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Remembering Kyle Dempster

Author: Outdoor Research

September 08, 2016

We will be adding to this post with more memories, stories and photos from Kyle's friends throughout the next week. Please scroll down to view additional stories, and check back often, as we will be adding stories as we receive them.

I was sitting at the counter of Higher Ground in Salt Lake City back in 2012, tapping away on my laptop, and I overheard the coffee shop’s co-owner, Kyle Dempster, talking to customers from behind the counter, explaining the new sandwich menu. One customer, a guy in a business suit, asked,

“So Kyle, are you like a professional climber or something?” I stopped typing for just a second to eavesdrop. In 2012, Kyle had already won a Piolet d’Or (2009), would be nominated for another one a year later, had won grants for expeditions all over the world, and climbed 5.13 and M11 mixed routes.

Kyle replied to the customer: “Well, I do get some money to go on expeditions, so yes, I guess you could say I’m a professional climber.” I smiled and returned to typing.

I wasn’t close with Kyle, and never shared a rope with him. I was lucky to get to work with him through our relationship with Outdoor Research, and chat with him a few times a year over the phone, via email, and in person when I caught him for a few minutes at a trade show, film festival, or at Higher Ground. Kyle always had a warm smile, and this thing you never expect from a person who did superhuman things on the biggest, scariest mountains in the world: an interest in finding something in common and what you were up to, never talking about himself unless you asked specific questions. The last time I talked to him on the phone, we spent more time talking about the house he’d just bought than his upcoming American Alpine Journal-worthy plans. He wasn’t on Facebook, or Twitter, only took a brief whack at Instagram, and didn’t seem to have a “look at me” bone in his body.

When I found out Kyle and his climbing partner Scott Adamson went missing during an attempt on Ogre II in Pakistan, I entered my credit card to donate to the rescue fund—hoping to someday be able to rib Kyle that he maybe owed me a free Americano or ten because of my contribution to help get him off the mountain and home safe. A few days later, I got a text from a mutual friend saying that a helicopter had made several passes over the mountain and seen nothing, and the search had been called off. And I had that feeling that a lot of people had, when the majority of your hope is dashed, but you can’t seem to turn off that tiny part that still wants to think they would appear the next day, or the next, with some horrific tale of running out of food and water three days ago.

Kyle started a coffee shop in 2008 with his high school friend Ty Snelling, a confluence of his love of coffee and an investment to avoid “having to be a professional climber when I don’t want to be a climber anymore,” as he said few years ago. He told me that he thought half of the customers at Higher Ground didn’t even know he was a climber—they just knew he was gone a lot.

In the summer of 2011, Kyle took a BOB Trailer full of climbing gear and his complete Kyrgyz vocabulary of 10 words to Kyrgyzstan, planning a two-month bike-powered climbing trip. He was supposed to shoot video of the trip to satisfy some grant requirements, so he packed a camera as his only travel partner. Throughout the trip, which became an adventure in the best and worst senses of the word, Kyle recorded video diaries. He later said that the video camera became something like Wilson, the volleyball Tom Hanks’ character had for company in Cast Away.

In 2013, Christian Folk at Outdoor Research looked through the footage and thought there might be something more than a four- or five-minute trip report video in it. He sent the hard drive to Fitz Cahall and Duct Tape Then Beer, and a few months later, the crew at DTTB put together a 25-minute film called The Road From Karakol, which won the Best of Festival Award at the 5Point Film Festival that year. That film is now the best way most of us will have to remember Kyle: imaginative, enthusiastic, humble, goofy, curious, daring, alive.

The last time I saw Kyle, he sneaked up behind us in City Market in Moab, fresh off a week or so out in the desert on a packraft-bike-desert tower climbing trip—another one of those adventures few people ever heard about, and that I wouldn’t have ever heard about either had we not run into him in the freezer section. We caught up briefly, went our separate ways, and the next day I found a Higher Ground sticker on the window of my van.

I can’t pretend to be close enough to Kyle to say who he was, but I know what I got from him: the idea that there is a pure joy in exploration, whatever your personal definition of that is. It was a wonderful thing to know who he was outside of his coffee shop, that he could basically jump into a phone booth, change into his climbing clothes, and go off to the wildest corners of the world and forge new paths up the world’s biggest mountains. And when he got back, he transformed right back into a regular guy who didn’t need to tell you about the other half of his life in which he was a swashbuckling adventurer.

We say all sorts of things when a great person dies too young, and nothing we say is really incorrect or correct. I think everyone who had a chance to talk with him for a few minutes, or just read the stories he wrote, probably has this feeling that I do right now: That we weren’t quite ready for him to not come back from the mountains just yet.

[photo courtesy Duct Tape Then Beer]

          —Brendan Leonard, Semi-Rad.com

God damn it Kyle…you still make me smile. I know you’re still making many of us smile. That is, in between the tears and heartache. In between the wordless wonder, the disbelief, and the hard reality, there are those small crevasses that shine with your light and those are the moments we smile.

It’s funny how it usually takes the loss of life to remind most of us, or rather force us, to consider our lives; Kyle considered life every day.

Going through an old collection of images Kyle sent me, it’s clear that he thought a lot about life. The image set wasn’t what you might expect from one of the world’s most accomplished alpinists. Rather than image after image of cold, lifeless snow, ice and rock peaks, Kyle’s images were filled with life. For every one image of a craggy, snowy peak, there were at least five images of people. Young, old, soldiers, school kids, mothers, sisters and families—Kyle’s images captured the life and lives he met along his journey.

The other thing that becomes immediately obvious is that in every image of Kyle, there’s a clear and unashamed love of life. The moments where he captures himself show that he’s connected, present and full of joy. Sure, there were likely many moments where Kyle was less than stoked, but even when things weren’t going especially well, he never took himself too seriously; he accepted the yin and yang of life as equal aspects to be experienced and enjoyed in their own way. On one particular trip, he said his trip motto was, ‘Take each day as it comes…be totally present.’

Over the course of my years of friendship with Kyle, he was never afraid to get real. The conversation wasn’t about the weather, unless it concerned ice conditions; rather, we tackled real feelings. Addressing the issues we both faced, relationship challenges and all the other things that bring us into a more contemplative place of being; removing the bullshit that’s so easy to surround ourselves with, veiling what really matters.

So what now? I guess that’s the question we’re all asking as we try to make sense of things. Sure, for a while, we’ll all be more respectful to our partners, more patient with our kids and parents and generally better people. But with time, we forget. The further we get from the events of last week, the harder it is to stay focused on our real selves, on real relationships and cutting through the bullshit ... that is, until our lives are once again rocked by some turmoil.

For me, Kyle’s lasting gift is that I don’t turn into an asshole in a month from now. That I try like hell to be better to myself and my friends and family. That I consider life every day.

[Photo by Forest Woodward.]

          —Christian Folk, not a music genre—but rather the marketing manager at Outdoor Research, who thinks he has one of the best jobs on earth as he gets to work with amazing people and live vicariously through their adventures.

Waaaaaterrrr...,  the sound of the broken word came crackling and dehydrated across the snow path, barely audible from inside our cozy dome tent. We unzipped the vestibule and crawled out into the bite of an Alaska morning to see Justin’s cracked black lips and spent body desperately in need of watering. We quickly gave him all we had melted, three liters or more, enough to get him and Kyle functioning to the degree they could light a stove and begin a day of melting snow. They had stumbled into camp in the limited few hours of proper Alaska night after some 30-plus hours of technical climbing and descending on Mount Hunter’s North Face. Justin’s frozen hands had let the stove slip out of reach on the upper ridge, leaving them with no way to melt water on the long descent ahead.

Dave Hart and I arrived at Denali’s Kahiltna Base Camp with a vague plan, our original having been thwarted by almost two weeks of storms preventing us from flying into the Wrangell St. Elias Range and Mount McArthur, BC. We finally aborted, headed for Talkeetna and decided to salvage a week by climbing some peaks around base camp.

After heaving way too much gear and never enough beer uphill from the landing strip, we found a spot to pitch our tent. Within hours, we realized we had just planted ourselves in the midst of a good size group of friends, as if it was all planned that we’d have a weeklong party together. Kyle Dempster and Justin Griffin—both friends—were closest to our site. Two of the hardest core alpine climbers I knew at the time, and also the most humble, kind and generous. I was starting to feel better about our new plan. At least we’d have some good laughs and someone to share beers with.

They had just gotten down from their first climb on Mount Hunter and Justin was severely dehydrated. We left them our water and headed out to meet another friend and climb the Southwest Ridge of Mount Francis, which presided over camp and has a great, moderate mixed climb you can easily do in a day. We had climbed its even easier East Ridge the day after arriving, accessing it across the glacier on skis with a quick zip back to camp. When we descended the mountain from the other side for the second time, we arrived at the top of the last couloir, and I vaguely thought I saw two pairs of skis sticking up at the base. Strange, I thought, they could be ours, but we had obviously not left them there.

We reached the base and were prepared to slog our way back to camp through the soggy warm glacier in our boots when Dave looked up and realized those skis actually were ours. He was blown away. I laughed, knowing that Kyle and Justin must have hydrated themselves back to life and been kind enough to ski up and leave us our sticks so we could glide our way back to our snow bar. I was stoked and incredibly grateful, though not totally surprised that these two thought of us mere mortals after all they’d been through.

They went on to climb yet another amazing route in record time on the North Face of Hunter while we poked around on more moderate objectives. That week opened my eyes to what can be done with their spirit, drive, enthusiasm and experience in the mountains. I am grateful for the laughs, philosophical rants and all the product feedback I managed to pull from two world-class humans who were so talented yet humble, and always felt that any gear they received was awesome, even when, as the design/developer of it, I could pick it to pieces.

Having lost both Justin and Kyle and their passion to the mountains, I try to relive those moments at camp, seeing their ear-to-ear grins, hearing their belly laughs, channeling their spirit, reminding myself that a life lived fully, no matter how short, is a life worth living and revering.

They are missed and will forever be appreciated.

          —Jeannie Wall, product design/development consultant for Outdoor Research, privileged to work with Justin and Kyle on many amazing products they helped improve and initiate.

Here's a pic of Kyle "holding court" at K7 base camp in the Charakusa valley, in 2012, with Hayden Kennedy, our cook Ali, and Jesse Mease. My camera records the date as 26 July—it's a scene from our first morning. According to my journal, Jesse and I had just arrived after three exhausting days of travel--including 27 hours driving along the KKH plus a day-and-a-half trek from Hushe, with porters. It was Jesse and my first expedition to the Karakorum, and to suddenly see his familiar face after everything we'd already been through since arriving in Pakistan, made me feel instantly right at home in this new, wild place. It's not a particularly outstanding photo, but I like it because the composition--its perspective--reminds me a lot of a Renaissance painting. Kyle's sitting, more-or-less, in the center of the frame, one's eyes are drawn to a vanishing point behind his head, much the way artists of that period rendered, say, Jesus in their religious iconography. Kyle, Hayden and Urban Novak, just days prior, had completed their new route on K7. The scene depicts a typical rest day.

          —Shingo Ohkawa, climber, skier, ski mountaineer, Outdoor Research athlete based in Salt Lake City

January 2013 in Salt Lake City was a depressing time for me. I had been living in Europe and we came back to the U.S. for several weeks. High pressure had engulfed the SLC valley, producing a strong inversion. The mountains were sunny and warm, but lacked snow, so the skiing was poor. The town was grey, cold and the air quality was terrible. My wife and I were sharing a car, we had a one-year-old daughter and were living in the basement of our house, so it felt like I was under house arrest. Perhaps it was the lack of light in our living quarters, maybe it was adjusting to being a new father and the constraints it puts on free time—especially climbing—but I remember clearly it was not in a happy place.

I had met Kyle on a couple of occasions in passing and we had talked casually about climbing together when I was in town. He was very approachable, but I was a bit intimidated about climbing with him since he was such a talented and accomplished climber. Nonetheless, I gave him a ring and to my surprise he was eager to get out and we made a plan. For some reason, I didn’t have a car that day so he offered to come pick me up and drop me off, which I found out later, added probably 40-plus minutes to his driving day.

We had a great day out together and got to climb a route neither of us had done before. Conversation was easy, there was no attitude and he was as humble, attentive and talented a partner as you could ask for. The crux pitch of the day (pictured here) was in fact my lead, but I generously offered it up to him since I thought it might be above my pay grade. He dispatched with it efficiently and effortlessly, but what I remember more is when he came down he talked me into leading it as well. He was super encouraging and supportive like we had known one another for years. Perhaps his talents were contagious, as I sent it as well and when I came down we were both grinning ear to ear. Far and away, this was the best day I had out during my time in the city that month. As climbing often does, this day got me out of my funk and rebooted me for the season ahead.

We climbed on a few other occasions over the years, drank some coffees and talked a bit at different events. It was always inspiring to hear of his exploits and of what he was preparing for next. Kyle was a genuine and kind person. A doer—as opposed to a talker—along with being a gifted writer and, of course, a gifted climber. I would have been happy to share some more pitches together but, in the end, I’m grateful our paths crossed when they did.

          —Adam George, IFMGA/UIAGM Mountain Guide, Outdoor Research athlete

“Here, take this.” Grinning, Kyle handed me one of his crampons, “We’ll each use one."

We were somewhere near the summit of Mt Aspiring. Perched at the base of a low angle sheet of ice and snow, we had just discovered that I had forgotten my crampons.

Over the course of the next 10 days it was neither the first nor the last time, that Kyle would, matter of factly, and with a good natured laugh, save my ass.

I knew Kyle only for a short time, but the impact he had upon me lasted long after I had returned his crampon and the echoes of his encouragement to keep moving upwards had faded.

I marveled at the richness of the duality that existed in the way he spoke of far off mountains and, in the same breath, his little house at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon. Of his reverence for solitude and solo endeavors coupled with a deep love for his partner Jewell and his family. His willingness to question the status quo and push the fringes, yet to hold space to listen with an open mind and heart to the stories others.

As much as anything, Kyle showed me that what we experience in wild places, at our outer limits, doesn’t have to be in conflict with what we experience in the “normal” world. For many it seems the mountains are all or nothing, but Kyle, with a twinkle in his eyes seemed to suggest that the mountains are All of Something, and in that greater something there is room to love brightly and to live with the same consciousness and courageous passion that was so obviously inherent in his climbing.

I imagine in his own way, through his words, actions, and the life he chose, Kyle has saved a lot of people’s asses over the years. And I guess that’s a part of why it hurt so damn much when we found out we couldn’t return the favor.

Though they might not be coming back to lend us their crampons or words of encouragement, I believe Kyle and Scott's spirit will live on in this community, inspiring, teaching, mischievously twinkling and occasionally even, saving our asses, for a long time to come.

          —Forest Woodward, photographer and filmmaker

 

I look at people like Kyle and Scott as dynamic events that are something more than just human. These guys were complex, fiercely driven, and I would gather at times indifferent to the fragility of their own lives, not to say that they were reckless, in fact I would argue quite the opposite, and would jump at the chance to tie in with them once again.

I also see mountains like Baintha Brakk and others as dynamic events. These places are beautifully complex, fierce, constantly changing, and totally indifferent to the follies of man. It's easy to see many parallels between these big mountains and the legendary characters that I'm lucky to have called my friends, and I will cherish the fleeting moments that we got to spend navigating the mysteries of the vertical world together.

          —Steve "Doom" Fassbinder

I didn't know Kyle Dempster all that well. Even saying we were pen pals is questionable. For the past few years, part of my job at OR had been sending Kyle gear to use on climbs, and that meant we'd be in touch over email every few months. In fact, I even sent him gear for his final visit to Pakistan.

While these routine gear ordering interactions could have gone straight to business, Kyle chose instead to focus on having a written conversation with me. We'd go back and forth about my upcoming backpacking trips (a mere stroll in the woods compared to his own adventures), his latest approach to strength training vs. endurance for mountain sports (per my inquiring), how he'd been struggling to cope with his father's recent passing, and of course how grateful he was for our support. He routinely asked about whatever it was I was getting stoked for in the coming season, or for pictures from where I had just been. Despite all of Kyle’s fame and success, he was very easy to relate to and conversationally selfless.

Just the other day I stumbled upon a Higher Grounds tee shirt that Kyle had sent me. The act of physically pulling it out of a drawer reminded me that maybe I could return the favor by writing something nice.
Which leads me to this: If there were a Piolets d'Or award for the most genuine, friendly and enthusiastic alpinist, I would nominate Kyle. Sure, it's easy to remember him for his technical climbing achievements, but I believe these other more human traits will also stand the test of time. It’s no coincidence that all of the memorials I’ve read focused primarily on Kyle the person, not Kyle the climber.

I think we can all learn from that. Whatever we choose to pursue, whether outdoor sports, fine arts, or a fast paced career, we will achieve the most possible by going about it as a good natured person.  And in that manner, Kyle Dempster was exemplary.

          —Jaeger Shaw, Outdoor Research Social Media Coordinator
              [Photo courtesy of Andrew Burr]

 

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