Friday, April 15, 2011

In Memoriam-Felix Knauth

Many years ago I edited and published a book titled WINGS AND ROOTS by Susan Terris. The book involved a boy, crippled by a childhood disease. Susan later introduced me to a friend who was an inspiration for the book, Felix Knauth. Felix suffered from polio as a child and had a leg brace. He grew up to do many things, all in service to others, and when I met him he was retired and living a full life. In those days I was an avid rock climber and Felix, a veteran and pioneer of Yosemite climbing, invited me to join him for a climb. We met in San Francisco, drove to Yosemite, and headed up the southwest arete of Lower Brother.  It was  a multiple pitch climb, 10 or more if memory serves me (and it doesn't always these days). A memorable moment was when I looked down and saw a Piper Cub flying below me in the valley. Felix led the climb (was first up, the climber at most risk) but, at one point, he suggested I take the lead. We were about to start a pitch up a flake that seemed to be a dead end, with no apparent route forward. The only way to find out what was there was to climb it. I was nervous. Felix looked at me and said, "Gut check time." That meant look into yourself and see if you have what you need to make the climb. I did and I did, but had I not taken that moment to focus, I would have put us both at risk. At the top  of the flake, there was a clear path and we completed the ascent. Trouble was, it was late afternoon. We spent a few minutes enjoying the view from the top and headed down. After a few pitches, I rappelled to a sheer drop to the valley floor. There was no clear route, and I had to climb back up the rope to the ledge Felix was belaying me from.  We made the decision to bivouac for the night. Unfortunately I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts and the temperature dropped to the 40's during the night.  The moonlight was bright, but not bright enough to continue our decent. We spent a miserable night on a shelf half the size of a desktop. Felix was better dressed than I was (he was  a veteran), and he took the lead as soon as the sun came up. We finished the descent in good time but I was suffering from hypothermia. Felix made me jog to our camper where he whipped up a pot of instant oat meal cooked in cheap red wine. It was the best meal of my life.

Felix and I lost touch with each other many years ago. I've just learned that in his 80th year, Felix bought a sail boat—he was a deeply experienced sailor—and headed out on an extended solo voyage. A few days later his boat was discovered, abandoned. An extensive search was conducted to no avail. I'm sure that Felix had a gut check moment. He did and he did.  A remarkable man. Ave atque vale, old friend.

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