[Photos] Nathan Smith
Kyle Dempster (33) and Scott Adamson (34) were at home in wild and remote mountains. But their sense of passion and commitment spread beyond the bold routes they climbed to the people with whom they shared their lives. Climbers, friends and family around the world now struggle with the void left behind since the two men were lost on the north face of Ogre II (6980m) in Pakistan.
Dempster and Adamson were last spotted partway up the north face on August 22. A storm arrived August 23. On September 3, after eleven days of cloud and snow, there was no trace of the climbers on the steep mountain face, despite massive searches by ground and air that involved international climbers, Pakistani expedition workers, Pakistani military pilots and others. The search was aided by a crowd-funding campaign that raised around $198,000 by nearly 5,000 people in six days.
According to Jonathan Thesenga of Black Diamond: “In light of those extensive yet unsuccessful efforts, the search team and knowledgeable observers in Pakistan, the US, and Europe, assessed that there remained a very slim chance than any evidence of their passage would be revealed in subsequent sweeps of the mountain. Given the time that has elapsed and the nearly continuous stormy weather since they were last seen, and the substantial risks that such high-altitude missions entail, Kyle and Scott’s families have made the extremely difficult decision to end the search efforts.”
A September 5 update on the GoFundMe.com page reads: “We want to again thank everyone for the love and support received during this search and rescue. At this time we are leaving [the campaign] open for donations as we work out the allocation of the funds. We will be providing a breakdown of how the donations were used for the search and rescue efforts as soon as possible…. We again ask that everyone please provide privacy to Kyle and Scott’s families. Any questions or media inquires should be directed to Jonathan Thesenga at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The Ogre II
The Ogre peaks appear much as their name would suggest–sharp teeth jutting high above the Choktoi Glacier near the Latok peaks. The angles of their walls are relentless; the peaks are vulnerable to storms and falling debris. Speed can be imperative. The north face of Ogre II is 1400 meters tall–Yosemite’s El Capitan is generally described as 914 meters (3,000′). The Ogre mountains are rarely summited, and no one has ever successfully climbed the north face of Ogre II.
Dempster and Adamson came as close as anyone to summiting the north face more than a year ago, in July 2015. The pair had reached an elevation of 6613 meters–367 meters below the summit–by dark on their second day, after spending the previous night wrapped in a tarp on an ice ledge.
“[Scott] climbed past the overhang, into the low-angle corner, and out of sight,” Dempster wrote in the 2016 American Alpine Journal. “The rope began moving faster and I felt relieved, thinking he had found easier ground. Several minutes later I heard him yell. Assuming this meant ‘Rock!,’ I swung close to the wall on the hanging belay. Suddenly: sparks, a headlamp, and Scott came flying past. ‘Holy shit! Are you OK?’ I yelled. He had come to a stop more than 15 meters below me. I could see his headlamp slowly scanning his surroundings, and I gave him a minute. ‘Well, I think my leg is broken,’ was his response.”
A rope was also damaged in the fall. As they retreated, the two had to cut the ropes again as the lines became stuck or frayed during rappels. Dempster estimated that about 30 meters was left when they set up an anchor from a V-thread. The anchor failed shortly after Dempster started the rappel, and both climbers fell 90 meters to the glacier. Dempster’s bloody nose was the only consequence.
Dempster wrote of the accident as a reminder to be even more cautious: “Anchors can’t fail. Every single one, no matter how tired you are or how bad conditions become, needs to be placed in a state of complete mental and physical awareness. With deliberate attention and over-emphasized inspection, you need to see and feel that the anchor is solid, and then place a backup piece for the first (heavier) person rappelling…. Scott and I are both recovering well from our summer expedition and excited to get back at it when the time feels right.”
Both men were among the strongest climbers of their generation, with vast experience on challenging terrain and reputations for endurance. Dempster received his second Piolet d’Or for a 2012 first ascent of a new route (AI5 M6R 5.9X) on the southeast face of Ogre I (7285m), with Hayden Kennedy and Josh Wharton. His first Piolet d’Or was for a 2009 first ascent of a new route (WI5 M6 5.7R, 2650m) on Xuelian West, Tien Shan, China, with Jed Brown and Bruce Normand. Adamson has made first ascents on Pangbuk North (6589m) and Lunag West (6507m) in Nepal, as well as difficult new routes on The Mooses Tooth and on Idiot Peak on Mt. Huntington (3731m) in Alaska.
In a 2015 article for Alpinist 50 titled, Seekers of Light: To Those Before Us, Kyle Dempster described his own struggles to come to terms with death in the mountains, after his cousin was lost in a climbing accident in the Canadian Arctic. Over the years, Dempster wrote, alpinism had brought both pain and joy:
“Within the repository of my memories, images collide: pain and darkness swirl in the mist; sunrise lights a violet-orange glow on K2’s east face; crystal ice dazzles in shades of hypnotic blue; a friend’s laughter echoes atop a thin granite crack; there is the warmth of whisky after days of cold, fearful suffering, and a shared hug on the summit of a mountain.”
Dempster wrote about and filmed his adventures in a heartfelt way that reached a wide array of audiences. He used the word “love” often and without embarrassment. Some of his most memorable quotes are from the 25-minute film, The Road from Karakol, in which he documents his solo journey across Kyrgyzstan in 2011, via bicycle. He planned on using old Soviet roads (which turned out no longer to exist) while climbing as many of the region’s peaks as possible. He’d purchased his bike just weeks before and had never bike toured.
“We use the word suffering way too much,” Dempster says in the film. “Every adventure has both the light, the dark, the toil and the reward. To experience that alone is to become absorbed by an activity, by a place, and by its people…. You no longer know where you end and where the world begins. We become raw. This is why we take the trip. This is what we come for.”
At one point in the film, he comes to a significant challenge and his only option is to press forward. “Today I have to cross this river,” he says into the camera. “I’m scared, but I have to. I want to let everyone know that if something shitty happens, I love you all, an incredible amount. I want you to know that if I die, I was definitely doing something that I’m totally, totally psyched on, and I’m loving life, for sure, right now. Fear is an OK emotion, and I have a lot of it. I’m just acknowledging it, and that’s why I’m doing this.” He goes on to thank his family and girlfriend for all the love and support they’ve given him. Near the end of the film, atop a snowy summit, he professes into the camera again: “I got one thing I gotta say–it’s that I totally love living life! I love [my girlfriend]. I love my family. I love my friends.”
The story finishes with a voiceover by Dempster: “Real adventure is not polished…. It burns brightest on the map’s edges, but it exists in all of us. It exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous. You have to have faith. It will find you there. And when it does, remember, there’s just one question: In this life, when the road comes to an end, will you keep pedaling?”
“This guy was one in a billion,” author Brendan Leonard wrote on Facebook September 3. Leonard had published a story on Adventure-Journal.com in 2013 about Dempster’s coffee shop, Higher Ground Coffee, in Salt Lake City, Utah, which Dempster had bought with a partner in 2008.
“It’s really cool to see the diversity and who a cup of coffee brings to the same table,” Dempster told Leonard. “These folks from very different backgrounds and different ways of life were all huddled together because of this one cup of coffee.”
“Kyle always had a warm smile,” Leonard recently wrote on his website, Semi-Rad.com. “[He had] an interest in finding something in common and what you were up to, never talking about himself unless you asked specific questions…. 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.”
Scott Adamson’s broad, radiant smile often appeared behind a thick, flowing mustache. He had a joyful passion for climbing, for wandering, for life. His 2014 AAJ report, “No Weak Shit, A Ten-Year Obsession with The Mooses Tooth,” ended with the bio: “Scott Adamson, 33, is based in Utah but says home is where he lays his head, ‘which is usually my 2002 Toyota Tacoma.'”
In that story, he recalled how he almost didn’t go back to Alaska in 2013: “I had a great ice season, but as usual I was broke come February. The chances of a trip to Alaska were looking pretty slim. I was climbing in Vail [Colorado] when a friend invited me to do a local mixed-climbing comp. I had stood atop a lot of things but never on a podium. But I took second, and the $1,200 prize was just enough to pay for an Alaska trip.”
On that 2013 trip, Adamson ultimately succeeded in doing two new routes on The Mooses Tooth with different partners–NWS (V WI6 M5, 1500m) with Pete Tapley, and Terror (VI WI6 M7 R/X A2, 1500m) with Chris Wright, whom he encountered soon after climbing NWS.
Wright then went to Nepal with Adamson that autumn, and they did the first ascents of two peaks: Lunag West (6507m) and Pangbuk North (6589m). They named their routes Open Fire (V WI5 M3, 1000m) and Purgation (VI WI6+ M6, 1100m), respectively.
After Scott’s disappearance on Ogre II, Wright said, “I don’t know what to say really, except that Scott was one of the most solid individuals I’ve ever met, and one of the kindest as well. I also want to use the word genuine when I think of describing him. He’s one of those people who managed to have such a solid sense of himself and who he was that he honestly didn’t seem to waste a moment wondering what people thought of them or trying to be what anyone wanted or expected him to be. [He was] both an incredible athlete–I want to say a natural athlete, but that would discount how hard I think he was willing to work–and an all around caring person. I don’t think Scott would bother bullshitting anybody because it’s just not how he was, and I think that his drive had this slightly crazy sparkle to it that almost everyone who met him caught a little differently. All of that carries through to the mountains as well. I don’t have to think very hard about it to say that he’s probably the most talented ice and mixed climber I’ve ever shared a rope with. If you gave that man a set of tools, I have a hard time imagining what he couldn’t get done. I think part of what was so fun about climbing with him–and mind you, on the routes we did, we’d never climbed together before–was how different our styles were. If you give me a steep wall, I’ll try to figure out how to save my energy, meter my efforts and pull as little as possible. Scott was so strong, he’d just pull harder and climb just as well, and be done in half the time. On a delicate corner where I’d play Dr. Soft Touch and tap my way up, Scott would just beat his tools in until they stuck and fight his way up. What was amazing, though, was that then he’d ask how the hell I’d got up that, and compliment my efforts, even though he was always the better climber. That said, I have many memories of laughing and goofing off, too. Scott was intense, but he was a fun guy to be around. Once you got past being intimidated by the moustache and the gruff hardman thing, he was actually warm, and smart as hell, and funny, too, in a kind of dark, dry sort of way.”
Climbing partner and friend Ari Novak recalls: “I first met Scott in Ouray during the ice fest in 2012. Scott would become a fixture at my house in Bozeman for years to come, including living beneath the floorboards in a crawl space just so he could climb in Hyalite. I recall sitting eating breakfast in my house, and suddenly up would come a floorboard like some science fiction movie, and it was Scott with a big smile ready to crush some ice. One thing is for sure, Scott loved climbing with a passion that is unparalleled.”
Novak remembers the time Adamson rescued him after a bad fall in Montana: “On December 21, 2013, Scott and I were climbing in Hyalite. As per usual, Scott had taken up residence in my guest bedroom, and we had been getting after it for a few weeks. I was climbing the mixed route Panama Canal when on my clip to the third bolt I took a lead fall. I was wearing Scott’s fruit boots and my right frontpoint caught a large rocky bulge…. I flipped upside down, but I knew it right away, I had broken my ankle, and it was bad. The swelling began before Scott could even lower me to the ground. I had never taken a lead fall, and I was embarrassed, but Scott would have none of it. He just said, ‘NWS (No Weak Shit) you really went for it; you were climbing good. We’re getting you out of here!’ I wanted to try and walk out but Scott knew if I did I would displace my broken ankle, and I might not be able to climb for a long time. He dumped out his one-day-old Cilo Gear backpack that he loved and cut two holes in it for my legs. Scott put me on his back and carried me down the steepest section of the mountain so I would have the best chance for a quick come back. He rallied climbers from across the crag, and together they got me out without me ever having to take a single step. We sang Christmas carols along the way, and by the time we pulled up in front of the ER we were back to having a great day. In front of the ER, Scott popped open the hatch to my Jeep and casually carried me into the Emergency room still in the pack. The attending nurse looked up from her computer at Scott with his huge mustache and me in his backpack. Scott smiled and said, ‘Hi checking in, my friend needs some help.’ That is who Scott Adamson was; he could turn a broken ankle into a great memory and day. The actions of Scott and the other climbers that day saved me from needing surgery. I was back on the ice that very season thanks to him.
“Scott Adamson is a hero. Scott was not only among the best, if not the best of our generation, his heroism lives in the quality of person he exemplified every day. His thoughts, speech and actions were true to his morals and beliefs, to do what was right and not what was easy. To say I love this guy would be an understatement. The world is better because he was in it. Scott you left this world a happier, tougher, kinder and more adventurous place. You truly were NWS, no weak shit. A legend who will inspire us as long as adventure lives in the hearts of men and women who call the mountains home. You will be missed.”
Time and again, Adamson and Dempster overcame challenges that would kill most people. Dempster lost part of his ring finger to frostbite while soloing a high alpine big wall. Adamson wallowed along a corniced ridge on The Mooses Tooth in a whiteout after 24 hours on the go, and rappelled off the wrong side of the mountain. And yet dangling at the end of his ropes, staring down the east face, he was inspired to return and climb a new route that became NWS. Their fortitude was rare. Perhaps that is one reason why the world is so stunned to find them suddenly gone. But they never deluded themselves about what they were doing.
“I lay in the tent with my brother, listening to Rage Against the Machine,” Adamson wrote in “No Weak Shit” for the AAJ. “‘Know Your Enemy’ reverberated in my brain. I thought about the looming axe these mountains hold above our necks. We train hard, develop our skills, and become as indestructible as we can.”
In a video interview, A Question of Risk, Episode 9, published April 2015, Dempster says: “Risk is synonymous with life, and there’s no facet of human evolution, or just living life as a human, that doesn’t face substantial amounts of risk. It’s a voyage into the unknown, and a place of consequence.”
Adamson and Dempster both lived deeply, and they shared their spirit and vitality with many. We can only wish, now, that they and all those who loved them had more time.
“I’m somewhere in the middle of my journey now,” Dempster explained in Seekers of Light. “For me and for all of us, the road ahead is still in question, and I wonder, what will it become? The light, as I hope future climbers will discover, lies deep within ourselves. Alpinism, at its best, remains that simple movement through the hills with the brothers and sisters we love.”
Thanks given to individuals for their help with search
The latest update from Thesenga on September 7 reads:
“We want to again thank everyone for the love and support received during this difficult time. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to numerous people worldwide. Many dropped everything, both personally and professionally, in order to help. Please be aware that those mentioned here are but a fraction of the total involved.
“We will be forever grateful to the people of Pakistan, and their government and military for their unwavering commitment to finding Kyle and Scott. Tariq Banuri and Nazir Sabir were indispensible in contacting and engaging the Pakistani military. Muhammed Iqbal, Karim Uddin, and Ghulam Muhammed provided valuable assistance and information on the ground in Pakistan. Brigadier Rashidullah Baig, Brigadier Zahir Kazmi, General Khalil Dar, and other senior officials were diligent and timely in their response, pursuing the search, in the words of one, ‘as if it were for a member of my own family.’ A special thank you to Askari Aviation’s Brigadier Nadeem Aslam Khan and Brigadier Shahid Sardar Khan, and especially the helicopter pilots Colonel Amir and Major Sayeed, who flew the close-proximity search–their outstanding piloting got the helicopters within 100 feet of the mountain, at altitudes over 6000 meters, to ensure a complete and absolute search for any sign of Kyle and Scott.
“At Latok basecamp, George Lowe, Jim Donini, and Tom Engelbach (US), Thomas Huber, Toni Gutsch, and Sebastian Brutscher (Austria), Ghafoor Abdul (Kyle’s long-time friend and cook), and other Pakistani basecamp staff were tireless in their efforts to find Kyle and Scott, and to coordinate and assist with the ground and helicopter searches.
“Terri Matthews was a critical link with the US Embassy in Islamabad. Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s office provided key support, as did the offices of Senator Mike Lee and Senator Orrin Hatch. Michael Fagin and Jim Woodmencey scrambled to provide up-to-date weather forecasts. Jeffrey Weinstein and Hassan Anderson and the rest of the Global Rescue team coordinated numerous elements of the search. Many others, including Tom Adams, Stacey Bare, Bruce Normand, Jessica Wahl, David Falt, Phil Powers, Doug Chabot, Jack Tackle, and Steve Swenson reached out to their contacts in the US, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and provided information essential to the search effort. Gerold Biner, Simon Anthamatten and Samuel Summermatter of Air Zermatt made themselves available on almost no notice for a possible long-line rescue, and indeed Simon and Samuel were waiting for a flight to Islamabad when the search was called off.”
“Savannah Cummins initiated the GoFundMe campaign that rose nearly $198,000 in seven days from 4,750 individual donors. The money will be critical in covering the very significant costs incurred in this search and rescue effort. The GoFundMe campaign will remain open for a few days as we determine what the final expenses will be. We will provide a full accounting as soon as possible.
“We’ll emphasize again that many more people than those noted above were involved in this effort, including several close friends of Kyle and Scott’s that tirelessly dedicated themselves to supporting, coordinating, and communicating to all of the above mentioned parties.
“This has been a very difficult time for many of us. With the realization that Kyle and Scott will not be returning home, we are faced with the sadness of moving forward without these two inspirational men, while also still cherishing all of the memories we have of them. Over the past week, the global climbing community has shown amazing unity, care, and support. We hope that all of us soon have the strength to do the one thing we know Kyle and Scott would want us to do: go climb.”