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Remembering Kim Schmitz

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Kim Schmitz profile wyofile
Photo: Angus M. Thuermer Jr./

On September 19, Kim Schmitz died in a single car accident while returning from a river trip in Idaho, leaving the Jackson and larger climbing community in shock.

Schmitz is known for his first ascents and traverses in the Karakoram, and was also a prolific guide, showing countless people his love of the mountains. In an interview with Jackson Hole News and Guide, he said “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.”

Schmitz started climbing the snow-covered peaks of the Northwest from a young age on Sierra Club trips lead by his father. He climbed his first peak in the Canadian Rockies when he was only 6 or 7, and went on to climb Mount Robson and Mount Waddington, the highest mountains in the Canadian Rockies and Coast Mountain ranges, during his teens.

At 19, Schmitz set his eyes on Yosemite. He quickly became one of the foremost climbers in the Valley. On his first trip, he claimed the fourth ascent of a Royal Robbins route on the north face of Sentinel Rock. In 1967, during his second season in Yosemite, Schmitz and partner Jim Madsen broke the speed record for the Nose, sumitting in two and a half days.

After perfecting his big wall techniques in the Valley, Schmitz brought his skills to the big mountains. In 1977, he made the first ascent of Great Trango Tower in Pakistan’s Karakoram range, describing it as endless Yosemite-style climbing in an alpine environment. Its unmatched wall of 4,300 feet of pure alpine granite has earned it the title of “the biggest big wall.”

“Kim was a huge force in the 1970s not so much for his first ascents—although he had notable first ascents—but for his influence on the development of lighter, faster climbing techniques that he then helped export to Pakistan,” said Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club, in an interview with Jackson Hole News and Guide.

Just two years after his ascent of Great Trango Tower, he returned to the Karakoram to claim the first ascent of the Uli Biaho Tower, becoming the first to stand on its summit. The route totaled 34 pitches of climbing up to 5.8 A4. The climb itself took 12 days, making it the first grade VII route in the world.

His love for the mountains extended beyond just climbing. In 1980, Schmitz established the Karakoram High Route, a 43 day, 300 mile ski traverse across “the roof of the world.” After the traverse he 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,” which he recalled in a profile for WyoFile.

Later that year, Schmitz broke his back and several ribs when he was pulled into an avalanche while attached to his partners, Yvonne Chouinard, Jonathan Wright, and Rick Ridgeway, on China’s Mount Gongga. This was just the beginning of his long history with injuries.

“Kim taught me that anything was possible,” said Stephen Koch, a friend and guide for Exum Mountain Guides. In between injuries and surgeries, Schmitz always returned to guiding in Jackson, leading clients up the Grand Teton and other peaks in the area. He continued to guide even after a 70-foot fall on Symmetry Spire left him with shattered legs and two fused ankles.

“His perseverance through multiple devastating injuries was unmatched by most mortal beings. And on top of that, he was still motivated to return to climbing and gain strength up to the day he passed” said Brenton Reagan, Lead Guide at Exum Mountain Guides. By the age of 54, Schmitz had had nearly 40 surgeries due to his accidents in the Himalaya and his fall on Symmetry Spire while guiding clients.

In 2015, he was awarded the Miriam Underhill Award from the American Alpine Club for his lifetime contributions to climbing.

“His movement on stone and in the alpine was graceful, calculated, and something that we all strive to be,” said Reagan. “The Exum Mountain Guides and climbing community has lost a hero and legend. He will be missed but not forgotten.”