Last night Konrad and I paddled an hour side-by-side in the gathering darkness. The glassy smooth water and gentle pace allowed us to enjoy the outlines of hills, the fluttering of heron wings, the comforts of conversation.
He reminisced about how Dad would fly a training jet and even an air force propeller plane from his station at Hahn, near where we lived in Bernkastle, to visit Konrad near Munich. They'd go out to dinner or go climbing, and Dad would fly home.
This was some months before they climbed the Eiger together and some months after Dad tried to rescue Konrad from a vicious storm on the south flank of Mont Blanc. It's a complicated story, but Konrad used a rope Dad fixed for him, and a few hours later they met for the first time – at a hut. A lifelong friendship ensued. Alas, Dad's life would only continue five more years, until he died on the Eiger in 1966. Konrad gave the eulogy.
But my life has continued the friendship, as Adele and Siena and I visit him nearly every time we return to Europe, and Konrad and his French wife Joelle come to Oregon and Oaxaca. Konrad put off visiting the States for decades, figuring it was tame and predictable and would be appropriate for his old age.
So when he came to our place in Hood River at the age of 68, he had a newly installed pacemaker. The doctor learned we would climb the 11,239-foot Mt. Hood together, so he dialed up the pacemaker to handle the altitude. We've also paddled and skied together in the Arctic, Mediterranean, and German and Austrian Alps.
Because the ankle he sprained when he was 10 years old has been acting up lately, Konrad wasn't going to be able to join me in the Alps during my Swiss adventure. So he offered to organize the complicated but tamer descent of the Rhine, enlisting the considerable aid of his good friend Jean-Pierre Jochaud, an ace sea kayaker who supplied the boats, car and trailer.
Konrad is now 74, and when I captioned a photo from this morning as our last camp together I nearly choked up. It won't be our last, not at all, but just the end of this little adventure as we look forward to the next.
The Rhine is not the sort of wilderness journey Konrad usually does, but he has very much enjoyed the ever-changing landscape and the beautiful buildings in the old towns. So I was surprised when this morning he turned down my invitation to explore the Roman ruins beside the Rhine.
"I've seen too many of those,” he said, “and when there are any stones they were constructed in the 19th century.” I went to look anyway, and he was right. For an American seeing any evidence of such ancient times has power, but to a European they're just another page in history. And to Konrad, if they're not real – a reconstruction – they have little meaning.