Even members of the French team that first ascended Fitz Roy in 1952 thought that summitting Cerro Torre was an impossible task. The altitude wasn’t the problem – at 3102m, it wouldn’t reach even halfway up some Andean peaks – neither was the type of rock it was made out of – crystalline igneous diorite is perfect for climbing. Rather, it was the shape and the formidable weather: a terrifying spire dropping sheer for almost 2km into glacial ice, battered by winds of up to 200kph and temperatures so extreme that ice more than 20cm thick can form on rock faces. Not only that, but the peculiar glaciers – “mushrooms” of ice – which build up on the mountain’s summit often shear off, depositing huge blocks of ice onto climbers below.

Maestri, egger and ferrari

The Italian alpinist Cesare Maestri became the first to make a serious attempt on the summit. In 1959, he and Austrian climber Toni Egger worked their way up the northern edge. Caught in a storm, Egger was swept off the face and killed by an avalanche. Maestri somehow made it to the bottom, and announced that he had conquered the summit with Egger. The world, however, demanded proof, something Maestri could not furnish – the camera, he claimed, lay entombed with Egger.

Angered by the doubters, Maestri vowed to return. This he did, in 1970, and it was clear he meant business. Among his equipment was a 150kg compressor for drilling bolts into the rock. Torre couldn’t resist in the face of such a determined onslaught, and Maestri’s expedition reached the summit, making very sure that photos were snapped on top. A stake had been driven through Torre’s Gothic heart.

Or had it? The climbing world was riven by dispute. Were Maestri’s tactics in keeping with the aesthetic code of climbing or had the use of a machine invalidated his efforts? Did this represent a true ascent? On top of this, Maestri’s photos revealed that although he had reached the top of the rock, he had not climbed the ice mushroom – the icing that topped the cake.

Enter Casimiro Ferrari, another Italian climber. Using guile where Maestri had favoured strong-arm tactics, Ferrari sneaked up on the beast from behind, from the Hielo Continental Sur. In the space of two days, Ferrari achieved his goal, and, elatedly, his team brought down photos of them atop the summit, ice mushroom and all.

Toni Egger’s body was recovered in 1975, but no camera was found with him (he is now commemorated in the name of a jagged peak alongside Cerro Torre and a simple chapel in El Chaltén). But despite the controversy at the time, the bolts drilled by Maestri were used for many years, forming the most common route to the summit.

A bittersweet irony

Nevertheless, this irony was a bittersweet triumph for Maestri, who feels he has been cursed. In the 1990s, he reputedly voiced his hatred for the mountain, claiming he wanted it razed to the ground. History has added its own weight to that of the doubters. The mountain has been scaled by routes of tremendous technical difficulty by modern climbers with modern equipment, culminating in the Slovenians Silvo Karo and Janez Jeglic’s ascent of the south wall in 1988. It wasn’t until 2005 that a team of climbers managed to climb the route that Maestri claimed he and Egger took in 1959.

The controversy reignited in January 2012 when two climbers – American Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk – unilaterally decided to remove many of Maestri’s bolts. On their return to El Chaltén, amid much local anger, they were briefly detained by the police, who confiscated the bolts. The reaction in the mountaineering community worldwide has been mixed: while some have praised their actions as returning the mountain to its natural state, many others have accused them of destroying a piece of climbing history.

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