Wilco van Rooijen and “the valley of obligations”

This week Dutch mountaineer and adventurer Wilco van Rooijen left for his new expedition; climbing the highest peak (8586) of the Kangchenjunga. In November 2017 we spoke with Wilco, not reallu about the preparations for this trip, but about him, how he became the climber he is today, about the insights he gained on the highest peaks in the world, on the peak of his abilities and on the edge of life. A facinating conversation.

The weather is very Dutch as I drive between the fields at Voorst. Gray sky, flat land. Here and there a bit of an undulation. I’m on my way to Wilco van Rooijen, who is used to a bit more altitude meters, to say the least. I met him a few weeks earlier during a gruelling night ride on the MTB, after which we had a barbecue and exchanged stories with a group of guys. When I think back on that night, my legs still hurt. Led by Bart Brentjens (first Olympic Champion MTB), a colorful procession of highly trained sportsmen, especially endurance athletes, made their way through the night. So tough men and me. No mater how much I tried I couldnt keep up with these guys. Wilco was in the leading group. I brought up the rear.

as if an explanation, or an excuse is needed for wanting to climb mountains.

Munching on our over done barbecue meat, Wilco and I also had a very cool conversation. Of course I knew Wilco by name, but at the time I actually hadn’t read much about him, hadn’t seen the many videos that you can find on him on Youtube. I hadn’t seen the film made about one of the worst climbing accidents, the tragic events that took place on the K2 in which he was involved in. So we really didn’t talk about what everyone else talks to him about. We started talking about gear, and ended up discussing the spirituality that Wilco found in the mountains, after all those years and all those summits. Even after hardships, after surrendering to a certain death on the walls of the K2, Wilco spoke in a very intimate and loving way about the mountains. As if they are living beings, or at least that there is a soul; the mountain can tell you what you should and should not do. If you know how to listen and feel well.

After that first acquaintance we agreed that we should continue the conversation. And so I drove to Wilco’s Base Camp in the Netherlands on a weekday. In a beautifully converted farmhouse, Wilco has a quiet and light space with a large table in the middle, where we sit down to continue where we left off. I am surrounded by memorabilia of epic tours, Everest without extra oxygen, the North and South Pole expeditions, K2 of course, also without extra oxygen. The Seven Summits, the 7 highest peaks on all continents, Wilco has done it all.

And there I am, and I try to imagine how I will ever manage to understand this man? Because that is what I strive for in conversations and interviews; to really try to understand people. I take risks myself, broken bones and so on in the sports I do, which is a part of the deal. But recently, during a climbing weekend in Chamonix, I felt for the first time that you are really moving on a “knife’s edge” at those heights, where a misstep can be fatal. That left quite an impression with me.

The boundaries Wilco has pushed, now tht’s an interiely diferent universe from mine. People close to me, with whom I later talk about my conversation with Wilco, react largely with variations on the same theme: “Those guys are crazy”, or “Do they have a death wish?”.

After our conversation in Voorst I know that it not the case, and I think I understand why. Why men and women like Wilco do what they do. It’s still difficult to explain. The question is, incidentally, whether you have to explain it at all; as if an explanation, or an excuse is needed for wanting to climb mountains.

What do we talk about…

Wilco talks freely, and we start at the beginning. A young boy with active parents who take Wilco and his sisters to the mountains, where Wilco and his father eventually climb the tops, while mother and sisters stay behind. The stereotypical pattern Wilco admits. And on the campsites where they are staying, Wilco admires Swiss climbers he see’s going off in full gear. To return later with light in their eyes. The seed has been sown.

But before he can even think of real climbing, says his father, he should know his knots. His father takes Wilco to a sailmaker on the Neude in Utrecht, Netherlands to get their first ropes: ropes without core and far too much stretch, with which Wilco at 10 years old, secures his father for the first time …not necessarily a success.

Gradually climbing starts to play an ever greater role in Wilco’s life. With different climbing buddies he climbs more often and further, and through climbing courses he gets in contact with men and women who talk about the Himalayas. At those courses he meets Cas van de Gevel, who will become his regular climbing buddy for years. They look up to men like Ger Friele, Gerard van Sprang and Ronald Naar, whose names they encounter in the mountain refuge books on routes they climb themselves. The moment they start climbing out of season is decisive: he and Cas know and feel, in themselves and recognizing it in each other, that climbing is the most important thing and always will be.

When we talk about Ger Friele, my mind takes me back to my childhood. I lived with my parents in Lima, Peru. I must have been 8 or 9 years old when a large group of Dutch climbers arrived one day. In our garden a temporary mountain of climbing equipment arose. One of the climbers was a bit scary to me. Not because of his massive head of curls, small glasses and wild beard, but because on both hands all fingers above the knuckles were missing. Ger and his team were goging to climb the Huascaran. After that short time with them we always followed them from afar. Ger was killed in 1987 on Jannu north face expedition. It would be his last climb before his marriage, his wife was pregnant with their first child. Shortly before that I would meet Ger again, back in the Netherlands. I was a bit older and less scared and shook the powerful hand of one of Holland’s greatest mountaineers.

“Down there where all the people have watches, you have to run and fly and do things.”

About the Valley of Obligations

It doesn’t come easy. The love for climbing, its importance for Wilco, is in stark contrast to school and study and the corresponding expectations of his parents who see a good job as key in Wilco’s future. But Wilco is mainly concerned with other things. Climbing is the ultimate way to achieve freedom, and to distance himself from that world that does not appeal to him at all. He just wants to climb.

That sense of freedom, the drive to find it, fascinates me. I can feel it very much myself when I go down a mountain with a snowboard or mountain bike, because you can just feel as if you can go anywhere. I ask Wilco if the mountain doesn’t really frame that sense of freedom too much when climbing. It will force you to do things, you will need to obey its laws; and whether that does not limit that sense of freedom.

“For me, it is more, when I was at the top, ..” he thinks briefly, “There is a nice quote from Nescio {Dutch poet and writer}:” And then I look in the valley of obligations”. Down there where all the people have watches, you have to run and fly and do things. And on the other hand, the ascent, the effort that was needed for that. The risk and the danger, when you overcome all of that, that’s when you know what living really is.” And that feeling, that knowledge, that is what he has always wanted.

I sit on the mountain and look in the valley of duties.
That is dry, there is no water,
the valley is without flowers and trees.
There are many people, walking about
Most of them are misshapen and withered and constantly look at the ground.
After a while they all die,
yet I do not see that their number is decreasing,
the valley always looks the same.
Do they deserve better?
I stretch out and along my arms, I look up at the blue sky.
I am standing in the valley on a square of black embers,
with a small pile of destroyed boards and an unusable wash boiler.
And I look and see myself sitting, up there,
and I cry like a dog in the night.

Nescio, 1922 (translation by GearLimits)

“We said to each other, we’re not taking a sleeping bag. It’s gonna be a hell for a while tonight, but we know we can both take it.”

About symbiosis and safety in speed

With his climbing buddy Cas, he develops an almost symbiotic relationship. Sometimes it’s as if they have a shared consciousness when they are on the mountain. They can do more, accomplish more because of it. “In one way or another, the other person was always there, if you couldn’t go any further, then the other took the lead or vice versa. We had so much faith in that, so much trust in each other. And when it all worked out, then you were so proud and so grateful to the other person. We did express it to one another, but we knew it.”

© TeamWilco.nl

In addition to just doing a lot of climbing, higher and higher, they were also busy with how light and fast they can climb. When I ask him about the safety aspect of speed: “If you go slowly you’ll be on the wall, exposed, longer. You burn more energy. Make a bivouac? That means even more time on the mountain, taking heavy stuff up.” But to be faster and lighter you also have to make smarter choices and harden yourself: you have to be able to suffer: “We said to each other, we’re not taking a sleeping bag. It’s gonna be a hell for a while tonight, but we know we can both take it. And if it really got too bad; yes then you had to turn around, we did that often enough. “


About the K2

© TeamWilco.nl

Cas is also there on the K2, part of that notorious expedition in August 2008, during 11 climbers lose their lives. Where Wilco gets lost on the K2, spends 3 days and 2 nights in the death zone on what is perhaps the most deadly mountain in the world. Where in the second night Wilco calls his wife with a satellite phone and at that moment she thinks she is speaking to him for the last time. He is so exhausted, can not get up and closes his eyes with the thought that he might not be able to open them anymore.

Wilco talks about this with tears in his eyes, and those tears are not for himself, not because he lost all his toes at his feet to frostbite. “How wondrous is the human body, this instrument that, in a survival situation, it first shuts off the non-essential parts?” So that the energy is conserved for vital organs, the temperature of the heart and brain stay at a 37 degrees celsius.

His tears are not because at that moment he had accepted that he would die there. His emotion is because he knows only too well what impact it has had on his wife and his son. “You sometimes hear people asking: what do those climbers do to their families, don’t they understand the impact of what they are doing? Yes, we understand that really well. “

I have always embraced fear because fear puts everything into focus. You feel what life is again.”

About the essential

I have to think about that later on, what that really means, to feel that you are in fact at death’s door, and you have knocked on is. What that does to a person? I don’t know, I can’t know, I am happy to say. But I am curious about what it means to be there, where you understand that everything revolves around this one moment. Life has shrunk to the narrowest of instances. The danger, certainly mortal danger, is also cathartic; it cuts away all the bullshit and shows you the essence of life. “I have always embraced fear because fear puts everything in focus. You feel what life is again. And what I have also noticed, is if I do not experience it, that I live a kind of faint life. I really have to feel it occasionally. Through the physical, you actually reach the spiritual.” I recognize what Wilco says. If I ride a mountain bike downhill hard, a snowboard down a steep descent, when control is just out of reach, then I have to really be present, here, no more distractions. “You switch everything off, you are fully engaged in the moment. It is a meditative moment.”


© TeamWilco.nl

I can understand how in such extreme situations, and certainly afterward, you realize more than ever that you are alive, that you are a person who can really accomplish great feats. Who can survive the most difficult conditions; the pride you can feel. I can imagine it. That is what Wilco often comes back to, the pride. The victory, when you become who you can be, also gives a feeling of strength and power, not over others but over yourself, in a good way. And I think I understand that this mix lies at the foundation of the never-ending drive to head to the mountains. If you meet the essence of existence there, then I understand that you keep going back to it.

He’s literally sick from adrenaline as he descends, to eventually find himself in the arms of Cas.

The insights and understanding

“The K2 has brought me a lot. I lost a climbing friend, I lost my toes, and my wife and child had to experience something they would never sign up for, because of the choices I made. And yet I would not have wanted to have missed it. It is these insights, the understanding. Of having been dead for half an hour. Of having closed my eyes with the realization that I would never leave again. That all my paths had been blocked, quite literally, but I still found a way. The awareness of what your body can handle, what you can do spiritually, and more. Knowing this, it has changed and has been a determining factor in my life.”

Where in the first instance he thought he could not go any further, with his newfound strength, Wilco powers on, meters by meter, step by step. The only way is on, and down.  He stops every five meters. To recover and to be able to move forward again. He’s literally sick from adrenaline as he descends, to eventually find himself in the arms of Cas. He talks about this, again with that emotion, about how it was in the Netherlands in those hours he went missing. How his wife, his son, his family still lived between hope and fear, what happened when it turned out that he was safely back, how many people had “moved mountains” to get helicopters to him, to get him to proper care.

We also talk about his return the Netherlands, where he is told that he will never be able to any sports again without his toes. He starts his recovery at the revalidation center in Doorn with doctors and psychologists. And now he is walking again, he runs, he ride’s his bike (really fast), he is climbing again, has done expeditions since K2 again. How is that possible. “If we all want something, it’s just unimaginable what we could accomplish together! Fuck the science, fuck the statistics, we’re just going to find a solution. K2 has taught me that boundaries really do not exist.” Wilco is momentarily upset, angry even, and then nuances:” Fuck science is obviously exaggerated, what concerns me is that you should not always pay too much attention to it. If you can use it fine, but if science says something cannot be done; don’t pay too much attention to it.”


About risk and gear

There is a fascinating paradox to climbing. It seems as if climbers or other athletes in action sports actively seek out danger and love running risks. But in these sports, and certainly, in climbing, athletes are consistently working at mitigating or even excluding every possible risk. Every risk that you can influence, you can and have to tackle. Expeditions require an incredible amount of preparation. In everything, you look for how safely it can be done. Also and especially by ensuring that all the gear your life depends on is in order, at the level that circumstances demands of it. And that list of gear items is extensive. “Main gear items? To begin with my down suit. That is my life insurance policy. But also, your shoes, with crampons, your ice ax, your glasses, without glasses, you’ll go blind on the mountain. Your gloves; if one is blown away on the wind you are royally screwed. So many parts of the whole puzzle are crucial.”

© TeamWilco.nl

In all that gear, Wilco strives for the lightest of materials in everything. “You are fighting a constant battle against gravity. And searching for the right and best materials is also a voyage of discovery. The innovative ropes they used on the K2 were so strong that they did not break where the normal ropes would have. As a result, the weakest point became the anchors, and the anchors with all the carefully constructed safety ropes were torn out by the fall of climbers and subsequently others, such as Wilco lost their way on the mountain. During the North Pole expedition, they had a sled that was so stiff that it did not twist in the ice. Sometimes the solution to a problem is actually the cause of the next one. “

For a long time, Wilco has not taken a sleeping bag on an expedition and sleeps in the down suit. However, when you take off your boots to sleep you will get very, very cold feet.

About the search for the perfect gear

It’s about trying things out, testing and improving. And sometimes make odd choices. The North Pole expedition was done in a cotton jacket. “Who would ever be crazy enough to use a cotton jacket?” But this one was very roughly woven and had very large pores. As a result, it ventilated and breathed extraordinarily well during physical effort. It wicked moisture really well. “You will die from moisture that freezes in those circumstances.”

The full body Himalayan Suit from The North Face is now his “go-to” suit. For a long time, Wilco has not taken a sleeping bag on an expedition and sleeps in the down suit. However, when you take off your boots to sleep you will get very, very cold feet. Looking for a solution Wilco et al thought of cutting the bottom of a sleeping bag, sowing a ripcord into it and using it as a kind of feet only sleeping bag. They had them made and will see how that will perform. Wilco calls it ‘the down paw’.

“And that is how you continue to experience what works and what does not work for you. Other examples? A normal thin plastic drinking bottle with a piece of insulation mat around it. Because normal insulation bottles are too heavy. In terms of food you also come up with what works; for me, olives work very well, and cheeses. Hard sausages are heavy, but it feels so much better to eat than a power bar. “

En deze gaat hij beklimmen, zonder tenen misschien, maar weer zonder extra zuurstof, en weer samen met Cas van de Gevel en een internationaal team van oude bekenden.

About Kangchenjunga and beyond

He takes all those insights and all the gained knowledge and experience with him into every expedition, the next of which is the Kangchenjunga, which he will climb in April / May 2018. He talks about this mountain with love in his voice. “For convenience sake, it is seen as a single mountain, but it is a gigantic massif with several 8-thousanders on it. Kangchenjunga means the ‘5 treasures of snow’, 4 of the 5 tops are higher than 8000 meters. We are going to climb the highest.” The massif lies on the border of Nepal and India, in the state of Sikkim, with a highest peak of 8586 meters, making it the third highest mountain in the world. And he will climb this, without toes, but also without extra oxygen, and again together with Cas van de Gevel and an international team of old climbing acquaintances.

I understand why is going, why Wilco has to go. And we at GearLimits will certainly follow him. If you want to follow the expedition as well check out this page. Also worth your while is the expedition campaign page of 4 Smiling Faces, the charity of which Wilco is an ambassador.

The foundation is committed to improving the quality of life of underprivileged children in various children’s homes and / or projects aimed at these children in Nepal. They also support the children if they have to leave the homes without a safety net when they are adults. They are active in Nepal, where they run the Disabled Rehabilitation Center Nepal (DRC Nepal), a home for 55 children with physical and sometimes intellectual disabilities, based in Gorkana, Kathmandu, Nepal. A worthy cause.

And beyond? 2048, Antarctica, a research vehicle, entirely on solar energy, without outside assistance to the geographical south pole. Wilco talks passionately about this project; about the desire to make the world smarter and more sustainable with the knowledge and insights that this expedition will bring. There are no limits.

Mark Stokmans
Mark Stokmans
Since I can remember I have been very active in many different sports: started with baseball, tennis and riding later hockey, football, running and aikido. In addition, since twelve years old I've been into actionports: at first windsurfing, later climbing, inline skating, snowboarding, mountain biking. With the first action cams coming onto the market I've been making action sports videos. Furthermore, I've worked in the sports industry since 1990, sports marketing, media and live TV and until the end of 2016 at the Dutch Olympic Committee. Besides being partner in GearLimits I work as a digital freelancer. Based in the Netherlands, Married with Children (11 and 13 years old)

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