Interview with Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll about his solo traverse of Patagonia's Fitz Roy massif (the Moonwalk Traverse)

Posted on: February 15, 2021


Overview of Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll's solo Moonwalk Traverse (Fitz Roy massif, south to north: 5.11, 50° snow/ice, 4000m). [Image] Courtesy of Rolando Garibotti, PatagoniaVertical.comOverview of Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll's solo Moonwalk Traverse (Fitz Roy massif, south to north: 5.11, 50 snow/ice, 4000m). [Image] Courtesy of Rolando Garibotti, Patagonia Vertical

Borrowed gear from Patagonia guidebook author Rolando Garibotti may be an important good-luck charm for anyone attempting to traverse the Fitz Roy massif: Garibotti loaned Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell a pair of crampons when they completed the first ascent of the "Fitz Traverse" over five days in February 2014. From February 5 to 10, Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll borrowed a rope and other gear for the second ascent of the traverse, which he did solo and in the opposite direction (south to north), over six days; he named his version the Moonwalk Traverse (5.11, 50 snow/ice, 4000m).

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The adventure appeared to be ending about as soon as it began, when falling stones inflicted heavy damage to O'Driscoll's borrowed lead line on Day 1.

"Certainly when I saw the three core shots on my rope on the very first day I was convinced that I wasn't going to get very far," he told Alpinist. "But I just let go of the frustration.... I just wanted to see how far I would get."

O'Driscoll on top of Guillaumet, the 10th and final summit of the traverse, February 10. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'DriscollO'Driscoll on top of Guillaumet, the 10th and final summit of the traverse, February 10. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll

According to a comprehensive account of O'Driscoll's climbing itinerary that Garibotti posted on his Patagonia Vertical Facebook page on February 13, O'Driscoll put tape around the rope where the sheath was damaged and pressed on. Then, on the second day, a gear loop broke and he lost several cams. Ultimately the damaged rope held up until the last rappel on Day 6, when a spot of the torn sheath finally separated all the way around, causing it to slip down, exposing several meters of the core strands. "A rope badly damaged on [Day 1], had miraculously survived to the end," Garibotti wrote.

O'Driscoll stopped early on Day 3, February 7, to celebrate his 40th birthday, below Cerro Fitz Roy. He later posted on Facebook: "To celebrate my birthday I had myself the SEVEN cakes, some with icing, and a couple of extra side dishes!!!!"

A compilation of O'Driscoll on top of the seven main summits. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'DriscollA compilation of O'Driscoll on top of the seven "main summits." [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll

The world-famous alpinist Colin Haley was among the first to break the news when he posted on Instagram February 11:

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 Patagonia in general. I guess that many climbs are so different in nature that it is hard to compare. But, in any case, as someone who has soloed all these peaks (separately), and as someone who generally is very familiar with the terrain, it is hard to even imagine the logistics of getting across all that terrain solo. As someone who has done a lot of my proudest achievements in Patagonia, many of them solo ascents, I could be at risk of feeling jealous. However, overwhelmingly I feel happy for Sean, rather than jealous. I think that is partly because I got to know Sean a bit down there last season, and he's simply an awesome person. I think that another reason I don't feel jealous is that, unlike some other high-profile solo ascents of recent years in Chalten, I know that I simply couldn't have done what Sean just did. Congratulations, Sean, on a truly incredible achievement! I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.

Siebe Vanhee, one of O'Driscoll's climbing partners, posted:

Everyone was wondering what our friend and fellow climber has been doing, being locked down in El Chalten since last year! Now we know what kept him psyched to sit out a whole winter in the Patagonian mountains (besides playing his [tin] whistle).

Many years ago, in university I was asked by a teacher who I looked up to and what made that person so great in my eyes. I didn't think, I said..."Sean, one of my climbing partners." I'm not the kind of person that has a lot of idols, or people I look up to. But knowing Sean, climbing with him several years in Patagonia and other places, I have to admit he really is a true inspiration for me. Someone pure charismatic, who follows his own path, picks his own dreams and is truly connected with himself and others....

O'Driscoll climbing during his traverse. [Photo] Denis Barrionuevo, Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll collectionO'Driscoll climbing during his traverse. [Photo] Denis Barrionuevo, Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll collection

The last paragraph of Garibotti's Patagonia Vertical Facebook post reads:

Sean seems to be the only person [who] does not grasp the magnitude of what he has accomplished.... Beyond his well-known climbing skill and physical fortitude, what is clear is that Sean's secret weapon was his mental attitude, his willingness to always take one more step, and to do so with open curiosity. He played his tin whistle [on] every summit, and meditated for close to 15 [minutes] every morning. A climb this long and hard requires physical mastery, but above all it requires the ability to pause.

Q&A with Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll

You've been staying in El Chalten for the past year—was that always part of the plan, or did that come about because of the various international COVID-19 lockdowns?

I have been here for one year and one month. The plan was to head back to Europe at the end of March, but then flights were cancelled, Argentina came into lockdown, and I got stuck here. If I really wanted to I could have made it back to Europe by contacting the embassy, etc., but all of that seemed like a lot more hassle than it was worth! Things in Europe were bad, and I was in one of the most beautiful places on the planet!

A view from the tent during the traverse, with the looming shadow of the Fitz Roy massif visible. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'DriscollA view from the tent during the traverse, with the looming shadow of the Fitz Roy massif visible. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll

How long have you been considering this traverse, what strategies did you use, how did you plan and prepare?

Well, it was on my mind. At first with a climbing partner. I have no doubt I wouldn't have had much trouble to convince my main climbing partner Nicolas Favresse. But he managed to go back to Europe just before the start of the lockdown. [In 2017 O'Driscoll teamed up with Favresse and Vanhee to complete the first free ascent of El Regalo de Mwono (VI 5.13b, 1200m) on the Central Tower of Torres del Paine.]

At some point during the long winter nights, the thought came to my mind to try it solo. It was unrealistic and too daunting of an idea, but I thought it didn't hurt to dream about it and look through the topo to see if I could puzzle it all together. One day I found myself believing it was possible.

Realistically I thought I needed 10 days, but it is extremely rare to get 10 days of good weather, so I decided I would try if I was given a six-day window. Six days of good weather is also pretty rare so I felt pretty safe knowing that it probably wasn't going to happen. Then I got a six-day weather window for my birthday.

Is it harder to do the traverse in the opposite direction from which Caldwell and Honnold did it?

I don't think the reverse traverse is harder. The reason I chose reverse was because it had not been done, it was something new and so it offered that adventure.

Was there a particular crux moment, be it technical, mental, etc.—was there a point where the challenge was most pronounced, a deciding point?

I don't think there was a particular crux. Everything went really well. I was super psyched and energized throughout the whole thing. I think I was also extremely lucky with the conditions.

Certainly when I saw the three core shots on my rope on the very first day I was convinced that I wasn't going to get very far....

The 50 ice field on the summit of Fitz Roy with aluminum crampons, one ice axe and one ice screw was a little sketchy and scary. Some of the harder climbing was when I went off route on Poincenot; that was probably the closest I came to falling (I was on a rope).

You said earlier that you thought you'd need 10 days—what allowed you to move so much faster?

In reality I had no idea how long it would take me. It was just a prediction. I did not know how fast I would move.

Can you give us a general overview of the kit you carried?

I wasn't very strategic about the kit, as it is not that important. Motivation, drive, determination are the most important factors. I was just going up there to have an experience on my own, not to do a performance; I did not care about being as efficient as possible. I reminded myself that back in the day people did incredible things and their kit was nowhere near as light and efficient as the gear today. [After I'd spent] more than a year here instead of three months, a lot of my own personal gear was worn out, and much of the gear and clothing was borrowed from local Chalten climbers. Much of it from Rolo [Garibotti].

O'Driscoll's tent anchored to a slender perch. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'DriscollO'Driscoll's tent anchored to a slender perch. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll

[The list:]
- 10 days of food: Breakfast and dinner [was] mostly mashed potato and Polenta with dried vegetables, cheese, dried mushrooms, spices, salt, freeze-dried Lyo spinach, half-liter of olive oil and a couple of my freeze-dried Lyo Sean's Nettle Curry meals. I did not pre-prepare the meals, as I thought it would be more fun to cook and add whatever I felt like that day. Lunch [was] nuts and dried fruit, hard cheese.

- Small stove + gas

- Clothing: hardshell jacket, softshell pant, down jacket, base-layer—[Patagonia] Nano Air Jacket, two Capilene T-shirts, Capilene base layer pant; three pairs of socks, a couple of boxer briefs, down sleeping bag, approach shoes, climbing shoes

- Tent, sleeping mat

- Backpack + haulbag

- Aluminum crampons, light [Petzl] Gully Ice Axe, one ice screw

- Lead rope (8.9mm 60m) + tagline (6mm 60m)

- Double rack + extra carabiners, harness, six slings, five quickdraws, three micro-traction pulleys

- leaver gear

- toilet paper, toothbrush, headlamp

- my tin whistle

I finished with four days of extra food, 250ml of olive oil, but only one leaf of toilet paper. It was a very close call on the toilet paper and I was happy to make it down before I ran out!

Looking down on the stretch that includes Mermoz and Guillaumet. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'DriscollLooking down on the final stretch that includes Mermoz and Guillaumet. [Photo] Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll

How much terrain did you free solo?

My bag was too heavy to climb with. There was no way I could free solo with it! Anything that was rock climbing I would self-belay; any scrambling I would free solo.

I don't think I was moving particularly fast. I just made sure I kept moving, keeping a rhythm. When I started I reminded myself: "it's a marathon, not a sprint."

Have you climbed all or most of the peaks/routes before, or what percentage of the terrain was new to you?

I had done an attempt in the autumn climbing De l'S and Saint-Exupery before bailing because of strong winds. Previously to that I had climbed Saint-Exupery, Poincenot, Fitz Roy, Mermoz and Guillaumet, all by other routes. I had done an attempt on the Franco-Argentine Route 15 years ago in which I got to Pitch 10; I used the same route on the traverse. And I think one of the routes we did last year on Poincenot shares the last couple of pitches of what I did on the traverse. Otherwise all the climbing on this traverse was new to me except for what I had done on that previous attempt.

Two short videos from O'Driscoll's first attempt can be found here and here.

As for having his rope returned in tatters, Garibotti told Alpinist: "After a year in Chalten, Sean's kit is pretty beat... happy to see my stuff be put to good use, even if it's returned unusable."

Before-and-after images of the rope that Rolando Garibotti posted to Instagram Stories following O'Driscoll's first ascent of the Moonwalk Traverse. [Images] Courtesy of Rolando Garibotti, Patagonia VerticalBefore-and-after images of the rope that Rolando Garibotti posted to Instagram Stories following O'Driscoll's first ascent of the Moonwalk Traverse. [Images] Courtesy of Rolando Garibotti, Patagonia Vertical

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