AS a 40th birthday present to himself, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll recently reached Patagonia’s highest peaks, making him the first solo climber to do so.
It was a remarkable feat by this adventurous Irish-Belgian professional climber, whose mother is from Kilcrea, outside Ballincollig, while his father is Spanish.
Sean was brought up in Belgium and studied sports science at the University of Brussels. He has always considered himself Irish and spends Christmas in Cork with his relatives, visiting them at least twice a year.
As birthday presents go, traversing the forbidding peaks of Fitz Roy Massif in South America, comprising 4,000 metres of vertical gain in six days, wasn’t exactly a cake walk. But Sean is in the business of challenging himself and taking risks.
“I was inspired to go and have an adventure,” he tell me on a Zoom call from Patagonia in Argentina, where he has been living since lockdown 13 months ago.
Attracted to remote and difficult locations, Sean has climbed new routes in Pakistan, China, Greenland and Venezuela as well as several in Patagonia. Does he experience fear when taking on these expeditions?
“Of course, there has been some fear. It’s all part of it. But not mostly. There have been some exceptions where it was scary. There are some places where you’re not allowed to make a mistake or any slip up or you’ll fall all the way down.”
Has he ever nearly lost his life?
“There have been a few times when my rope was nearly cut. The biggest fall I ever had was on a rock face in the jungle in Venezuela. I fell 40 metres. Various protections I had placed in the rock came out. So that was a very big fall. I didn’t break anything. It was a very steep wall. The rope caught me just in time. I was very lucky.”
Luck is a recurring theme in his Patagonian adventure. “I was very lucky with lots of things, including the conditions. Here in Patagonia, the weather and conditions can be very bad. The rock can be very icy and full of snow. You don’t get a lot of good weather days in row. But I had six days of good weather.”
Sean says the idea for climbing Patagonia’s iconic mountain range “popped into my head a year ago. So I had lots of time to think about it and to prepare, even though I thought it was never going to happen.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get a good enough weather window to try it. But it didn’t hurt to dream about it. I started visualising what it would be like.”
On the climb, Sean focused on staying in the moment, concentrating hard. “I was doing some breathing exercises. If you let your mind slip up, you can make a mistake and things could turn really bad, especially when you’re alone up there.
“There’s no rescue team so if you do something stupid like break a leg, there is nobody coming to your rescue.”
Every morning, while on the climb, Sean meditated for ten to 15 minutes. “I tried to bring my mind to the present and focused on any feelings, sensations or sounds. If I saw any thought popping up, I just acknowledged it and let it go. I’m not Buddha or anything. I just try to be present.”
Sean, who is renting a caravan in El Chalten, an Argentinian mountain village, says his family used to worry about his job, for which he has sponsorship. “But I think my family is kind of used to what I do now. I’ve been climbing since I was 13 so they’ve kind of accepted it. They’re happy I get to follow my passion.
“For a long time though, I don’t think my relatives knew what I was doing. I have a cousin, Mick O’Driscoll, who used to play rugby for Munster and for the Irish team. My relatives could understand what he was doing and that he was a professional rugby player but they could never understand what I was doing. ‘You do what?’ they’d ask.”
Part of Sean’s work involves public speaking and showing videos of his ventures. To chill out, he plays the tin whistle, even bringing it on his mountain climbs. His main climbing partner plays guitar. The two men like to play music to relax.
“If you’re stressed or whatever or the weight of the mountain is on your shoulders, you can take out the tin whistle and play it a little. It grounds you and reminds you to have fun.”
Sean keeps himself fit. “I train every day and I’m careful about what I eat. I don’t eat any sugar and I don’t drink.”
He says Patagonia is “one of the best places for climbing big rock walls. I came here last year with my climbing partner. Then he left, the pandemic came and I got stuck here.”
But it’s a happy place as far as Sean is concerned. He has been there a number of times. And now he has fulfilled his dream to summit all ten peaks of Fitz Roy Massif. He has named his climb ‘The Moonwalk Traverse’.
What’s next for this pioneering man?
“Things are kind of complicated in the world now so I’m not really sure what’s next. Everything depends on Covid.”
One thing’s for sure. Next time Sean meets his Cork relatives, he’ll have plenty to talk about now that he has climbed into the record books with his daring solo expedition.