Siebe Vanhee defies Patagonian weather to free-climb an old aid route

Team climber Siebe Vanhee tells us about the second ever free ascent of Patagonia’s “El Regalo de Mwono”.


The Place

I'd wanted to visit the famous bigwalls of Patagonia for several years. I dediced the summer of 2017 was the time, regardless of the weather - which can be really bad.  Together with two of my Belgian friends Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll and Nicolas Favresse we organised an expedition towards Torres del Paine, Chile.

The Route

Sean and Nico had been in Patagonia several times before so they came up with the objective of our trip: to make the first free ascent of an old aid climb called 'El Regalo de Mwono' which is graded VI/5.10/6a/A4. This stunning line follows an obvious, but thin weakness through a fairly steep part of the east face.

It was first climbed in 1992 by a British team consisting of Paul Pritchard, Simon Yates, Sean Smith and Noel Craine. At the time, the first ascensionists climbed the whole line without placing any bolts using only removable aid gear, a style our team really appreciated.

However, the crack looked very thin and with supposedly a lot of knife-blade nailing it was very unlikely that we'd do it free. But the only way to be really sure, was to take a look and put our nose right up against the wall. 

The Climb

We'd wanted to get onto the wall with the portaledges as soon as we could, but because of the weather we were forced to spend three days fixing ropes on the lower slabs, which were often wet or snowy.

When we finally made it onto the wall with the portaledges, our first camp was above a comfortable ledge at pitch sevn. A few days later we moved to an impressive hanging camp at pitch 13, right above the two crux pitches of the climb. The unstable weather, the wind, the cold temperatures, the snow and iced-up cracks made the free climbing very challenging and on the days that we actually managed to climb we'd only be able to do one to three pitches, before racing back to the portaledge for shelter and getting the blood circulating again in our fingers and toes. A lot of time was spent inside the portaledges reading, playing music, meditating and doing yoga. One memorable moment was Sean’s birthday party which was celebrated with popcorn and music.


The Food

We tried to defy the Patagonian weather but in the end we had to postpone a summit push until our 15th day on the wall. The problem was, food-wise we were only prepared to stay 15 days on the wall, but descending didn't feel like and option - L13 still had to be free-climbed in order to reach our goal of free-climbing the entire route.

On our fourth extra day on the wall, during a weather window of two hours, barely good enough to free-climb, we managed to free-climb the last crux pitch and make it to the summit.

Hungry but incredibly satisfied we descended in the rain. After 19 days on the wall, rationing and experiencing bitter cold we were excited to be on the ground, uncontrolled and wably our legs brought us back to our cave. 

The Reward

Although we didn't expect such an outcome a month earlier, we were happy and satisfied to have free-climbed 'El Regalo de Mwono' at a grade of 5.13b (8a). The whole climb went free on removeble, but thin, protection. This way we respected the ethics of the first ascentionists 25 years earlier, which is also a style we like.

about siebe vanhee