Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lama, Red Bull, Cerro Torre

The following is my best understanding of what actually happened on the Lama trip, and then some analysis. Anyone who wants the story so far can read this or lots of other commentary out there. Most of this writing is wrong to some degree, including my initial post.

I've spent hours emailing and on the phone with everyone involved that I could contact: David Lama, Red Bull, the guides on the trip, the film makers, Rolo, and many others. I have yet to reach anyone who was on the cleanup crew despite repeated efforts in public and private. I would still like that perspective.

Even with all this research I'm sure some of this writing is still wrong, but it's as accurate as I can make it at this point.

For those who don't want to read this endless post my quick and personal summary is this: Big film crews and difficult alpine environments don't mix, and will always end up doing more damage to a place. In terms of damage, ethics and style we're all hypocrites. I will continue to examine my own efforts to not screw places up that I visit.

Get a coffee or a Red Bull for the next 3,000 words if you wanna tangle with 'em, here goes:

Some physical facts:

Reported: 60 plus bolts on the route.

Reality: Twelve bolts above the shoulder where the route and every topo of the route starts. None of the bolts are directly on the route. Another 14 or so bolts on a new rap line down from the shoulder that's not part of the route at all.

Reported: Large quantities of fixed ropes, garbage, camps, etc. permanently left on the mountain.

Reality: There's only been one haul bag on the mountain for months. The film team did hire some climbers to remove fixed line and gear that was abandoned, and take out some other gear that was left. Today's there's very little up there, despite what's being reported.

That's the direct physical impact. Now it gets more complicated.

David Lama had an idea: Free the Compressor route on Cerro Torre. I think that's a cool idea, and I suspect most climbers would too. He then contacted Red Bull about funding the trip. Lama's athlete manager at Red Bull Austria is a solid rock climber (I spoke with him as he came back from a climbing trip--he climbs more than most). Red Bull was excited about the project, and wanted to make a good film about the project. So far so good.

But Red Bull likes to do things with "high production values," especially when it's challenging to do so. This often means a larger film crew, and guides if the project is in the mountains. It is very possible to make a good film where the climbers on the trip shoot along with one capable climbing cameraman (this is how most of the filming on my trips is done, and how an excellent film maker like Leo Dickinson made his film on Cerro Torre.). It's also possible to shoot with a larger crew in benign environments (sport climbing, bouldering, deep water soloing, that sort of thing) relatively easily, but if you want to have higher production values (think Touching the Void, the excellent production of the Eiger North Face, a lot of modern rock climbing films) then you've got to have a larger crew.

Cerro Torre has some of the worst weather in the world. Huge and violent storms move in with relatively little warning, and climbers always try to push the normally short weather windows. Ice often forms on the mountain, and then falls off when it warms up, posing a risk to anyone below. Moving a film crew, even a solid mountain crew, around in an environment like that is going to be a real bitch to do even remotely safely. To have what he felt was a safe line of retreat on the route the lead guide on the trip, who I'll call Austrian Guide (AG) as his candid conversation with me was private, placed a total of 10 bolts off to the side of the climbing route, two or so near the route, and an additional 16 to 18 on the rappel line from the shoulder down. There are good natural cracks in the area, but the standard for live loads in industrial rigging calls for higher margins. AG felt the only way to safely move people and equipment around was to bolt a new and relatively safe retreat out of the way of the falling ice from the shoulder down, and bolt bomber stations to the side of the actual route. I'm not personally commenting on this decision, just outlining my understanding of the safety plan.

AG said he put these stations off to the side of the climbing route so he could rig fixed lines that would interfere as minimally as possible with other climbers on the route. AG added two or maybe three directional bolts that could be considered remotely on the line of the route. So the total of added bolts by the guides on the climb was less than a dozen, not 60 as reported, and none those are on the actual route according to the reports I received. AG's bolts are unique so they should be identifiable, and I've worked with him on several projects, so I trust his number (and I have his topo--nobody else asked him for that).

AG over-drilled all of his bolts so that he could pound the bolts in. This leaves a surface hole, and AG had a system for filling that hole. From personal experience I know that it's extremely hard to find these holes if you don't know where they are. But they are there, and a hole is a hole.

There was a division between the film crew and Lama. Lama and his partner carried all their own gear into base camp, carted it out, etc. The film crew had help. Lama did not add any bolts to the route.

The team climbed only about 11 pitches up from the shoulder that marks the start of the "real" climbing. Bad weather (which should not really have been a surprise) then prevented the team from getting the fixed ropes off, and some of their gear out. The film team later paid for their gear and ropes to be retrieved, along with some additional fixed junk.

The only gear currently on Cerro Torre from the expedition is one haul bag and less than 30 bolts. The rest has been retrieved.

OK, so there are the facts as I understand them, and despite my best efforts to get accurate info some of them are probably wrong, that's how it works in life. Now comes some personal analysis. These are my own viewpoints, not "cleared" with Red Bull or reviewed by anyone. Writing all of this may cause problems for my relationship with Red Bull, but it's gotta be said if I'm going to wear a branded helmet. If Red Bull is the company I think it is then they'll get it. These opinions are also likely to anger some climbers I regard as my friends. I trust they're also big enough to get it.

If I try to look at this from a global perspective then there are broadly two categories of "damage:" The first is the physical damage to the earth in terms of bolts, left ropes, etc. Knowing what actually happened, I can't get too angry about the damage this trip did from an "earth" basis. From a straight environmental perspective the flights from Europe to Patagonia were a hell of a lot more damaging to the world. The second form of damage is to what the priests of alpine climbing consider "good style." I'm going to mostly leave that alone.

The AG was adamant on the phone that if he were in charge of safety for the crew when and if they returned next season he would take the same tactics, or he would not return with the crew. He did not feel it possible to rig safely off natural gear for the type of load and traffic the rigging would receive. David Lama had not thought about whether or not the bolts were necessary, and that question opened his mind up a lot. He thinks it would be possible to do the rigging without bolts, but he also wasn't responsible for the lives of the people hanging on the gear. However, "safety" is not justification for adding even minimal bolts to a route for a film effort; the whole idea is not to further mess a place up.

Bolting a new rap line down from the shoulder isn't a huge deal to me personally. Metal left behind is metal left behind, if it's a good descent route then I really don't care much about what the anchors are. Apparently the rap lines in this area are full of tat and random gear, a nice clean rap line might not be a bad thing. It might even reduce the quantity of junk left on the mountain by each retreating party. Others feel very differently about this, and I respect them personally even if we disagree on this. If the locals want the bolts on the rap route pounded in as the AG planned to do then I think the crew should do that as planned. Let me know and I'll pass that on.

Several climbers wrote that bolting wouldn't be tolerated on a film project on a classic line in the Alps or another better-known range. Filming with "high production values" in the Alps or anywhere on a major alpine route is very, ah, industrial compared to what went on in Patagonia. I don't think it's right anywhere.

As soon as the crew size expands the level of infrastructure goes up dramatically, and the odds of success go down dramatically. That's was Lama's real error in my opinion; I don't think it's possible to free the Compressor route with this level of infrastructure holding a climber down. In my view you simply can't shoot for "high production values" without establishing more belays, bolts, fixed lines, etc. than is reasonable in a difficult high alpine environment, and trying to do that will lead to failure in many ways.

All the other "physical" problems (new bolts close to or on the Compressor Route, gear left behind, etc) stem from the original problem of crew size in such a difficult environment.

Now we come to the ethics or "style" equation. Red Bull as a company did not understand the anger the bolts (even with the numbers vastly over-stated) provoked among climbers, and their response has been corporate because it ultimately came from a corporate level. Lama didn't understand the anger as he didn't put any of the bolts in. He is sincerely unhappy with the bolting after questioning whether it could have been done without bolting... Climbing "ethics" often make little sense to me even as I fight for my version of them, and are going to be completely incomprehensible to a non-climber. That doesn't release Red Bull as a company or those on the trip from responsibility, but when a climber of theirs (Lama) and guides on the trip aren't seeing a problems then I think it's a bit difficult for RB as a company to see deeper into it all.

Red Bull, and by extension Lama, broke another and perhaps more serious law of alpine climbing: "Thou shalt not spray before the fact." Red Bull put up a rather over-the-top marketing article on their web site before Lama got anywhere near the mountain, and another after he returned. As I read through all the commentary on the attempted climb the writers kept harping on the marketing, and the hubris of it more than the actual bolts. I tend to laugh at stuff like that, but others obviously fail to see the humor.

What now?

The next Patagonia season approaches. What's the right thing for Lama and RB to do? Here's my personal take for what it's worth.

1. RB should stand up and say, "We're sorry about the bolts, we'll do everything we can to make that right." Pound the bolts above the shoulder into their holes, seal them up before any additional climbing is done. Do the same with the stations off to the side of the route. Wait and see what the general response is on the rap line, if it's negative then pound that in too.

2. If Lama and RB do go back then do so with a small crew based around one highly competent climbing cameraman. Take care of the additional bolts before rolling one frame of video. I don't believe a multi-person crew will work on the Torre without adding more bolts, ropes, etc, the environment is just too savage for a large crew to work without relatively heavy infrastructure.

3. Lama, his partner and a super mobile cameraman send the route from the top of Pitch 11 free, with no additional bolts added on the line. One climber very familiar with the route thinks additional bolts will be necessary to free the variations required, and doesn't have a problem with that. Personally, a bolt is a bolt, it would be cooler to do it without any new bolts at all. The 350+ are more than enough already.

4. The production quality comes from what is shot so far, and by being creative on the route. Go "modern" with HD headcams, sound, all the stuff a capable and resourceful climbing cameraman will understand. Immediacy can be more compelling than pure production quality, especially if that production quality can be done on the ground, with what is shot so far, and in post. Hell, this controversy can be part of the story...

5. As a climber I'm increasingly looking at my "ethics" not as just what I do while climbing but what my travel to go climbing and my other sports does to the atmosphere and the wilderness places I visit. This is a much bigger problem than whether I use a pin or a bolt, and to pretend otherwise is selective ignorance.

6. RB is going to keep trying to do genuinely cool stuff in different sports, it's what they do, and one reason I like working with them. RB does sponsor traditional sport, but it's a company built on doing genuinely wild stuff with their marketing money. In doing difficult and "crazy" projects and events they are going to make errors. Those errors should be addressed as openly and as quickly as the successes, or at least addressed with some humility.

Finally, in the end it's all about actually going climbing. It's our responsibility to be aware of the stone and our impacts on it. As a sponsored and public climber I have an additional responsibility to try and do what's right, and do what's right with the companies I work with.

All the spittle on keyboards, reasoned response, and pulpit slamming fundamentalism means nothing when your hands grab the stone. My fingers are getting soft from all this writing, it's now time to shut the fuck up and go climb. I'm outta here on this topic, thanks for reading through this journey.