Mountain Books for Rainy Days: “The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre” – Reviewed

‘The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre’ by Kelly Cordes, published by Patagonia Books in 2014.

Kelly Cordes has been one of my climbing heroes for many years. With major expeditions and ascents all over the world he has always struck me as a climber interested in more than simply finding new lines up lonely peaks. I first got to interact with Cordes when, as an intern at Alpinist Magazine, I sought his opinion on some writing I was editing about the Torres and the unique ice and rime formations found there. I had the chance to meet him in person briefly during the summer in Squamish, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a fellow more psyched on the climbing life. With this account of the history of climbing on Cerro Torre, Cordes enshrines himself as one of the foremost chroniclers of contemporary alpinism. But ‘The Tower’ represents more than simply historical research, to me it is also Cordes’s exploration of the muddy waters of climbing ethics, and an investigation into the heart of the pursuit of alpinism itself.

‘The Tower’ is a book that can be accessed from many angles. On the surface it is a historical account, which presents a detailed and thoughtful analysis of the waves of climbers exploring Patagonia, from the earliest European led expeditions to later North American ones and also the birth of a proper South American alpine climbing culture. The clash of continental climbing cultures, and the climbing clubs, reputations and egos is remarkable to read about, and for those newly entered into the climbing tribe, it can present an unsavory side of the sport.

One of these early waves of climbers included the Italian climber Cesare Maestri. ‘The Tower’ centres on his 1959 claimed ascent of Cerro Torre, during which he placed a great number of compression bolts, widely regarded as unnecessary and an act of vandalism. The arguments about whether or not Maestri’s ascent occurred largely centre on whether or not he could have managed the final stage of near vertical rime to reach the summit. Cordes argues that whether or not the actual rime was in place and in condition, even a skilled ice climber like Toni Egger (Maestri’s partner who died on the descent) could not have managed it with the tools available at the time. The centre of the book, this claimed ascent leads Cordes into an examination of the history of the Torre’s, the changes to climbing and the region (for example advances in tools, techniques and weather forecasting), that have made Patagonia the climbing mecca it is today.

By the end of my reading I found it hard to stomach these arguments about truth and reputation. Not because I don’t believe people should be truthful, but after wading through so much argument I find myself more than ever convinced that climbing is a highly personal pursuit and that attempting to bring climbing into any kind of semi-competitive arena will only damage its purity. To me there will always be a degree of cognitive dissonance at the heart of high-level climbing and alpinism. Climbers love to spout about how climbing is all about freedom, and we tout our anti-establishment origins but in reality there are laws of behavior and demands placed on us by the group which are entirely undemocratic (this is not an excuse for Maestri’s bolts or behavior, simply a reflection). Cordes quotes American climber Gregory Crouch who had attempted the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre several times before eventually succeeding, “The Compressor Route was one the best statements of my character, because I kept going back. I had a great time on that climb. Yes, it’s a completely compromised route with its construction, and no way would I have done a first ascent like that. I wouldn’t have chopped it, either. Climbing doesn’t matter, not in the grand scheme – what matters is what it means to us as individuals. And climbing that route meant a lot to me. Still does.” Reading contemporary climbing writing and digesting media can often be a reminder of how far we sometimes drift away from Crouch’s essential wisdom.

In the end I read ‘The Tower’ not for its pursuit of truth or to revel in the controversies around bolt-placing or chopping, but as a story about several generations of young climbers throwing themselves at what are unquestionably some of the most amazing looking mountains on the planet.

For those curious to know more, a couple of interesting resources/accounts can be found here:

PATAclimb – the best resource for all things Patagonia – Rolando Garibotti’s newly published guidebook is also an amazing resource for serious climbers and armchair dreamers

Kennedy-Kruk Statement – as published by The Alpinist

‘Cerro Torre by Fair Means’ – a video put together by Cordes and the subject of Cerro Torre

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