The soundtrack to Klaas Willems' life is a persistent cough. Sometimes, you get the impression that you will drown: your lungs will refuse to fight any longer, they will get stuck, and everything will finally come crashing down. In spite of everything, he is still alive. At 35 years old. The day he turned 25 was the most disconcerting day of his life: there he was, breathing, moving, celebrating. He lived the next week in a kind of depression. He simply didn't know how to act or what to do with his life, or rather with the rest of his life, no matter how long it was. The doctors, as a child, explained to him that he suffered from cystic fibrosis and that he would die at 25 and after carrying that sword of Damocles over his head for years and still among the living, he did not know how to behave. And he didn't dare to believe that he would have, perhaps, a future. Luckily, I had found something to live for: rock climbing. The Belgian Willems has always lived at the expense of a hereditary disease, cystic fibrosis, a condition that has led him to try to squeeze out a life condemned to be brief. Willems recently visited the Siurana Climbing Festival, in Catalonia, and also Barcelona, where he presented a documentary that can be seen on his Youtube channel and with which he finances his life.
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Their disease causes a myriad of lung problems and also in the gastrointestinal tract: "All this leads to phlegm that blocks the airways, which causes a lot of breathing difficulties and, of course, prevents you from doing sports, in addition to the damage to these airways due to the repeated infections they suffer," explains Lieven Dupont, the pulmonologist who has treated Willems in recent years. The absence of horizons plunged the Belgian climber into a form of abandonment. In addition, his sister, barely two years older than him, was born affected by the same disease and could see in her his immediate future, his downward slope. Discovering climbing at the age of 18 changed his life, it gave him an unknown joy, an immediate pleasure whose consumption did not require waiting... And not having to wait is a gift when you lack time. His desire to climb allowed him to take up medical therapy with determination: breathing exercises, exercises to relieve the formation of phlegm, medication at all hours... Her therapy became her job. Urgently. Climbing, his raison d'oeuvre.
When you get cystic fibrosis, you can't cool down, you can't travel, you don't play sports... "The Belgian health system is effective, but here I felt like I was imprisoned in a gilded cage. I needed to test how far I could go with my disease because I sensed that I could do a lot of things that were beneficial to my health," Willems explains. This led him to climb cold mountains in the Alps, El Capitan in Yosemite, or to search for hot rock in the Mediterranean. This is how he discovered Sardinia, where a paradise of good weather, pure air for his battered lungs and rock to discover awaited him. He immediately set out to equip virgin walls, to give new routes to the community and thus he made a road difficult enough to become his project, a new motivation to continue fighting. At the same time, he decided to take up permanent residence there, far from the Belgian cities, where he met other children with the same disease who have now died.
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At the age of 15, he also overcame cancer. But he suffered another one in his early thirties: a tumor the size of his heart located next to it. It took him months to overcome the operation, and when he returned, the route was waiting for him, baptized Still Alive and with a difficulty of 8c. The vast majority of climbers never come close to this difficulty. Doctors assured him that he would never return to his pre-surgery level, but Willems found it "funny" to try to contradict his prognoses, so with the help of physiotherapists and trainers he began a long recovery process. At the time, his lung capacity was at 25%: "It's like living with a pillow in your mouth," he says ironically. With a lot of work, he managed to reach 52%: "It's like living with half a pillow in your mouth," he says. At the same time, he tried to stop projecting himself into the future to try to enjoy the present and only the present. While testing the route, a process that took months, his sister passed away at the age of 32. "Now I live my life for both of us and I'm determined to show that you can fight this disease... And if I can motivate others to suffer from my illness, the effort will have been worth it," he explains.
Theirs is a blind fight. Sometimes, in the middle of the climb, he hangs himself and spits out blood. He sees his end near. Then, he manages to recover. He lives on a roller coaster of contradictory emotions. Medicine has found certain keys that allow us to increase the life expectancy of cystic fibrosis patients to 50, but Willems does not want to limit himself to going through life, with no more glory than to conscientiously carry out his therapy: he wants to live a full life. She wants her example to spread among children who are self-conscious about an ailment that complicates the most everyday gestures, that isolates. The fact that he lived in the town of Ulassai (Sardinia), as sparsely populated as it was rich in clean air, allowed him to escape the threat of Covid-19, an infection that would almost certainly have killed him. There, in solitude, he devoted himself to unpaid work and equipped more than 100 sport climbing routes: "I wanted to give back to the world of climbing everything it has given me," he explains simply. After months of trying, he managed to string together his 8c... and like all climbers he began to dream: "Maybe I can try a 9a".
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