I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville



Mar 02, 2017

‘The Belgian Beasts’ Send One of Patagonia’s Hardest Free Routes

Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Nico Favresse and Siebe Vanhee spent 19 straight days on the East Face of the Central Tower in Torres del Paine in Patagonia.


Michael Levy

They endured sub-zero temperatures and harsh storms, but also nabbed the first free ascent of an immaculate 1,200 meter granite climb with difficulties up to 5.13c. Their ascent stands as one of the hardest big wall free climbs to date in Patagonia.

Waking up on their nineteenth consecutive day on the wall, high on the Central Tower in Torres del Paine in Chile, Belgian climbers Nicolas ‘Nico’ Favresse, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll and Siebe Vanhee were out of food. They were cold and tired of being lashed by wind and snow. Nico had already missed his flight home to Europe. And, perhaps most frustratingly of all, they were one pitch shy of completing the first free ascent of El Regalo de Mwono, a 1,200 meter route up the East Face of the Central Tower.

19 straight days of this. Photo courtesy of ‘The Belgium Beasts’

And then, suddenly, a break in the weather arrived. “When we woke up on day 19 we were like, ‘We’ll go down today,” says Nico. “We started getting getting ready to go down. But then it cleared up. Around midday the wind died down, the sun got warmer.” The climbers were drained, but the pitch was begging to be tried once more. They decided to give it one final attempt.

Photo courtesy of 'The Belgium Beasts'
Photo courtesy of ‘The Belgian Beasts’ – Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Nico Favresse and Siebe Vanhee

Nico and Sean have been climbing together for over 20 years. “We know each other really well,” Sean says, “We barely have to speak to communicate.” They are two of the most accomplished big-wallers around, and have taken their free climbing prowess (Nico, for example, established The Recovery Drink, a 5.14 single-pitch trad climb that is a contender for the hardest crack in the world) to blank rock faces hundreds of meters above the ground.

They have shared portaledges, cramped bivvies, sailboat cabins and all manner of other accommodations on their many expeditions together, from Baffin Island to Venezuela to previous climbs in Patagonia.

la ligne
The line on El Regalo de Mwono. Photo courtesy of ‘The Belgian Beasts’

In 2006, Sean and Nico climbed the famous Riders of the Storm on the Central Tower in Torres del Paine, in Chile. Then in 2009, they upped the ante by making the first free ascent of the South African Route on the same tower. In 2011, Sean and Nico made a first free ascent on the East Face of Fitz Roy in Argentina in a marathon 30-hour push. Sean says they keep returning to Patagonia, and to the Central Tower more specifically, not only because of the grandeur of the walls, but because “the quality of the rock is just incredibly good for free climbing.”

It was while they were climbing the South African Route that they first saw El Regalo de Mwono. El Regalo de Mwono was first climbed in 1991-1992 by Paul Pritchard, Sean Smith, Noel Craine and Simon Yates at the grade of VI 5.10 A4. It had only seen one repeat in the intervening years, and neither of the first two teams had freed the climb. Sean say, “It’s a really obvious line. Pretty much a crack system from the bottom to the top, cutting the whole tower.” Neither Sean nor Nico had particularly high hopes of freeing the entire line—there were some very thin cracks that looked too difficult—but they reasoned that it would be a great adventure nonetheless.

To round out the team, Favresse and Villanueva O’Driscoll recruited Siebe Vanhee, a climber ten years their junior. “I’ve been looking forward to an adventure with Sean and Nico for a couple of years, so it was great to be with them,” Vanhee says.

‘The Belgian Beasts’ staying true to their name.

After several days ferrying supplies to the base of the climb and fixing ropes up the first seven pitches, the Belgian team committed to the wall on January 31. They climbed “Capsule Style,” meaning they created a portaledge basecamp on the wall, and moved said camp higher only once they had made enough progress.

The advantage to remaining on the wall as opposed to retreating back to town to seek shelter was being able to climb at a moment’s notice. “A lot of the weather windows we had were only two or three hours,” Nico says, “which is enough to climb one or two pitches if you’re already on the wall. Sometimes there would be a snowstorm and then 30 minutes later blue sky, and you’d get hopeful, only to have bad weather again 30 minutes later. And sometimes this would happen three times in one day.”

Photo courtesy of ‘The Belgian Beasts’ – Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Nico Favresse and Siebe Vanhee

After a few good weather days to start, intermittent snow and storms became the status quo. When the weather would break, they’d push their high point slightly farther. Somewhere in the middle of the wall they encountered what were clearly going to be the two hardest pitches. “The first hard pitch is a dihedral with lots of stemming,” Sean says. “No holds, mainly friction stemming, and a big hard move right at the end.”

The second hard pitch, which comes immediately after the first, consists of “very sustained face climbing,” he says. “It’s probably 5.13b or 5.13c.” Sean freed the first of these two crux pitches, but the second wouldn’t yield to any of the climbers’ attempts. The opportunities they had to try the pitch were few and far between. “Sometimes there was just one hour when the sun would start to heat up the rock a bit and the wind would die down and we’d have a chance to try it,” Nico says.

So rather than toil away on the lone pitch that was stymying their progress, they moved onwards and upwards toward the summit.

Photo courtesy of ‘The Belgian Beasts’ – Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Nico Favresse and Siebe Vanhee

Portaledge-bound for long stretches of time, the climbers entertained themselves and kept sane in various ways. Favresse and Villanueva O’Driscoll have a penchant for “jam sessions,” as they put it, playing instruments that they bring up the walls on their expeditions. Villanueva O’Driscoll plays a mean tin whistle, and Favresse can hold his own on the guitar. Joined by Vanhee on the mouth harp, they turned the East Face of the Central Tower into the biggest concert stage on earth.  “We were playing pretty much everyday,” Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll says.

They brought up several books with them. “Mostly spiritual and psychology books,” Sean says. “I read all the books twice. I think Nico was the only one who was complaining about the books. He prefers novels.”

There was also a birthday party on the wall. Sean turned 36, and all three climbers crowded into one portaledge for a celebration, replete with popcorn and a jam session.

Nico says, laughing, “As a present we gave him some cannabis tea and some aphrodisiac powders to put in his breakfast. We ended up drinking the tea every morning, but honestly I don’t know if it had much effect.”

Sean Villanueva, Nico Favresse and Seibe Vanhee play music to pas the time while waiting out a storm in the Belgium bivy cave near the base of the Torres. Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile.
Sean Villanueva, Nico Favresse and Seibe Vanhee play music to pas the time while waiting out a storm in the Belgium bivy cave near the base of the Torres. Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile. Photo by Drew Smith.

On their fifteenth day on the wall, the weather was impeccable. They pushed to the top on that day, February 14, nabbing the third ascent of the route. But they were still one pitch shy—the 5.13 crux pitch—of claiming the first free ascent. On the day they topped out, Nico says, they had the “equivalent of one day’s food left.”

There was some talk before about going down, but as a team we decided we’d try to stick it out as long as possible. 19 days was as far as we were willing to push it.

Three-and-a-half days of bad weather followed their successful summit push and made climbing impossible. On the morning of February 18, hungry, tired and planning on heading back to the ground, the weather cleared. “We had no food left, even after rationing for four days and barely eating,” Sean says.

“We just wanted to get down,” Nico says. But the possibility of finishing the free ascent was too alluring to pass up. “Staying and climbing was really the edge of masochism.”

With a short, two-hour window of clear weather and temperatures hovering around freezing, conditions were just good enough for Nico Favresse to send the crux pitch. With the first free ascent of El Regalo de Mwono complete, the trio started back toward the ground; still tired and hungry, but thoroughly elated.

Over the course of their climb they had lost a lot of weight, endured numb toes and fingers for hours on end, and gone stir-crazy waiting in their portaledges. But the end result was all worth it. “It was a proper battle, a proper fight!” Sean says.

“For me the greatest thing about this trip is that it didn’t ultimately feel like a long time on the wall,” Siebe says. “We were up there for 19 days, but in the moment you’re so obsessed with the climb and trying to reach the top, that time passes completely differently. It was a really complete trip and adventure, in the end.”

Feature image of three very happy ‘Belgian Beasts’


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Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.



Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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