Conquering One of the World's Toughest Climbs

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Cerro Torre, Patagonia’s 10,278-foot mountain, was said to once be the most difficult climb in the world. The stark white, icy landscape of Argentina is disarming, as the mountain rises up and points like a needle into the sky. Vertical ventures on this peak were unheard of, because the walls were too steep and too blank for climbing. Never mind the intense weather patterns, which seem to consume the peak at the flick of a switch.

Davide Brighenti

Mystery surrounds Cerro Torre, including the question,  who ascended the mountain first? This debate is one of the biggest unresolved controversies in climbing history.

The first full ascent was undocumented, but supposedly took place in 1959 by Cesare Maestri of Italy and Toni Eggar from Austria. But, tragically, Eggar fell from the mountain during the descent and died, taking the camera that had documented the pair’s summit with him.

Doubts were raised if Maestri had truly ascended the mountain, especially when many attempts after his failed. He returned to the mountain in 1970 and used a gas-powered air compressor to drill 360 bolts into the wall, then ascended the climb on a different route. For alpine climbers, this degradation of a natural surface was a disgrace. Since then, Italian Casimiro Ferrari and American Jim Bridwell summited the Compressor Route.

David Lama climbing towards Col de la Paciencia on Cerro Torre during the first expedition in Patagonia, Argentina.
David Lama climbing towards Col de la Paciencia on Cerro Torre during the first expedition in Patagonia, Argentina. Daran Goodsell

In 2010, free climber David Lama brought Cerro Torre into the spotlight again as he made his first of three attempts to climb Cerro Torre. Lama's goal was to free climb the infamous southeast face of the mountain on the Compressor Route: a feat considered impossible. His trials and tribulations were documented in Red Bull Media’s 2013 film, “Cerro Torre: A Snowball’s Chance in Hell.”

In 2012, Lama and Peter Ortner summited the peak through free climbing the Compressor Route without the use of the bolts set in place by Maestri. It is said that this route contains more than 2,000 feet of 5.12 ice climbing.

Lama made an appearance in Atlanta for a special screening of the film, and RootsRated had a chance to catch up with him about his Cerro Torre experience and where he’s set his sights for the future.

David Lama
David Lama Red Bull Media

By conquering Cerro Torre, you can call yourself an alpinist climber. What does that mean for you in the climbing world?

Climbing a difficult mountain doesn’t automatically make you and alpinist or mountaineer. But for me, Cerro Torre was the first project where I noticed that my thinking and mindset became more similar to those of an alpinist than of a climber. My view on things has changed over the past decade—the style of doing a project matters a lot more to me. I used to be interested in rock faces, and now I thrive on lines that have both ice and combined terrain.

Was there ever a point when you didn’t believe you could free-climb Cerro Torre?

There were times when the project felt impossible, especially in the beginning. If you face a setback for every step ahead the goal sometimes seems to be out of reach.

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What motivated you to press on?

If you want to free climb Cerro Torre, time is a very limiting factor. You won’t be able to try the crux pitch over and over again. When the whole situation came together with weather and conditions being perfect for the first time in three years, I knew I had this one shot that I needed to seize. This was a dream of mine, and if something keeps crossing your mind for this long, it’s just natural to keep on trying.

You mentioned that you’re conquering Masherbrum, a mountain in the Karakoram region of Pakistan this year. Explain a little more about this venture.

The mountain’s northeast face is unclimbed and has been considered impossible for years. The face is 10,500 feet high, with the top part consisting of a wall that’s as steep as El Capitan and a summit that tops out at 25,659 feet. I can’t think of another face in this dimension and that same steepness.

What inspires you to climb this?

It is the most difficult face I can imagine to climb.

 You are always looking to do a bigger, harder climb. What is next for you?

I’m always searching for logical lines to climb through big faces. And the bigger the faces, the more difficult their easiest line tends to be. Finding that line of weakness and climbing it is what inspires me.

The Compressor Route of Cerro Torre
The Compressor Route of Cerro Torre Red Bull Media

If you’re interested in watching “Cerro Torre: A Snowball’s Chance in Hell”, it is available on iTunes. The original film is produced in German, but an English version is available. The next American screening takes place in St. Louis, Mo., on March 26 at the High-Pointe Theatre.

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