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Home » Features » Edges of Maps: The Mountain Stories of Kyle Dempster

Edges of Maps: The Mountain Stories of Kyle Dempster

On August 23, 2016, thick clouds of snow enveloped Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson partway up their second attempt on the north face of the Ogre II, Baintha Brakk, a 6980-meter peak in Pakistan. Days after they failed to return at the expected date, a search began that combined the efforts and funds of thousands of people, from friends and family, to international climbers and donors, to Pakistani expedition workers and military pilots. No sign of the two men appeared.

Kyle Dempster and Bruce Normand in Shuangqiao Valley, Siguiang Shan Mountains, Sichuan, China. [Photo] Andrew Burr

Kyle Dempster and Bruce Normand in Shuangqiao Valley, Siguiang Shan Mountains, Sichuan, China. [Photo] Andrew Burr

It’s been almost two months since September 3, when the search for Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson ended. Outlines of recollections are still forming and re-forming: the fragment of an unfinished draft, the echo of a voice, a footfall in the woods, the afterglow of a sunlit face. Kyle was a longtime Alpinist contributor, and I considered him one of the most promising mountain writers of his generation. As one of his climbing partners, Mike Libecki, says, Kyle made readers feel as if they were actually inside his tales. The shock of his disappearance has not worn off.

It’s hard to write about loss. In many ways, it represents the point at which language falters and words shatter. At the same time, I know that Kyle believed in talking honestly about death and its ramifications. “Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist,” he said in a Dirtbag Diaries podcast with his mother. “Express the love that you have for each other.” Again and again in his stories, he juxtaposed images of darkness with light, of falling silence with rising sounds, of absence with presence, of mourning with love. In an article for Alpinist 50 (Summer 2015), he wrote of the contrasts of climbing:

From the edge, we peered deeper into our core. And staring back at us, a barrage of visions, both dark and luminous, rose from the abyss…. Ten years ago, on May 19, my cousin fell to his death from a shimmering bow of granite in the Canadian Arctic. I can see, so clearly, his body lying motionless and wrongly twisted on the frozen shore as a flock of geese soared north in the warm sunshine. 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. I’m somewhere in the middle of my journey now. For me and for all of us, the road ahead is still in question, and I wonder, what will it become?

Throughout many of his stories and films, Kyle referenced something that has often been called “the spirit of alpinism”–an idea that went beyond his minimalist ethos and his respect for the wild. As he put it in Alpinist 50, “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.” But when I look back now, what I notice most aren’t his statements about climbing. Instead, I see how many of his words he had composed for his friends and loved ones, messages of affection left like intimate letters across the landscapes of his adventures, shouted from the banks of wild rivers and the summits of remote peaks–mixtures at times of grief and joy and acute wonder at the world. Against the grey and white of moraine and snow, he evoked memories of red leaves and autumn sunlight, of friends and family that left a warm glow in his mind, helping him find focus and strength to return safely home.

When the life of a promising writer ends so early, it’s hard to know what their work would have become over time, how their ideas might have transformed, their lives changed. In the documentary film The Road from Karakol, Kyle recounted leaving behind all the usual structures and formulas of a modern climbing expedition for a bike trip alone through the mountain regions of Kyrgyzstan, on paths that sometimes narrowed and vanished. In the style of earlier mountaineers such as Eric Shipton, Kyle planned only to climb whatever peaks appealed to him. Partway through his journey, he spoke of his fears of drowning as he crossed a swift river, and he reaffirmed the intensity of his love of his family, his girlfriend–and of life. By the time he reached a summit at the end, all the experiences of weeks folded into that ascent, into the untrammeled joy of arrival. At the end of the film, he described a new understanding of what exploration meant to him, a declaration that has been often quoted since:

Now here’s what I believe: real adventure is not polished; it’s not the result of some marketing budget. There’s no hashtag for it; 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 peddling?

The Road from Karakol is a classic adventure story in some ways: a journey through fear and unknowns toward some new vision, only fragments of which can be portrayed in images and words. But there were also hints of something more: suggestions of inchoate longings pursued over vast green hills and snow-lit peaks, glimmers of unrestricted, still evolving dreams and of unresolved questions. And when I watch the film, now, I find myself wondering about all the stories he didn’t get a chance to write–about climbing, but also about other topics, in the mountains and beyond. In an email, a year ago, when I asked him what the approaches to alpine ascents meant to him, he responded:

It is the walk that gets you and your mind ready [for a climb.] The walk puts you into a trance. It is a meditative process that connects you with you, also your surroundings, and allows you to become completely accepting and fully aware of the climb ahead. You get psyched, or you get psyched out. Why go unprepared, why shorten the walk?… Walking also teaches us that climbing is limited, faulty in its tenuous nature as it requires more of our mind, body, and focus. If we walked forever, imagine the places we would go…just imagine…. Through climbing, we observe the natural landscape pulse in tempo with each pitch that we ascend. Hanging at an anchor, belaying our friends, we are able to take in our surroundings, to see our location as it pertains to the landscape around us. We admire the earth from our perch. When we climb, we transcend into nature, becoming part if it; we are forced to accept it as it is. Walking has a similar pulse but allows us to find our own tempo with the landscape; it is unrestrictive of our focus. When we are walking to a climb, our surroundings contribute to the symphony of the experience…. The bicycle works wonders on the mind as well. Going into the wilds, carrying true necessities, and with no particular goal or destination in mind is incredibly rewarding. The Indian philosopher Krishnamurti understood walking’s benefits quite well, ‘Very few of us ever walk in the fields and the woods, not talking or singing songs, but just walking quietly and observing things about us and within ourselves.’ Leave the cell phone in the car, turn off the iPod, slow down, tune out and tune inward. Find creativity, observe, mediate on a decision, the answers and even the unknowns are inside, and walking is how you will arrive.

I’ve wondered, too, where Kyle’s own journey might have taken him in later years, how it might have broadened or branched into unexpected paths. Pieces of his stories can still continue through the influence he may have on present and future writers, in ways both clear and indirect and entirely unpredictable, rippling often quietly from word to word.

At times, in the mountains, Kyle knew moments of keen beauty that hovered on the edge of the describable. And when he returned to the valleys, he turned these memories into the tales he shared. Perhaps something akin to those moments spilled over into his recognition, as well, of the intense wonders that exist in everyday life: the colors of the leaves, the texture of backyard granite, the chance to enjoy quieter moments with family and friends. “Climbing has given me my spirit, my reason,” he explained in the 2009 American Alpine Journal.

But he also depicted the brutal realities of hunger, cold and frostbite; the suffering of loved ones who wait for news at home; the pain of irrecoverable loss. In Alpinist 35, writing of the deaths of Jonny Copp, Micah Dash and Wade Johnson on Mt. Edgar, Kyle evoked the persistent hazards of alpinism, “the kind of adventurous existence in which some elusive formula–composed of choices, experience and chance–might or might not prevent you from crossing the line. The line, however, will never vanish.”

It’s too soon to know what impact Kyle will have. There are no simple answers to the questions that he raised about adventure, life, love, risk and mortality. As he wrote, “…for all of us the road ahead is still in question.” When I think about him–and about others lost as well–I know that the void remains, unfilled. Fragments of sentences form, break and drift apart, like crystals of ice or patterns of windblown snow. There is so much more left to be said, still elusive, still glimmering past the fading of all light, echoing past the dimming of all sound, in realms far beyond the edges of all maps.

[Adapted and expanded from a brief note by the author in Alpinist 56. With additional reporting by Derek Franz.–Ed.]