BY JEFF JACKSON
BELGIAN BROTHERS OLIVER and Nicolas Favresse and Sean Villanueva, joined by Adam Pustelnik from Poland, spent July and August in the Charakusa Valley at the base of K7 (22,749 feet). Over 16 days they freed all but 15 icy feet of the 4,000-foot Badal Wall (5.12d), topping out at around 19,700 feet.
Ledgeway to Heaven (5.12d) tops out at 20,000 feet on Nafee's Cap.
After resting and further acclimatization, they switched to light-and-fast mode, blitzing the 3,250-foot Ledgeway to Heaven (5.12d) in 44 hours roundtrip. The route tackles a stair-stepped buttress that leads to the summit of a spire split from the flanks of K7. The team dubbed the spire Nafee’s Cap to honor their camp cook.
A few days prior to their departure, Nicolas Favresse and Villanueva teamed up with the Polish climber Jerzy Stefanski to tick the 1,300-foot The Ski Track (5.11a) on the Iqbal Wall. The original team had attempted this wall early in the expedition, but was turned back when rockfall struck Oliver Favresse and Adam Pustelnik. Favresse was unharmed and continued free climbing, but Pustelnik’s heel was badly gashed. He was unable to free-climb, but ascended the two walls and “strongly contributed to the success of the expedition,” according to Oliver Favresse.
Americans may remember Nicolas Favresse, 27, from his recent trip to the U.S., during which he and Ivo Ninov freed a new route, Lost in Translation (5.12b/c), ground up on El Capitan in Yosemite.
HOW DID YOU GET INTERESTED IN FREE-CLIMBING BIG WALLS?
I started climbing in Belgium in a gym, but from the very beginning I have always climbed with the aim to climb outside. At first, sport climbing seemed like enough adventure, but with more experience, I was attracted to longer routes.
A trip to the Ratikon in Switzerland with my friend Sean Villanueva opened my eyes to the world of bigger walls and left me needing to discover more. So, in a way, climbing big routes became the logical aim of all my years of sport climbing.
Since then I’ve considered free-climbing beautiful lines on big walls as the ultimate objective.
EXPEDITIONS ARE HARD ON RELATIONSHIPS. DO YOU HAVE A GIRLFRIEND?
It’s a challenge! I have a sweet girlfriend who is also quite psyched on climbing, so most of the time we travel and climb together. I just wish she could also earn a living from her climbing like I do. I guess at a certain point we’ll have to find a place to settle down so that she can also find her path to making a living.
WHY THE CHARAKUSA VALLEY?
We heard there was some great potential for rock climbing. We actually didn’t have much info about it, but we were just psyched to have a real adventure somewhere less developed than the Baltoro Valley.
HOW WAS THE CLIMBING?
Ledgeway to Heaven is the best big-wall free climb I have ever done. Each pitch follows perfect steep cracks with comfortable ledges in between. Many of the pitches were comparable to the best pitches on the Nose or the Salathé. The quality of the rock is as good as it gets. Most of the time the protection is quite good, and the belays are easy to set up. There are a few pitches, though, where you really have to go for it, but they are in the minority.
Badal Wall is one of the finest lines on one of the most striking walls in the valley. It goes right up the middle where it’s steep and blank looking. On two pitches, the rock looked loose, but fortunately nothing big came off. Besides that, the rock was great, especially the headwall. Multiple splitter cracks. The crux [pitch 13, 5.12d] had to be aided and prepared for free climbing. There is a 100-foot section that you can only protect with pitons and Bird Beaks. It’s quite exciting!
MOST OF THE CLIMBING TOOK PLACE ABOVE 16,000 FEET. HOW WAS IT CLIMBING 5.12D AT ALTITUDE?
At first, we got spanked. We did four pitches on one attempt, and then I felt the most tired I have ever felt in my life.
It was mentally hard. I was starting to doubt that I was in shape enough to try bigger projects. But after each climb, we felt a big difference in our acclimatization, and by the end of the trip, climbing at altitude felt almost like climbing in Yosemite.
YOU OFTEN CLIMB WITH YOUR BROTHER, OLIVER. DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP.
We are quite close. He is my little brother so I make sure I kick his ass every time we go climbing. It’s getting harder, though, because he is getting stronger and stronger. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, so we always have a good laugh. It’s fun.