41 pitch Patagonia route 'Riders on the Storm' receives First Free Ascent

© @_drew_smith_

On February 9th, a team consisting of Siebe Vanhee, Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll, Nico Favresse, and Drew Smith, made the first free ascent of the Patagonian big-wall route, Riders on the Storm. 

&copy@_drew_smith_  © @_drew_smith_

The route, on the East Face of the Torre Central in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, saw its first ascent back in 1991, by Kurt Albert, Wolfgang Güllich, Bernd Arnold, Peter Dittrich, and Norbert Bätz. The team spent fifteen days on the route over a five week period, eventually establishing the line at 7c, A3.

Nico and Sean made a trip to Patagonia in 2006, and managed to free some of the aid pitches, but not all of them.

With 41 pitches up to 7c+, Riders on the Storm covers more than 1200 metres of varied and demanding climbing, ranging from delicate and runout face climbing to wide cracks and roofs. The team, who spent eighteen days on the wall and carried a month's worth of supplies with them, alternated climbers throughout the ascent, meaning that whilst each pitch was freed, no one climber freed all of the pitches. 

They reached the top via a variation discovered by Mayan Sith-Gobat and Ines Papert in 2016, which bypassed the sixteenth pitch of the route, and thus allowed them to climb the entire route free. 

&copy@_drew_smith_  © @_drew_smith_

See below for a statement from Siebe, Sean, Nico, and Drew, sent to us earlier today:

February 9th, 2024, we stood there again, on the summit of Torre Central (2460m) of the Torres del Paine. Two days after Sean's 43th birthday, 7 years after the first free ascent of 'El Regalo de Mwono', 18 years after Nico and Sean climbed Riders on the Storm for the first time. We stood there, wind in our faces, after having done the first team free ascent of Riders on the Storm in capsule style spending 18 days on the wall.

'Riders on the Storm' is one of the legendary alpine big wall routes first ascended by Kurt Albert, Wolfgang Güllich, Bernd Arnold, Nobert Bätz and Peter Dittrich in 1991. This obvious king line of 41 pitches, climbs 1300m up the center of the East face of the Torre Central. In the last 33 years this masterpiece has never been entirely freed. One of the major hurdles was the hard aid climbing and big pendulum across a blank face on pitch 16. In 2016 Mayan Smith-Gobat, Ines Papert and Thomas Senf discovered a possible 5 pitch variation at R13 that would make the route go entirely free. Mayan returned in 2017 with Brett Harrington and Drew Smith aiming for an all-free ascent. Unfortunately, they were pushed back by the intense Patagonian weather.

Riders on the Storm Topo  © @_drew_smith_
Riders on the Storm Topo
© @_drew_smith_
Riders on the Storm  © @_drew_smith_
Riders on the Storm
© @_drew_smith_

Extreme weather conditions are often the biggest challenge for free climbing in Patagonia. In 2023 Siebe teamed up with Jacopo Larcher and Brette Harrington to give it a try. Like Mayan and Brette, they got shut-down by wind, rain and snowstorms. This year Siebe came back with Sean, Nico and Drew Smith.

"It was as easy as one single message; "Hey guys, I want to try to free Riders, are you psyched for another sufferfest?" – Siebe

On the 15th of January we walked into the park with heavy loads of climbing gear and food. We prepared for 1 month of autonomy. We shuttled our fat pigs to basecamp, Campo Torres, and the base of the wall. During the first 9 days in the park, we managed to climb one and a half days, making it to the top of the pillar at pitch 13. On the 24th of January, a short window without too much wind gave us the chance to commit to the wall in capsule style. "We either get wet on the first day or on the last", said Nico. We hauled and set up camp barely beating the storm that rolled in at 7pm. It was game on! The next few days we quickly managed to freeclimb the new free variation in harsh conditions, freeing the crux at about 7c+. Day 6 on the wall we rallied to pitch 26, the famous 'Rosendach' roof. From there we only needed one good day to go the summit.

But it's not called "Riders On The Storm" for nothing and when all the windows closed The Doors began to sing. Seven days later we still hadn't gotten passed the roof. Several attempts were made to climb but they were shut down by freezing temperatures and rime covered rock. The only progress made was Nico red-pointing pitch 23, a mega struggle in icy conditions, cleaning the snow off the crimps while freeclimbing. Most time was spent reading, playing music, having book-discussions, popcorn parties and melting snow. We also got several visits from 140km/h invisible trains. Patagonian winds never disappoint.

"Every time I climb this wall I remember what a masochistic experience it is to free-climb here" - Nico

On day 14, we made it through the roof and continued free-climbing the last difficult pitches. At nightfall, only 6 'easy' pitches from the summit, we got shut down by snow and heavy spindrift avalanches (heavy for us simple rock climbers). Another 2 days then were spent in 'The flying carpets' (our portaledges).

&copy@_drew_smith_  © @_drew_smith_

Finally, on the 9th of February we crawled out of our tumble-driers and climbed the remaining pitches to the summit.

Once again, we squeezed through the eye of the needle, taking advantage of every little opportunity, working as a team and feeding on each other's motivation. This is the third free route on the East face of the central tower of Pain(e) (with South African route 2008, El Regalo De Mwono 2017). Each one of them is absolutely world-class quality and one of the reasons this wall keeps calling us back.

Besides being an indispensable member of the team, shutterbug and Montana hard man Drew Smith managed to capture not only the pain, struggle and glory of the ascent, but also the sobbing. More to come.

This trip wouldn't have been possible without the help of the kind Chileans: Jorge Ruiz, Seba Rojas, Hernan Jofre, Hernan Rodriguez, Seba Pelleti, Yonatan Araya, Nico Secul, Ocho and Ruth of the Redpoint Hostel and all the guardaparques at Campo Torres. Also, many thanks to Rolando Garibotti and Mathieu Ménadier for weather forecasting.

&copy@_drew_smith_  © @_drew_smith_

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19 Feb

Had to go one day...great team for it to go to!

Amazing stuff!

Siebe Vanhee gets about thought he was on the Dawn wall!

20 Feb

Regarding the "team free ascent" in capsule style, I actually really like that it got done this way! It's closer to how us mortals might approach a multipitch route, and it shows what an absolutely mind-boggling challenge this route must have been for them.

Now they just need to go back three more times to lead each other's pitches :D

20 Feb

Up until a very small number of years ago it would simply have been called a "free ascent", as the somewhat odd fashion for doing each pitch multiple times with different leaders, or dragging a dedicated belayer up with you, hadn't caught on.

20 Feb

I guess this depends what you mean by a small number of years, it certainly became a talking point some time between PP and TS freeing the Salathe (1988) and Huber making the second FA (1995)

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