Climbing Cerro Torre in Patagonia

Deceit and Drama on Iconic South American Mountain

Cerro Torre is one of the world's most storied peaks for rock climbing and mountaineering.
Cerro Torre's granite shaft towers above Torre Egger, Punta Herron, and Aguja Standhard in Patagonia. Photograph copyright Hugo Cesar/Getty Images

Elevation: 10,262 feet (3,128 meters)

Prominence: 4,026 feet (1,227 meters)

Location: Andes, Patagonia, Argentina

Coordinates: -49.292778 S, -73.098333 W

First Ascent: Daniele Chiappa, Mario Conti, Casimiro Ferrari, and Pino Negri (Italy), Ragni Route, 1974

One of World’s Most Spectacular Peaks

Cerro Torre, one of the world’s iconic mountains, is also one of its most beautiful and storied peaks. Cerro Torre rises like a giant granite spike for 8,000 feet above the grassy Argentine Pampas in Patagonia near the southern tip of South America. Clouds often wreathe its brown rock shaft, topped by a white mushrooming icecap. On rare clear mornings, Cerro Torre and its satellite peaks glow red in the rising sun.

Cerro Torre is located in Argentine Patagonia about 50 miles north of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The peak lies on the eastern edge of the Patagonian Ice Cap.

Cerro Torre and neighboring Monte Fitz Roy are in Los Glaciares National Park (Glaciers National Park), a 2,806-square-mile (726,927 ha) Argentinean national park. The park, established in 1937, was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981. The park not only offers climbing on spectacular mountains but also protects an ice cap and unique Patagonian steppe ecosystem. The Patagonian Ice Cap on the west side of the mountains, the largest ice cap outside Greenland and Antarctica, feeds 47 glaciers that have excavated the region’s rugged mountain ranges. Visit the Los Glaciares National Park website for more information on the park.

The Torre Group Peaks

Cerro Torre is the high point of a mountain subrange usually called the Torre Group. The other three peaks in the chain are:

  • Torre Egger ca. 9,350 feet (2,689 meters)
  • Punta Herron ca. 9,022 feet (ca. 2,750 meters)
  • Aguja Standhart ca. 8,858 feet (ca. 2,700 meters)

1959: Controversial First Ascent of Cerro Torre

The controversial first ascent of Cerro Torre is one of climbing’s enduring mysteries. In 1959, Italian alpinist Cesare Maestri claimed to have reached the summit with Toni Egger during a six-day period of bad weather. During the descent, Maestri said Egger was killed in an avalanche. Maestri said the camera with conclusive summit photos was buried in snow with Egger. Many inconsistencies in Maestri’s story led most climbers to believe that he did not reach the summit. Climbers made an ascent in 2005 up Maestri’s supposed line and found no evidence that it had been previously climbed.

1975: Jim Donini’s Ascent of Torre Egger Refutes Maestri’s Claim

In 1975, American climbers Jim Donini, Jay Wilson, and John Bragg made the first ascent of Torre Egger next to Cerro Torre. Their plan was to follow Maestri’s route to the Col of Conquest between the two peaks, and then climb Egger’s steep south face to its unclimbed summit. While climbing the first 1,000 feet, the climbers found bits of rope, fixed pitons and wooden wedges, and bolts on almost every pitch. The last pitch to a hanging ice field had a fixed rope that was clove-hitched to carabiners clipped to fixed pitons every five feet.

After finding over 100 climbing artifacts on that first section, they were surprised to find no fixed equipment on the next 1,500 feet of climbing to the col. Donini, doubting Maestri’s ascent, wrote: “No rap anchors or fixed gear, absolutely nothing. Suspicious, even damning, but not absolute proof that Maestri lied. What seals the case is the fact that Maestri described the route to the col as it appears from below and the actual climbing is quite different from his account.”

Maestri described the first section of climbing up slabs to the col as easy, and the final traversing section as difficult, with aid climbing sections. Donini reported that the converse was true: the slab climbing was difficult and tricky, while the traverse to the col was easy since it followed a hidden ledge system. Donini wrote: “There is no doubt in my mind that Maestri did not climb Cerro Torre in 1959. I also am convinced that he didn’t make it to the Col of Conquest.” Donini also said that “Maestri, it may be argued, perpetrated the greatest hoax in the history of alpinism.”

1970: Maestri Establishes Compressor Route

Through the 1960s, Cesare Maestri’s ascent of Cerro Torre was hotly disputed so to silence his critics, Maestri organized another expedition with five climbers and returned to Cerro Torre in 1970. Maestri established what is now called the Compressor Route by using a 400-pound gas-powered compressor to drill almost 400 bolts up 1,000 feet of rock on the peak’s southeast face. Again, Maestri did not reach the summit of Cerro Torre. Instead he stopped drilling over 200 feet below the top and below the mushroom ice cap. He said, “It's just a lump of ice, not really part of the mountain, it will blow away one of these days.” He left the compressor hanging from bolts near the top of his long bolt ladder.

1979: Second Ascent of Compressor Route

The second ascent of the Compressor Route was in 1979 by American climbers Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer. The pair completed the route with difficult aid climbing up blank granite using pitons, rivets, and copperheads bashed into incipient cracks. Their three-day climb was the third ascent of Cerro Torre that reached the actual summit, on April 1, 1979.

John Bragg on Climbing the Final Mushroom

American climber John Bragg, who made the second ascent of Cerro Torre in January, 1977 with Jay Wilson and Dave Carman via the Ragni Route on the West Face, later slammed Maestri’s dubious ethics when he wrote in Climbing Magazine: “I find rather silly the fact that many climbers feel to have climbed Cerro Torre despite not having ascended the final mushroom. This kind of thinking seems all too common in Patagonia: from Maestri’s famous comments after his 1971 bolt route to an early ascent claim of Standhardt in 1978. Perhaps this is because the last few feet of these mountains can be so devilish difficult. Whatever the reason, the definition of summit is quite clear. You either reach it or you don’t.”