Felix Kiernan was a north London climber and baseline dirtbag. He died last week aged 28 in a rock-fall accident on the East Buttress of El Cap. He was neither rock idol nor mountain hero, but he was an embodiment of an old school climber spirit – a spirit of mischief, adventure and an abundance of psyche.
I first met Felix at Lawrencefield in the Peak in 2008. He'd been climbing properly for a couple of years and was just finishing his medical studies at Manchester. It was a sweaty day on the grit and I was lounging with a group of matesafter the morning's exertions. He sauntered up to the bottom of Suspense, (as it turned out, his first E2)- that delicate teeter over the dark deep pool - which he proceeded to climb slowly and smoothly, up to the tiny ledge before the final move, where he paused. He stood there balanced for a very long time, eyeballing the long reach on the small crimp –and finally, as we cheered him on, he breathed deeply and went forit.
Back on the ground, I congratulated him but he was dismissive, irritated with himself that he'd paused for so long. His belayer then proceeded to ready himself for the route, and to do so removed his T-shirt, revealing a remarkably oversized chrome nipple ring. I looked at Felix and widened my eyes in surprise, he leaned over and whispered "he uses it as a backup runner", and we both collapsed into cackles.
He grew up in Dartmouth Park, right on the edge of Hampstead Heath, and like many North Londoners, his climbing started by bouldering the ancient oaks and clambering up trees with names like "the Beanstalk" and "God's Tree". On top of these as a teen you could get the best view over the city to share a beer and a smoke.His father Patrick had taken him on forays to Scotland as a schoolboy, and aged 17 he went trekking to Nepal. Tom Brookes remembers his tale of heading up the 6189m Island peak with a Sherpa "guide"who turned out to be alcoholic and in very bad shape. Felix ditched him and pushed on to summit alone.
Felix got serious about rock in 2006, first at the Castle in Finsbury Park (where the flag flew at half mast last week), and then at Manchester. He assembled a group of mates for an especially golden Autumn 2008 grit trip, his first visits to Curbar and Froggat, climbing Elder Crack, L'Horla, Right Eliminate, Brown's Eliminate, and Oedipus Ring Your Mother. I remember anxiously watching him solo Great Slab – he did the traverse crux on the lower slabs quickly, but looked quite wobbly on the tiny holds. He paused for so long before the easy but dangerously high upper ripples, that I eventually offered him a top rope. As soon as I made the offer, he huffed in irritation and calmly climbed to the top.
He was in this sense a climber's climber – he was mortal, sometimes scared, but full of commitment, competitiveness and upward momentum. He had a lot of psyche.
A tribute page set up on facebook, (which already has over a thousand members) many climbing friends talk about his enormous psyche:
- Tom Brookes remembers their ascent of the Frendo Spur in 2009. "We raced up the climb, and made such good time that we went straight past the ledge we had planned to sleep on and blasted for the top, summiting with whoops of delight, to catch the last lift back down with the station rubbish."
- Bryant McDonnell remembers him turning up in Yangshou, China in 2009. shouting "Hey I'm looking for climbing partners, anyone game for Moon Hill?!"
- Ollie Benzie remembers meeting him for the first time in Chamonix, drinking wine until the small hours, missing the first telepherique, "and by the time we got to the midi station we could see a line of climbers snaking into the distance, ready to clog up "our" route. I was still assuming we would have to queue at every belay when I realized that my rope was tightand Felix was running across the glacier. Within seconds I was panting but Felix dragged me on and managed to get us to the route before anyone. "Your first day Ollie, your lead". When we reached the top I was completely reliant on the two lads, Felix even undoing my knots for me as I struggled for breath."
- I remember a great trip to North Wales – some Gogarth, some Slate: Felix tip-toeing his way up the long run-out on Pull My Daisy above the evil iron spike and smirking his way up the eponymous German Schoolgirl. Day 3 it poured with a proper full-on North Wales pissing flood-storm, a day to stay inside and shelter from the wet. So with our psyches combined we got out and swam our way up LockWood's Chimney, a "classic" 3 pitch Diff, which had become a vertical river for the day.
Felix would have also remembered sport trips to Portland, Siurana, Ceuse and El Chorro, his alpine ascents of the Cassin Route on the Piz Badile and Modern Times on the Marmolada, Majorette Thatcher, Regent Street and his recent 7C+ in Thailand.
If you knew Felix, you can leave your own tribute here.
His early dirtbag tendencies were revealed in a story told by Dan from the Castle – they set off from London on a Friday night for a weekend of Portland sport, arriving at midnight. Felix refused a B&B and insisted onbivvying at the bottom of the crag, under a projecting roof. Inevitably, they woke in the small hours with the rain pouring down, and Dan pointed out that in the dark they had put their mats down amidst what he now realized was a moistening sea of human poo. Felix shrugged, rolled over and went back to sleep.
Felix was a passionate climber, he loved the wilderness that climbing gets you into, saying that it fed his soul. He loved the physical movement, the strength, balance and the moving meditation. He loved the risk and adrenalin of climbing, but he was also cautious and pretty calm. He witnessed a friend breaking both ankles soloing early on, and stopped soloing after that, focusing mostly on sport and big wall trad.
He had a savage and caustic sense of humour, sometimes cruel, often filthy and always funny. I remember arriving in transit at Miami airport one evening, jetlagged en route to South America. I switched my phone on as I entered the endless queue, and it immediately pinged with a picture message from Felix of some excruciating and very funny porn. I cackled, texted back saying "stop, stop, I'm going thru US immigration" at which point an unstoppable flood of images pinged continuously into my phone as I furiously tried to delete them while the queue inched closer and closer to the grim-faced border guards.
He was a good-looking guy, with a native north London accent and an urban chic in his clothes, which, combined with his big brain and his big heart was catnip for a certain type of lady. His photo once went viral in the gay community and he seemed to have a series of rather grand girlfriends - heiresses and aristocrats and fashionistas – a mate at the Castle once called him "a posh girl's bit of rough". He was passionate about music, hip hop, R&B, ska and soul, he liked his parties and his raves, and many of his mates have blogged aural memories of loud tunes shared with him, often while driving too fast.
By 2011 he was getting mildly obsessive about training for climbing, especially with his Castle buddy Luke Jones who was with him on El Cap, and he was starting to get strong.With his medical career progressing nicely, he got an opportunity for a 6 month sabbatical, which he started in Jan this year. This was his chance to commit fully to the dirtbag life for a while.
He went to Thailand, quickly ticked his first 7c+ and then flew to Kentucky and attacked the Red River Gorge. His facebook posts showed a downhome cocktail of shooting guns, drinking beer, laughing and sending hard. Luke Bucciarelli road-tripped with him to Colorado, and across the desert to Salt Lake City, where they spent a few days hanging out. As they parted at the airport their final words to each other were: "Been an epic journey". Indeed.
In those last few weeks of April and May of this year, Felix had told friends back home that he was the happiest he'd ever been.
He arrived in Yosemite on Saturday June 1st, and set off up the East Buttress of El Cap early on Sunday June 2nd. He was killed instantly in a rockfall at 2pm local time. His climbing partner Luke Jones was with him, and spent a grim 6 hours waiting for the rescue.
Felix was a fiercely intelligent guy, funny and scabrous but also utterly serious about politics and philosophy and medicine. And life. To his hard mates at the Castle he was a funny hard bloke, but behind the scenes he'd pulled a friend through cancer and was extremely kind to many.
When interesting people die young, you regret not only their absence, but also the unknown things they would have made and done, but now won't. With Hendrix and Joplin and Winehouse, you regret the songs they didn't get to record. With Keats and Rimbaud, you regret the poems they didn't get to write. With Arthur Dolphin and Wolfgang Gullich, you regret the routes they didn't put up.
Felix was a dirtbagger not a rock idol, so although I do regret the routes I won't now see him do, I find myself sadder about the conversations we won't now have, the post climbing cackles that won't now happen, and the piss he will no longer take.
Felix is survived by his twin brother Miles, his sister Dorcas, his parents Patrick and Sarah, by his many mates at the Castle and by over 1000 climbing and non-climbing friends from all over the world.
Rest In Peace, Felix.
As you would put it, 'One love' from us all.
Felix Kiernan, climber. Born 26th December 1984, Died June 2rd 2013
You can read more tributes to Felix here in the UKC Forums.