Top 10 Expeditions of 2021, #5: Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll Solos Patagonia’s Fitz Traverse

Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll was part way through day one of six on what would become one of 2021’s most notable ascents when he thought it was already over. Patagonia’s Fitz Traverse (performed backward, cheekily called The Moonwalk Traverse) almost ended on the second of the route’s seven summits.

O’Driscoll was executing a routine gear haul at a belay on Aguja St. Exupery. So far, everything was going according to plan. But as he jugged the load up toward his position with his only climbing rope, a few rocks cut loose from the wall. Secured to the cliff above the rockfall, O’Driscoll was safe from physical harm. Whether or not his gear would be trashed when he hauled it to his stance was a different story.

Sure enough, the trundled blocks had punched three core shots into the 60m rope. The experienced Belgian big waller needed all 60m to finish the route.

“When I saw the core shots, I thought, ‘This is it. I’m not going to get much further,'” O’Driscoll said.

Five days later, on February 10, he stood safely on the ground at the other end of the Fitz Roy Massif. After six kilometres of terrain and 3,962m of elevation change, his rope had finally given out — on the last rappel of the outing.

O’Driscoll’s 40th birthday was three days earlier. Now, he celebrated what would become one of 2021’s most talked-about ascents.

“Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll has just made the 2nd ascent of the Fitz Traverse (and the 1st ascent of the Reverse Fitz)…solo!” said veteran alpinist Colin Haley. “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.”

 

What are core shots? How could they almost kill ‘Moonwalk’?

If you don’t know what a core shot is, here’s how it works. A climbing rope has two distinct parts, the core and the sheath (traditionally, the “kern” and the “mantle”). The core gives the rope the strength to hold falls or resist breaking under load. The more tightly-wound outer sheath protects the core from abrasion. A core shot is a cut or tear in the sheath deep enough to expose the core.

climbing rope core shot

A core shot. This rope should be cut or retired.

 

Every climbing rope is rated according to specific safety standards — with a core shot, all bets are off.

Back on Aguja St. Exupery, O’Driscoll evaluated his compromised rope. He also had a 6mm, 60m tagline (only suitable for body weight, not climbing). Otherwise, the core shot rope was his only option. Whether he decided to move on or turn around, he’d have to rely on it. The question was, how long could he keep the sheath from fully coming off the rope, leaving him with only the tagline?

According to O’Driscoll, he didn’t overthink it. “I thought, ‘I’ll just see how much farther I can go,'” he said. “So I put some tape around the core shots.”

Somewhat amazingly, the repair held up over five more summits of alpine granite and ice. The only associated challenge, O’Driscoll said, was unweighting the rope to delicately pass the taped sections through his belay device.

‘Fitz Traverse’ context and antecedents

Regardless of rope damage and O’Driscoll’s successful management, he still faced a steep challenge. Before his attempt, only Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell had ever traversed the massif.

fitz traverse

 

The difficulty of the climbing (6c free, 50° mixed/ice) and the sheer amount of ridgeline terrain make it hard enough. And historically, the severe Patagonian weather has rendered it next to impossible.

Caldwell and Honnold won the Piolet d’Or for their 2014 ascent. Climbing between February 12-16, they traversed the massif from north to south. During their weather window, climbing the sunny north faces was critical — typically, conditions on Patagonia’s colder south faces are far more prohibitive. (Note that in the Southern Hemisphere, the south faces are the cold ones.)

But O’Driscoll’s strategy panned out. After spending a year (semi-voluntarily) marooned in Patagonia because of COVID-19, he didn’t miss his weather window.

“A lot has to fall into place for something like that to happen. To get six days [of good weather] in Patagonia is a miracle in itself,” he said. “The conditions were right. When Tommy and Alex did it, conditions were very different. Tommy was asking me, ‘How was it possible to climb those south faces?’ because the cracks were so full of ice and so hostile. But when I did it, there wasn’t much ice, and it wasn’t too cold.”

A Patagonia COVID year inspires the climb of a lifetime

O’Driscoll seems to refuse any sensationalism regarding the accomplishment itself. But he’s more talkative regarding the circumstances that made him able to do it. COVID-19 hit the world at the tail end of his and frequent partner Nico Favresse’s 2020 Patagonia trip. Favresse left on schedule, but O’Driscoll’s return flight got canceled.

The two (along with a few other compadres) share a camaraderie that tends to produce impressive climbing. Alone in his rented caravan with winter approaching, O’Driscoll thought about what he could accomplish.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, go climb something big on my own. The biggest thing I could think of to do was the Fitz Traverse,” O’Driscoll said. “Honestly, when I thought of it, I thought ‘It’s impossible. It’s really stupid.’ But I grabbed the guidebook and started seeing what it would look like to link everything up. Just dreaming and not thinking about it too much. But that started to happen pretty frequently, and I noticed myself getting excited. Then I started to believe in it.”

The idea lit a vital fire. In the Patagonian winter, nights are long and cold, but O’Driscoll shrugged off the malaise with vigor.

“I started running, climbing, and bouldering,” he said. “Just to train. Just in case I got the weather window. Then I put gear and food in the bag that I would grab if a decent window did come.”

Though active, O’Driscoll’s attitude was casual. Opting to minimize pressure on himself, he prepared methodically, without expectations. When good weather arrived, he pounced.

Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll soloed the Fitz Traverse

On the North Face of the Eiger, previously. Photo: Frank Kretschmann

How to do the Fitz Traverse ‘Moonwalk’: style, music, and a good attitude

Maybe he downplays the climb due to how relatively smoothly he seems to have done it. A lot can happen during almost 4,000 vertical metres of climbing and rappelling. After the rope incident on day one, The Moonwalk Traverse was relatively uneventful.

On day two, O’Driscoll popped a gear loop and lost some cams. After a short day three (his birthday), he stood at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. Some of the climb’s last harrowing moments took place at the top, where he negotiated the 50° summit ice fields in his approach shoes with aluminum crampons.

After that, some route-finding and logistical details produced unexpected delays. But O’Driscoll rappelled into Paso Guillaumet safe and sound — if at the literal end of his rope. He packed up the cord, with a few metres of the core now exposed, and headed to the Rio de Las Vueltas for a swim.

Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll after the Fitz Traverse

The celebratory (and undoubtedly bone-chilling) swim.

 

Of course, the notoriously musical O’Driscoll used his creative abilities to remain psyched during the experience on the Fitz Traverse.

“I had my little tin whistle with me, so I was playing music to entertain myself, and I would sing songs,” he said, laughing slightly. “If anybody had seen me up there, they would think I had completely lost my mind. I probably looked like a mad man at some points up there.”

Peel back a layer or two, and his superficially playful attitude reveals a bedrock of alpine savvy.

“If you’re enjoying yourself in the moment, it gives you physical strength,” O’Driscoll explained. “Even in the hard moments, I was reminding myself that it was important that I enjoy every single momen. If you’re not enjoying yourself, you lose that physical strength. I think that’s something very, very powerful.”

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.


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Don Paul
Don Paul
4 months ago

Looks like a good place to be trapped by the pandemic.

Tom W
Tom W
3 months ago

There’s an interview with Sean on The Cutting Edge podcast (American Alpine Club) which covers the traverse: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/sean-villanueva-odriscoll-the-moonwalk-traverse/id1315631849?i=1000515037949&l=it