Belgian climber Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll has been willingly stuck in Patagonia since Covid-19 kicked off, and making the most of it: jaws dropped around the climbing world when he became the first to solo the Fitz Roy Traverse late last week. This epic route, fantasised about by anyone who has ever seen a photo of the jagged skyline above El Chalten, was first completed by the dream simul-climbing team of Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell in 2014. The route traverses the iconic Cerro Fitz Roy and its six satellite peaks: 5km of ridge line with around 4000m of vertical gain.
The incredible ascent marks Sean's 40th birthday: writing on Facebook, the ever light-hearted climber, who speaks English with an Irish accent and never goes on an adventure without at least one musical instrument, referred cryptically to the 'seven cakes' he had enjoyed, while his sponsor, Patagonia, reported that Sean was 'alone, with only a rope, a penny whistle and some birthday cake,' and added that Sean had written in his trip report: 'Really good whistle acoustics on those peaks.'
Sean loving life on his epic Fitz Roy Traverse solo:
Little more has yet been made public about Sean's incredible solo. We wait with interest to find out how many days it took: the route required five, very full days of exhausting simul-climbing from Tommy and Alex, when they made the first ascent in 2014 (BMC interview).
Colin Haley, a Patagonia solo-climbing afficionado, added some context when he commented about Sean's solo on Facebook: 'There is no doubt that this is the most impressive solo ascent ever done in Patagonia, and I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t simply the most impressive ascent ever done in general.'
Sean climbed the peaks in the opposite order to Tommy and Alex:
Aguja ('spear') de l’S 2330m
Aguja Saint-Exúpery 2,558m
Aguja Rafael Juárez 2,558m
Aguja Poincenot 3108m
Cerro Fitz Roy 3,359m
Val de Bois
Aguja Mermoz 2558m
More about the Fitz Roy Traverse
The route combines big wall climbing, ice climbing, ridge traversing: basically a very mixed bag of top-class skills.
After their first ascent, Tommy told Planet Mountain: "The traverse has been one of the low hanging fruits in Patagonia for a long time. It was one of the most obvious and beautiful objectives down here."
Alex provided some context about the endurance required: "It’s crazy how long the traverse is - even though we were moving pretty quickly compared to normal standards it still felt like we were crawling. It’s just really far. I’ve never really done anything quite like it. We felt really out there for a full five days, which is a long time to really dive into a project. Even long solos only take a few hours, so you don’t get that total immersion."
Tommy and Alex on the first peak: Aguja Guillaumet. Photo: Rolando Garibotti
More about Sean
When the music stopped and flights were grounded due to COVID-19, it was no surprise to find Sean new-routing in Patagonia with his long-time climbing partner, Nico Favresse. Nor was it a surprise that he decided to bed in there for the pandemic-ride. Born in Brussels, Sean has become very much a citizen of the world through climbing, which he describes as 'like making love to the universe.'
Sean has been living in a caravan in El Chalten and enjoying the small community while filling his time with climbing, swimming, running, online language courses, the Irish bagpipes, working on his storytelling, helping friends with their land, and entertaining the climbing community with his Facebook videos.
This is typical of Sean who has a well-rounded vision of what a climbing trip should be: all his expeditions seem to involve an adventure to get to the destination and plenty of musical instruments: his specialty is free climbing big walls and off-width cracks in harsh conditions and playing his Irish flute.
"Without music," he told his sponsor, Scarpa, "When the weather turns bad, I would just be sitting and waiting in the portaledge, which drains you of motivation and energy. Playing music helps you remember to live the whole experience; enjoy the moment, and understand that the next pitch isn't the most important thing. Then when the weather turns good, you feel alive."
A taste of mornings, Sean-style:
The lead up to this incredible traverse
Sean first shot to fame in 2010 when he and Nico, Nico's brother Oliver Favresse, and Ben Ditto set sail for Greenland, where they established nine new big wall routes, mostly straight off a 10m boat named Dodo Delight, skippered by Bob Shepton, a 75-year-old retired priest. Plenty of musical instruments were brought along for the ride. In 2014, the team returned to the arctic and made the sensational climbing film Adventures of the Dodo.
Sean first started climbing aged 13 at the local climbing wall in Brussels, and this is where he met Nico. Sean explains, "Nico and I had the same passion and energy, so we started climbing and training together; we both loved giving it everything and trying hard ... Sometimes it would get to the point where I could barely walk going to school the next day."
At 16, Nico and Sean hitchhiked to the South of France. As a taste of what was to come, climbing was only part of the adventure: "As each ride dropped us off at an unplanned destination," Sean explains, "we would take out this map we had with all the climbing spots on it and see what the closest crag was, then climb for a day or two before hitching on further until we finally reached places like Ceuse."
This taste for adventure led the pair from sport climbs to multi-pitches and finally big walls. In 2004, they headed to Yosemite for the first time, and in 2005, Patagonia. He and Nico have since established routes all over the world. This solo, is, in many ways, the culmination of all Sean's efforts and endless psyche.
WATCH War and Poetry: big wall climbing in Greenland on BMC TV:
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