Last month Austrian free climber achieved his three-year-long dream of free climbing Cerro Torre in Chile. Now he’s come back down to earth, we ask him to reflect on this momentous achievement.
How did you feel when you finally reached the summit after all these years?
Free climbing Cerro Torre has been my number one aim for three years now, so when I reached the summit and realised my dream I felt happy and empty at the same time because my number one goal was suddenly gone. But I’m already looking at new things.
How did you motivate yourself to keep coming back to Patagonia and try this again?
In 2008 when I was in the Cochamó Valley in Chile, I saw a picture of the headwall of Cerro Torre in a crumpled old climbing magazine. I had seen many photos of Cerro Torre before, but that was the first time I could make out a route that looked freeclimb-able to me. From then on, I couldn’t get the idea of free climbing that wall out of my head. I just had to find out if was possible.
What exactly is free climbing?
Free climbing doesn’t mean climbing without protection as some people think. Free climbing is about not using your protection to move forward. On Cerro Torre I clipped my rope to placements and pitons to protect myself, but, unlike in regular mountaineering, I never used these placements or the rope to help me make progress up the rock. I also managed to free climb the route without adding any bolts for protection. From an alpinist’s view, that definitely adds extra merit to the ascent.
You have already achieved many successes in climbing, where does this free climbing ascent of Cerro Torre rank among those?
The process of reaching a goal is far more important to me than the momentary rewards of actually achieving it. I invested more than three years in Cerro Torre – more than any other project I’ve tried. I worked on my skills continually to enable me to reach this goal and now I have managed to do it in the best possible style. Taking all that into account, the first free ascent of Cerro Torre’s east face is my biggest achievement to date.
What was the most dangerous moment?
Last year a chunk of ice the size of a football hit me 200 metres below the summit. My helmet was shattered and my shoulder was injured in the impact. You just can’t control falling ice on Cerro Torre. That was definitely the most dangerous moment.
Did you ever doubt you would be able to make it to the top?
I knew the odds were against me, sometimes I doubted my chances, and there were times when I felt I was making hardly any progress. When my partner Peter Ortner and I made it to the summit last year in aid climbing, I saw a line that seemed free climb-able to me. There were still uncertainties like the variation of the bolt traverse and the last pitches on the headwall, but I kept on believing that I could do it.
What was Peter Ortner’s role in the project?
I only met Peter three years ago but he’s already one of my best friends. We have climbed so many cool routes over the past years, we share a similar view on things and our abilities match almost perfectly. Without a strong partner like him on my side I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this project. I was the one leading all the difficult pitches but Peter supported me superbly wherever possible.
Was your preparation any different this year from the previous years when you tried and failed to freeclimb Cerro Torre?
2011 was the first year that I didn’t take part in any climbing competitions. I was able to set my focus solely on alpine climbing. I managed to repeat many of the most difficult routes in the Alps and also went on an expedition with Swiss friends of mine to complete a first ascent in the Kashmir Himalayas. For Patagonia, Peter and I had prepared everything perfectly. We were in good shape, and had improved our gear and our tactics from the previous years. All the preparation, together with the great weather conditions this year were the keys to success for sure.