Closer to Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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


Completing the Puzzle

New facts about the claimed ascent of Cerro Torre in 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the photo proves:

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

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

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

– that the camera was not lost as Maestri claimed.

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

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

Rhythms of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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