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.

20 thoughts on “Cerro Torre, David Lama and Red Bullshit

  1. BRAVO!
    Sometimes I wish people were forced to eat/consume the products they market, this way they would see how crappy they are and maybe… maybe… they’d do better next time.
    It’s sad, but if this continues the Argentinean gov. or the parks entity is going to start charging a fee to climb in Patagonia.
    I know a lot of good climbers that would take that money and go clean every peak and every tail after people like RB leave.
    It’s so sad…

  2. Kelly,
    Nice piece. I love your writing as always. I was off in my mind thinking of mountains and the questions you pose. I felt a large thud around me when I got to end and was hit with a rather large font Google Ad selling climbing chalk from REI. Oh… the irony.
    Thanks for all you do my friend.
    Onward, JoJo

  3. Nice work champ. Once upon a time a climber was an environmentalist first and foremost. Not anymore. It’s one thing to fuck-up, know you fucked-up, and dance around trying to mitigate the magnitude of the fuck-up (like BP); but it’s entirely another thing to not think you’ve fucked-up at all (goldman sachs) making it completely obvious your moral compass is broken. Hopefully Lama gets his fixed. (and thanks for the cd)


  4. Thanks Kelly for telling this story. Patagonia is getting it from all sides these days – Coal mine on the island my grandparents homesteaded, hydro dams on the largest, most beautiful rivers… There are some amazing people out there fighting hard to keep it pristine. Thanks for being one of them.


  5. nice article… if it’s legal it doesn’t make it right… i like it.

    you said we must care of what we love, you’re very right… i get really angry when someone comes and break 1 single hold on 1 of the boulders i opened.

    i like those rocks like my dearest friends.

    and i prefer the climbers that want to climb on them, to know how much value they have.

    that’s why i kind of closed the area, and the climbers must claim about all broken holds, and when they go climbing

  6. Fan-fucking-tastic piece on the Red Bullshit Cerro Torre debacle.

    Makes me want to put some bolts and a fixed line or two on those little cars I see zipping around…

  7. It’s great to hear your standpoint on this and I hope increased pressure on Red Bull will make them clean up their act. Reminds me of the Mark Twight quote “every time a french telepherique operator shook their finger at the size of my pack I wanted to punch him, and his smart-alec countryman that bolted the american direct on the dru and got sponsors for the project”

  8. Nicely said Kelly, you hit the bolt drill on the head. Unfortunately this incident is probably just the beginning of more problems. I wonder why there is such a distain for aid climbing when sport climbing also requires gear for upward progress. At least aid can go clean. It will take a paradiagm shift to change this destructive path.

  9. I absolutely agree with everything about RB and Lama being total d-bags. But what I find uncomfortable is the attitude of trying to keep climbing an elitist or niche sport undertone. There is so much hostility towards beginners or novice climbers. It seems like your not welcome to climb if you don’t live in a cabin in the woods somewhere. Its a lot like surfing and “locals only” spots that are all over Hawaii. Theres enough room for everyone to surf, everyone just needs to be a little bit less filled with hate. Just like there is enough room for everyone to climb, people need to learn to be more tolerant. Its not when lots of people come that it becomes and issue, its when corporations get a hold of those people and that area that it becomes and issue.

    • thanks Andrew — agree fully, too, on any hostility or lame attitudes toward beginners/novices. completely unjustifiable. but what does that have to do with the article above? maybe you were just making a separate point (yeah, that shit drives me nuts, too — everyone started somewhere). hopefully if you’ve observed that attitude, it’s just a few insecure douchebags who should be ignored.

      if you were trying to say that cerro torre should be made accessible to everybody at any level (in which case, surely you can’t stop with climbers, you have to include grandma and grandpa, and put a tram up it), then i couldn’t disagree more. showing respect for a place and dissing beginners are surely separate issues. one should be done and the other should not, i say.


    • Hey Chris, thanks for the link. I think I recall reading it back at the time, and having similar thoughts then as to now: some fair-enough points made on various aspects of a fairly complex topic. Lots to think about, really, and honestly I’m not sure that it matters. For example, I don’t think it matters whether or not climbing “matters” to the greater public or world. Hell, what really does? I mean, what, 99%+ (?) of us do most of our daily things, our jobs, etc, that don’t really matter. Most of us are just trying to get by and enjoy our lives, hopefully without trashing the place for others (to tie-in to the subject you posted under here, for example…). I agree with Cormac McCarthy (my favorite author) and others that we’re all fucking ourselves and we’ll wipe ourselves out or make our planet unlivable soon, consuming ourselves, probably not in our lifetime but not terribly far off. I know, what an optimist I am…but I also think we should try to do our best, maybe go down fighting, and not just say “fuck it” and throw our garbage out the window. I also don’t care a whole ton for the topic of whether or not climbing matters in the greater sense; I know it matters to me personally because I derive value from it, as do others. To the greater world? Esoteric point that could lead to endless circular arguments.

      Brings up interesting thoughts, though. For example, one that came to me upon reading that: I think it’s wildly hypocritical and cowardly when the armchair pundits chime-in after every accident, spouting about how the climbers were stupid, etc etc — I’m like, “Oh really, so following along like everyone else does in society, like cattle, dead-eyed in a cubicle, which is what so many folks do, that’s not stupid? That helps something? Yes, congratulate yourselves for never leaving the couch in the first place. Nicely done.” But, then again, one could argue that on K2 we’re seeing an Everestification, and in the latter, at least, ill-prepared folks get in their cattle lines, have guides put-on their crampons for them, jug lines they can’t put-up, and take a fast-food-nation approach to it all. I’m not a fan of that mentality, to say the least. Is it happening on K2 and elsewhere? I’m not super informed on it, to be honest, maybe because I don’t really care much for that sort of climbing and big siege-style mountaineering, etc, but I get the feeling that perhaps it’s encroaching a bit. As people learn that totally inept clients can get dragged up the Big E, maybe it loses some sex appeal, and now K2 becomes the one to brag about back at the office or whatever. Just a hypothesis; I might be wrong, but, cynical as I can get, there might be some truth to it.

      I don’t know, lots of interesting issues and tangents come up for me when reading that piece.

  10. AWESOME! Thanks so much for eloquently explaining why this is such a travesty. I assume that you are aware that Llama is now going for round #2 via rap bolting?

  11. Thanks for putting this into words so well.
    Who are Lama’s other climbing-related sponsors? I heard sportiva for one. They should also feel some pressure on this. Chances of suits at red bull having any conscience about this are slim.
    Lama- grow a sack, punk.

  12. I have been reading about this story from several sources, and I am still amazed that they are doing such stupid things nowadays! for what? some advertisement or movie? how stupid can human beings be when money comes to scene 😦

    At least one who likes this energy drinks can choose other brands, and boycott this RedBull stuff….

    Love and respect for the mountains!!!

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