Kim Schmitz, one of the country’s top climbers, has ascended some of the steepest, most remote granite towers in the world, but his challenge today is learning how to walk again.
A Jackson Hole resident, Schmitz, 68, was on small teams that pioneered dizzying routes in Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains in the late 1970s, setting new climbing standards along the way. His decades-long career in the hills, however, included far more than sunny summits.
He’s been flattened by an avalanche, nearly crippled in a devastating fall in the Tetons. He helplessly watched the life fade from a companion’s eyes. Rescuers and friends twice pulled Schmitz from death’s threshold. Lingering effects from injuries and more than 30 surgeries, plus the ravages of addiction, pneumonia and cancer have left him bent and slow. He can’t stand up straight, has to walk with a cane.
His etched face reflects the thousand glacial crevasses he’s crossed. His blue eyes appear to see beyond the horizon.
American climbers honored Schmitz for his pioneering Karakoram climbs on Saturday when they gave him the American Alpine Club’s Robert and Miriam Underhill Award, a recognition steeped in Wyoming outdoor history. For the coat-and-tie affair in New York City, Schmitz had no coat. Friends bought him one for the occasion and he accepted the award, proud to be wearing a clean pair of running shoes.
In a Manhattan banquet hall stuffed with the fittest athletes in the world, Schmitz arrived as a wan counterpoint, just days out of treatment. “It was a good experience,” he said of his recovery a few days before traveling to New York. “I hope it’s my last.”
Alpine club members recognized the many years Schmitz spent on top of the world. A California native, he grew up in a Portland, Oregon, outdoor community surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes. As a kid he got a job washing pots on Sierra Club trips and, just entering high school, earned an invitation to climb Canada’s Mount Robson, an imposing ice-clad monarch. Handicapped by a pair of old-school 10-point crampons that had no purchase at the toes, he nevertheless clambered to its 12,972-foot summit.
“I remember getting to the top,” he said. “I had tears in my eyes.” Schmitz had found his calling.
Within a few years, Schmitz was on his own expeditions, a full member of a team that climbed remote Mount Waddington, British Columbia. It was the first entry on what would become an impressive resume. To flesh it out, Schmitz needed to venture beyond the northwest. An image of sun-baked cliffs in California inspired him.
“I saw a picture of Royal Robbins standing in front of this incredible exposure,” Schmitz said. Robbins, a venerable rock pioneer, was on the edge at one of America’s premiere national parks and Schmitz yearned to be there too.
“At that moment I decided I wanted to go to Yosemite,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it at all. It took me by storm.”
If Yosemite took Schmitz by storm, the opposite did not happen, at least not immediately. A California clique that hung in “The Valley” shunned northwest snow sloggers until Schmitz and buddy Jim Madsen made only the fourth ascent of a Robbins’ route on the north face of Sentinel Rock. “We were scared all the way up,” he said.
The next year, they set their sights on the Nose route on monolithic El Capitan. The pair cut the previous record ascent time in half, summiting in two and a half days. The Californians came around. “We were accepted,” Schmitz said.
Other Yosemite adventures followed, including first ascents of short climbs as well as “big wall” routes that took days in the vertical environment. His skills and techniques honed, Schmitz went next on the two Karakoram climbs for which he was honored. The location was deep in Pakistan’s hinterlands where granite towers jut to create fantasy skylines.
Off to the greater ranges
With partners, he made the first ascent of Great Trango Tower in 1977 and Uli Biaho Tower in 1979. Dennis Hennek wrote of a typical day on Great Trango in the American Alpine Journal contrasting raw beauty with the suffering of alpinists.
“After several hours (chopping ice) we produced a platform large enough for the five of us to lie side by side for warmth. The night was clear and cold. In one sweeping panorama in the light of the full moon all the major peaks of the Baltoro rose in spectacular splendor: K2, the Mustagh Tower, Broad Peak, the Gasherbrums, Chogolisa, Masherbrum, Payu. The only thing missing was food….”
Schmitz’s memory recalls a different aspect — pure rock climbing joy. “It was just pitch after pitch of Yosemite climbing,” he said.
In 1979, Schmitz and teammates spent 12 days on Pakistan’s Uli Biaho Tower, becoming the first to summit the 19,957 feet spire. In climbers’ shorthand, it was the first Grade VII completed by Americans and featured 34 pitches rated up to 5.8, A4. Translated for the layman, it was a multi-day mixed ice and rock route up vertical granite requiring some of the team members to sleep in hammocks for 10 nights.
Endurance is an alpinist’s trait, and Schmitz displayed his capacity for that in 1980 when he and others established the “Karakoram High Route,” a 43-day, 300-mile ski traverse across glaciers at the roof of the world. When team member Galen Rowell recounted the trip in the American Alpine Journal, he tried to describe the emotional wringer that almost crushed the adventures.
“We had lost much of our capacity to enjoy not only the wonderful excesses of civilized life, but also the clean, simple emotions of love and beauty that color all heights of experience,” he wrote. “Never on a mere peak-climbing expedition had any of us undergone such a shift.”
At the team’s first sit down dinner after the trip, Rowell asked teammates whether they had missed hot water and cold beer. Schmitz looked beyond the horizon and said, “The special things I miss are not what we are finding here, but what we’ve left behind in the dusty villages and campsites in the snow.”
Later that year, Schmitz’s luck ran out — or perhaps that’s when he started getting lucky. An avalanche caught him while climbing 24,900-foot-high Minya Konka, aka Mount Gongga, in China. He had been tethered to Jonathan Wright, Yvon Chouinard and Rick Ridgeway, descending from 20,000 feet when the slide caught two of the others and whipped him along.
“I could see Chouinard spinning on a wave of snow before going over cliffs,” Schmitz said. Schmitz dove onto his ice axe in the self-arrest position, hoping to hold his companions. “I got popped out of it,” he said. “Then I was in the slide. I was sure I was going to die.”
Events unfolded so fast, fear got left behind. “You don’t have time to be scared,” he said. “I got scared when I ended on the bottom.”
Schmitz stopped in the debris 1,500 feet down, the rope strangling him at his waist. “I knew I was dying,” he said. He was wrong. It was teammate Wright, a photographer from Aspen, Colorado, who was quickly fading. “I just sort of watched the life go out of his eyes,” Schmitz said. “I watched him die.”
Schmitz had a broken back and ribs. Morphine allowed his evacuation from the mountain and China. Soon enough he was back in the hills. He suffered frostnip to his feet while on Everest, an annoyance that would haunt him.
Trouble in the Tetons
In 1983 while working for Exum Mountain Guides Schmitz took a client up a route on Symmetry Spire, a popular knob that’s not far from Jenny Lake and a hiking trailhead. The route he chose — the Southeast Ridge — is not exceedingly difficult. But the Jensen ridge, as it also is known, had dispensed some stiff medicine in the past.
In 1976, 44-year-old Chuck Loucks was climbing the route with teammates when, in the late afternoon he had reached a point where the ridge lay back. Investigators believe he had placed no protective anchors in the 80 feet he had climbed above his partner and belayer. He fell all the way to the ledge on which she was standing. One teammate stayed with him as he died, the other two finished the route and reported the accident.
“To comment, in retrospect, that protection should have been placed lower on the pitch is to belabor the obvious,” a report in the American Alpine Club’s annual pamphlet Accidents in North American Mountaineering said. “However, when a climber with Chuck’s ability and experience makes this mistake, it makes all who have shared similar situations reflect on the consequences of a totally unprotected leader fall.”
Seven years later, Schmitz was near the same spot. His tight rock climbing shoes bothered his frost-damaged feet, so he swapped them for a pair of loose running shoes. Like Loucks, he didn’t protect his lead with pitons or other forms of a running belay. “My feet slipped,” he said. He remembers “flying through the air.”
The ensuing blood-curdling events remain vivid. “I remember hitting and being pretty sure I was dead, or close it,” Schmitz said. “There were bones sticking out of my legs. You’d lift a leg up and it would flop over like a wet noodle.”
A friend of his client was at the base of the route and learned immediately of the fall. He got help. Rangers mobilized and a small helicopter dropped by above the accident site. When they got to Schmitz, he was a mess and in a fit. Rescue rangers have said they will never forget his howls of pain before a larger airship winched him away.
“From 9 in the morning to 7 at night, when they finally got me with the helicopter, I think I was screaming the whole time,” Schmitz said. Providence was on his side. Rangers were able to call in a helicopter from Utah’s Hill Air Force Base to pluck him from the mountain just before night.
In reviewing the accident, the Alpine Club’s accident publication, and Schmitz himself, were blunt: “Schmitz stated that even though he had done that climb many times and it was well within his capabilities, he should have protected himself better while guiding it.”
The gruesome accident and subsequent surgeries and recoveries were an avenue to painkillers, one source of his addiction problems. “They worked,” he said simply of the medication. Abusive drinking added to his affliction. To some, his most important message today may not be about how to climb a lieback crack, stem a chimney or strive for a summit. “I wasted a lot of years of my life with drugs and alcohol,” he said.
Underhills’ Wyoming connection
Schmitz’s Underhill award recognizes the contributions of Robert and Miriam Underhill to American mountaineering. Miriam Underhill broke all sorts of barriers during an era where women weren’t supposed to be stretching their knickers in the hills. A route in the Dolomites, Via Miriam, bears her name.
In the Tetons, Robert Underhill pioneered the East Ridge of the Grand Teton in 1929. It was the second route on the mountain. He made the first ascent of the Grand’s striking North Ridge in 1931. On the opposite side of the Grand, the Underhill Ridge bears his name. In the Wind River Mountains, Bobs Towers and Miriam Peak look down on Titcomb Basin, one of the more popular destinations for mountaineers in that range.
A number of Wyoming climbers or guides have also have received the Underhills’ award, including Exum Guides Jack Tackle, Jim Donini, David Breashears and the late Alex Lowe who died in an avalanche. Part-time resident Chouinard earned it in 1989 and Wyoming’s Todd Skinner, another victim of a climbing accident, the year before.
As Schmitz joins the group, he still faces steep obstacles. Pneumonia left him hospitalized so long recently, the muscles in his back atrophied. He uses one, sometimes two, canes. A battle with prostate cancer isn’t over.
“I can’t stand up straight,” he said. “I’m trying to get strong enough to walk. Cancer, that’s my big struggle now.”
An alpinist’s persistence will help, the way it helped earn him a place in the vertical world’s pantheon. “I think everybody has a fear of heights,” Schmitz said about climbing. “If you’re in shape, you overcome it pretty easy.”
This story was corrected to reflect Schmitz’s place of birth as California, nor Oregon — Ed.