Interview: Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll on the Solo First Ascent of “The Moonwalk,” a.k.a. the Reverse Fitz Traverse
“I would have kept going if there was more,” Villanueva O’Driscoll told Rock and Ice about his first ascent of The Moonwalk, aka the Reverse Fitz Traverse.
After six days of climbing in which he navigated a five-kilometer gendarme-filled ridge-line and tagged every major summit (and some more minor ones) along the way—requiring over 4,000 meters of technical climbing—Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll was still ready for more.
“I would have kept going if there was more,” Villanueva O’Driscoll told Rock and Ice about his first ascent of The Moonwalk, a full traverse of the iconic Fitz Roy skyline in Patagonia, Argentina. The Fitz Traverse was first completed by Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold in 2014. They began their traverse on Guillaumet and finished on Aguja de l’S.
From February 5 to 10, Villanueva O’Driscoll climbed the same ridge line in the reverse direction. He began on Auja de l’S, and went on to summit another nine named summits on the ridge line (in order): Saint-Exupery, Rafael Juarez, Poincenot, Kakito, Cerro Fitz Roy, Val Biois, Mermoz, Cumbre Sur, Guillaumet. He freed the entire thing (aside from rappels), encountering difficulties up to 6c (5.11b).
Patagonia climber extraordinaire Colin Haley wrote on Instagram of O’Driscoll’s traverse, “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.”
We reached out to Haley to get some more of his thoughts on just what makes the solo Reverse Fitz Traverse so mind-bogglingly impressive. Haley wrote back:
I think that when people hear the max difficulty grades, and the total vertical meters of climbing, that gives them only a tiny bit of understanding of the difficulty of pulling off an ascent like this. For a traverse like this Sean will have done a bunch of rope-soloing, which is always drastically more time-consuming and tiring than climbing with a partner. On the easier terrain he was certainly free-soloing, but even on the “easier” terrain that would mean free-soloing wearing a pack that includes crampons, sleeping bag, tent, stove, food and fuel for several days, clothes, etc. Probably many times he would free-solo and then pull his pack up after him, but that also eats up time and energy. All the rappelling in and of itself is a monstrous task—I will be curious to hear how he managed to not run out of cord and other hardware, since carrying much of that stuff is much harder by yourself than with a partner. Lastly, soloing any of these peaks is pretty psychologically intense, and living that intense existence for several days in a row is definitely a statement of mental fortitude. Of course one can say that Sean “got lucky” with a super good weather window, but that is the case with all big, alpine-style ascents that have been done in Patagonia. And it’s hard to say that he “got lucky” considering that he’s been down there for more than a year… Good weather and conditions are prerequisites for big ascents in Patagonia, but you don’t know when the good weather will come, and when it does you have to be completely prepared physically and mentally to take advantage of it, because you know that you might wait another year or two until such an opportunity presents itself again.
Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold completed the long sought-after prize of the full Fitz Traverse in 2014, at the same exact time of year as O’Driscoll. The pair set blitzed the ridge-line in a 5-day span, February 12 to 16. The Reel Rock film of their efforts had classic moments, like Caldwell questing up sopping wet, ice-covered cracks through the night, eating his food with the arm of his broken sunglasses, and Honnold bringing the wrong type of crampons.
Read the interview with Villanueva O’Driscoll below to see what special little moments made his reverse traverse just as exciting and memorable.
Q&A with Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll on The Moonwalk (aka the Reverse Fitz Traverse)
You’ve been in Chalten a long time now, right? Was that by design (or perhaps partially by design, partially a result of Covid-19)?
I have been here for one year and one month. The plan was to head back to Europe 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, 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! I felt like a kid locked up in a giant playground.
What is the scene like in El Chalten this season? Probably considerably quieter than normal, right? Just locals and you?
This season is extremely quiet. Only Argentinian tourists. El Chalten opened up to national tourism in January. Before that it was only locals. There are a couple of other foreigners who are in the same situation as I am.
It has been very hard on the locals, most of whom are very dependent on tourism. My neighbor, for example, has five kids, he started a new business last year and until recently he had no income. He is having a hard time keeping his head above water, like many here.
But the people here have a great vibe and are extremely warmhearted. They share everything with me and they have completely accepted me as a local. I can’t express enough how moved and grateful I am by their good vibes.
In the mountains there are very few climbers. I crossed three teams on my traverse. I am sure to know anybody I cross up there.
How long has the Fitz Traverse been a goal of yours? Is it something you’ve told others you were thinking about, or have you kept it pretty close to the vest?
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. 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.
There was no way I was going to tell people about this… I was convinced they would not understand, they would think that I had completely lost my mind. The day I left I told two people: my friend Juan on whose land I live and local guru and guidebook author Rolando Garibotti. I just told them that I was going to start on Ag de l’S and see how far I could go.
I also did the mandatory climbing registration before entering the National Park, where you have to describe your itinerary—I thought for sure they would think I’m out of my mind.
And still, somehow everybody knew I had done it before I even got back to town!
How did you prepare for the Traverse? What kind of training did you do? Did you preview parts of the route? How many of the individual peaks had you climbed previously (by any route)?
My preparation consisted of running, hangboarding, bouldering, sport climbing, lifting heavy tree trunks, push ups, pull ups, cold water swimming, stretching, mobility, yoga, tai-chi, chi-gong, meditation, gardening, playing music, singing, eating healthy, sleeping well and visualization.
I had done two previous attempts: one in the winter where I didn’t even get close to the base of the first peak because of too much snow, and one in the autumn where I did Aguja De l’s and Saint-Exupéry before bailing because of strong winds.
Previously I had climbed Saint-Exupéry, Poincenot, Fitz-Roy, Mermoz and Guillaumet, all by other routes.
So which peaks does the Fitz Traverse cross?
There are seven main summits of the range and some of the smaller ones. Aguja De l’S, Saint-Exupéry, Rafael Juarez, Poincenot, Ag Kakito, Fitz Roy, Val Biois, Mermoz, Guillamet Sur and Guillaumet main.
I saw a comment Rolo Garibotti made on Facebook that you added Kakito, Biois and Guillo South Summit—so that’s 10 summits? Did Honnold and Caldwell do those, too? Do those summits complicate the traverse more?
I certainly did not do more than Honnold and Caldwell, maybe they didn’t do Val Biois , but I’m pretty sure they did Kakito, Guillaumet South and they also did a first ascent of one of the smaller peaks which they called Aguja Kellogg, which I did not do.
It certainly was not a contest for me, I was just going up there to have an experience on my own.
They [the smaller summits] don’t really complicate the traverse, they might have added a couple of hours each, but since I was there I thought I might as well enjoy some extra rock climbing.
[Editor’s note: In fact, Honnold and Caldwell did not do Kakito, Val Biois or Guillaumet South. They did, according to Rolando Garibotti, do Kellogg, as “that is the easiest way up Kakito from the north. In short, Sean did do 10 summits, Alex and Tommy did 7 plus Kellogg, so 8.”]
Why did you choose to go in the opposite direction to what Caldwell and Honnold did? Was it because you thought that direction would be easier while solo? Or because it would be a first ascent, and perhaps more of an adventure?
Because it had not been done and so it seemed more of an adventure.
What was your kit that you took with you?
I wasn’t very strategic about the kit, as it is not that important. Motivation, drive, determination are the most important factors.
I kept reminding myself that back in the day people did incredible things and their kit was nowhere near as light and efficient as the gear today. (I am sponsored by most of the gear companies that I name here.)
Spending more than a year here instead of three months, a lot of my own personal gear was worn out; much of the gear and clothing was borrowed from local Chalten climbers!
The gear I took was:
—10 days of food
– –Breakfast and dinner: mostly mashed potato and Polenta with dried vegetables, cheese, dried mushrooms, spices, salt, freeze dried Lyo Food spinach, 1/2 liter of olive oil; 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.
— A couple of my freeze dried Lyo Food Sean’s Nettle Curry meals
– Lunch: nuts and dried fruit, hard cheese
— Small stove and gas
— hard shell jacket
— Galvanised pant
— Grade 7 down jacket
— R1 layer
— Nano Air Jacket
— 2 capilene T-shirts
— Capilene base layer pant
— 3pairs of socks
— Couple of boxer briefs
— Down sleeping bag
— Kalipe approach shoes
— Instinct climbing shoes
— Sleeping mat
— Backpack and haulbag
— Aluminum crampons
— Gully Ice Axe
— 1 ice screw
— Lead rope and tagline
— Double rack and extra carabiners
— 6 slings
— 5 quickdraws
— 3 micro-traction pulleys
— Leaver gear
— Toilet paper, tooth brush, headlamp
— My tin whistle
I finished with four days’ worth of extra food, 250 milliliters 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!
My bag was too heavy. I did not weigh it. It was certainly too heavy to climb with.
When day and time did you start?
Sunrise of February 5.
How much of the traverse did you rope-solo versus free solo?
I rope-soloed all of the climbing, and free soloed some of the scrambling. But my bag was too heavy to climb with.
How much of the terrain was rock climbing versus snow travel versus ice climbing?
Mostly rock. The only snow was the glacier approach to Ag. De l’S (1 kilometer), and the ice on the summit of Fitz Roy and Guillaumet (plus or minus 300 meters)
Any scary moments?
I certainly didn’t take the most efficient route all the time, and made some mistakes in itinerary.
Rock fall put three core shots in my rope on day one.
The 50-degree ice to reach the summit of Fitz Roy was very scary with aluminum crampons, one ice axe and one ice screw… any slip would send you all the way down. I think steel front tips on the crampons would be safer.
What kind of weather did you have?
Mostly sunny days, but as I was climbing south faces in the Southern Hemisphere most were in the shade. Temps were fine, a couple of windy days.
I was forced to stop rappelling early and stop for half a day because of strong winds on the way down off Fitz Roy.
Best moment of the traverse?
All of it. Being up there on my own, climbing in the sunrise, stunning views.
What was the hardest peak?
The one inside of me.
Any moments where you were just over it, ready to be back down?
No, I would have kept going if there was more.
You had your tin whistle up there right? Did you jam a bit?
On every summit, every bivy, and some of the cols.
How long did it take you in all?
What do we call this? The Reverse Fitz Traverse? Are you going to dub it anything else?
I think I’m going to call it The Moonwalk, in reference to the dance move where it looks like you are moving forward but you are actually moving backwards. Also because of the stunning landscapes and atmosphere, and because it is the opposite of what Tommy and Alex did.
Who was the most helpful in preparing for this adventure?
Mother nature, all my friends and climbing partners here in El Chalten, my main climbing parter Nicolas Favresse with whom I’ve shared many adventures and who helped shape the climber that I am today.
I had gear from Mecha, Juan-Pablo Collado, Lucas Corbalan, Colin Haley.
The day I left, when I told what I was planning to do to local guidebook author Rolando Garibotti, he immediately pulled out all his best gear and clothing to replace some of my worn out stuff!
You’re known for technical big-wall free climbing in Patagonia, in Baffin, in Pakistan, etc. But not necessarily as much for solo missions. What do you like/dislike about going solo? Do you think you’ll do more in the future?
I love being alone up there, living in the present moment and enjoying the experience. It is therapy for my mental disorders. If the call comes, I might answer.
Is there any way to top this? People are going to expect big things from you on your birthday every year now!
Haha! It didn’t feel that bad, I don’t know if I was just very lucky with conditions or just well prepared.
I made some lucky decisions which turned out crucial. Everything just fell right into place and flowed.
I certainly was not very efficient logistically and strategically. I was just going up there to spend some time on my own and enjoy the experience.
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