“My summer season was set fair – I had some great projects lined up, was fully fit and in excellent spirits.” On a visit to the Outdoor show in Friedrichshafen, Nils dropped by the Millet stand to check out the brand’s latest products. A keen slackliner, he then stopped at the outdoor stands, where some lines were stretched, to try a few figures. They were above a swimming pool, so objectively there was no big risk. “I was trying a few basic tricks where you jump, land on your butt – on the line – and then bounce back up into a standing position. When dropping onto the slackline, I badly twisted my knee. I instantly felt it was serious. I know my body and regularly have injuries I can manage. I felt really down. As I got out of the water, I knew I wouldn’t be able to climb for a long time.”
Forced to rest
After the show, the initial plan was for Nils to jump on a flight to South Africa, for a month-long trip to boulder country. A terrific prospect… “It wasn’t easy to cope with. I still had appointments at the show, a plane ticket, a hire car, a house booking to cancel – and above all, I needed to get my knee diagnosed. It swelled up right away, and I couldn’t put any weight on it. The pain was bearable, so I decided not to go to the local hospital’s emergency department, and immediately went back to Switzerland, where I know specialists – osteopaths, sports physician and physio. Examining the MRI scan yielded a clear diagnosis: partial tears of the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments.”
For the first week, Nils was down in the dumps. Having to cancel Rockland, a trip for which he’d been training for months, was a serious downer: “It was hugely frustrating not to get another look at these boulders, which have fired my dreams and continue to inspire me – these orange monuments that demand an athletic climbing style… Rockland goes on and on, there are boulders everywhere! There are already hundreds of routes there, and that’s only a tiny fraction of the area’s potential.”
Nils’ competitive temperament soon clicked into gear. He took his physio seriously and soon resumed training.
“My program was fairly simple. From 9 to 11am, I’d do my physio exercises, mainly with a medicine ball and bike. To start with, I couldn’t even pedal right round, and that became my big target – a complete pedal revolution!
On some mornings, if I really upped the grunt level and even cried with the pain, managing to do one little revolution. A heck of a crux!
Then I’d head to the climbing gym, and train until mid-afternoon. I did boulders on one foot, pull-ups, Gullich hangs, foot-less drills on the Moonboard... I really focused on feeling good vibes again. If I felt the slightest pain, I’d change to another exercise, taking care never to land on my bad leg. As I was supposed to be in Rockland, I had nothing else in my timetable. So it was quite comfortable – I spent my time on rehab and sleeping.”
After four weeks’ recovery work, Nils’ knee hadn’t improved at all: he couldn’t bend his leg more than 20 degrees. He did everything with his leg straight. The physicians started to seriously consider operating. This panicked Nils, who insisted on another MRI. “One morning, I woke up and found I could bend my knee practically 90 degrees – it made no sense, but the knee had clearly needed to take its time. From then on, I changed the exercises slightly. I had a very scrawny right leg with no muscle. I had to do lots of muscle-building exercises, and jumps for stabilization, so that I could get my muscles back ASAP… .”
Over the months, and hold after hold, the patient became a climber again. He trained a great deal, performing exercises he had never done before. This period also let Nils refocus, pinpointing his weaknesses and climbing details that he had long wanted to improve. “Two weeks before the World Cup event in Munich, I still couldn’t climb freely with my leg. I felt it was still fragile, and I didn’t have full control over my coordination movements – I was still afraid of falling awkwardly and making things worse. Then, totally pumped after my break, I took the decision to compete in the World Cup.”
Nils Favre traveled to Munich with the idea of enjoying himself and acquiring experience, given that he doesn’t have a big competitive track record. Every competition teaches him a huge amount. And taking part in this event so soon after his injury was already a victory in itself.
“Munich is the biggest leg on the World Cup circuit – with huge numbers of participants, a healthy rivalry and a massive atmosphere. I was able to do three of the five boulders in the qualifying round. I placed 12th in my group for the European championships – just two places below the cut-off for the finals – and 36th in the World Cup event. For me it was a highly satisfactory result, since I’d been unable to walk normally only two weeks earlier.” After this test, Nils felt increasingly fit and very soon began to do tough outdoor boulders – such as Pied de Biche (8B+), Tronic Summer (8B) and Nefertiti (8B) – on the same day.
During injury rehab, as when climbing, mental strength is a very big factor. The final seconds before launching yourself at a boulder are really important. “Very often, I can tell if I’m in a state that will produce a good attempt or not,” notes Nils. And this knee injury has underscored our Swiss climber’s belief in this aspect. “I’m really looking at incorporating an even bigger mental dimension in my prep. My Sport and Psychology studies have also helped me to refine my mental approach and improve as a climber. And I’ve now taken my decision – I’ll get even by going to Rockland next summer. It’s a practically compulsory pilgrimage. I’ve still got projects there that I cherish, and there is still vast potential for new routes
Now I’ve regained my fitness, I have a very long list of projects… A one-month trip to Joe’s Valley (USA), then the Swiss championships and the World Cup leg in Meiringen. Despite being forced to rest, I was finally selected for the Swiss team. In 2018, my schedule will include competitions and training. I also want to try some long mountain routes. Diversifying from my core climbing activity will keep me as motivated as ever, and make sure I enjoy myself just as much.
Photos : Matt Georges
Illustration : Nicolas Thomas