Yearbook letter to the Harvard Class of 2012, by Oliver Knill, Nov 3, 2011

Dear Class of 2012,

while I had been a PhD student at ETH Zuerich and my wife Ruth was a postdoc at NIKHEF Amsterdam, Ruth participated at the 1990 "Les Houches Summer school on Supernovae [35 Meg PDF]" in the French alps near Chamonix. Then still her boy friend, I followed her to the conference and had a great time at the "Ecole de Physique".

Not having to participate at the lectures, I could jog near the Mont Blanc, read and work in the physics library and enjoy French hospitality and food. On a typical day, I would shoulder my paraglider, run up a mountain and fly back to the alp. One participant was Brian Schmidt, who in 2011 would win the Nobel prize in physics and was back then a Harvard graduate student. As I once soared down the mountain, and failed to land on the lawn in front of the library because students were gathering for a break, I had to bring down the parachute nearby. Since the wings of the glider touched trees and electric lines, Brian exclaimed to my future wife: "Your boy friend is crazy!" and Ruth answered: "I know!" She did not grasp at that time how much: on our honey moon, I would fly from the cliffs of the island of Santorini in Greece and be forced to land in the sea, stranded at the feet of the cliffs. Ruth, being asked to photograph the stunt, had been under the impression that I was dead. But thats an other story.

My runs in Chamonix would grow longer and reach higher. The aim was the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. I used light trekking shoes which allowed running even with a backback containing a parachute. One day, I ran and climbed up to the cabine near the Aiguille de Gouter on 3800 meters. Already packed with mountaineers, I just arrived in time to lie down and rest. As custom, climbers get then up at 3 AM in the morning and attempt a summit. Things went well at first until a severe snow storm hit and people started to turn back. Close to a cabin built on 4360 meters by meteorlogist Joseph Vallot, it was already difficult to walk, the majority of the 40 mountaineers had returned. I would have gone down too but my feet were cold. The light climbing shoes were not made for such a storm. I decided to bunker down and take care of my feet.

As the storm continued to roar, more and more of the other climbers had gone. Eventually alone, I felt well again to climb down too. But the opening of the door came with a shock: the storm was gone. It was still windy but the air was clear and the sun was bright. I quickly tossed the intention to descend, replaced lost gloves with socks and summited to the peak in best conditions. I could not fly from the top since it was still too windy but near the cabine on 3800 meters, a flight back to Les Houches became possible.

Since then, I know that difficult circumstances can have happy endings, even when paired with foolishness. I wish you a life free of storms as the majority of mountain tours are. But if you try to reach a summit and get into a difficult situation, bunker down and wait it out. Fortune favors the bold.


P.S. Ruth and I went once to Flims The ski seasons was closed but the sessellifts still ran. It was later in the afternoon, when we went up with the lift. We still walked up a bit the mountain. I had my paraglider with me and told Ruth: "See you in the village" and took off. The only caveat: the lift has already stopped. The night approaching, Ruth was stranded alone high up in the mountains, and it was impossible to walk down. But thats again an other story ... Lets just say: she still married me.

Photos of Oliver taking off in Flims. Foto by Ruth Knill in Flims before being stranded.
Photos of a flight in Haifa.