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The Moonwalk Traverse in Patagonia Receives a Piolet d’Or

Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll completed the monster alpine traverse earlier this year, after being in the region for more than a year

The 2022 Piolets d’Or awards will take place from Nov. 18 to 20 in Briançon, France. The award will go to two ascents, with one being by Archil Badriashvili, Baqar Gelashvili and Giorgi Tepnadze from Georgia for their first ascent of the northwest face of Saraghrar Northwest in Pakistan. And the other award will go to Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll of Belgium for his Moonwalk Traverse of the Fitz Roy Range in Patagonia. A special jury mention goes to Nikita Balabanov, Mikail Fomin and Viacheslav Polezhaiko from the Ukraine for the first ascent of the southeast ridge of Annapurna III (7,555 m). Silvo Karo from Slovenia will be receive this year’s Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Moonwalk Traverse is more than 5,000 metres long and was graded at 6c 50°. It follows the Fitz Traverse, which was first climbed in 2014 by Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, but in reverse. It was climbed from the south to north, starting on Aguja de l’S and ending on Aguja Guillaumet, from Feb. 5 to 10 in a bold solo push Villanueva O’Driscoll, who got stuck in El Chaltén in the early pandemic lockdowns.

The project, over five kilometres in length and with more than 4,000 metres of total elevation gain, would follow the skyline from Aguja de l‘S, over Aguja de Saint Exupéry, Aguja Rafael Juárez, Aguja Poincenot, Aguja Kakito, Cerro Fitz Roy, Aguja Val Biois, Aguja Mermoz, Aguja Guillaumet Sur, and finally Aguja Guillaumet. Villanueva O’Driscoll took a light pack, a small haul bag (which later broke, becoming unusable), 10 days of food, a sleeping bag, a small tent and tin whistle. The starting weight was nearly 30 kg.

On the first day, the single lead rope he was using sustained three core shots and only just lasted to the end of the traverse. Not much later he lost cams when a gear loop broke. He climbed free, mostly on-sight, and self-belayed with a Grigri on all but the easiest (scrambling) pitches, resulting in him covering most of the ground three times. He carried no communication device and due to the quiet nature of the mountains at that time, met only three other teams. Patagonian veteran, Colin Haley, felt it was undoubtedly the most impressive solo ascent ever made in this region.

The Piolet d’Or jury felt this was an elegant and sustained line, which had been attempted or conceived by several parties, although no one appears to have considered it for a solo outing – an adventure unattainable for most climbers. Whilst, apart from a few pitches, none of the terrain was new, the style was outstanding, combining technical climbing, endurance, mental commitment, and considerable Patagonia experience. There was admiration for the optimistic attitude, at first when the country was brought into lockdown and then on the initial stages of the route, when faced with gear damage and loss.