Belgian "Dream Team" climbs Central Tower of Paine



Nico on pitch 15 of Riders on the Storm.
Photos by Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse , Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte

I first met Nicolas (Nico) Favresse – the legendary 26-year-old Belgian sport climber cum big wall free climber, who has redpointed 5.14d, and onsighted 5.13d sport — at sunset, in the fall of 2004 atop El Capitan. Nico and partner Séan Villanueva were topping out a team all-free ascent of Freerider (VI 12d 32 pitches), for their first time up El Cap (and only second week trad climbing – straight). They were two days overdue, out of water, and desperately low on food, so my partner and I shared our provisions. During the last rays of light, Séan, also from Belgium and Nico exchanged the camera (they say “cam-er-aa”) and did Yoga poses – Steph Davis-style – on the lip of Freerider, with the lights of the Fresno valley peppering the background.

Riders on the Storm
Photos by Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse , Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte

After dinner, Nico pulled out his Djarango from one of their half-full haulbags, played a tune on the little guitar and sang. I asked Nico what language they spoke in Belgium. “Belgiumesh,” he replied, living up to his reputation as a jokester.

The next fall he was back, and I finally agreed to help him on his route L’appat (VI 5.13) on the Upper Yosemite Falls Wall (Hot Flashes, issue #245); this sustained testpiece remains unrepeated. Now, in February, 2006, Favresse and team have climbed the Patagonia route Riders on the Storm. In his witty, stylish way, he filled me in on the details of this and other Patagonian climbs with his partners Olivier Favresse (brother), Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte:

 



Pitch 13, advanced camp
Photos by Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse , Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte

1/19/06

“Yesterday, Séan (Villanueva) and I summitted the Central Tower in the Torres del Paine in pretty-bad conditions. We fortunately had luck with us coming down the wall (and our ropes didn’t get stuck). Now we’re all ready to get on Riders on the Storm [{7c, A3, 1200m; VII 5.12d, A3, 36 pitches on the seldom climbed 4,200 foot east face of the Central Tower of Paine, pronounced pah-eeneh] and spanning over a month and a half to establish in 1990-91 by Wolfgang Güllich, Kurt Albert, Bernd Arnold, Norbert Bätz and Peter Dittrich}.

My man! Good job on the Central Tower! Did you climb the Bonnington-Willians [VI 5.10+ A1, located on the west face, typically climbed in a day, and freed by Mike Pennings at VI 5.11b R], or by a different route?

“Yes, we did the Bonnington but in nasty conditions.”

Favresse jugging out from advanced camp.
Photos by Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse , Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte

2/16/06

“We’re really psyched because we just succeeded on Riders On the Storm. We did it in big wall style over an 11-day push on the wall. We freed everything except for three pitches (and two others we didn't redpoint). Sometimes ice was a big obstacle but we were able to get past these cruxes. Everything we deemed freeable for us except one pendulum. However we discovered a three-pitch variation to the right of the original line that might go free, but would be very hard, perhaps 5.13. The Portaledge was really nice to have. In one storm we flew in the air in the portaledge for many long seconds without touching the wall. After we tied it down, it was better. Time and weather conditions kept us from freeing everything. Three pitches are around 12d or harder. I redpointed one of them. It was an exceptional route, as good as the quality found on El Cap, and steep too. Here is the latest news from our expedition via a Team Patagonia write-up:

 



Nico on pitch 21.
Photos by Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse , Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte

It took us five days to approach and carry our gear to the route, and we spent 11 days on the wall without touching the ground – 11 incredible days, and what an experience.

We climbed between February 8th to the 20th, and all of us reached the summit at 7:31 PM. Before the wall, we left our base camp during a storm and made sure to tie our tents down, before we went back to Puerto Natales (the nearest town) to buy some food and have a little fiesta (partying). On January 27th, we hiked back up to our base camp in order to try the route. We were really excited and motivated during the approach to the base. We felt strong, and for the first time were looking up at the wall confident that we were capable of climbing this incredible line.

It was a very windy day. When we arrived back at our base camp later in the day after fixing the first few pitches our spirits were crushed when we saw that our camp had been destroyed by the winds. Our two tents were torn to bits and our gear was lying around all over the place exposed to the wind and snow. We looked around to see what was missing and hoped there was still enough gear left to continue with our project.

Séan Villanueva on one of the offwidths.
Photos by Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse , Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte

Courageously we started picking up our stuff. The wind was so strong we could barely stand. After a thorough search, we came to the harsh conclusion that Nico’s Djarango was destroyed, our two expedition tents irreparable, and the radio’s were no longer working, Mike’s sleeping bag and bivy bag were missing, and more than 2000 Euro (around $2400 dollars) in damage… Paf! Patagonia taught us the hard way. We wondered if it would still be possible to try Riders.

Oli had found a small cavity under a boulder where he had left his gear, which was untouched by the weather, but this spot was not wide enough to accommodate four people. Finally we came to the conclusion that our only possibility was to start digging out the cave to make it bigger. We dug like moles for two days and turned the small cavity into a true underground four-star hotel. Mike succeeded in borrowing a sleeping bag from a ranger, thus surmounting an essential obstacle. It was time to charge!

 



February 8, 7:31PM, the team on the summit.
Photos by Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse , Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte

The next day Oli and Séan climbed the first six pitches while Nico and Mike carried gear to the base. Two days later, after a 24-hour day, we arrived at the base of pitch 13, located 2100 feet up the wall, which contained a small ledge with some snow. This is where we set up our two portaledges and got ready for the second half of the route.

The day after we reached pitch 13, Mike and Nico advanced up to pitch 18. The rock offered us a variety of climbing from corners to small crimpers, incredible cracks, scary offwidths and chimneys; pure joy. The next two days the weather turned bad and we were forced to stay in our portaledges. After the storm cleared Oli and Séan succeed in climbing past the legendary roof to pitch 25.  Thanks to Séan’s technical talent and courage, the team succeeded in passing a major obstacle: a chimney with both sides completely covered in ice!  Oli took the next section, which contained incredible cracks with untrustworthy holds. At the end of the day they passed a great roof and then were forced back to camp at pitch 13 by a snowstorm. Having now passed the roof, we only needed one more day of good weather to reach the summit. Unfortunately we are forced to wait patiently in our portaledges for three days. The cold wind and snow made it hard to go outside, so we played music and cards all day and celebrated Séan’s birthday with half a chocolate bar.

The team enjoying the fiesta.
Photos by Nicolas Favresse, Olivier Favresse , Séan Villanueva, and Micke Lecomte

Everyday we went to bed early and systematically woke up to check the weather at 2AM, 4AM and 6AM. Food was running out. On February 8th, the wake up call sounded at 2AM: the sky was covered in stars! Oli and Nico tackled the first couple of pitches after the roof (pitches 25-31) while Mike and Séan redpoint the legendary roof. Nico succeeded in getting past three sketchy pitches covered in ice and snow, and Oli was forced to advance the next two pitches in aid as a result of ice and a running waterfall. Séan and Mike took on the last couple of pitches, which lead towards the summit. The will to get to the top drove Mike to quickly climb and the next three pitches he dispensed with. Next came a short snow patch, which required him to use crampons and an ice axe. Séan tackled the last pitches to the summit and carefully overcame incredibly loose rock and brought “The Patagonia Dream Team” to the summit! We were happy to have fulfilled the dream and to still be alive after this incredible adventure.

We carefully descended back down to pitch 13, and tried our best to make sure our ropes didn’t get stuck. On two occasions we are forced back up to free our ropes that got jammed. Exhausted but happy, we arrived at basecamp at pitch 13 at 2AM. The next day we awoke to a snowstorm, which forced us to stay put for one more day. The rest of the rappels to the ground seemed more dangerous and delicate than we expected (we still aren’t sure if we found the right line) but finally, at 4AM, we arrived sound and safe back at our underground base camp or as we like to call it “Campo Belga” (Camp Belgium). After arriving to the ground, we noticed the glacier had changed a great deal during the 11 days we were on the wall. After cooking ourselves a well-deserved meal and getting some sleep, we carried all of our gear down. It took us two days to get back to the entrance of the park where we finally jumped on the bus, which lead us back to Puerto Natales. It was an absolutely thrilling experience and we are all enormously happy to have lived through this adventure. We’re now in El Chalten (Argentina), and a couple of days rest will probably be needed before we tackle our next adventure.”

 



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