Smoking pot behind a restaurant with Grandpa Chongo bouldering with Beth Rodden and her talented son, or Pepa’s encounter with Alex Honnold and his wife Sanni. In Yosemite, one can never run out of famous climbers to meet. You just never know exactly how to act when someone like that appears right in front of you. Instincts can drive a fan to instantly take a selfie with the climber and then run straight to hers or his friends bragging with the photo. But even the most famous climbers are still quite normal people, living in the same world as us mortals. So I’m trying to overcome my shyness and get to know them s equals. To find common grounds.
One afternoon we were descending from a failed attempt at „Misty Wall“. Walking among the boulders in front of the camp, a climber tackling one of the problems caught my eye. He was grasping a sloping edge in a very particular way. I’m always interested in good climbers, of course. So we walked right by him and turned around to see his face. Of course, I was right! „Wow, it’s Nico Favresse!“ said I to Pavel excited and surprised. „Sure,“ he replied, quite unenthusiastically. He didn’t have a clue who that was.
„Yes, it is Nico,“ confirmed the woman who was spotting him. Nico turned around in the exit and greeted us with a smile from ear to ear. I was embarrassed to drop the bag and climb with them, my interest would have been too obvious. So I just smiled nervously, turned on my heel and went to cook a dinner. I was happy with the thought that I would surely meet him again one day.
Two days later, Pavel and I again walked around the boulder, this time upwards, for a second attempt at „Misty Wall“. I regretted that I had probably missed one chance of a lifetime to meet my greatest big-wall idol. A few minutes later I got an excited text from Pepa Little about bouldering with Alex. “Hmm”, I envied him a little. That didn’t help any.
The next scene took place almost a month later. Already in the dark, Tim and I were pulling freshly packed and ultra heavy haulbags on fixed ropes to the Heart Ledges. We weren’t the only ones, but everyone else had made it before us and were now already rappelling overhead. „They say Nico is up there,“ the rumour spread through the wall. And indeed, after a while, the headlamp and the shaggy hair of the Belgian climber emerged from the darkness. There was a brief exchange as he helped me swing the luggage over to the correct side:
„Yeah, it’s our first time ever hauling, so we’re not very good at it.“ „Haha, yeah, I was here with my friend Sean (Villanueva – big interview here) years ago I also climbed ‚Freerider‘ and it was also our first bigwall – we made all the mistakes possible, I remember it too well,“ said Nico seriously.
„How about you? When do you want to start climbing tomorrow? What are you planning?“ I asked. „I’m here with my girlfriend who is a ‚bigwall virgin‘ like you and we’re going to climb the ‚Golden Gate‘. We’ll start when we get up,“ he replied, laughing, and disappearing into the darkness.
The next morning we got up very early, frightened by the rumours of a crowd queueing at Freeblast (the first ten pitches of the „Freerider“, ed.) and it took a good hour before the first climbers appeared below us at the start. We were about halfway up and the sun was frying us on the wall when I saw small figures approaching the start of the route below. It was before dusk when Nico finally peered out onto the mammoth terraces, surveyed the situation and let out a loud, guttural „HOO!“ Tim and I looked at each other and returned the greeting without hesitation. So this special greeting went quickly viral on the wall and in a couple days the hooing and hooting was heard throughout the wall whenever someone successfully climbed a pitch. We watched them from the so-called Lung Ledge, where we were already slowly assembling our portaledge. „You have a nice spot there!“ he shouted at us as the ever-smiling Maria joined him.
They camped on the less friendly Heart Ledges, where everyone pees before they start rappelling down the fixed ropes. After dinner I told Tim about my first, somewhat wasted meeting with this climbing legend and we agreed that this time we would not let the opportunity pass us by. We slept just above them, so we used our vertical advantage and raided their position.
I arrived rather timidly and disturbed them at dinner, but soon I managed to break the ice when I handed them my fork – they had left their cutlery at the foot of the wall. In addition, they also missed spare batteries for their headlamps, cell phones and Maria dropped a bucket on her way. But of course, Nico didn’t forget his iconic mandolin. Nico might be the most successful big wall climber, but he looks anything but professional. It is not afraid of disorder, mistakes and a pinch of chaos. He always seeks adventure, pleasure and amusement. Nico’s a bit of a climbing circus guy. He performs various stunts, but the goal is to entertain and surprise, first of all himself, and only then everyone else around him. For instance, if he falls off a boulder, he stomps his foot theatrically and shouts: „Damn shoes!“ I never once saw him angry.
That evening I asked him about the pros and cons of living as a professional climber, and how he got started. He said he always just did what he enjoyed, never worked outside of climbing, although sometimes he had to live truly lowcost. When he and Sean made their first film, there was a lot of interest and gradually offers of sponsorship came in.
„We had the advantage of knowing what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. And that it’s important not to get sucked into conditions that don’t suit you.“ He also said: „The more you take, the more you have to give, so sometimes it’s better to take less.“ That sentence truly inspired me. That’s exactly why I like Nico – he prefers freedom above everything else. In return, I told him about my beginnings on the sandstone and about Adršpach, where I hope he will arrive someday.
Anything he did and said, he always seemed so relaxed. The next morning he turned up at our place after climbing a pitch including probably the hardest move of the whole ‚Freerider‘. I asked what it was like. „Yeah, I had to squeeze my ass a little bit.“ We heard brave Maria grunt below and Nico just leaned over to me and let out another professional tip: „You know, when you have climbed El Cap seven times and you want to have a bit more adventure, take your girlfriend.“
I found that Nico has this a power to entertain and infect everyone around him with his humor and lightness. When our haulbags stuck about the tenth time, Nico appeared and with a crooked smile exclaimed: „Ah, the Bigwall pleasures!“ They were following close behind us during the whole second day and sometimes had to wait while we struggled with our ropes. Lots of other climbers would have been cursing and pressing on us in such a situation. But Nico always seemed chilled and only dropped a couple of jokes: „Aah, our bigwall virgins.“
At El Cap Spire our paths diverged and we wished each other luck. Nico climbed all the key pitches on his second attempt and once again stood on top of that large boulder in the valley, this time with his girlfriend. He didn’t even bother to share the success anywhere. He’s really doing it for himself and he’s as free as a man can be.
I was lucky enough to spend a whole week with them later in Bishop, where we bouldered, tried natural hot springs, local beer and dumpster diving with other friends.
Today I can say that Nico and Maria are my friends and I look forward to meeting them again.