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Kim Schmitz remembered for resilience and brightness in the mountains and in life

Posted on: September 29, 2016


Kim Schmitz was more than a climbing legend. He was a man who managed a smile no matter what life put him through. Bone-breaking falls in the mountains, avalanches, addiction, cancer and chronic pain—he overcome all the setbacks and accomplished the impossible, from bringing Yosemite big-wall tactics to Great Trango Tower (6286m) and Uli Biaho (6109m) in the late 1970s, to continuing to gym climb in more recent years when he sometimes needed two canes to walk. The mountains continued to be an integral part of his life at his recent home in Jackson, Wyoming. On September 19, he'd just gotten off a raft trip down the Salmon River in Idaho and was driving to Spokane, Washington, when his car went off the road and hit a boulder. He was later found dead. He was 70.

Kim Schmitz at the high camp on the first ascent of Gaurishankar (7181m), Nepal, 1979. [Photo] John Roskelley Kim Schmitz at the high camp on the first ascent of Gaurishankar (7181m), Nepal, 1979. [Photo] John Roskelley

"Kim loved the simplicity of trekking and time travel through the Asian cultures he so much admired," said John Roskelley, one of Schmitz's longtime friends and climbing partners from the Trango Tower, Uli Biaho and other expeditions. "He seemed much more at peace with himself on the trail, and the more remote the better. Once on the climb, though, his intensity was fierce and focused. It was Kim's Yin and Yang; the joy of living life fully, yet continuing to look death in the eye."

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American Alpine Club CEO Phil Powers first met Schmitz in the mid-1980s, and he recalls some of the seminal moments in climbing history that Schmitz helped bring about.

"Kim really did expand the envelope by doing what we all thought was impossible," Powers said. "Great Trango Tower was impressive, but Uli Biaho might be a little more special, as it was probably the world's first Grade VII. He was someone I'd call for advice when I was traveling to big mountains. I have the greatest regard and love for the guy."

Kim Schmitz relaxing on the trek to Gaurishankar, 1979. [Photo] John Roskelley Kim Schmitz relaxing on the trek to Gaurishankar, 1979. [Photo] John Roskelley

Peter Haan, another longtime friend and climbing partner, remembers his friend fondly: "I knew Kim from 1969 onwards and for the last two years saw him four or five days a week here in Jackson, Wyoming. He was unique in having never written a thing, so it falls upon the survivors to tell his story.... His fate seemed to be resolving if for no other reason than sheer attrition—the myriad of accidents and illnesses, etc., over fifty years."

For a long time, the mountains kept Schmitz going. Schmitz was born in Oakland, California, but his family moved to Portland, Oregon, when he was a baby, and there the rugged skylines became his natural surrounding. According to a 2015 story on Wyofile.com, he worked as a dishwasher on Sierra Club trips and earned an invitation to climb Canada's Mt. Robson (12,972') by the time he entered high school. He made the ascent with a pair of old crampons that didn't have frontpoints. A few years later he climbed Mt. Waddington (13,186') in British Columbia, as a full-fledged team member.

Schmitz found his way to Yosemite, California, and in 1967 he gained attention by climbing the Nose of El Capitan (VI 5.10 A3) with Jim Madsen in two-and-a-half days—half the time of the previous record. Numerous other Valley records and first ascents followed, including the first ascent of Zenith (VI 5.8 A4) on Half Dome with Jim Bridwell in 1978. But that would have been a casual jaunt compared to his first ascent of Great Trango Tower in Pakistan the previous year with Roskelley, Dennis Hennek and Galen Rowell. And then in 1978, Schmitz returned to Pakistan with Roskelley, Ron Kauk and Bill Forrest to climb Uli Biaho Tower. They spent ten nights in hammocks on the high-altitude wall and a total of twelve days on the climb that had 34 technical pitches up to 5.8 A4. It was the first Grade VII done by Americans, and possibly the first in the world. In 1980 Schmitz joined Rowell again for a 43-day, 300-mile ski traverse across the Karakoram Range.

Kim Schmitz on the west face of Gaurishankar, Nepal, 1979. [Photo] John Roskelley Kim Schmitz on the west face of Gaurishankar, Nepal, 1979. [Photo] John Roskelley

Schmitz suffered the first of many injuries and losses to come in 1980, after the "Karakoram High Route" ski expedition, when he was caught in an avalanche in China that killed his friend, Aspen, Colorado, photographer Jonathan Wright, and left Schmitz with a broken back and ribs. While guiding Symmetry Spire in Grand Teton National Park in 1983, he found that his tight climbing shoes irritated his feet, which had been frostnipped during expeditions to Nepal and Pakistan, so he switched to running shoes, then slipped on a pitch without any protection. He fell 70 feet to a ledge, shattering bones in his ankles and legs. He would never be the same again, though he climbed plenty more after that, even while battling prostate cancer and a MRSA infection in his leg before his death.

Last year, Schmitz received the American Alpine Club's Robert and Miriam Underhill Award for a lifetime of contribution to climbing. He told the Jackson Hole News & Guide: "Climbing is fun. It's the most fun I ever had. Best thing I ever did. I still love it. And I love being in the mountains even more than I love climbing." The story goes on to recount how he once "asked an old climbing partner of his—the renowned alpinist Jim Bridwell—if he ever wanted to go climbing together. Schmitz said Bridwell declined, saying he had nothing to prove anymore. 'That is the last thing in the world I think of when I think of climbing," Schmitz told the newspaper. "That doesn't even exist in my mind. Someone is always going to be reaching higher standards than you are. You are bound to lose. I climb for very different reasons.""

ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com editor Vera Kaikobad wrote of Schmitz after his AAC award: "The standards he set were the building blocks of the feats of climbing we see on El Cap today. And he set the bar very high, because this talented and humble man was simply that good." In the same story, John Long is quoted: "When I first went to Yosemite Valley, Kim Schmitz was already legendary for his speed ascents of El Capitan (with Jim Madsen) and his general mastery of wall climbing. When later I joined forces with Kim for speed ascents and new routes on Sentinel and Mt. Watkins, respectfully, I learned what a professional approach to adventuring was all about: choose the big challenges and the finest lines; assemble the best team; and once you start up, keep your eyes open and your energy contained (read: stay in control). There was fear and there were dangers, to be sure, but with Kim on the other end of the rope, I always liked our chances."

Hundreds of climbers expressed an outpouring of loss on websites such as Supertopo.com in the wake of his death. It's obvious that Schmitz's life in the mountains will continue to inspire many. "What a life. What a man," was an echoed sentiment.

Brian Whitlock, who was on the Salmon River trip with Schmitz before he died, wrote on Facebook: "When it rained, Kim raised his face to the drops, when the sun shined, he raised his face to the rays. On Kim's final Sunday, he was in a sacred space."

Kim Schmitz on the Ice Hose pitch Gaurishankar West Face 1979. [Photo] John Roskelley Kim Schmitz on the Ice Hose pitch Gaurishankar West Face 1979. [Photo] John Roskelley

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Comments
Cammo

Good job, Derek. Writing about the recently departed is tough. Keep up the good work! Cam

2016-10-04 09:19:19
peterhaan

Derek,

Really the best article by anybody so far! Thanks for your superb work!

2016-10-01 12:35:17
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