After signing a marvelous six-day ride alone climbing the Fitz Roy massif, in Patagonia, and climbing, incidentally, up to 10 of its peaks, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll was able to recognize that the most fearsome mountain he had to overcome it was inside him. The voice of this Belgian mountaineer, with a Spanish father and an Irish mother, sounds youthful as he insists on recounting in Spanish the details of an activity that bears the stamp of visionaries and ahead of his time. Although defining their activity in this way is trivializing it: Sean Villanueva has taken the witness of the best mountaineers in history, has studied their legacy and accepted the challenge of imitating them to take the game of mountaineering to a higher step. Dream where no one does, dare where no one dares, make a challenge that leaves a mark or ends in disaster, gather enough psychological muscle to assemble the backpack and set off on an adventure written in neon letters. You cannot talk about sport, the term is reductionist, no matter how much Villanueva is an elite climber: mountaineering is beautiful because it places its actors in front of themselves and in front of the natural environment, because it confronts experience and strength with the insecurity that evokes chance or loneliness. A year ago, while climbing the Poincenot needle, attached to Cerro Fitz Roy, Alberto Iñurrategi had a revelation: “Sean Villanueva and Nicolas Favresse appeared out of nowhere and disappeared up the wall. It was such a fleeting vision that it seemed like a dream. His fluidity, his mastery of the medium, his minimalist material and his boldness left me deeply marked. They didn’t climb, they ran. I had seen the future of mountaineering pass by, ”he recalls.
Villanueva could not then fly back to Europe, trapped in El Chaltén by the covid pandemic, where he has spent a whole year and is still there. There, residing at the foot of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, soaking up the history of the place and being inspired by the mystique of peaks that the weather has turned perverse, Villanueva allowed a mountain of dreams and fears to grow in his head. Sorting his illusion, shaping it, overcoming objections, chewing on the terrible uncertainty and being able to digest it took months of struggle. In 2014, two of the greatest and most recognized climbers, the Americans Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell (nobody can forget two documentaries about their exploits: Free Solo Y Dawn Wall) were strung to sign the first comprehensive crossing of the Fitz Roy, climbing non-stop from north to south, up and down, between February 12 and 16.
The news went around the world of mountaineering, and those who do not know this universe could be illustrated with an image: it was something like climbing the facades of a row of 10 skyscrapers, its so-called skyline, without the possibility of rescue and under the threat of the most furious winds and storms known. What Sean Villanueva has just achieved, between February 5 and 10, is even more incredible, since he has done it alone and in the opposite direction to the route chosen by the American couple.
Only two people knew about Villanueva’s plans in advance when he left El Chaltén carrying 30 kilos of material on his shoulders. He had no radio or satellite phone. He did not want to generate expectations and the only thing he expected was to treat himself to a vital experience: “It is simply incredible that the journey coincided with my 40th birthday and that I also enjoyed a six-day window of good weather, something very, very rare in these places”, marvels. “At first, I wanted to do the crossing with a partner, but when Nicolas left, the idea of doing it only grew in my head, although only like a nightmare. I considered that I would need 10 days of good weather, which is almost impossible here, so I told myself that I would settle for six. As it seemed highly unlikely to me, I was calm thinking that I would not have to carry out my dream … until a weather forecast arrived that changed everything ”, he laughs. Sean Villanueva’s sense of humor is contagious and the stories of his opening of roads in Pakistan, Greenland, Baffin or Patagonia itself are delirious, pure unconcern for activities of the highest level: as if the most demanding ascents were a simple game . “I think mountaineering in Spain has more tradition than in Belgium, obviously, but it is also seen as a serious, serious, almost transcendent matter. I and my friends try to have fun and ignore the more epic side of mountaineering, ”says Villanueva.
To link the 10 ascents, Sean used routes already open, but also climbed “small virgin areas”. “The maximum difficulty that I found would not exceed 6c, but the most serious thing was not climbing the peaks but getting off them. I knew some abseiling lines and others I did not, and in some cases I had to abandon material to be able to reach one of the hills ”, he recalls. Climbing alone by self-belaying is a crazy job: once the chosen section of rope is completed, the climber has to hoist a mat with all the excess material, descend and ascend the rope again to be able to recover the material used, which comes to be something like climbing each peak twice. “I have to admit that my logistics were not exemplary. It can be done much better, much lighter. But I didn’t want to break any records, or be the fastest, or make history, or anything like that: what really motivated me was to live that experience, see how far I was able to go, enjoy every second up there ”, he is sincere. On all the peaks, each night and each dawn, as well as when reaching certain hills, Sean would take out his Irish flute and play something. It was his way of giving himself mental truces, of relaxing his mind before refocusing on moving forward without fail. “Don’t see what acoustics I found up there,” he laughs.
“The journey has come by chance but at the best moment of my life as a mountaineer, with good maturity, a lot of experience and great physical and mental strength. That said, I don’t know if I made it for these reasons or because I was very lucky. For example, almost all the climbing runs along slopes oriented to the south, which here are equivalent to the European north faces: they must have been humid or icy, but I almost always found dry rock, which allowed me to advance smoothly ”, he concedes. On his 40th birthday, he decided to bivouac earlier than usual to celebrate: had he continued, he would have found part of the Franco-Argentine route to Fitz Roy wet. A day later, it had dried and passed without a hitch.
If his bet was successful, it was because for months he prepared conscientiously in case there was a possibility of undertaking the company, but at the time in question he did not even have the necessary material: he borrowed it to go out on the race and with discretion. This is how Sean Villanueva trained for a year: “I did running, sport climbing, bouldering, panel training, log lifting, chin-ups, push-ups, swimming in cold water, stretching, mobility exercises, yoga, tai-chi, chi -gong, meditation, gardening, playing the flute, singing, eating healthy, sleeping well and visualizing the challenge ”. He assures that he would have liked to continue climbing, traveling with his little universe and his loneliness in tow until he was fed up.