“My tin whistle is an essential part of my climbing equipment,” says Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll. “When I’m dangling high up a vertical cliff, stuck in a storm in a small portaledge for days in a row, my tin whistle is there to make sure that I’m not waiting. I’m being. I play music.” The climber with the flute has now succeeded in making quite an extraordinary melody on the granite rocks of Patagonia: The Belgian professional mastered the so-called Fitz Traverse – solo.
It was only the second ascent of the route over the complete massif around the legendary 3,406-meter-high Fitz Roy: more than five kilometers over seven peaks and some razor-sharp ridges. For the first ascent in 2014, the two exceptional US climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell were awarded the Piolet d’Or, the “Oscar of mountaineers”. Villanueva has also won this once before: for a whole series of first ascents in Greenland in 2010, together with the Belgian brothers Nicolas and Olivier Favresse and the American Ben Ditto.
Seven cakes, some with icing
Sean only hinted at his coup in Patagonia via Facebook yesterday when he thanked everyone who had wished him happy 40th birthday on 7 February: “To celebrate my birthday I had myself the SEVEN cakes, some with icing, and a couple of extra side dishes!”
That the Belgian was referring to the Fitz Traverse was revealed shortly thereafter by U.S. climber Colin Haley, who has made a name for himself with numerous first ascents in Patagonia, including solo climbs. Villanueva had traversed the peaks of the Fitz Group in the opposite direction of Honnold and Caldwell, Haley wrote 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 Patagonia in general.”
Living the moment
Villanueva O’Driscoll started climbing when he was 13 – in a climbing gym in Belgium. He later turned that passion into a career. His specialty: free climbing in big walls. It “teaches you everything about life. It makes you live the moment,” says Sean. “You can really feel things, you can really taste food, and you can really feel the rock shredding your fingers as the blood oozes out. There is nothing I don’t like about big wall free climbing.”
One of his sponsors let it be known that the 40-year-old carried only a rope and some birthday cake with him on his Fitz Traverse – and, of course, his tin whistle, which can’t be missing anywhere. According to them, Sean said: “Really good whistle acoustics on those peaks!”
Update 14 February: Sean named his route “The Moonwalk Traverse“. It took him six days and, by his own account, he climbed all ascents free.