In December of 1990, a young Austrian climber planted his two tents at the the base of Mt. Aconcagua’s South Face, a lonely place in those days. The mules that carried his cache of food and gear also carried a wooden structure that the arrieros (muleteers) put together in the campsite. The climber was Thomas Bubendorfer, then 29 years old, and the pieces of wood were a rudimentary climbing wall that was to be his only furniture for the next weeks.
After many days studying the face and training at altitude, Bubendorfer set off to climb the 3.000m of sheer rock and ice of the South Face in the astonishing time of 15h30m, alone and without carrying a rope (although witnesses and climbers said that he used fixed ropes in parts of the route).
More than 25 years later, it remains an impressive achievement, and the comfirmed speed record to date. A German climber, Jurgen Strauss, claims to have climbed the South Face in 12h30m, in 1997; but there are no pictures or witnesses to prove it.
Bubendorfer was already an accomplished climber in 1991, with solo ascents and speed records like the Eiger in 4h50m, and the solo ascent of Fitz Roy in less than 24 hs (round trip from basecamp) in 1987. Well educated and with talents for writing and as a speaker, the Austrian was a “climbing star” in Europe.
In Argentina, in fact, he was greeted by the famous racer Juan Manuel Fangio, who handed a brand new Mercedes Benz jeep to Bubendorfer, as part of a publicity campaign.
But in the mountains he applied a much more minimalist, “down to earth” philosophy. The fancy jeep ended up in a warehouse, while Thomas spent the summer at over 4.000m in Mt. Aconcagua, training and climbing. We know this because the warehouse was our deposit in Puente del Inca, and Fernando Grajales Expeditions provided the logistics for Bubendorfer’s entire project.
After Aconcagua, the Austrian alpinist described his climb in the American Alpine Journal, with this words: “On January 3, I managed to climb the south face of Aconcagua on the direct (Messner) route, solo, in 15 ½ hours. It took another 5½ hours to descend the normal route. I was the only climber to do the direct route in the past two years. Three other parties were successful in December, 1990 and January, 1991 on the original French route: Japanese in four days, Koreans in five days and a solo Chilean in four days. Thomas Bubendorfer, Deutscher Alpenverein”.
Bubendorfer went on to become one of the more prolific alpinists of all time, opening routes and climbing steep rock and ice in the Alps, the Himalayas, Patagonia and the Dolomites. In 2017, at 54, he suffered a big fall while he was ice climbing with a partner. After a week fighting for his life, the tough alpinist started to recover and he is well now.