In late February, Tasmanian Kim Ladiges became one of the few Australian climbers to have climbed a route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia – and the first (as far as we know) to have actually climbed the final ice mushroom that guards the true summit. He climbed the peak, which Reinhold Messner described as ‘a shriek turned to stone’, by the Ragni Route, a line that involves mostly snow and ice climbing on the West Face of Cerro Torre. We spoke to him about his ascent via email as he is currently based in the French Alps.
Most Australian climbers probably haven’t heard of you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in Tasmania. I spend about half of each year there now, working as a guide and in education. The rest of the year is spent going to places where you imagine climbing a lot more than actually doing it.
How long have you been climbing, and how did you get into climbing?
I’ve been climbing for about nine years, seven of which have been pretty dedicated to alpine climbing. I started climbing while doing a guiding course at TAFE. The course was meant to turn me into a professional, but it did a better job of creating a climbing bum. After this I did a mountaineering course in India because it was the cheapest thing I could find. You get what you pay for, but it was a way in. After that I did a number of years of living in cars, squats and sofas in the Alps and North America just climbing as much as possible.
Given our lack of mountains, what inspired you to become an alpinist?
I’ve always thought mountains were awesome. I did a lot of bushwalking in my teens in Tassie and I remember I used to seek out patches of snow and think I was a mountaineer. You can still have some pretty good adventure in Australia. When I first started climbing a friend dragged me up the Northwest Face of Federation Peak. Although he led the whole route I remember feeling that I was certainly going to die. I had some peanuts for the summit, but with doom so certainly impending I ate them all half way up.
You recently climbed Cerro Torre via the West Face, can you tell us a little bit about the route and what the climbing is like?
The West Face of Cerro Torre is the strangest place I’ve ever been. The face is covered in crazy rime ice formations that somehow have naturally forming tunnels through them. Towards the top there are tunnels, caves and holes that go who knows how far into the mountain. The other aspect of the route is its remoteness (relative to climbing on the Fitzroy Peaks). It requires about 30km of mountain travel just to get to the base.
Who did you climb the route with?
I climbed the route with Dan Joll, a Kiwi mate of mine.
Have you guys done a lot of routes together?
We’ve spent a lot of time waiting for the weather to improve and failing on routes so it was nice to finally succeed on something cool together. I really like climbing with Dan because he’s never phased by things not going to plan, he just gets on with dealing with it. He’s also really good at not making dumb decisions through laziness.
How did the ascent go?
The actual climbing went really smoothly. Success was really as much about strategy and logistics as climbing. We had to time our movements around a lot of bad weather so that we could be in a position to even try the route. Having a satphone was really helpful in getting current forecasts. We had also tried the route earlier that month, which meant we could navigate the lower section of the route quickly in the dark. We knew we had about 14 hours to climb the route if wanted to have enough time to descend before the next storm hit (we did) and we used all that time. If we had wasted any time finding our way we probably would have bailed. I think people sometimes overlook the value in trying routes, even if success is improbable, because it sets you up for success in the future.
We know that the snow mushroom that guards the true summit is normally time-consumingly tunnelled through these days (although back in the day no one used to climb it), how did you go about tackling it?
People certainly climbed the last rime mushroom pitch to the summit back in the day. All ascents of the Ragni Route were to the summit of the mountain and Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer climbed the last rime mushroom when they made the first true ascent of the Compressor Route in 1979. The last pitch forms differently each season and its difficulty varies. It seems a pretty reasonable option to dig a tunnel through the mushroom if you have plenty of time. I tried in this way, but it was obvious that we would run out of time before the storm hit so I turned my mini tunnel into a runner and did some very ungraceful aiding/thrutching/bashing/praying to get up. I found it physically and mentally draining to make upward progress while keeping the whole thing sane. I think if the pitch had been in the Alps it wouldn’t have been so stressful, but the idea of broken legs on the top of Cerro Torre with a storm approaching seemed sub-optimal. I was relieved that afterwards Dan led the whole descent, which was also serious, and I was able to switch off a little.
Did you have any close calls?
Just as we started the descent we let the rope we were supposed to be pulling blow out of our hands. Dan climbed out to it and was able to retrieve it easily, but it was a good wake up call. The descent doesn’t go down the route and instead descends terrain that would be extremely difficult to reclimb. Screwing up a rappel would be very serious with a storm approaching and no other climbers on the ice cap.
How did the experience compare with other routes you’ve done?
It’s hard for me to compare different climbs. It was awesome and wild to be out on the West Face of Cerro Torre with no other climbers around, something I didn’t think would happen considering how busy Patagonia is now and how coveted a Cerro Torre summit is. Although the climb went really smoothly I felt like I tried really hard and put a lot of effort over the two attempts to get it done. I find with alpine climbing that the more you climb the harder it is to find routes that you can really try on without killing yourself.
As far as we can work out, you’re the fourth Australian to climb Cerro Torre after John Fantini, Andrew Lindblade and Simon Parsons (who all climbed the now-defunct Compressor Route), but you’re also the first to climb the snow mushroom to the very top. It’s probably a bit controversial, but technically it could be argued that you’re the first Australian to really climb Cerro Torre – do you have any thoughts on this?
I don’t think being the first person of a particular nation to do something matters. Clutching at obscure claims always seems a little silly to me. I have no idea what those guys did when they climbed Cerro Torre. They are all very strong climbers. To me the summit of a mountain is the top, which I don’t think is controversial. A lot of climbers attempted Cerro Torre this year and reached the final snow mushroom, but none of them felt that they had climbed Cerro Torre. It meant a lot more to me have climbed the mountain in a season where no one had managed to climb it, with a weather window that we had to get everything right to succeed in. It felt like we got the real experience.
You’re the first Australian to climb Cerro Torre not via the controversial Compressor Route, do you have any opinion on the chopping of the bolts on that route?
I haven’t climbed the Compressor Route and I don’t know much about it outside of what others have said, so I don’t have an opinion of any substance. I certainly would not have cut them myself, it seems a strong move when there are so many bolt ladders and fixed lines over mountains everywhere. Saying that, it does make the mountain cooler, knowing that despite the number of climbers coming to Patagonia to climb it, it could easily go a season without an ascent. Much more fitting for a ‘shriek turned to stone’. I would have clipped any bolts I could find on the last snow mushroom.
Had you climbed in Patagonia before? How did this trip go in comparison to others?
I’ve been to Patagonia once before. It was relatively similar in terms of plenty of wind and bad weather. I was much more relaxed about waiting it out this time (maybe because I knew what to expect or I’m just more relaxed) and I’ve also got better at getting things done in short weather windows.
Clearly, to climb Cerro Torre you’ve built up some serious experience, what are some of the other notable routes that you’ve done?
I’m not really sure that anything I’ve climbed would be considered ‘notable’ today. Lots of classic north faces in the Alps like the Eiger, the Dru etc, the Supercanaleta on Fitzroy, some El Cap routes, A few first ascents in Alaska, Patagonia and Canada. I was chuffed to climb the Bibler-Klewin (Moonflower Buttress) to the top of the North Buttress last year with Owen Davis. I think that is a really classy route.
Sometimes on a mountain you have to huddle together to wait out the weather or survive a bivvy, we have read online that you have ‘man-spooned’ in some pretty amazing places – are there any that stand out in your memory? And do you have any tips for picking a climbing and spooning partner?
I can’t say that any standout or I might make people jealous! Finding good climbing partners is one of the trickiest things about alpine climbing. I was pretty lucky that when I first started looking for partners I wrote a note in the Office de Haute Montagne in Chamonix saying: Kim, 21, from Australia looking for alpine climbing partners. I got lots of response from good climbers who eventually all admitted that they thought I would be a girl and they might get laid. They were all too embarrassed not to climb with me, though, so I met lots of good climbers.
You can read more about Kim and Daniel’s ascent here.