I first met Sean Villanueva-O’Driscoll in the rapidly receding tidal wave of the Millenium Bug panic back in 2000, when we were all asking, “What was it we were worried about again?” He was a floppy-haired 19-year-old at the end of a world climbing trip, his elbows riddled with tendonitis brought about by an insatiable appetite for climbing that left not enough time for rest. He had a curious accent that reflected his mixed half-Irish, half-Belgian heritage, although we all liked to tease him that he was half-French, half-American, which he hated, a fact that obviously encouraged us to tease him even more.
Back then Sean was a super-talented sport climber who could onsight 29 (relatively rare then), but he also had a streak of incredible boldness in him. I wasn’t there the day he did it, but he onsight soloed the first ascent of the big face opposite Ammagamma at the Citadel, apparently only just stringing the line together – which must be at least 12-15 metres high and probably around grade 25.
He had some interesting verbal tics, the most strange being one that had been taught to him by an American climber, who whenever Sean had wanted to ‘take’, had refused to let him sit on the rope unless he shouted out (very unPC-ly) “My pussy hurts.” Perhaps because English was his second language, Sean had taken this phrase and applied it elsewhere – so that any failure, falling off a boulder problem for instance, would invoke him screaming “My pussy hurts!” at the top of his lungs.
All those years ago Sean had an irrepressible, infectious enthusiasm for life, and from what I can gather nothing has changed in that regard. Since that long-ago Grampians trip he has gone on to become one of the most adventurous and successful trad climbers around, climbing hard routes all over the globe, usually with the same core of climbers from the Club Alpin Belge Rock Climbing Team, from hard trad lines in the UK, the first free ascent of the Central Tower of Paine in Patagonia (via the South African Route), climbing big-wall first ascents off a yacht in Greenland to his most recent trip to climb big-walls on the tepuis of Venezuela – all of which inspired us to have a short chat to him.
What inspired you to visit Venezuela’s tepuis?
I had read some stories and seen pictures of big-wall climbing in Venezuela and the steep rock with jungle ambiance looked very different to anything we had done before (mostly big granite walls either in the Arctic or the mountains). So it had been my list of ‘places to go’ for a while. Then British climber and tepui veteran, John Arran, got us really excited when he told us stories about “possibly the most overhanging big wall in the world with plenty of potential for hard free climbing”. It was time to go check it out.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you got up to while you were in Venezuela?
A tiny plane flew us to the remote village of Yunek (100 inhabitants), in the tropical grasslands of Venezuela near the Brazilian border. Then there was a three-day walk through savannah and jungle, with ten porters who were very amused by our ignorance and lack of survival skills in such terrain. We mistook sticks for poisonous snakes, we thought every strange sound was either a monkey or a tiger, we couldn’t get a fire started in the humid environment and the fish just refused to go near our bait.
We spent the next month or so wrestling with vertical vegetation, hard climbing on iron-hard compact quartzite, and the occasional decomposing choss pitch. In the end we put up two new routes on the 500m overhanging wall of Amuri tepui. On both ascents we spent about ten days hanging in the vertical world, trying to find a free line in this maze of overhanging rock. The climbing was hard, physical and exciting.
I hear you took a massive whipper – what happened and how big was it?
The wall is so overhanging that it gives you a little more confidence to commit to long unprotectable sections of rock. On the second pitch, after I had run it out enough to make my cojones shrink to the size of two shrivelled raisins, I finally found a nice horizontal break filled with vegetation. Pumped out of my brain but desperately hanging on, I managed to scrape out the dirt with my nut tool and place three ‘bomber’ cams, which gave me the confidence to keep moving upwards. Holds got smaller, protection worse and then I reached a small wet crimp in the middle of a blank wall. I decided to ignore the wetness, but it decided to spit me off. I went flying through the air with protection popping out like bullets from a gun. Most of them were really shitty placements, but I was really surprised when I heard the three bomber cams pop. At that point I knew I was in for a big one. My belayer Jean-Louis, wasn’t very happy about the situation as he watched me fly past him. When I finally came to a halt, I was stupefied at how close the ground was. I had just made the biggest fall of my life, it was at least 40m. I could hear Jean-Louis shouting, and at first I thought I had ripped out the anchor. Turned out he had really badly burnt his hands holding onto the twin ropes. To save weight we had decided to bring 7.1mm twin ropes, that combined with the gigantic fall, and the fact that I’m a lot heavier that he is, made it very challenging for him. I thanked him for not letting go. As for the three bomber cams…probably there was still some dirt in the crack. I’m still amazed they slid out.
You would expect that a big fall like that would pump you full of adrenaline, make you think a little bit, scare you. But I felt nothing. It could have been a two-metre fall; I just wanted to go straight back up and try it again. My friends were more horrified: they all thought I was going all the way to the ground. They said I screamed like a girl, but I don’t remember that part.
Is there an established ethic for climbing on the tepuis?
Because it’s such a wild place with such a unique fauna and flora it is important to have as little impact as possible when going climbing there. I think most climbers who go there are adventurous enough to understand this. We placed no bolts on the first route we put up, and we placed five bolts on the second.
Do you know if there is there much of a local climbing scene?
There is a pretty good climbing scene in Caracas; the capital of Venezuela. Besides having good sport climbers and competition climbers there are also some fanatic big-wall climbers who wander off to explore the tepui walls quite regularly. They have put up a fair number of routes. A good source of information is www.climtepuyes.com (in Spanish).
In more recent years you have been making films of your various trips, is there one coming out about this trip?
Yes, I’m busy editing it right now. We have a lot of really good footage, so hopefully I’ll be able to make something good with it. I’m really slow at editing, I’m kind of learning as I go along.
When I first met you all those years ago in the Grampians you were a sport climber – you have since gone on to do a lot of trad climbing, often in very remote, harsh environments, why did you move in the trad direction?
At the time I had no trad climbing experience. In fact some of my first trad climbs were in the Grampians. I guess I was really attracted by the adventurous aspect of trad. The experience just seems to be a lot more intense. It’s more natural. Also to be able to go to these incredible places and leave it as clean as possible is very rewarding.
You nearly always climb with the same bunch of guys from the Club Alpin Belge Rock Climbing Team. Can you tell us a bit about how you all started climbing together? Also, I am curious as to whether you guys ever get ‘cabin fever’ on big walls when you spend so much time together?
We all met in the climbing gyms back in Belgium, travelled a lot and evolved in our climbing together. We share the same adventurous spirit and passion for climbing. We’ve never had any big tensions when up on the wall. We’re too focused on having fun. We all know each other really well, we have a deep respect for each other and when somebody is down we know what to do to get him back up. We like to play music together and we have the same bad sense of humour, which helps to break any tensions. When we climb together it flows.
I know you guys love to jam while you are on big walls – what is your instrument of choice and who is the best musician among you?
Our musical instruments are an important part of our big-wall equipment and we’ll gladly leave behind some extra cams to be able to bring our instruments. They help us to stay sane when hanging in a vertical world for over ten days. I play the tin whistle, a result of my Irish roots, it’s easy to carry around and easy to learn. I never took any lessons or anything, it’s just something I started messing around on to kill dead time on expeditions. My buddy Stéphane Hanssens is a master on the pots and pans. The Favresse brothers both started playing music at a very young age. Olivier plays the accordion and brings his concertina on expeditions. Nico plays the guitar, and brings a Mandolin, Djarango or Guitalele. Don’t tell him I said this, but it’s probably without a doubt Nico who is the best musician amongst us. He can do anything on his string instruments. He’s also the one who encouraged me when I first started playing the tin whistle. I thought it sounded terrible, but he kept saying I was great. Recently he admitted that he encouraged me as an investment for the future. He says it paid off. My climbing partners no longer secretly put earplugs in their ears when I play on my tin whistle.
You can read more about Sean’s adventures at www.xpedition.be, he is sponsored by Patagonia and Petzl.