Climbing For Air
Klaas Willems has cystic fibrosis. Doctors gave him 25 years. He’s now 33. “Climbing is what got me this far,” he writes.
What am I doing here?
There I am, halfway up a 600-meter-tall vertical wall. At an altitude of 2,500 meters. The remote Moroccan village of Taghia is not really where a cystic fibrosis (CF) patient such as myself wants to be coughing up blood.
Why do I always put myself in these situations?
CF is a genetic illness that affects mostly the respiratory and digestive system. It’s not a pretty disease: There is no cure and breathing is difficult because of mucus that fills my lungs. I take two sets of inhaled medication and a handful of pills each day, but still, breathing polluted air feels like a noose. A harmless cold can put me in the hospital.
I go to the hospital once or twice per year for a special two-week antibiotics treatment, which targets the bacteria in my lungs. With each treatment, my body weakens and the bacteria grow more resistant. Still, it’s my best available option.
Doctors gave me 25 years. I am now 33 and counting. Climbing is what got me this far. Well, that and being a stubborn little bastard. There’s a fine line for my CF between doing too much and not enough sport. It’s a guessing game, but if I don’t take the chance, I might not be where I am today. The fresh air works for my lungs and the effort I put in to stay in shape serves my general health. My hunger for climbing is what helps me fight off the bad days.
I am a good climber. The walls I learned to free climb are life goals for other climbers. Because of this, I often notice people do not believe or understand that I am sick. And I get it: Today there are so many ways we can put ourselves out there, but we don’t. Not really. We paint our pictures slightly prettier, leaving others in the dark.
The following are moments—both good and bad—from my time in Morocco. This is me, sharing my struggle. To whom it may concern.
Les Rivieres Pourpres, 7b+, 550 meters
Every time I finish a course of antibiotics in the hospital my immune system is shot and my body is tired. I arrive in Taghia just four days after my last hospital visit.
My shabby immune system and I share a taxi with a guy and his runny nose. Not great. The driver gets lost and decides to drop us somewhere near, but not quite in, Taghia. It’s 2 am—too late to look for a place to stay. We sleep outdoors, without sleeping bags. Come morning, I’m coughing up green mucus again and struggling with breathing problems more than I normally do.
The first climb on my wishlist is Les Rivieres Pourpres (7b+/5.12c). I’ve heard so much about it, there’s no way I’ll quit without trying. My buddy Thomas and I decide we’ll just start up and feel things out. If all goes well—present mucus not included—I’ll go home with this mega classic under my belt.
With some close calls here and there, we make it to the top, climbing all the pitches without falling. After climbing mostly in the shadows with a cold wind, feeling the sun on my face during the final easier pitches to the summit puts a smile on my face. After a few rest days, I’ll try to squeeze in a few more life-list climbs on this trip.
Barracuda, 7c+, 600 meters
Three days after Les Rivieres Pourpres, Thomas and I rope up again. It is colder now and the wind is strong. As we climb the first pitches on the wall we have no feeling in our fingers. Only after the third pitch do they warm up, and the rest of my body is still cold and tired. Have I pushed myself too far this time?
Knowing that this could be the last climb of the trip for me makes me reluctant to give up. I want to support Thomas to the summit, so I save my energy where I can, pulling on quickdraws, conserving whatever possible power for when it’s my turn to lead.
Thomas leads the harder pitches. Halfway up the route he dances up an amazing 7b+ pitch that just looks too good to pass up without giving a proper free attempt. I make this pitch into my own little goal of the day, to try and climb it without falling.
The cold wind and thin air at the high altitude make it hard for me to breath. I need all the air I can get into my lungs to do this. After a delicate traverse I’m looking up at the crux holds. I memorize the perfect crimps and small footholds, visualize the moves, listen to the advice Thomas has for me, and set off. With what feels like my last breath and shitloads of lactic acid in my arms I make it to the anchor without falling.
I cough hard and breath as deep as I can to get some oxygen into my system. Hyperventilating and coughing ferociously is never a good sign for me. I cough up mucus and see not only green but red as well. Inhaling so deeply and coughing this hard has caused little blood vessels to explode in my lungs. I know this because this is not my first time coughing up blood: I hate to sound like a party-pooper but I’m a cancer survivor, too. Twice, actually. Radiation and chemo damaged my lungs irreversibly. Coughing up blood was a side effect of my treatment. I learned from my doctors that there’s really not a lot I can do about it. Life goes on.
Thomas knows this, too. He proposes to lead the last pitches so I can have it as easy as possible. Blood or no blood, we both know there is no way I’m going down without reaching the summit. We make it up with the last light.
While Thomas shoulders my gear for the trip down, I realize that friends like him are priceless. I’m fortunate to have many friends to go on these adventures with me, knowing that once in a while I’m more trouble than your average climber. These people know what I go through, no words needed. They see me do my therapy on the wall; they see me spit up blood; they hear me cough up nastiness. It’s because of guys like Thomas that I can still climb. It’s humbling and awesome.
L’Axe du Mal, 7c+, 500 meters
Days pass, and I do my CF therapy from dusk till dawn. The bleeding stops and I manage to clear the blood out of my lungs. As the temperature rises, so does my appetite for climbing. My lungs are not in great shape yet, but I feel stable. One last climb before going home—why not?
I had heard the route L’Axe du Mal isn’t overly steep, which might make it easier for me to rest during the harder parts. After my morning therapy, Thomas and I set off. Turns out the first pitches are slabs, with barely-there footholds and almost nothing to grab. Here my CF works for me. Due to bad digestion I am a just 124 pounds. This means I walk up little holds like a jungle cat.
We inch higher and higher up technical pitches on this majestic wall in the Moroccan sun. Halfway up, we arrive at the crux pitch, a 7c (5.12d). It’s my turn to lead. I have no energy to spare, so it needs to be a home run.
Catching my breath is not easy. I must climb fast, intuitively and use all my power if I’m going to succeed. This is it. These are the moments I live for.
I surprise myself by climbing this pitch free—still climbing onsight! It is a reminder that I am not gone yet. I feel so much life in me. CF might make it hard, but not impossible.
There are five more pitches to go, so I can’t let my guard down yet.
Two rope-lengths further on there’s a 6c (5.11b) with my name on it. It looks complicated, but by now falling is no longer an option. My moves are weird as I puzzle through the sequences. At one point I nearly lose my balance, at another my back is turned to the wall. Again, I somehow make it to the anchor without falling.
After our climb, we learn that this “6c” pitch was actually the 7c+ (5.13a) crux pitch of the route. Had I known that this pitch was actually the hardest of the climb, I feel certain I would have fallen because of the stress. Maybe our wrong info about the route is what I needed to climb it without any expectations, move by move, with all the power I still had.
Every pitch closer to the summit, my fatigue increases. I cannot believe I have made it this far already, so I push on. Thomas and I make it to the top in full daylight, both of us having freed the entire route.
The beauty of the desert is bewildering. With big smiles and proud hearts, we walk down.
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