Friday, June 4, 2010

Cerro Torre and Red Bolt - The Controversy Continues

In November of 2009, 19 year-old Dave Lama of Austria went to Patagonia's Cerro Torre to free climb it's famous and infamous Compressor Route (VI, 5.10, A2). Lama went with a large team from Europe that included a film crew and a group of guides. And the entire expedition was bankrolled by the climber's primary sponsor, Red Bull.

Due to weather and conditions, the team was unable to complete the ascent. But they were able to install sixty new bolts on the established route and to leave behind nearly 2,300 feet of fixed line. Needless to say, this was not a popular thing to do.

The Compressor Route is already an extremely controversial line. Indeed, it is arguably the most controversial bolted route in the world.

In 1970, Cesare Maestri climbed the route to prove that he could get to the top of the mountain. An earlier ascent made on a different line was seriously disputed in the climbing community. Maestri proved that he could get to the top of the mountain, but he did it with a "by-any-means-necessary" attitude. He and his team hauled an air compressor up the spire's southeast ridge and it was with this that they installed over 450 bolts. The air compressor remains frozen to the side of the mountain to this day.

It was Maestri's 1970 ascent that lead to serious debate in the climbing community about the use of bolts. In response to the ascent, high altitude climber Reinhold Messner wrote a famous essay entitled The Murder of the Impossible. In the essay, Messner laments the fact that modern climbers "carry their courage in a rucksack" and are all too willing to employ the easiest and least challenging solution to alpine problems.

The debate about Maestri's bolts on Cerro Torre never really cooled off. Though the route is heavily climbed, arguments for and against the route still rage in the climbing community. It was these arguments that lead to a series of attempts to climb the route bolt-free.

In 2007, Josh Wharton and Zack Smith got the closest to a near boltless ascent of the line. They avoided clipping bolts until the last four pitches where the weather forced them to either commit to the bolts or to descend. They chose to commit to the bolts, but felt that it was still reasonable to do the route without them.

The 2007 ascent turned cold opinions on the route into hot rhetoric. Not surprisingly, the debate may have become so heated in Patagonia at that time that there are rumors of fist fights over it.

It is also not surprising that Dave Lama's attempted ascent of the line in November hit the climbing community with such a sour taste. The question that must be asked is how could anyone who knows the history of the route condone the placement of new bolts? How could they leave thousands of feet of fixed line? How could they hold their head up after such a high profile debacle.

Extreme climber and filmmaker Will Gadd responded to the incident in a blog post by saying essentially that it was a 19 year-old looking for fame and fortune. And that at least some of the blame should be placed on the Austrian guides who rigged the wall specifically for the film crew to get the shots that they wanted. He writes:

I can imagine Lama arriving in Patagonia with a film crew, a few European guides (they are reportedly the ones who did the bolting for the film crew, the bolts weren't for Lama's climbing), and some bad weather. The Austrian guides want safe rigging for the film crew in the sketchy weather, bolts are safe, bad decisions are made in the interest of time. Lama may not even have really seen the repercussions of this; he's focused on climbing, not filming or rigging, and he's 19 so if an older guide is making decisions about safety and rigging he might just defer, or perhaps just not even get the issue (his statement shows he clearly doesn't get the issue actually). Still, as climber, you're responsible for what goes on on your trips. Lama is responsible for those bolts, and like it or not, so by extension are Red Bull and Lama's other sponsors.

Much of the climbing community is reacting specifically to Red Bull as a sponsor of the expedition. Supposedly there is a Red Bull boycott by climbers in Boulder and people have began to call the energy drink, "Red Bolt" or "Red Bullsh*t." This seems a little bit extreme, as Red Bull really had nothing to do with what actually happened on the expedition.

In response to Gadd's post and an article on the Alpinist website, a number of people angrily went off on the energy drink company. But one commenter on Gravsports hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

LOL. I'm sure Red Bull is shaking in their boots. Red Bull doesn't make money off people who follow this sort of thing. They make money off the "Extreme Dudes" who buy cases of the stuff to help overcome their morning hangovers, afternoon sleepiness and to add to their Vodka at night.

It seems incredibly unlikely that Red Bull is worried about climbers boycotting their product. While some outdoors people drink Red Bull, such individuals are probably not even a blip on the screen of their corporate radar. Indeed, it is likely that most people who drink the energy drink have never even heard of Cerro Torre or Dave Lama or bolting ethics or even of the word "alpinism."

No, instead the pressure should be on this young climber. He doesn't appear to understand that he did anything wrong and there is evidence that this might not be the first time such a thing has happened. It appears that he might have a hard time understanding climbing ethics. As he interacts with older and more experienced climbers -- particularly alpinists with strong anti-bolting views from North America -- the gravity of the situation will likely become more clear.

It would be terrible if this incident becomes a life-long blight on this young climber's career in the mountains. But there really is only one way to keep that from happening:

The kid's got to go and clean up after himself...

--Jason D. Martin


  1. as wrong as many think it may be, isn't this blown way out of proportion?
    i mean really the route ain't in Boulder and the "ethics" used in many north american areas may not apply.
    of note is how many people have actually climbed there? and who has even seen or fully understand how the route was put up back in '71.
    this has caused such an stir yet huge commercial expeditions to areas in places like the himalayas do much the same and quite a bit worse in many respects.
    not trying to downplay what took place or what will happen down the road (are they coming back to complete the route and or remove bolts?)with this but how about a reality check?

  2. Blondin,

    Read Rolo's piece on Desnivel. There are translations quoted in the Alpinist article and on Super Topo. The initial outrage of this did not start in Boulder. It started in Argentina. Much of the outrage here has less to do with the numbers of bolts but the attitude of the climbers who placed them. Their bolting went against local ethics consensus. Look at all the spanish comments on Lama's facebook page. The issue at stake is not to bolt or not. But how corporate climbers interact with locals outside of their home turf. Lama couldn't get away with this type of thing in the states or canada because those communities are well known for their views. But Argentina lacks the world renown for their home grown climbing culture that Yosemite has. And as a result got trampled by some over eager foreigners with Bosch drills.

    If you have local area you enjoy imagine if next time you rope up you find a large number of bolts placed their by an Australian film crew. Just because most people wont climb at your spot doesn't mean that one can do as one feels.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Top of Form
    For your reference,

    Here is the Desnivel article (translated by Google):
    Bottom of Form


  5. Your comment that Lama does not understand ethics seems to be true. He was involved in another ethics controversy earlier this year in the UK. Whilst this was a much less serious affair abou the use of chalk, it does seem to confirm the fact that Lama has no clue about ethics at all. Shame on him.


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