Winner of the 2011 Piolet d’Or, an international award given to climbers who demonstrate the modern sense of alpinism, Nico is hands-down one of the world’s most respected climbers. In a sport now dominated with bouldering, sport climbing and indoor climbing gyms, Nico epitomizes adventure climbing. Born in Brussels, Belgium, and now an international traveler, Nico’s style of climbing is that of old school. He has climbing partners, rather than the new-school “belayer,” and considers adventure more important than “world’s hardest” or a line in the Guinness Book of World Records. Most recently, Nico returned from a successful trip to Venezuela, where he and his partners Sean Villanueva, Stephane Hanssens, Jean-Louis Wertz spent 38 days in the jungle where they had an amazing adventure. “The weather, the rock, the jungle, the indigenes, the animals and this incredible wall of the Tuyuren waterfall made up for some very exciting moments,” recounts Nico in his article for Five Ten (insert link). They managed to put up two new free routes on the Tuyuren waterfall wall, one on the left side "Maria Rosa" and one on the right "Apichavai."
How did you get started climbing?
I actually started climbing when I was sailing in the Mediterranean Sea. My brothers and I were always very exited to explore caves along the coast. To approach them we had to climb sometimes and slowly we enjoyed the climbing bare foot above the water as a challenge of its own... not only a way to reach caves. But my real official climbing (I mean with a rope) I did was in a climbing gym in Belgium. A friend of school introduced me to it. I directly got totally addicted.
What attracted you to the sport?
I was good right for the start so that was quite nice for my ego... but also I just loved the feeling of doing movements even if it was in a gym. Also the social aspect I enjoyed. I mean I was 15 and climbing gave me so many friends from all ages and horizon with a spirit I felt quite connected to.
When/where was your first climbing trip? What did you do?
I hitchhiked to Ceuse, the south of France and lived 2 weeks in caves under the cliff with a guitar and a waterfall as the morning shower. I had a blast and did my hardest climbs of that time. Great memories forever!
How has the sport changed over the years?
Yes it changes permanently, just like anything else in this world. First of all there are way more climbers already. Climbing is becoming quite a popular activity with its good and worse side. Bouldering is the discipline that evolved the most in the last year and open the mind of people of is possible. I noticed that each country and area of each its own evolution direction.
What do you love about the sport?
The combination difficult challenges, the need to control your brains, the movement expression, the contact with nature--and all in a fairly social environment. And to live all these elements at the fullest so that climbing becomes more like a life style than anything else.
What tips do you have for people getting involved in the sport?
If you can, travel and go to as many climbing places as possible all over the world. Climb for yourself and enjoy!
Can you tell me a quick story that relays your "involvement" with the sport? Something funny, touching or scary?
Last summer I was climbing some walls raising straight out of the ocean in Greenland. As we quickly noticed climbing over there is very adventurous. There are a lot of green cracks full of vegetation and so we had to adapt our climbing techniques to climb them. Especially onsight it was very interesting!
As we climbed we quickly noticed two main approaches we could take. Either you clean everything so you can protect very well. But it takes a lot of time and it makes it much more tiring while climbing onsight or, the option we usually preferred, was to climb, cleaning the minimum amount necessary, and only placing pro when you get a stance or it's too scary to keep going.
One time I had committed 20m without placing any protection on very delicate terrain and as I grabbed finally the targeted jug, was relieved to find a piece of pro. I looked above and warm rotten fish came flying into my face. The seagulls gave us, as we call it, a warm welcome, sharing their food with us. Since I had committed too much on delicate terrain, there was no option to go down. I yelled as hard as I could but the seagull wouldn't go away. I also noticed they are able to vomit multiple times. Finally, only because it was a survival situation, I hit him with a #4 Camelot... and it took four hits to finally convince him to let me mantle onto his ledge. All of us on the expedition experienced the rotten fish and our clothes had a funny, fishy smell until the end of the expedition when we were finally able to wash everything. The seagull was definitely part of the climbing and the adventure we enjoyed.
How do most people get into climbing in Europe?
In Belgium, most people get started through climbing gyms. We have about 100 public climbing gyms, which is pretty many for a small country like Belgium. I am sure in countries like Spain, France and Italy there are even more. Still most people start climbing directly on cliffs but it's slowly changing more towards the gyms.
Each country is different with climbing. In Belgium almost every school has climbing as part of the PE program. All the gyms run at best during the day with schools. Lots of schools have even their own wall.
Is there any excitement that climbing may become an Olympic sport?
Yes definitely! If climbing will become an Olympic sport, it will be much easier to get funding for developing climbing structure and training. It will bring more money into the sport but might affect the climbing spirit and bring people to see climbing more and more as a sport limited to its physical capacities.