Articles - Interview: Nico Favresse
Nico Favresse. Photo: Ben Ditto
Andy McCue - Posted on 01 Aug 2011
Belgium might be a pretty flat country but it's spawned one of the world's most adventurous big wall climbers, the mandolin-toting Nico Favresse.
Favresse and his brother Olivier were introduced to climbing as teenagers in the 1990s and Nico's talent was evident, quickly making his mark on the competition circuit in Belgium. But it was a trip to Yosemite in the US opened his eyes up to big wall climbing that has taken him around the world to the likes of Greenland, Baffin Island and Patagonia in the pursuit of adventure. Favresse is no slouch on the sport climbing and bouldering front either, with some impressive ticks to his name, including a repeat of La Reina More (F8c+) at Siurana in Spain and Cobra Crack (F8c) in Squamish. Climber magazine caught up with Favresse from Chalten in Patagonia, shortly after he had completed another impressive ascent.
(Nico Favresse on pitch 22 of Riders on the Storm, Central Towers of Torres del Paine in Patagonia. Photo: Olivier Favresse)
You took advantage of a rare Patagonian weather window this February (2011) to make the second ascent, on-sight, of El Corazon up the East Face of Fitz Roy with Sean Villaneuva in a single 36 hour push. Tell us more about it.
We chose the route because it’s one of the best looking faces I have seen in Patagonia. We had tried a few years ago to repeat Royal Flush but we were back down because if the bad weather. We chose El Corazon because it follows, personally, the best line on the face but also because it held more unknown aspects than Royal flush. It’s mostly all perfect splitters on really good rocks and you can even see it looking at it from the glacier.
We mostly followed the line of El Corazon but, to avoid some wet sections in the first part of the route, we decide to start with the closest good looking dry line which is the Ferrari route. We followed it for about five pitches before joining back to El Corazon with a couple pitches of Royal Flush and a couple new variation pitches in order to connect it all together. From there (pitch12 of El Corazon) we climbed to a pitch before the A4 pitch (pitch21). From a free climbing perspective it looked easier and more logical to traverse into the crack lines left which is Royal Flush. From here, after a few pitches, Royal Flush joins El Corazon all the way to the top.
We climbed the whole route switching leads both of us free climbing each pitch (without the use of jumars). Our strategy was to climb non-stop to the summit so that the climbing would keep us warm through the night and so we would not need to bring any bivvy gear. At 3am we stopped on a little ledge for a couple hours to melt some snow and eat some warm liquids to refuel with energy.
The whole route is amazing with mostly perfect cracks on a beautiful piece of rock, pretty comfortable to protect. We were quite surprised that the ascent went as smooth as it did. The route is very sustained in the 5.10/5.11 range with a couple 5.12 cruxes.
When did you get interested in big wall and adventure climbing?
After almost 10 years of climbing exclusively sport and bouldering I felt ready to explore new things. All my climbing trips had their little adventure spice so I guess that could have been the indicator of the potential to bring the climbing to another level of adventure. That’s what big wall is all about. First in 2003 Sean [Villaneuva] and I went to Ratikon in the Alps. I had never even done a route longer than three pitches long before. During 10 days in Ratikon we filled ourselves with multiple epic adventures which brought our emotion while climbing to a new level. From then on the track was set. We would go next to Yosemite and then Patagonia and beyond.
You have a long standing climbing partnership with fellow Belgian Sean Villanueva. How important is a strong climbing partnership in what you do?
For big adventurous routes, it’s the most important! When the vibe is good, I climb a lot better and can feel more together with my partner. It’s crazy because the very first time I climbed indoor I met Sean who was also beginning and since then we haven’t stopped climbing together especially on the big adventurous climbs. I think I was able to evolve much quicker having a solid partner like Sean. We just threw ourselves at stuff with Viking spirit and saw the results. At first we had a lot of epics but fortunately luck was often on our side and we quickly learned from our mistakes.
You must have had to train a lot in your early days, especially when you were competing. What kind of physical conditioning/training do you do nowadays for big wall climbing?
For the past six years I haven’t spent more than one month in one place (except for this last winter I spent two months in Belgium) so I haven’t really been able to train. I just climb on rocks according to my daily motivation. Before expeditions I try to run regularly. I usually go with long periods where I do lots of sport and bouldering and then when my shape is at its top I go for bigger and more adventurous things. After each expedition, I get pretty tired and it takes me a while to be back at my best. So there isn’t anything too sophisticated in my training.
(Ben Ditto, Nico Favresse, Sean Villaneuva jamming mid way up the Central Tower of Torres del Paine during the first ascent of the East Face via the South African route. Photo: Ben Ditto)
Ethics are rarely a clear cut black and white subject in climbing but what's your general approach to style and ethics for your projects?
It’s all subjective. I just try to do my best according the local ethics and my personal ethical beliefs. For me, like you say, there isn’t one way of doing things. Every case/route is different and there is a lot of room for grey area. That’s why it’s important to think well before acting. But always the best option is to keep things as clean as possible. So, ideally, no bolts, no pitons, no slings left behind, no chalk nor rubber on the rock. But that’s just an ideal that would be pretty hard for most climbers (of course including myself) to follow. What is important is to keep that in mind as an ideal and I never think that the way I do my climbing is the best and only way. There is always room for evolution. And the evolution as I see it should lead us to learning how to enjoy climbing with a minimum impact. Climbing should always feel like a pilgrimage.
When I try to free an already established route, what is crucial for me is to respect the original route. And respecting it, for me, means to keep it as much as possible the way it was originally put up. The person who opened the route has made a series of choices in the way he/she opened the route for people to experience it a certain way. For me a lot of the time this extra challenge contributes a lot to the enjoyment of the free climbing. By adding bolts to a line, in most cases it totally changes the experience of climbing it. It reduces in most cases the experience to the physical aspect of the climbing. Especially for aid climbers where the difficulty is so much related to the protection you get and the fear factor. So for me adding bolts on an already established route is definitely not respectful, even at belays! On the other hand, in my own view, I would encourage any action to clean certain routes from bolts and pitons when the evolution of the gear doesn’t justify their use anymore.
When an aid line seems 'impossible' to me and I find a variation from the aid line that goes free, I tolerate myself to add a 'minimal' amount of bolts if I can’t find any other ways of protecting myself (even this is very subjective when you see how certain climbers protect themselves in certain routes in the UK) and that I am far enough away from the aid line so that someone aid climbing the aid route could not reach the bolt or get confused thinking that the route might go that way. As you can imagine it’s not always so clear. Sometimes your personal limits force you to headpoint some of the scarier pitches or just wait for somebody stronger/bolder to do it. Usually it makes it pretty difficult or almost impossible to repeat such routes ground up. I would hope, and I would look up to them, that other climbers wouldn’t even allow themselves to place bolts even on a variation. For me placing a bolt is always a form of weakness where the climber chooses to reduce the challenge and experience that the rock can offer.
Adventure and the search for unexplored new routes seem to play a big part in your climbing rather than just hard grades?
It feels like something much more complete and satisfying where everything comes together in one big exploration adventure. Playing with the unknown is what excites me most.
(Nico Favresse. Photo: Ben Ditto)
You're pretty hot on the guitar and mandolin as we've seen on some of your videos. How important is playing music to you, and do you take your instrument with you on every trip?
For me music is almost as important as climbing. It’s the perfect balance with climbing. I take my instruments everywhere I go. Sometimes it’s hard but so far I have never regretted it. It’s such an amazing thing to be able to let you mind go free on an instrument after a good day of climbing!
What are your future plans – more remote big walls, more sailing?
I think I’ll spend my first summer in Europe for the past six years. I want to climb in the Alps, and in the Picos de Europa in Spain, boulder, sport climb. This time I’ll be cruising in a van instead of a sailboat. Next winter I should be ready for something big. Getting back on the sailboat is definitely one of the future plans.
We've seen you really running it out in big bold pitches and you've taken a fair few big falls in the process – which has been the scariest?
The scariest of the scariest was this last summer in Greenland. I fell 20 metres in a factor two fall with a body-sized boulder on a slab with ledges. The anchor broke partly and both ropes got coreshots but miraculously I was fine! I really thought I was going to die. Fortunately I was lucky to have a Joker left. It was a very easy section and I guess I was feeling a bit overconfident. It was important lesson for me.
What other ambitions do you have in life outside of climbing?
To play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix!