HAROLD KNUTSON is Indiana Jones meets Marco Polo. He has an extraordinary, hair-raising story to tell, although it reads more like a book, perhaps a novel, except that his unbelievable tales are all true.

He has climbed to the top of Mount Everest, been a stunt man in two James Bond movies, served in the Peace Corps, lived with Eskimos for three years while panning for gold, and crossed the Sahara Desert by camel.

He has visited every country in the world but Albania, photographed for National Geographic, produced wildlife films for Walt Disney, reached the 1960 Olympic Trials in downhill skiing, won marathon races, played tournament tennis, and worked for the United Nations, Kaiser and Bechtold as

a geologist.

And that's not all. He has had three near-death experiences, although reaching Mount Everest's summit on his sixth try, April 30, 1985, doesn't count as one of them.

"I certainly want to emphasize that I'm not a hero playing at adventure," said Knutson, 66, an Oakland hills resident. "I don't get into these things personally, but I try to treat them as a chess game, where each move you make has to be deliberate,

and you have to know the consequences of that move.

"I have to know my avenues of escape and survival. If I'm trapped as a prisoner, I know I have to slow down, stay calm, plot your moves, and try not to act irrational. If you make a mistake, it could be fatal."

Knutson lived in Eskimo encampments in the Northwest Territories while looking for gold.


Advertisement

One weekend, he took a dog team across Greenland, getting caught in a hellacious winter storm. To survive the fierce, chilling winds, he curled up with his dogs for three days until the storm passed.

"The dogs' warmth kept me alive," he said.

His second near-death ordeal occurred in the West Africa country of Guinea. Knutson was representing the United Nations, investigating a large deposit of iron ore for the Canadian government. His party was ambushed by Cuban guerrillas, and his driver and several workers were killed by gunfire.

"Fear can be paralyzing, like a cold serum that penetrates your body and petrifies your senses," Knutson said. "There's 30 guys pointing machine guns at you, poking at you with bayonets, spitting at you.

"A Russian helicopter crew, totally against the United States but working with the Guinea government, reported me missing. The British and Russian legations got me out after a couple of days. Remember 'The Deer Hunter' and the bamboo shacks? I literally looked death in the face."

Knutson's third harrowing trial involved photographing gorillas in Africa for National Geographic. He accidentally got between a baby and the mother, a no-no in the gorilla world.

"The mother let out almost a primal scream," he said. "The baby yelped and ran to the mother. A silverback, the dominant alpha male, jumped up and started pounding his chest. It was terrifying. He came tearing at me. All I could do was crouch down and become very submissive. He picked me up and threw me into the bamboo. Then he batted me around. Gorillas are vegetarians, they don't kill innate beings, and it was over in a minute and a half, and they left. But I got some great shots."

The Peace Corps took Knutson to Nepal, where he later worked for the United Nations, mapping the border area for the Nepalese government. He then took his first try at 29,028-foot Mount Everest. He failed that time, and the next four times because he, stubbornly, refused to use oxygen.

"Below 18,000 feet on Everest, your cognitive process can function, wounds can heal, and your psychological aspects can maintain an equilibrium," he said. "Above 18,000, all those functions deteriorate. Above 24,000 feet, you'd literally turn into a vegetable in 40, 50 days.

"The object is to get from 18,000 to

29,000 in, hopefully, six weeks. You try to acclimatize so your blood can carry more oxygen, to oxygenate your brain. It's like trying to run on a treadmill breathing through a straw. So you set up a camp and then come back down; you do this over and over again. But your mind and body keep breaking down, so it's a battle of mental wits."

"Seven of my good friends have died on that mountain and others," he said. "I've stepped over bodies, from the Nepal and the Tibet side, people still up there. Their bones are up there."

When Knutson finally reached the summit on attempt No. 6 after agreeing, at last, to use oxygen, he felt no euphoria.

"It was storming quite bad at the time, freezing," he recalled. "There was no chest-pounding jubilation. There was almost a tired resignation. We were getting low on oxygen and I had to get back down."

Climbing Mount Everest was a goal Knutson had written down as a child on a Minnesota farm so rural he didn't watch television until college. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Mining Engineering and Geology, he studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the University of Russia in Moscow.

By then, he had his traveling boots on. He worked outside the United States for 45 years in his various pursuits. He was away from home 75 to 80 percent of that time. He circled the globe 10 times.

He appeared in two James Bond movies, "The Spy Who Loved Me" and "For Your Eyes Only," doing skiing scenes for Roger Moore's 007 character, escaping villains and avalanches, without once seeing Moore.

However, Knutson has escaped several real-life avalanches.

"The fear is being asphyxiated by the snow," he said. "You kick your skis off, detach the poles from your wrist, and try to 'swim' upwards."

But those were small avalanches, he added, so he doesn't count them as dancing with death.

"I'm not Peter Pan looking for my eternal youth," he said. "I'm more like Thoreau looking for his Walden Pond. I'm looking for spirituality, for geological uniqueness, and for the aesthetics of climbing up near where God is."

Dave Newhouse's column appears Monday, Thursday and Sunday. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone (510) 208-6466 or e-mail dnewhouse@angnewspapers.com.