A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon



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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Sep 17, 2018

“Frack”-tured Community: Colorado Plans to Alter the Future of Natural Gas Drilling

The grassroots initiative, which Boulder voters will see on the ballot come November, would mandate a state-wide, half-mile “buffer zone” of fracking wells from occupied buildings.



Kela Fetters

Hydraulic fracturing, known colloquially as “fracking”, has been controversial since it became the widespread method of shale gas production over the past decade. The technique involves pumping millions of gallons of highly-pressurized water and chemicals into deep shale formations to proliferate cracks and free gas for extraction. On Colorado’s crowded Front Range, where land is a premium, active wells operate within arm’s reach of houses, schools, and other occupied structures.

Fracking proponents say that the practice has drastically increased U.S. natural gas production, lowered energy prices, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions via displacing coal burning in electricity generation. Opponents of fracking cite many potential health and environmental hazards of the practice including methane leakage, groundwater contamination, radioactive wastewater, and well fires.

significantly more likely to have a low birth-weight baby

According to Colorado Rising, a grassroots non-profit committed to exposing fracking’s health and safety concerns, fracking’s toll on public health outweighs the economic benefits. Research from the Colorado Public School of Health indicates that proximity to fracking operations poses serious risks to health and safety. Among these risks include exposure to cancer-causing toxins such as benzene and air pollutants. An analyses of public health research at the University of Chicago examined correlation between prenatal health and proximity to fracking wells and found that mothers living within a half-mile radius of active wells were significantly more likely to have a low birth-weight baby than mothers who lived farther away. This half-mile radius, incidentally, is the amount of buffer the ballot proposition would require.

The research is preliminary, however, as it cannot definitively prove point-source contamination. To date, no double-blind studies have ever linked fracking directly to low birth weights. But according to spokesperson Anne Lee Foster of Colorado Rising, “Weld County is the most fracked county (host to over 23,000 wells) and has twice the still-born rate of other Colorado counties”. She claims the spike in still-borns occurred in 2009, after a 2008 influx in natural gas drilling. But the list of environmental hazards does not end with carcinogens. The Colorado Rising report also condemns fracking’s environmental toll. Their briefing states that because of methane leakage, “…fracking, transporting and burning natural gas for electricity is likely as bad as or worse for climate change than coal or oil”. The jury is still out on this claim. Granted, fracking is energy-intensive and petrochemical-dependent, but burning natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as burning oil or gasoline. Methane leakage in drilling and pipeline transportation is minor, though Colorado Gas & Oil industry officials and public health activists like Colorado Rising disagree on the amount and impact of leakage.

Despite its controversy, there are approximately 50,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado, many of them concentrated in Boulder and Weld Counties. Under current legislature, fracking operations can take place 500 feet from an occupied home and 1,000 feet from a school building.

do Colorado residents share Foster’s precautionary mindset, or are the economic gains too good to forgo?

Public demand for an expanded mandatory buffer zone from occupied buildings compounded after a 2017 incident in which an open gas line from an operating well leaked into a Firestone home, causing an explosion that killed two. Colorado Rising wrangled over 172,000 signatures for their “Safer Setbacks from Fracking” initiative, which was subsequently approved for November’s ballot. The regulation would underscore the burgeoning research on detrimental public health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing—research that Colorado’s oil and gas industry might call inchoate and inconclusive. It would increase the mandatory buffer zone between oil and gas wells and occupied buildings to 2,500 feet—a move that the Colorado Petroleum Council has deemed “job-killing” and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association has said risks “more than $1 billion in taxes for schools, parks, and libraries, and our nation’s energy security”. And Weld County, situated on potent shale, has benefited from the incursion of jobs and money brought by the industry’s presence in the area.

The future of Colorado’s oil and gas sector is up in the air, and the proposed initiative would significantly reduce the amount of viable drilling land in populated regions of the state. As Anne Lee Foster summarizes, “the general consensus is that negative health impacts are possible, and it’s best to err on the side of caution”. November’s vote will tap into the metaphorical shale deposits of public sentiment towards fracking; do Colorado residents share Foster’s precautionary mindset, or are the economic gains too good to forgo?

Special thanks to Anne Lee Foster, who was interviewed for this piece. The Colorado Oil and Gas Board did not respond to request for commentary.

Cover photo courtesy of Brett Rindt.

Resources and Further Reading: A Denver Post report on fire and gas explosions, political commentary by Colorado Politics, a public health report by Colorado Rising, The Colorado Rising website, A Popular Mechanics article on 10 Most Controversial Claims About Natural Gas Drilling, A New York Times article,

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