew with guides, etc) got pretty much nowhere in their three-month expedition. But what they blatantly omitted reporting was that they fixed 700 meters of rope and abandoned them. Subsequent people had to clean what they could of the mess. They also added 60 bolts (they claim less, like 30, but that hardly matters) to the already most overbolted route in the world. Since the route went up 40 years ago, it’s been climbed likely more than a hundred times, attempted far more, and all without the addition of another bolt – until these clowns showed up. Basically, they built a ton of hype, brought in their movie crew, trashed the place, and left.

Back on May 6, on Red Bull’s Lama-hype page entitled “A Snowball’s Chance in Hell,” about Lama’s plans, I posted a comment. At the time, there were only three other comments, all fanboy type stuff. I asked some questions about their mess, as I’d heard of it from rock-solid sources, and I also emailed Red Bull. On June 10 I got a reply, a canned response that they sent to others:

From: Red Bull <consumer.information@us.redbull.com>

Date: June 10, 2010 12:35:05 PM MDT

To: “kellyaaj@gmail.com” <kellyaaj@gmail.com>

Subject: David Lama’s free climb

Hi Kelly,

The Red Bull Media House is producing a film featuring David Lama’s attempt to free climb the compressor route on Cerro Torre. Due to bad weather, the production had to be stopped and is currently on hold waiting for the next Patagonian summer.

Red Bull takes the protection of nature and the safety of human lives very seriously and has a long history in producing high quality productions in extreme circumstances and exposed areas. The entire shoulder and wall has been cleaned of our — and older — material which was found. Only one haul bag and 30 bolts, which had do be used due to falling ice and to protect the main climbing route, has been left. Every step of the whole endeavor was planned and executed in close accordance with the local administration of  Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. After completion of the project, everything will be removed.

Have a soaring day,


Red Bull

Word got out, and scores of outraged comments appeared on Red Bull’s site (it’s now up to 83 comments, almost all condemning Red Bull and Lama, many harshly so, and many from Argentina – though Red Bull has also deleted many comments). Argentine climbers started a Facebook page, “RED BULL, CLEAN UP THE MESS LEFT BY DAVID LAMA IN PATAGONIA!” that has 362 members and growing.

Lama posted a similarly lame comment as Red Bull’s email reply (above), clearly showing that he doesn’t get it. He and Red Bull miss the point completely – it’s not just about the park’s rules. Lama and Red Bull sound like they should be working for British Petroleum. Of course some extra metal on the world’s most beautiful spire isn’t as damaging as the BP oil spill disaster, but we should care about the things we love. Otherwise, if we play the “it’s not as important as…” game, why not just throw your garbage out the window?

For what it’s worth – not much, I’m sure – I replied to Red Bull:

From: “Kelly Cordes (AAJ)” <kellyaaj@gmail.com>

Date: June 22, 2010 10:35:00 PM MDT

To: Red Bull <consumer.information@us.redbull.com>

Subject: Re: David Lama’s free climb

Hi Emily,

Thank you for the email, but you sound like you should be working for BP. Just because it may have been “legal” doesn’t make it right — that’s the disappointing thing here, is that Red Bull is so woefully out of touch with the climbing world that you/RB simply don’t get it. Lama, while obviously a phenomenal climber in his specific genre, clearly doesn’t get it either. Imagine if someone went to the Alps and trashed one of the most iconic routes there? It would be legal, sure, but it wouldn’t be right. And you all did this for one reason — commerce. How lame.

Others have come before you and produced terrific media in Patagonia, and specifically on Cerro Torre, without trashing the place. Dozens, if not hundreds, of climbers have bailed off Cerro Torre in far more extreme circumstances and exposed areas than your RB team encountered.

I, and all climbers, sincerely hope you do remove everything, as you say you will. But based on the team’s utter failure to clean up after themselves last time — and after what, three months? — I think you’ve got a lot to prove.

How can you not see that you (RB) screwed up? Seriously? Instead of the BP tactics, perhaps you should consider actually apologizing to the climbing world — a real apology, not a B.S. “I’m sorry if the climbing world misconstrued our Cerro Torre soaring day intentions…”, and not only cleaning up, but doing something extra for the area and local conservation efforts. Maybe help with some trail building or one of the other projects going on down there. I’m sure that your marketing department could even figure out a way to gain publicity from it. It’s not required, of course, but it would be the right thing to do. Something to think about.

Best wishes,


Kelly Cordes

Senior Editor

American Alpine Journal


Colin Haley descending the Compressor Route after climbing Cerro Torre via another route.

At least Maestri was an obsessed maniac, wrong but deeply passionate. For those who don’t know, in 1970–71, Cesare Maestri fixed thousands of feet of ropes and placed some 450 bolts, solo, while hauling up a gas-powered compressor, in his attempt to “conquer” Cerro Torre. He littered bolts near perfectly good cracks and used them deliberately to avoid natural features via extensive bolt ladders. His assault was largely the impetus behind Messner’s classic diatribe The Murder of the Impossible. For a fascinating, impeccably researched article on Maestri and Cerro Torre, check out Rolando Garibotti’s article from the AAJ 2004, A Mountain Unveiled (free download here). But Red Bull and Lama? What’s their excuse? They trashed the place to help sell their fucking energy drink.

And they can’t even apologize – really apologize, not a politician’s apology – and do something to right their wrong? Maybe they will. I hear they’re working on it. We’ll see – the expedition happened last winter and now it’s late June – just how many meetings with their spin doctors does it take to come out and say “We screwed up, and we’ll fix it”? It’s both Red Bull and Lama’s mess – they’d both reap the rewards if they’d have succeeded, and they need to take responsibility for their mess.

Thing is, commerce and marketing can exist in the mountains. Fine, insert puking sound here, but I’m not going to give it a blanket condemnation because, as with most things, it exists on a spectrum. So, what’s commerce? Taking a camera? What if you don’t sell any of your photos, though? OK, but what if you had hoped to sell some, but your photos just sucked? Did you write an article? (Sellout!) Did you tell anyone? Commerce and marketing can be, often are, extensions of storytelling. I love good storytelling. It doesn’t have to be a rape-and-pillage Red Bull junkshow. My friend Rolo Garibotti, unquestionably the single greatest authority and historian on Patagonia climbing, and unquestionably one of Patagonia’s greatest climbers (and he’s still in his prime…), reminded me of some examples that show stark contrast to the Red Bull fiasco, such as Werner Herzog and crew making a film on the Compressor Route without adding bolts; the phenomenal imagery of professional photographer and climber Thomas Ulrich from his climb of the route, and also of the West Face; and, as Rolo wrote: “In 1985 Fulvio Mariani made one of the best climbing movies of all time when he filmed Cumbre, documenting Marco Pedrini’s solo ascent of Cerro Torre. They did so fixing three ropes, and nothing more, without placing a single piece of fixed pro. Obviously, as Lama and his entourage prove, there has been a big regression since then.”

In the end, the unfortunate reality is that this probably won’t hurt Red Bull or Lama, and they’ll learn no lessons, they’ll go straight back to their bullshit, and they’ll keep selling their adrenalized cough syrup not to the climbers that they use for marketing and whom they disrespect by actions like this, but to frat boys and hipster douchebags slamming it with vodka. Ahhh yes, guys, have a soaring day.


Back in 2000, Christian Beckwith, then-editor of the AAJ, commissioned an interesting article, Commercialization and Modern Climbing, with three authors (Will Gadd, Steve House, and the great Russian alpinist Pavel Shabalin) expressing their views.

Shabalin’s piece, appropriately titled Barbie in the Mountains, had one of my all-time favorite passages:

“Alpinism was exceptional and sacred because it was closed to the masses. And now it finds itself in the same historical situation as is love. When love was poetry, it was exceptional and sacred. When mass media put love in TV and magazines, it became pornography.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course, as sharing gives us inspiration. Art inspires. Mountains, nature, poetry. Respect. I suppose we all draw our own lines between love and pornography. And for Red Bull and David Lama, at least in the case of Cerro Torre, it seems clear where they drew theirs.

Media Review: My First Baby (’n stuff)

This rambling post has practically nothing to do with climbing. It’s about babies, raising babies, and the whole idea of web media. Huh? Yeah, stuff that I know nearly nothing about, but that hasn’t stopped me before.

Hard to believe, but we have some talent in my family – my sister, Jill is a TV host. And she’s now asking me to pimp out her new show, My First Baby, on my blog (despite my blog not exactly being her core demographic). She isn’t as old, nor as washed up, as me, and has had a couple of shows that apparently did well (I didn’t have a TV, so couldn’t watch), like “The Best Of” on the Food Network, and “My First Place” on HGTV. She was even on Oprah one time – no shit. Go figure. It seems clear who among us got the looks and the personality. But that’s OK, I like living alone in a shack and relishing my shocking lack of social skills.

Her new show might not be for everyone reading this blog (all four of you), but it probably applies to most people at some point – hell, even cockroaches have kids, and most of us will someday spawn. In most ways it’s way more important than climbing. In other ways, no way, dude, like, I’m working on this project – it’s sick, dude, SICK! – and it’s soooo radgnar, like, you grab this one hold with your left hand and then you go like this and then… The individuality of it all – one of the cool things about life and passion, no?

Scotty (L) and me back in base camp after Huntington, booze running low, but heading out -- just for the Hallibut.

Scotty (L) and me back in base camp after Huntington, booze running low, but heading out -- just for the Halibut.

I did have my chance at television, once. And, of course, I blew it. After mine and Scotty’s 2001 trip, where we got a bunch of good climbing in on Thunder Mountain and Mt. Huntington, I came out of the range starving and thirsty – we’d run out of booze. It just so happened that Jill had a Best Of shoot in Talkeetna, and after my annoying, “C’mon, let me come. I’m good on camera. C’mon. I’m your brother. C’mon, I’m hungry,” she relented and I got invited on the shoot as “talent.” Who’d have thought? We flew onto a glacier with a gourmet cook, the film crew, my dad, me, and my sis. Only I couldn’t help but crack jokes that seemed funny to me. As we ate fresh grilled Halibut, Jill’s going on with her TV thing:

“And! [insert perky face here] this is just delicious fish! What do you think, dad?”

My dad: “Mmmm, absolutely delicious!”

“Kel?” [Jill turns perky face to me, I quit gazing at possible lines in the nearby mountains and snap-to]:

“Oh. Uh. Yeah! Sure is great! In fact, I’d eat this just for the HELL-i-but!”

Get it? Hellibut? Like Halibut? Get it? OK, not so funny. But I thought so.

“CUT!” yells the director.

“Kelly, you’re ruining the shoot!”

“But I’d eat this just for the Hellibut, Jill, I swear!”

Later, Jill and dad are talking, I’m back to my best behavior, I sip my champagne and lean back in my chair – ever lean back in a chair in soft snow? Ya can’t lean back too far, because the back end digs in and you tip over.


Jill was pissed. It was an honest accident, but I was fucking up the shoot. At least the camera guys thought it was funny.

After dusting off the snow, I’m back at it, feeling a little bad now and so I’m hitting the champagne hard. Jill and dad resume talking, cameras rolling, super sweet table set up on the glacier, good stuff. I’m out of champagne, though, and notice that Jill still has some and she won’t notice; she’s talking to dad. So I subtly (need to be subtle; the cameras are rolling, after all) reach over and take hers. The director: CUT!

Off-set and looking good. My sis dealing with a flat tire. Just for the halibut.

OK, so I don’t have a career in TV. But TV is dying in its current form anyway, says I, the guy with no channels and no clue (ever since the heartless bastards turned off my cable a couple of years back, I’ve shunned TV, aside from watching Ultimate Fighting at friends’ houses – I’m so far behind that I’m ahead of the curve…). Everything will be on the interwebs soon. It’s all ball bearings these days.

This is a good thing, as it spares my sister the indignation of selling gadgets on late-night infomercials as she gets older and more washed-up, and spares me the embarrassment of having a deadbeat sister.

It’s cool to see how media is shifting. The openness of it all does, of course, lead to the endless drivel spawned on youtube and climbing forums worldwide, and if I am forced to ever again click a video of watching paint dry some shirtless dillweed slapping an arete on a three-foot-tall boulder problem over, and over, and freakin’ over, to a thumping techno soundtrack blended with his retarded screams, I think I’ll….well, I guess I just won’t click it again. The talented, on the other hand, figure out cool ways to make it work. Storytelling is part of our DNA. Witness things like:

Vertical Carnival (the one about Yuji Hirayama is my favorite – fully worth checking out)

BD’s site (full of great gear testing info and updates from their athletes; fancy site sometimes slow and clunky though)

Dirtbag Diaries (podcasts – great storytelling, you create the visuals yourself, which I love – engaging)

Tin Shed (watch the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc one, soooo awesome and inspiring)

The Season (really cool show that followed a handful of athletes through their season)

The Cleanest Line (Patagonia’s award-winning company blog, not just sport-centered, thus especially rad, though stay tuned for some cool additions coming soon…)

And, of course, My First Baby. Short episodes with all kinds of pointers and shared stories for, and about, first-time parents. Something I know nothing about, but, still, a pretty bitchen idea. Granted, my sister is paying me in tequila to say that, so do with the info what you want. It’s certainly no less entertaining than watching some Neanderthal slap a stupid piece of rock while screaming…


Yes, another autobiographical post. I know, it’s all about me. But this is a blog, after all, so what did you expect?

Friends are coming back from Alaska, some are still up there, we’re about to send the AAJ to print (and I’ll resume writing more, especially since I’ve got some cool projects upcoming — more soon), it’s that time of year that makes me think of big alpine trips, makes me long for them. Something about the whole experience, the travel, the high mountain air, otherworldly exposure and the greatest friendships. Thinking back to the 15 or so such trips I’ve done around the world, those things stand out. Summits don’t. As I type this and scan my memory, I can recall some of the climbing, and I’m happy to have been to some amazing summits, but, holy shit, it’s about so much more.

At least it is to me. Not everybody gets it, though. Including this guy. [Story written after my 2003 Alaska trip with Jonny Copp.]


He glanced at the mountaineering display, then started stabbing questions at the ranger on duty. How many summit? How many die? How many try? He’d seen Vertical Limit.

Jonny Copp, skiing out of the East Fork the day after our route, "Going Monk."

I could hear him careen around the ranger’s station as I sat peacefully in a chair looking through topos. From the corner of my eye I saw him scan the room herky-jerky style. He had no time to waste in Talkeetna, Alaska, population 300 and hot stop on the summer tour bus tour. I felt his eyes zero in on me. I buried my head farther into the topos, but those heavy breaths were soon bearing down on me like a steam train.

I must not look intimidating enough.

He stood way too close to my chair, catching his wind. No introduction, nothing but those two words, question mark-slash-exclamation point. His cheeks flushed so red they looked as if they could explode; his gut pushed so hard on his shirt I feared it might burst through and crush me.

“You summit?” he blurted between breaths.

Goddamnit, three weeks in my happy place and now this….What he meant, of course, was had I summited “Mt. McKinley,” obviously the only mountain in the Alaska Range. Jonny and I had summitted, via a new route on a peak we’d never even heard of in the East Fork; we’d skied in 10 miles, climbed 4,300 vertical feet of technical climbing, tagged the top in a whiteout storm that lasted through the descent, I plunged into a crevasse when skiing away afterward, returned to our tent cold and soaked and trembling in fear, when Jonny handed me a PBR that he’d packed in and hidden in the snow for our return. But none of this was what the guy wanted to hear.

He panted as though he’d just run a marathon. He needed my reply now.

I thought for a second about what to say, then looked up.

“Nope,” I said.

His head lurched backward a bit, and the corner of his mouth dipped in synchronicity with his brow. He’d been rooked: he’d come all this way to see a real climber, and this was all he got.

“Pthhhh,” he snorted and waddled away.

The Adventures of ShredDawg

By now we all know that my truest talent is goofing off. They say you should do what you do best, and along those lines a friend keeps urging me to return the Bossman (Boss McGillicutty, for those who might remember…as soon as I can figure out the technology, I’ll post the article), but as a Mexican version. Like Nacho Libre meets The Boss? But I just can’t do it. Besides, the Boss was my life’s pinnacle work-wise, and I’m all for quitting while I’m ahead. That’s my positivity coming through – trying to top a good effort only sets one’s self up for failure. Best to not even try. No Bosso Libre.

Good times in Patagonia with Ben Gilmore, Freddie Wilkinson, Colin Haley (not a NE'er), and Peter Kamitses.

I love busting the balls of my New Hampshire friends, especially Freddie Wilkinson. The guy is a classic, one of those timeless characters who grace the climbing world, and a great writer and great climber to boot. I’ve got a bunch of friends back there – Ben Gilmore and Kevin Mahoney, for example, both terrific people and such hard men that I bow down, Wayne’s World style, “I’m not worthy.” Jim Shimberg rules, Bayard and the young crew keep getting’ after it big-time, and the list goes on — the place has such strong tradition.

And the full-time NH guys are sooooo proud of it, even their shitty three-season weather: rain season, mud season, and black fly season. Oh yeah, and winter. It’s ball-freezing cold one week, then pissing rain the next. I still crack-up thinking of a time there, during Ice Fest, with my good friend Jack Tackle, when Jack stepped off the sidewalk on our way to dinner, crossing the street, and plunged mid-calf into a puddle of icewater. In the interest of decency, I cannot even attempt to replicate the litany of foulness that exploded from his mouth. But it started with “GodFuckingDamnit! This fucking place, how the FUCK does anyone live in this fucking piece-of-shit motherfu…” you get the point.

But, as Freddie is sure to note…it makes for fantastic ice and mixed climbing. And here, despite my love of bantering about the ‘Rado (just because it’s so damned obnoxious – “DudeBrah, I’m just out here putting the rad in Colorado…”), I admit that, indeed, New England has a disproportionate number of hardmen and hardwomen, and IMO the North Conway area is one of the country’s great climbing epicenters. Especially impressive when you consider that they don’t have shit for vertical relief. Instead, they have bad weather, bold routes, and a great community that breeds talented and tough-as-nails climbers. They’re a bit like the Brits. Badass.

One thing that cracks me up even more than that weird-assed accent those guys have, though, is every New Englander’s love affair for the Black Dike and John Bouchard (Jaaaahwwwwn Bouwchaaaawwwd, gweatest cwimber who evewr lived!). No doubt the guy was super badass.

“Yeah, I think that route could go with a couple of bolts,” says the visiting climber.

“Hey Maaawwwrty! This guy sez he’s gownna put some bowlts in! Must be fwom Cowowado!” says NH climber #1.

“Hey, I mean, this ain’t Cowowado, you gowtta CWIMB up hewe. There ain’t bowlts evewy thwee feet. And don’t forwget Mt. Washington – worst weather evewr wecorwded on earth!” his partner adds.

“Uh, OK, I guess maybe I’ll just go climb the Black Dike or whatever,” visitor says. [Note: yes, I’ve climbed it, excellent route, sure, but c’mon, it’s not that great. Ohdeargod, what have I just said…]

“Oh yeah? Goowd luck, Cowowado boy. Der ain’t no bowlts on da Dike! Evewr heawr of a little someone called….Jaaahhhwn Bouwchaaawwd?”

“Gweatest climber who evewr lived. Bwack Dike, solo, first ascent, 1923, naked, no tools or nuthin’. He muthafuckin’ LEVITATED up that cwimb, Mawwrty!”

With all that in mind, and for those still tuning in to my senseless and good-natured babble (please don’t flog me to death with your Supergaiters), it leads to the below. 

What makes a good troll? I dunno, I guess it has to be somewhat believable, enough for the gullible to bite. Talking not only content, but details. It must contain the requisite spelling errors and bad grammar. The appropriate level of douchebagginess in tone and cutesy/stupid/offensive phrases. Emoticons help. It’s more art than science.

But I don’t think it should be mean-spirited. Fine line, for sure. I don’t think it’s fair pick on the downtrodden, or do that bullshit second-guessing that every brave soul does after every climbing death or accident. I suppose I’ve most enjoyed luring-in the self-serious. Or just having fun. Right, anyway, yeah, so that’s like a trolling code of honor.

Here, I come clean – I was the illustrious ShredDawg, posting on NEIce.com a couple of years back about his desire to ski (shred) the Black Dike:

“Hey Bros! I got this idea to do a qwest where I climb up and then shred the raddest unskied lines that are also climbs…I’ve honed my skills out there in the ‘Rado and I guess you could say I shred the gnar, but I don’t like to brag. I’m just in it for the fun and for the kids.”

Something like 80 replies (can’t remember, the thread is no longer active). Some “bit,” for sure, and even got genuinely pissed at da Dawg. Screen shot below (click to enlarge), of the original post. Alas, I was gimped-up and now it’s too late – mud season, I believe – my ski descent of the Dike must wait (nevermind that I’m a terrible skier). But it was one of my better works, and my last troll. I’m far too busy – and mature – for such foolishness these days. Besides, it’s good to go out on top.