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15 Years Ago Doctors Gave This Guy 6 Years to Live. He Just Bolted A New Crag.

In this essay, Klaas Willems reflects on the struggles of living with cystic fibrosis during a pandemic, and discusses his decision to travel to climb despite the risks.

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This year I teamed  up with my friends from Nannai Climbing Home to bolt and develop a new sector in the sport climbing paradise of Ulassai, Sardinia. After a  few windy days, skyhooks to the forehead, and a core shot rope or two, a new area—Bauarena—was born.

Wait what!?! You’re enjoying yourself while OTHERS are suffering during the pandemic?

The Bauarena sector in Ulassai, Sardinia. Photo: Ruben Beckers

Before you rally the troops and grab your pitchforks, let me explain the situation a little more. In terms of climbing tourism, Ulassai is a ghost town because of Covid-19 travel restrictions. The crags are deserted and the Nannai guesthouse is empty, leaving my six friends that run the place without work. As far as my life goes, this quaint little village has become my safe house, where I have sought refuge throughout the pandemic. 

But there’s more to it than that. You see, I am in a more immuno-compromised state than the vast majority of people out there. I’m a climber who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. Contracting Covid-19 would pose a serious risk to my health of the most serious type. So I take serious precautions.

As well as a constant battle with CF, my body has been through the wringer over the years. I’ve undergone regimens of chemotherapy twice, and radiotherapy once, in separate battles with cancer. 

Clearly, avoiding Covid-19 is imperative for me. So why take any risk at all in traveling to Sardinia? Through the years, I have discovered that climbing is the most effective treatment for slowing down the effects of my CF. Though one day CF will lead to my inevitable death, I find that climbing—in combination with medication and respiratory therapy—is the main thing that keeps me alive. 

So how do I balance the selfish needs to climb with the selfless societal sacrifices demanded by a pandemic? It is a delicate balance, and it is not a simple equation, certainly.

The author on Seven Cakes (8a/5.13b), Ulassai, Sardinia. Photo: Ruben Beckers

2019 Was Not My Best Year

Thumbs up for the final chemotherapy session back in 2012. Photo: Peter Racquet

I spent the summer of 2019 in a Belgian hospital, following a rather unpleasant visit to Germany. I fell seriously ill and was rushed to a German hospital in an ambulance, yet for some bizarre reason was refused treatment and kicked out. Fair to say that the German welcome was lost on me. Three days later, I (or at least what was left of me) made it back to Belgium, where I went to the hospital for tests, tests and more tests. The results: a high fever and an FEV1 lung test of 25%. For reference, 100% is a
set of healthy lungs, and even in recent years I still clocked in at 60%. A lung function of 60% is like living your entire life— sleeping, socializing, exercising—with a mask on. So 25%? Imagine living your life with a pillow strapped over your mouth.

Once out of the hospital, I focused on what I could change. I set out to revive my lung capacity back to 60% during the rest of the year.

After an entire year of training, my lung capacity was up to roughly 52-55%… that’s only half a pillow over your face! With CF patients, lung capacity naturally deteriorates over the years, and it’s next to impossible to restore, so 52% is as good as it’s likely to get for me.

This was far from my first brush with my own mortality. Rewind to summer 2012 and I was on my way to a routine hospital check-up prior to a planned Yosemite trip a few weeks later. The result: cancer, and an empty seat on a plane bound for America”s finest big walls. In a single moment, dreams of cracks and crimps were gone, and rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy were thrown onto the survival menu. I had no control over the situation. All I could do was let it happen and see what remained possible afterward.

I stayed sane by making future plans in the hope that one day they might come to fruition. Sounds similar to pretty much everyone during the pandemic, right?

When The World Stopped Turning  

When the outbreak of an infectious disease that ravages your lungs swept across the globe in 2020, it definitely inspired a worry or two within me. Back in Belgium, people weren’t complying well with coronavirus restrictions and guidelines, which only amplified my worries. Combine this with the fact that sport and fresh air are a crucial component of  keeping my lungs clean, and being locked down in Belgium quickly became a living nightmare for me. As soon as travel was permitted, I fled to my Sardinian safe house as quickly, safely, and (importantly) legally as I could. I have been in Ulassai ever since.

The author on the first ascent of Isolati dal Mondo (8b/5.13d). Photo: Jonas Kappler

Calculated Risk

Nothing in life is risk free. If I had contracted Covid out here, I would have been too far from  home to see my doctors, who know my particular medical history. Still, I had a far better chance of  continuing sport during the pandemic, and the air quality is incomparable. The polluted city air of  Belgium, with traffic jams stretching as far as the eye can see, is a far cry from the fresh, crisp, mountain air blown in to Ulassai by the mistral winds. I wanted to stay in one place  throughout the pandemic, and Ulassai became that place.

Ulassai is a tiny village, populated with many elderly people. The village folk follow the Covid-19 guidelines to the letter to keep themselves, and the people around them, safe. There is a sense of unity and connection here that a big city seems to lack. The person I see in the aisle the supermarket is either my friend or my friend’s son/daughter/mother/father—everyone knows everyone and everyone cares for each other. Even pre-Covid, social distancing was somewhat natural in this little, sparsely populated village. Overall, Ulassai felt like the perfect place to sit tight and wait for the vaccine to roll out. 

For many, making a change like this during the pandemic simply wasn’t possible. I realize this. But that’s the thing with life: it rains on the just and the unjust alike. My world would be a pretty dark place if I spent my time focusing on how others are healthier than me; rather I try to stay thankful for the modicum of health I do have and for being able to climb and be in beautiful places.

While I am unlucky that the mask-wearing, social-distancing world was all-to-familiar to me, I still sympathize with those for whom it was a new concept. It’s a scary time for everyone. Yes, we all feel like we’ve been dealt a bad hand. A bit like me in that German hospital, where their poor decision cost me half my lung capacity. At times like that, life doesn’t feel very fair; but we  must try to keep our heads above water. 

During the pandemic, I am happy to have found a good solution for myself, and I deeply regret that not everybody was able to find this, too. 

The authors sister Jolien came to visit him in Ulassai in 2016. She also had CF and her immune system was very weak— bacteria could kill her so Willems had to wear a mask close to her for the last 12 years of her life. She lost the fight with CF one month after this photo. “Her motivation and clear headedness inspired me to keep fighting and stay positive,” writes Willems.

Building Bauarena

Having arrived in Sardinia, I now had the time, energy and resources to devote to a new project, and worked within the coronavirus guidelines of the region to develop the new crag that became Bauarena.

Everything involved in developing a new sector depends on and involves the climbing community. We wanted to use the highest quality, sustainable bolts—so the costs quickly started adding up. But thanks to help from the community, along with sales of the guidebook, we were able to avoid leaving huge runouts in the name of budgeting. Nannai has a neat system to help fund new route development: individuals can sponsor a line by donating the price of materials used to bolt it, and in return they get to name and grade it.

When bolting, we strived for quality over quantity. We did the job properly, so that nobody will have to come and finish cleaning our lines, or rebolt them in a couple years. To guarantee longevity, we used pure epoxy glue to ensure the bolts stand the test of time. We also spent hours— even days—jumaring up and down, cleaning all the loose rock and flakes to make the lines safe and fun for all. This took many working hours, but luckily free time was been in no short supply during the pandemic.

Group-size limits? I went bolting alone. Travel restrictions? I walked to the wall. Many things have been restricted during these times, but bolting solo is not one of them. It has been a haven for me.

The Selfish and the Selfless

On a personal note, developing new sectors like this is a way for me to give some thing back to a sport that has given me everything. Fifteen years ago, when doctors told me I only had six years to live, I changed my priorities: I vowed to spend as much time climbing outdoors as I could. And, as I wrote earlier, doing so has literally kept me alive. I’m well past my expiration date, yet this fine wine is yet to turn to vinegar!

Looking back, my health and my climbing have been intertwined in countless ways over the years. Each one proved a valuable lesson. Ironically, I’ve had my worst climbing endurance when I had my best lung function. Over time, I’ve learned and discovered ways to get stronger and work some of the weaknesses out of my broken body. I’ve learned so much about handling these rusty old lungs through my climbing, and gained mountains of experience from it all.

I hope to give others the opportunity to have the same valuable experiences as me in the world of climbing: bolting beautiful lines feels like a way to do that. It seems a good way to balance the selfish with the selfless. Here in Ulassai my partners and I bolted routes from 5.5 to 5.15, hoping to make it a place for climbers at both ends of the grade spectrum. 

The end of this pandemic is not yet in sight. It will be part of our lives for a while yet, whether we like it or not. It’s not easy, and it sure isn’t fun. We have no choice but to adapt and change. We must help our friends, rather than point the finger at everyone and everything. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Help and support wherever you can and hope that others will be inspired to follow suit.

We’ll get through this thing the same way that may friends and I built Bauarena—as a community, together.

Climber Mario Orru on a 6a in Ulassai, Sardinia. Photo: Klaas Willems