While many ascents have been thwarted by turbulent weather during Patagonia’s austral summer season, Belgian climbers Nico Favresse, Siebe Vanhee and Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll managed to squeak out a 19-day free ascent of the 1200-meter route El Regalo de Mwono–originally VI 5.10 A4 when first climbed in 1991-’92, now 5.13b–on the Central Tower in the Torres del Paine.
“This is undoubtedly the climb of the season, in fact it is much more than that, it is one of the hardest big wall free climbs in the Great Ranges,” said Rolando Garibotti, a longtime climber, author and historian of the area.
On January 31 the men left the ground with 15 days of food and climbed capsule style, establishing portaledge camps at strategic points that they only moved higher after they felt they’d made enough progress. The unpredictable weather slowed their efforts, and they celebrated Villanueva’s birthday on the wall with popcorn and music. On Day 15, they topped out the route for its third ascent, but they still hadn’t free climbed one of the two 5.13b pitches, so in spite of their depleted food rations and a flight that they ultimately missed, they decided to spend more days waiting for a chance. On Day 19 they admitted defeat and prepared to go down, but then the weather cleared just enough for Favresse to redpoint the thin-crack and face climb.
“The first seven pitches are around [5.10] and kind of run out,” he said. “[The route] climbs the slabs on the bottom to a ledge. After that the wall gets steep and the pitches go in the following order: [5.10d, 5.11a/b, 5.11d, 5.12a/b, 5.13b, 5.13b, 5.11c, 5.12b, 5.12d, 5.11a, 5.10d, 5.10b]. Then the following five pitches to the summit are around [5.10a] but with plenty of snow and ice to spice it up. Because it’s granite we graded the pitches like it would be in Yosemite so some people who are not used to [that style] might find it hard for the grade. But we find it most accurate because that’s were we learned how to climb granite and big walls.”
Favresse said that earlier stories inaccurately reported the overall grade as 5.13c.
In Patagonian lore, “Mwono” refers to a type of mythical yeti or “snow man.” Thus the route’s name roughly translates as “The Gift of the Snow Man.” According to a blog about “Patagonia Monsters,” the creature is said to be “a peaceful being who would only hurt those who dared to enter its territory.”
An interview with Nico Favresse:
How does this experience compare to other alpine big walls you’ve done–have you pushed it that hard for so long in bad weather before, and also been successful?
This is definitely the longest I have pushed it on a wall climbing hard pitches in such poor weather. When we climbed the Kyzyl Asker in the Kokshaal-Too mountains in China, we also had a really hard time, but it was mainly because of the extremely cold temperatures. Every night it was at least -15 Celsius and during the day -5 degrees. Since that experience, every time I get on a wall I keep comparing it to [that], thinking, That’s nothing compared to our experience in China. In the morning we would melt water for the day, and by midday it would already be a block of ice! In China I was slightly frustrated because the cold didn’t allow me to express myself in the climbing. It was more just fighting through the cold temps.
Here in Patagonia, the conditions were really hard, too, but in a very different way. Of course it was cold and windy most of the time we were climbing, but besides that the main difficulty here is that the weather changes so quickly it’s really hard to anticipate it. Sometimes we were in a raging snow storm and would think, today it’s a rest day, then half hour later the sky would clear completely and we would think, it’s time to climb, but then an hour later the storm would be back. And these fast radical changes could happen three times in one day, never letting you relax around the idea of either climbing or resting!
Can you tell me more about freeing that final crux pitch on that last day? I imagine numb fingers, an empty, aching stomach, gobied skin–what was going through your mind through all that, from the moment you decided to give it that last effort, to the moment you realized you were going to do it?
Waw yes!!! After so many days of working out the moves but not being able to give it a try (because of the temps being just too cold) and the idea building that there could be one and only one chance to succeed at it, there was a huge pressure, in some way maybe similar to free soloing something. I think I have never thought and rehearsed in my head the moves of a climb so much! The day I redpointed it, it was our 19th day on the wall and that same day in the morning, the wall was plastered, the wind was very strong, the temps were really cold and we had completely run out of food. We wrapped our heads around the fact we would be one pitch short from freeing the entire climb, and as we started packing up, the wind became not as strong and the temperatures went up a bit as the sun shone through the clouds. Finally there was our chance! But don’t get me wrong–it was still cold and windy but just slightly better than the other days. Luckily we had set our portaledges as close as possible to the pitch so that we could get really warm in our ‘ledge and rap in with climbing shoes on, tie in and climb.
In the end it’s just one pitch, and the idea of freeing a climb is kind of an artificial game we set for ourselves. It feels that way, even more when it’s not the climbing itself that’s the crux, but rather the suffering caused by hard conditions or the lack of food. But still it’s good to win at our game and even more when it was hard to win. I was so relieved to redpoint that pitch and to feel that now we could go down feeling good about it.
It’s also for me the nicest pitch of the whole climb, and it would have been such a pity not to be able to have a real try at it. I redpointed this pitch, but Siebe was also very close to sending it, and Sean sent the crux pitch below. We all worked hard and it all contributed to the ascent. In such climbs with such conditions, it’s not always relevant to point out who sent what because in the end it was more a question of luck being at the right place with the right conditions.
Can you describe the crux pitch?
It follows a very thin crack–too thin to put fingers inside. Sometimes the crack was slightly offset so we could layback it and other times the easiest [way] was to climb onto the face. It is runout but mostly because the protection is very thin (mostly micronuts) and tricky to place. The crux is a section were you have to climb onto the face on small sloppy edges but [it’s] not crazy far away from your last protection (maybe 5 meters away).
Can you describe your nutrition strategy, or what kind of food you brought along and how much?
We planned for a maximum of 15 days on the wall. Breakfast was oat with a mix of seeds and dry fruits. For lunch we had mostly nuts, dry fruits, homemade coconut bars and cheese. And for dinner we had some lyophilized [freeze-dried] food. We really started rationing around Day 13 on the wall, but we were still hoping it would go fine so we didn’t ration too much. Basically on Day 15 we ate half the food we had and on Day 16 half of the half, and on the Day 17, half of half of the half and so on. Fortunately we had also a bit of extra food, such as mashed potatoes, polenta and some creamed coconut, so we could add a bit to the [reduced servings].
What was the best part of the trip, besides freeing the entire route (it sounds like you three friends had a pretty good time on the wall)?
For me it is where [my] mind brought me when stuck alone in my single portaledge. It felt like some kind of therapy, cleaning my mind and taking perspective about my life.
What was the hardest part of the trip?
Probably trying to figure out why I chose to set myself in such suffer-fest.