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A Mysterious Lonely Path: The Life of Francek Knez
Posted on: October 10, 2017
This story first appeared in Alpinist 52—Winter 2015.
Francek Knez on the first ascent of Hudieva Zajeda/Diedro del Diablo (5.10 A2 90 degrees, 900m), Fitz Roy (3405m), with Silvo Karo and Janez Jegli in 1983. [Photo] Silvo Karo
GASPING FOR BREATH, I galloped through the forest, trying to keep up with Slovenian alpinist Francek Knez before he disappeared below the brow of a cliff. The ground was treacherous, covered in slippery beech leaves and littered with rounded boulders. Yet the fifty-nine-year-old Francek sprinted ahead with an almost preternatural sure-footedness as I stumbled behind him. I was clearly failing one of his basic requirements of an alpinist: the ability to move quickly in the woods. He'd grown up playing in the forests behind his parents' house in Rimske Toplice, a town in eastern Slovenia near his current home in Lasko. "If you know how to walk in a steep forest, through rotting, slippery leaves, then you know how to walk everywhere," Francek told me when I caught up with him.
I'D JUST ARRIVED from Canada and spent the morning at Francek's house, with my husband, Alan, and another Slovenian climber, Silvo Karo, hoping to learn more about this underground icon. Silvo called him the "guru of Slovenian mountaineering," a visionary whose style was cemented in uncompromising values.
Knez during a 1986 expedition to Cerro Torre (ca. 3100m). There, over thirty-plus days, he and his five partners established Peklenska Direttissima (5.12a A4 M6 95 degrees, 900m). [Photo] Silvo Karo
Francek has made more than 5,000 climbs, including the first ascent of Lhotse's South Face to its southwest ridge in 1981, Hell's Direttissima on the east face of Cerro Torre in 1986 and the Slovenian route on Trango Tower in 1987. Yet because of his reticence, few people outside Slovenia know who this complex man—also a sculptor and author—is.
Although Francek has traveled the world, he has never owned a car or a driver's license. He has neither a computer nor a phone. A fiercely private man, he would likely not survive in the modern world of "professional climbing," with its live Internet feeds, relentless self-promotion and media coverage of every last pitch.
He lives with his wife, Andreja, in a modest, impeccably clean home. (Their twenty-year-old daughter, Anja, is away at school.) We remove our shoes at the door, placing them next to the neat row of footwear lined up at the entrance. Their tidy suburban street is within easy biking distance of the Lasko Brewery where Francek works as a security guard. Through his kitchen window, we see verdant pastures climbing steep, forest-rimmed slopes. The rolling landscape has been sculpted by the Savinja River, which rushes along the valley floor and gives Lasko beer its fresh flavor.
That morning, Francek had presided over his wooden kitchen table—a slight, almost delicate man clad in a well-worn, navy-blue pile jacket and black running pants. His rough hands were callused, and several nails were chipped. As we spoke, his face, lined by years of sun and wind and ice and snow, broke easily into a broad smile. His blue eyes flashed with intelligence, and his baseball cap never left his head.
Now, as we skimmed along the cliff top, Francek disappeared from view. Then his head popped up above the lip. "Come here. Just down below. Be careful," he urged. Clinging to small tree trunks, I swung down a couple of rock steps to land in a cave. Inside, there was a wooden seat and a box with pencils and paper. To the east, a natural opening looked out on a beech forest, its canopy a delicate spring green. Directly below, a twenty-meter-high wall extended in both directions. "What is this?" I asked.
"It's my cave. A place to meditate. To think. To write," he replied. He told me he'd excavated the cave over a period of months, using a crowbar to loosen the rocks and hardened clay.
He became quiet and still, basking in the dappled sunlight that filtered through countless, trembling leaves. He seemed to draw energy from the natural landscape, tending his soul and feeding his imagination. Or maybe he garnered strength, not from the landscape, but from his inner core. From solitude itself. I wondered if this was the same connection Francek felt to other higher, colder and wilder mountain places where he spent so much of his life. I tried to imagine Francek high on the South Face of Lhotse in 1981, battling avalanches and gravity and a lack of oxygen, drawing on that elusive, inexplicable calmness he seems uniquely to possess.
FRANCEK WAS BORN IN 1955 in the Styrian region of Slovenia. The area had suffered from Nazi occupation and Allied bombing during the Second World War. It was still recovering from the purges of the post-war years when the new communist regime solidified its power. Nearby, mass graves were filled with the bodies of citizens suspected of collaboration with the Germans or of anti-communist activities.
His mother cleaned buildings at a nearby factory and his father found odd jobs as a handyman. "There was no kind of work my father would not undertake," Francek told me. "Everything was done by hand. Our foundation consisted of hard work: chopping wood, mixing cement, digging in the fields." By age twelve, Francek was scampering up lofty scaffoldings with his father to help repair church steeples.
Francek began scrambling and bouldering on the small cliffs amid the nearby hills, and he soon learned how to use the smallest protuberances for his hands and feet in this exciting new realm. After he joined the local alpine club, he became one of the first Slovenians to train specifically for climbing. Fear was his original motivation. Alpine routes in Slovenia's Julian Alps are infamously long, steep and meandering, with loose rock and stupendous exposure. To prepare himself, he scampered over fences and stone walls. He lifted weights and ran. While waiting for the bus, he'd contract his calves and thighs until the pain became unbearable.
But his favorite training exercise was scrambling up a brick wall outside the local spa. One day, when Francek was partway up, a tall, fair-skinned soldier with a Serbo-Croatian accent approached him. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
"You can see what I'm doing," Francek called down. Although Yugoslavian, the soldier was clearly from a southern republic—and there was little affection between the neighboring regions.
The soldier scowled. "Get down off that wall, now."
Francek reached for a good handhold.
"I said get down!" the soldier yelled.
Francek stayed motionless.
The soldier opened his holster, fumbled with his heavy weapon, and then aimed it at the disobedient climber.
Francek stared down. Was this guy seriously going to shoot him? "My anger brought me into this dangerous game but in every game there is a competition of strength. One of the competitors always loses the game," he later reflected in his memoir, Ozarjeni Kamen. Francek inched higher. When he glanced below him, the soldier had retreated a few steps. Francek had won.
Lado Vidmar on the first ascent of the Slovenian Route on the Grandes Jorasses (4208m) with Knez, Vanja Matijevec and Joze Zupan. [Photo] Vanja Matijevec
FRANCEK CHOSE TO IGNORE political oppressions that existed during his youth; instead he focused on climbing as often as possible at the local crags and in the Kamnik and Julian Alps. During the postwar years, Eastern Bloc climbers who wanted to travel outside their countries struggled to find the financial means and requisite permits. Nonetheless in 1977, Francek managed a trip to the Western Alps. Like most visiting foreign climbers, Francek camped for free behind the Chamonix cemetery. Since there were no climbing stores in Yugoslavia—Francek and his peers borrowed minimal equipment from the Alpine Association—he shopped for climbing gear in town. There were occasional misdeeds. "Somebody would buy a backpack and then he would quickly slip something into it," Francek said. "When he went past the till they saw only the backpack." He added, as half-hearted justification: "Basically, we lived in poverty."
One day, he and his partner Joze Zupan were climbing near Chamonix. On one of the final pitches of their route, the men discovered a load of equipment: prussiks, pitons, bongs that had been abandoned. The young Slovenians gleefully augmented their rack. But a snowstorm caught them on the summit, and unable to find the standard abseil anchors, they left all their new equipment behind for anchors. At the end of the climb, they had the same rack as at the start. Francek's conclusion: "It is usually like this." By then, he'd understood that nothing in life was free.
After a spectacular season in the Alps, including a first ascent on the icy North Face of the Grandes Jorasses, Francek secured a place on the Yugoslavian 1979 Everest West Ridge Direct expedition. The climb would be a massive siege, with nineteen Sherpa staff members, three cooks, three kitchen workers, two mail runners, seven hundred porters, eighteen tons of equipment and twenty-five of the best Yugoslavian alpinists, most from the northernmost republic of Slovenia. They were headed for the unclimbed West Ridge Direct, the route that the Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld had considered in 1963 before they veered left into the couloir that later bore Hornbein's name. Above 8200 meters, the 1979 climbers were faced with a steep, smooth-sided chimney, slightly overhanging walls and narrow, crumbling ledges. Some of this terrain, they climbed bare-handed. They took several horribly exposed leader falls. To this day, the route has only been repeated once, by a Bulgarian team.
Five climbers reached the top, but when Ang Phu Sherpa fell to his death on the descent, the expedition was called off. Francek, one of the members who'd been poised for another summit bid, asked expedition leader Tone Skarja for permission to solo nearby 6639-meter Khumbutse—although they had no permit for the unclimbed peak. "Skarja told me, do it without anyone seeing you," Francek recalled. "It was, so to say, an agreement between the two of us." Francek left camp in the cold stillness of night. Everyone was asleep. Alone and untethered, he sped up the climb in just a few hours, pausing only to admire the shadowy shapes of snow mushrooms near the top. As the bitter wind lashed his face, his heart pumped steadily to warm his extremities, leaving his imagination free to roam amid the nocturnal solitude.
Knez, during the 1981 expedition to the South Face of Lhotse (8516m). [Photo] Ales Kunaver collection/Courtesy of the Slovenian National Museum of Contemporary History
FRANCEK SPENT MUCH OF THE FOLLOWING YEAR alone on the brooding north walls of the Julian Alps. By now, he moved so quickly on ice that his limited time was more efficiently spent soloing. He felt comfortable with his own company, gliding up ice runnels and broken rock.
Francek was only twenty-six when Ales Kunaver invited him to join the 1981 team attempting Lhotse's South Face. Ales was a well-respected leader in the state-supported Alpine Association of Slovenia, having led successful expeditions to Annapurna II and the South Face of Makalu. He was systematic in his choice of climbers for the great Himalayan objectives. For Lhotse's South Face, he needed people like Francek, with high-altitude experience and technical skills on steep ground.
Francek joined a cadre of Yugoslavian superstars, each with a high level of physical ability, psychological focus and motivation. Accustomed to conflict and hardship from the daily realities of a repressive regime, expedition climbers like Marjan Manfreda, Andrej Stremfelj, Stane Belak (Srauf) and Nejc Zaplotnik produced a series of astonishingly hard high-altitude routes from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. Soon, names like Silvo Karo, Janez Jeglic, Pavle Kozjek, Tomo Cesen and Slavko Sveticic resounded in the world of elite alpinism. By the late 1980s, they would surge, like unleashed rockets, into a purer and riskier form of alpinism, shrugging off the security of fixed lines, high-altitude support staff, supplemental oxygen and preset camps.
A view of the perilous snow flutings high on the South Face. Knez recalled: "Wisdom is the prize of suffering." [Photo] Ales Kunaver collection/Courtesy of the Slovenian National Museum of Contemporary History
At 8516 metres, Lhotse is the fourth-highest mountain on Earth, linked to Everest by the South Col. The Swiss first climbed it in 1956 by its shimmering, ice-clad western side. Numerous ascents followed, including the first winter ascent by Polish ice warrior Krzysztof Wielicki on the last day of December 1988. But the south side is something else entirely: one of the steepest faces of its size in the world, it rises 3.2 kilometers in just 2.25 kilometers of horizontal distance, complete with threatening ice towers, unconsolidated stone buttresses, fluted snow slopes and a final rock wall. And in 1981, despite several attempts by Italian and Japanese teams, the South Face was still unclimbed.
The 1981 expedition would be another siege. From the outset, members faced daily snowstorms and incessant rockfall. Avalanches raked the face each afternoon. At one point, Francek was climbing with Himalayan veteran Vanja Matijevec on a steep snow fan above Camp V. As Matijevec recounted in Lhotse: Juzna Stena, they were clipped into a fixed rope when they were caught in an avalanche that "ran down like a river and lasted for more than fifteen minutes." Later, as they descended into a chimney above the camp, "another avalanche of ice, rock and snow rushed downhill like a torrent and didn't stop for almost an hour."
After more than eight weeks on the mountain, the team members were weary, injured and discouraged. But Ales Kunaver wouldn't give up. The summit might not be obtainable—the long, tortuous ridge above the face presented a formidable obstacle—but they were within one day's climb of the crest. If only they could reach it, the South Face would be theirs. He understood the significance of such a climb: only a few of the best Himalayan climbers were even contemplating the South Face of Lhotse at this time. Success would consolidate Yugoslavia's position in the Himalaya and set the stage for the future.
By this time, Francek was at base camp, preparing to leave the mountain. Showered and shaved, he wandered over to a nearby boulder. "Refreshed, I...put my hand on the rock and my heart, too, is warm," he said. "I feel the right hold. I begin moving my hands and feet, precisely, carefully, quickly. Gripping and pulling strongly, this is my paradise." For Francek, the climb was over. But Ales felt otherwise, and he was convinced that Francek was the best choice to give it one more try.
Four days later, Francek and Vanja headed back up the face. The ceaseless up and down on the mountain stopped as all the actors in this gigantic vertical performance watched and waited. Even Francek felt intimidated: "Here the mountain displays its magnificence, and as you gaze up into it you can magically feel your own smallness," he wrote in Ozarjeni Kamen. "The more you stare, the more you disappear into nothingness.
Francek and Vanja left Camp VI at 5 a.m. on May 18. They descended about 100 meters and began a long traverse, sinking into waist-deep drifts. "The incline was very steep, and I have never experienced snow like this," he told me. "It was like flour, like flour.... All I did was dig and dig."
They soon ran out of bottled oxygen. At 7:30 a.m., they radioed in for the first time. The transmission was curt. They were making progress, but there was tension in their voices.
"The pressure was horrible," Francek later told me.
"Was the pressure from the team, from Ales, or some other source?" I asked.
"It was only on us two, and it was internal," he explained. "The two of us were the ones to bear this. The others didn't even know what was happening, what we were doing."
The upper snowfields were lined like corduroy with parallel grooves of unstable snow, a confusing landscape in which they became disoriented. Cornices clung to the edges, hanging over fathomless precipices obscured by a dense fog. Francek lost traction and began slipping down toward a small rock pillar. He regained his footing and pounded two pitons into the crumbling rock. Higher up, a funnel of perfect snow appeared. But with the first step, Francek realized the snow overlay smooth rock slabs, terrain that was impossible to belay. The two would have to climb simultaneously, trusting in each other.
Ales was standing alone some distance from base camp, his nerves frayed. Radio in hand, he strained up at the face. At 12:30 p.m. the radio crackled. The message was simple: "Permission requested to descend."
"No permission required. Do what needs to be done," Ales replied. He began trudging back to camp when his radio sputtered again. The reception was spotty, and he struggled to catch the words. They had changed their minds: Francek and Vanja were continuing!
High on the mountain, the fog had cleared for a moment, revealing a shadowy outline of the summit ridge just a few ropelengths away. Francek started plowing up loose snow and then stepped onto a broad snow mushroom. It immediately collapsed. He free-fell, headfirst, about ten meters, then flipped over, right-side up. "All of a sudden I was standing on the slope with my tools ready to go," he said. "Except just a little bit lower." He clawed his way back into the next groove.
The mists shifted again, this time unveiling a rock tower and a small notch on the ridge. A short, exposed traverse led to the notch, and they were at the rim of the face, at 8250 meters. This was as far as they would go. Studded with gendarmes and towers, the dragon's-back ridge stretched on ahead of them, disappearing into the murk. It was a problem for the future, in Francek's opinion. They radioed base to report where they were and to announce that they would climb down the other side into the Western Cwm. Vanja felt the South Face was too steep and dangerous to descend. Ten minutes later, Francek sent another message: after a tense discussion, he'd convinced Vanja to return by the way they'd come up.
Hours passed with heavy radio silence. Francek and Vanja were fighting for their lives. Snowflakes whirled thick around them. As darkness fell, they slid down the runnels, collapsing from fatigue, drifting off into a seductive stupor, waking with a start and forcing themselves to continue. They hardly noticed the avalanches slithering around them. Around midnight, the storm abated. A feeble moon cast a ghostly light. The blizzard had covered their uphill tracks, and they now realized they'd been traversing higher than their ascent line across the upper rock barrier. Their 8mm rope was too short to reach the snowfield below with a double-rope rappel so Francek built an anchor and attached the end of the rope. Since they had no belay devices, they'd descend with a simple body belay. Vanja went first, but, recalls Francek, "because it was on such a thin rope and such a distance, the pressure was very high and he couldn't bear this angle." He watched in horror as Vanja lost control and fell down the slope...into a fortuitous mound of snow. Once Francek joined him, they continued, now without a rope.
Marko Stremfelj, Marjan Manfreda and Knez during the Everest West Ridge Direct expedition. In Alpinist 27, Andrej Stremfelj wrote: "Today what we did seems like madness." [Photo] Andrej Stremfelj collection
In the early-morning hours, they reached the fixed line. With renewed strength, they hurled themselves down the umbilical cord that led to safety, forgetting all the suffering and doubts and fears. At 4:30 a.m., base received a message: after twenty-four hours of continuous climbing they were safe in Camp IV. As Francek later wrote, "Wisdom is the prize of suffering."
The following morning Ales sent a message home: "FACE CONQUERED, SUMMIT NOT, COMING BACK."
SUCCESS AND FAILURE are sometimes strangely alike. Perception of either is personal. A magnificent line in the Himalaya had been climbed, yet the climbers felt little joy. It was years before Francek would speak about the climb, so deeply did it affect him. He kept this story buried, afraid that talking or writing about it would destroy its significance. "Its forcefulness has waned," he eventually wrote. "My friends on the expedition have been torn apart by the winds of time like powdery snow on the slopes of the south wall. Only bright bits are left, like the starry sky."
In his memoir, Francek wrote less about the physical details of his climbs, and more about his feelings around them. This was, he told me, because "emotions are the essence of everything." His minimalist descriptions have mystified alpinists repeating his routes, even today. As the American alpinist Steve House explained, "His routes are part myth; little hard information exists in the form of detailed topos or photographs." House says that to repeat a Francek route takes "getting inside the head of Francek Knez. And because he climbed so well, you also have to get inside your own head and find the confidence to match one of the great masters."
Francek moved quietly and lightly on rock, like a spider. He was also famous for undergrading his climbs. At the time, he considered a VI+ to represent an alpine route that he could just barely manage. If he wasn't "on the edge of falling," then it surely wasn't a VI+. He simply graded it lower.
In 1982 Francek, Ales Kunaver and Ales's wife, Dusica, were having dinner at their home. Francek, it emerged in conversation, had recently returned from the Alps, and was recounting some of his adventures. And yes, by the way, he'd also soloed the 1938 North Face route on the Eiger...in six hours. "I came to the foot of the face at 6 in the morning. I had breakfast, and then I entered the face.... I had some pitons with me," Francek told Dusica. "When I came to a bit of difficult rock, I stopped for a while. Then I reached some slippery rock, continued and reached the ice. I had to concentrate here. After some time I looked up and saw that I was under the Spider. It was nearly 12 when I was at the top."
"Francek!" Ales yelled. He leapt up from his chair. "Six hours for the Eiger. This is a record." Francek didn't understand the excitement. When Ales pressed him to write about his climb, Francek reluctantly agreed. A few days later, Ales received a single-page description. It was the same as Francek's dinner story: breakfast at the base, some slippery rock, the Spider and looking at his watch at the top. No unnecessary words. No exaggeration.
Knez on Peklenska Direttissima, Cerro Torre. Rolando Garibotti's website Pataclimb.com describes this as "a very difficult line, on which no progression bolts were placed and only 5 bolts were placed for belays." [Photo] Silvo Karo
FROM TODAY'S PERSPECTIVE, Francek appears as a transitional figure in mountaineering history, a man who emerged from the conventions of his time to embrace movements of the future: soloing and lightweight climbing with small teams. He formed his most memorable partnerships with younger climbers like Janez Jeglic and Silvo Karo. By the early 1980s, the trio was known as the Three Musketeers, and together they climbed enormous rock walls in India and Patagonia. There were few days in which one route sufficed for Francek. Back in Slovenia, they once climbed nineteen new mountain routes on the pale limestone of Vrbanova spica in two days, free soloing the easier sections for efficiency.
In 1983 the Three Musketeers went to Argentine Patagonia to attempt a new route on the east face of Fitz Roy. The granite monolith is often shrouded in cloud and sheathed in ice. After days of climbing ice-filled cracks and smooth slabs, they were forced down by storms. When the weather improved, they headed back up their fixed ropes, their mechanical ascenders edging along the frozen lines. Four hundred meters above the glacier, Francek jumared a free-hanging rope that ran over an overhang "like a spider on a string, a barely noticeable thread." Suddenly, he began slipping into the depths. He stopped, staring in shock at the rope's weathered and torn outer sheath. Slowly, ever so slowly, he spun in circles, only a few shreds of cord holding him in place. Francek reached high, reattached one of his ascenders above the core shot and carried on. He later described the sensation: "The threads of life are thin and whoever steps onto the thin rock edge that separates the here from the hereafter is able to see the true dimension of life."
The "Three Musketeers"—Knez, Karo and Jegli—on Fitz Roy, 1983, when they made the first ascent of Hudieva Zajeda, a line that ends at a high col at the junction with the Casarotto Route. It awaits a second ascent and a first integral ascent to the summit. [Photo] Silvo Karo
Shards of falling ice continued to lash at the cords and hurricane-force winds frayed them as they whipped back and forth across the rough granite. Yet this long, complicated and dangerous route captivated Francek. He took great satisfaction in solving its riddles. His unique approach to route-finding seemed instinctive: he could pick his way deftly through a labyrinth of wild, loose and unknown rock with little fuss. Silvo recalled that it was easy to choose a potential line from a distance, but up close, where perspective is often lost, it was much more difficult. That's where Francek's talent shone. He understood the architecture of a foreshortened wall, avoiding rash decisions that would lead to dead ends. Instead, he chose features that connected to others, like a spider's web. On December 8 they reached the junction with the Casarotto Route, having completed the first ascent of Hudiceva Zajeda (Diedro del Diablo), a line that ends at a high col between the summit and the Goretta Pillar. "There are times when you touch happiness," Francek recalled, "just for a moment. Every touch is part of eternity."
In 1986 he returned to Patagonia with the Musketeers and several other Slovenians for the east face of Cerro Torre, a wall that slashed upward for over a mile like a twisted knife. The team included another rock master, Slavko Sveticic, known for daring solos. The infamous Patagonia weather threatened to drown them. Weeks of rain drummed on the tents. After a month, they'd fixed 750 meters of the most difficult sections. But the distant summit was now coated in rime. When the storm let up, Cerro Torre reappeared, wrapped in a shimmering white veneer. The sun's warming rays struck the mountain, releasing a series of careering ice chunks and hissing avalanches. The climbers ducked and wove and fought with their icy fixed lines. On January 16, 1986, all six of them stood on top of Peklenska Direttissima (Hell's Direttissima). Patagonia expert Rolando Garibotti considers Francek to be "the driving force behind a group of climbers that systematically targeted all the hardest faces in the area.... In an age when much of the climbing activity in Patagonia shies away from hard ground, his relentless search for the hardest possible lines is even more relevant."
The Everest and Lhotse expeditions had given Francek valuable experience at altitude. But as a high-precision climber, he abhorred how his body became weak and run down on those long, dragged-out trips, how his finely tuned rock-climbing skills deteriorated. Francek hated these wild swings in performance. "Our body is a reflection of our thoughts and actions," he wrote. "We don't always live in our bodies. We aren't always at home. Very often we live in our memories and our longings. And then we are absent masters of our property." This was a man for whom every day was a gift that needed to be lived fully. And his corporeal experiences were part of that gift.
He also disliked the constant negotiating and group-think of large expeditions. Some friends observed that because he moved so quickly in the mountains he wasn't suited to the slow pace of Himalayan climbing. Slogging up ridges and snow slopes didn't appeal to him. Neither did the endless hauling and jumaring. He was most comfortable on steep terrain, preferably stone. He loved the feel of rock in all its forms: limestone or granite, solid or crumbly. The mineral sharpness and the minute textures helped him feel more present in his body—and in the moment.
His Patagonia climbs were important steps along his path to Trango Tower, a 6239-meter rock spire in Pakistan. From the first moment that Francek saw its monolithic pillar slashing the indigo sky like the blade of a sword, he was spellbound. In 1987 he and his partners, Slavko Cankar and Bojan Srot, used every technique in their arsenal for their new route on the South-Southeast Face: friction climbing, crack climbing, tiny pinch holds and dancing up hard alpine ice. After fixing the lower third of the route, they continued to the summit in a single push. In Alpinist 11, American climber Greg Child later called the ascent "the best style of the era" on that peak. When the Slovenians slid down their ropes on the final descent to base camp, their satisfaction was complete. "Very few things are truly well done," Francek later wrote. "For me, Trango was one of those things." Still restless, Knez moved on to Meru and Bhagirathi in India. There, he completed first ascents on sweeping, big lines in alpine style. For Francek, the goal was merely the inspiration: the path was much more important. He trusted his own path above all.
The Musketeers celebrating in Buenos Aires, after the first ascent of Peklenska Direttissima. This photo appeared in Alpinist 6 as part of "A Climber's Life" by Pavle Kozjek, a talented Slovenian alpinist who died on Pakistan's Muztagh Tower (7284m) in 2008. [Photo] Pavle Kozjek
MANY LEADING SLOVENIAN CLIMBERS FROM FRANCEK'S generation are now gone, lost in the mountains. Their uncompromising goals advanced the physical and psychological evolution of climbing, but like so many pioneers that preceded them—the British, the Polish—the cost was high. Nejc Zaplotnik on Manaslu, Stane Belak (Srauf) on Mala Mojstrovka in the Julian Alps, Slavko Sveticic on the West Face of Gasherbrum IV, to name just a few. Francek survived his Himalayan climbs, and by the 1990s he'd shifted to creating long mountain routes in Slovenia. Difficult climbs on dangerous ground, but with less objective hazard.
Then in 1999 his career almost ended at a local crag. Francek suffered a broken back when his partner accidentally dropped him to the ground. With the help of two climbers, he crawled to their car and collapsed. That very night, a surgeon inserted screws to support the damaged vertebrae. But Francek's recovery was slow. After his doctor discovered that one of the screws had broken, Francek needed another surgery. With a brand-new screw and plastic tubes to drain the injury, Francek endured crippling pain. "I have touched rock bottom where there is no strength left and everything crumbles into dust," he wrote. "This is the heaviest cross I ever carried. I am almost crushed beneath it. Is this the beginning of decay?"
Francek begged his wife for a private hospital room in which to recover. "Whatever is left in me, I have to be alone," he said. He rejected the doctors' predictions of wheelchairs and immobility. In solitude, he directed every waking thought and physical act toward recovery. For months, Francek stretched his broken body and flexed his shrunken muscles. Eventually, he was able to walk, and finally, to run. Although he still feels some stiffness and chronic pain, Francek can climb again. He's now limited to single-pitch routes in summer, since carrying a heavy winter pack is out of the question. He mostly climbs in secret areas that he has developed near his home.
He gave me a tour along the base of one such crag, pointing out the holds and moves on the chalky white limestone. Shaded by a beech forest, the overhanging cliff curved off in an elegant arc. When I speculated that the climbing looked strenuous and difficult, he shook his head. "No, it's not difficult. It's interesting," he said with a smile. At the base of the cliff, Francek had constructed a flagstone walkway, with massive flat rocks placed into intricate patterns.
"Why?" I asked.
"To keep your shoes and the rock clean," he explained. "And besides, it looks nice, don't you agree?"
As we wandered along the base of this crag so close to his home, I wondered about his prolific climbing career, traveling from Europe to South America and Asia. Five thousand plus routes is a lot of climbing. When I asked how he financed his ascents, he stated the obvious: his brewery job, plus money earned from cleaning and painting towering smokestacks. When I queried him on when he found the time to climb, he told me: on weekends and after work. And how did he get to the mountains? Francek hitchhiked, took buses or ran, if the crag was close enough. "It was easy," he said. "Not a problem at all. It was only a problem for the mind." I could imagine him transferring the same skills to the devious lines and frustrating dead ends of unknown walls: only a problem for the mind.
When his memoir, Ozarjeni Kamen, was launched at the mountain-film festival in Ljubljana a few years back, hundreds flocked to see him. The only one missing was Francek. He doesn't like crowds.
He is currently writing another book about his approach to life. At his home, I asked to see what he'd written. He hauled out a notebook with pages and pages of neat handwriting. Occasional lines were stroked or whited out. With short chapters entitled "Power" and "The Magic Bird," it read more like a prose poem.
"Do you know how hard it is to compose all this?" he asked. "I have worked many years." Francek continued: "Here I went for the form of a rhyme. It is not a poem, but it is a reflection in the form of a poem." Francek is a self-taught writer, and he's thoughtful about his choice of words: "They contain joy and sadness, fear, courage, longing, love, defeat and that insignificant dust of eternity: happiness. All these are things that left their trace in me." And death. He writes quite a lot about death, I noticed. When I asked why, he explained, with a sly grin: "It's closer than birth."
Knez and Jegli on Torre Egger (2850m), 1986, the year that they completed the first ascent of Psycho Vertical (5.11b A3 90 degrees, 900m) on the peak's south face, in a 22-hour round-trip push to the summit after fixing the first 550 meters. [Photo] Silvo Karo
I was still poring over his notebook when he grabbed my elbow and propelled me into the next room. There, on a shelf, sat a sculpture of a fish within a fish. Honey-hued wood with whorls and swirls. And another, the proud head of an eagle. A woman's face in regal profile, her features defined by textures in the wood, from silky smooth to granular and rough. Francek had carved them all. Animated, he explained which kind of wood is most malleable and evocative, where he finds it and how he chooses it. He's always searching for that perfect piece—whether he's walking in the forest or resting on a belay ledge, scanning the trees below. He looks at wood differently than most people do, envisioning a face or an animal or a symbol. I suspect this is also how he contemplates a wall, tracing a line in his imagination out of branching cracks and scatterings of ice, reading the hidden patterns beneath the apparent disorder of nature and life. He pointed to a much larger sculpture on the floor: bodies intertwined with the natural curve of the wood. Outside in his garden stand dozens of robust, abstract figures sculpted from pale grey limestone. "For me, it's the same," he told me. "Writing or wood, stone or climbing. I can lean in all directions. I can concentrate on this in the same way. Everything has a common denominator."
The same instinct seemed to illuminate his understanding of the written word and of the sculptural possibilities in wood and stone. I marveled at his ability to move from climbing to writing to sculpting, the way he did on an unknown big wall, shifting from overhangs to corners and slabs with confident grace. "I must flow like a rainbow; flow here a bit, flow there a bit, but I don't have a plan," he said.
I wondered, too, at his refusal to dwell on any of his accomplishments. Francek explained, "Everything is governed by a certain harmony—and if you emphasize a certain thing too much, if you blow it up, then it isn't real." He added: "Why isolate one thing when it's all interconnected anyhow, just right.... Why try to exaggerate it?"
"So would you say this is your philosophy of life?" I asked.
"No, no, I mean, this is not philosophy," Francek clarified. "This is just—or so I put it—the truth. Isn't it?"
Finally, I asked Francek if there was a climb that stood out for him. He looked at me, and with a patient smile, answered, "That's like taking one flower from among all the flowers."
Later, as I drove away with Alan and Silvo, I looked back through my open window. Francek was still standing in front of his house among his carved rock "flowers." I thought of his cave, where he'd seemed so at home. His body alert, his face reflected a calm serenity, like the forest canopy. I remembered how he once wrote about an "idyllic, lonely" place, a realm that no longer exists, some vanished landscape in his memories of youthful intensity. I wondered if this small cave had replaced it. As he said, "Life is a beautiful, mysterious, lonely path."
[Parts of this article have been excerpted and adapted from the author's new book, Alpine Warriors—Ed.]
This story first appeared in Alpinist 52—Winter 2015.
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