On Chance and Death: An Editor Reflects on Kyle Dempster’s Disappearance
In 2016, shortly before he went missing on the Ogre II in Pakistan, Kyle Dempster applied to the John Long Writers Symposium; but Kyle submitted his application late and the class was full. A few weeks later a slot opened up, but Kyle had just booked his tickets for Pakistan.
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Someone once told me that age 33 is your Jesus year, a time of renewal and great productivity, such as presaged the leader’s death. Last year I realized with a start that Kyle Dempster had been gone for five years. He was 33. Dempster had done hard routes all over the world, winning the Piolet D’Or not once but twice, first for the first ascent of the north face of Xuelian West in the Tien Chan, China, with Jed Brown, Bruce Normand, and Jared Vilhauer, in 2009; then the alpine-style FA of the South Face of the Ogre I in the Karakoram, Pakistan, with Hayden Kennedy and Josh Wharton, in 2012.
Dempster, of Salt Lake City, and Scott Adamson, age 34, of Provo, Utah, who was also exceedingly skilled, had started up the unclimbed north face of the Ogre II in Pakistan on August 21, 2016, returning to it after near misses—coming close to both success and disaster—the year before. The two were at the height of their powers when they disappeared.
Andy Anderson, a freelance writer and hard climber, later wrote in a tribute to Dempster (for Black Diamond’s website): “He was known for new routes on big imposing peaks, but Kyle loved everything about climbing. He was often just as psyched to go bouldering in Joe’s Valley or quest off on some wacky local adventure as he was about his next major expedition.” Though Dempster pushed hard routes, he didn’t brag, Anderson wrote, and he used the golden ice axe he’d been awarded to flip brauts at the Great White Icicle BBQ he cofounded, an annual gathering held for a handful of years on a ledge halfway up the four-pitch formation in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.
Adamson was Dempster’s peer, having, as Nikki Smith, a photographer and guidebook author, wrote in the 2017 American Alpine Journal, “quickly become one of the best mixed climbers and alpinists in the state, and then in the world.” Adamson established two routes on the Mooses Tooth, the Alaska Range, with Pete Tapley and Chris Wright, respectively, and made first ascents with Wright of Lunag West and Pangbuk North in Nepal.
“Everything seemed so effortless when he climbed, and I think he believed it should be the same for everyone else,” Smith wrote. “That sentiment was mine and many others’ secret weapon. Not only was I sure he could make it up anything, but, when climbing with Scott, so would we.”
As soon as Dempster and Adamson were overdue on the Ogre II, an intensive and near-unbelievable search, organized from phones, offices, and kitchen tables in Salt Lake City, began. The effort swiftly shot from three people to hundreds.
I had taken an abiding and sometimes amused interest in Dempster, having interviewed him for Rock and Ice in early 2010 (see “Lone Star” on rockandice.com). Then 27, he had done Xuelian West the year before, in 2009, leading M6 terrain 20 feet above his pro. In 2008, at age 25, he’d tried a solo second ascent of Tahu Rutum (6,651 meters) on the Hispar Glacier, Pakistan. The mountain was so remote that the approach to basecamp took him and porters four days, and he then spent weeks on his own ferrying supplies eight miles to the base of the wall. He climbed it to the final ridgeline, at 6,500 meters, amid days of snow, while taking falls … with gear ripping … and in the end retreated in a storm, 40-mph winds, and darkness. He had spent 24 days on the wall, losing 40 pounds, and he would also lose half of his ring finger to frostbite. “I found it strange that part of a body could die and still remain attached to a living person,” he wrote in Alpinist about the desiccated finger before the amputation.
Earlier, in autumn 2005, he had soloed the Reticent Wall, one of the hardest aid routes on El Cap, and previously that year, at age 22, had done a new route on Baffin Island.
He was also, it seemed, a character—a bit of a kook—on land. He co-owned a coffee shop, Higher Ground Coffee, in Salt Lake, and I was told he lived in a tent on top of it.
When we spoke, Dempster laughed when I asked how he managed his full expedition schedule. “I’m 27 years old and still live with my parents,” he said. He’d had no car for three years.
The tent idea had arisen during his first two months in the coffee shop, when he was working long days and leaving late, then had to ride his bike home. “So I packed up my tent and my sleeping bag and set up camp on the roof.”
“Er, is that legal?” I asked. “Wouldn’t people see it?”
He laughed anew; he was cannier than that. “I collapse it every day,” he said. (He eventually bought a car, in snowy December.)
We also, at length, discussed the profound tragedy he had experienced: the death of his cousin, Drew Wilson, in a rappelling accident after they’d just finished a 12-day ascent on Baffin. Drew was a big-brother type, 24, who’d taught the younger Kyle to climb. Over years in Yosemite and elsewhere, they built a hard-charging yet playful partnership. At the top of the Baffin ascent, a jubilant Drew hugged Kyle and said, “Man, I’ll go climbing anywhere in the world with you.”
Dempster told me, “Those were my best moments with my cousin, watching my cousin climb, which I still think about and feel in my own climbing.”
I struggled to condense the text and interview into the space at Rock and Ice, though it was a full page in the magazine.
Then I called Kyle back to check facts and quotes, some about the accident. I read aloud, including the ellipses for words left out:
“After he fell, I rappelled down to his body … I thought of everyone he loved and who loved him. [Later], I remember thinking, Am I done? It took me a long time to answer that. … It kind of came down to the conclusion he would never, ever want me to stop climbing. If I died, I would want him to keep climbing, and take everything I taught him and burn bright with it.”
I had told him that I’d have to shorten that section, but still, he was silent for a moment. “That’s it?” he said. “The most profound experience of my life, in those few words?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it, and explained that the text had to be reduced, and the ellipses allowed it to be done accurately and honestly. I knew he wasn’t happy, but beyond that, he accepted the explanation, and we moved on. The article appeared that June.
Dempster laughed when asked how he managed his full expedition schedule. “I’m 27 years old and still live with my parents.”
I later saw Kyle at an Outdoor Retailer trade show, in Salt Lake.
He’d done a significant climb (I wish I could be sure, but this was all long ago: It may have been Mount Edgar with Bruce Normand in 2010), and I congratulated him and asked him to write about it for us at Rock and Ice.
“Oh,” he said. “No-o-o. I want to do it for Alpinist.”
I was a bit disappointed; we were a thriving magazine and had taken an early interest in him, but OK, fair enough.
Another time I saw him in my hometown of Carbondale, Colorado, at the 2013 5Point Film Festival, which aired Fitz Cahall’s The Road From Karakol, about Dempster’s two-month solo bike trip across Kyrgyzstan, undertaken in 2011 with a few maps and about 10 words in Kyrgyz. He towed a trailer of climbing gear in hopes of climbing any mountains along the way.
“This is full-on adventuring, and I am loving it,” he says in the film, later saying at a frightening river crossing: “If something shitty happens, um, I love you all, an incredible amount.” He addresses each parent, his sister, and his partner, Jewell Lund, separately, with further words of love. I loved the film, especially the parts where he gets loopy, saying, “I’m a little drunk, I won’t lie,” or, after an uncertain time following sparse trails, yells in off-key relief, “Pavement! Pa-a-avement!”
Real adventure, he says at the end, “exists in the intersection of the imagination and the ridiculous. You have to have faith.”
I saw Kyle in the hallway at 5Point, complimented him on the film; he smiled and thanked me, but, as a busy presenter, hastened on. The film won Best of Festival.
Student of the Game — An Unfinished Story by Kyle Dempster
Part 1 Hard lessons from the Pakistani Karakoram
The V-thread anchor I had placed ripped from the ice, and Scott and I were falling. I wish I had seen images of family and friends flash through my mind. Instead there was only horrific terror.
I accelerated, bounced, tumbled, and for a moment soared in weightlessness across a massive, gaping bergschrund. Clearing the gap, I landed on my stomach and slid face first down a steep snow cone, finally stopping over 300 feet below where the anchor had failed. Gasping for breath, I looked for Scott, finding him just two feet away and twisted in the same nest of rope I found myself entangled in.
Holding his broken leg, he yelled at the clouds, “What did that just look like?!”
My heart felt like it was exploding inside my chest. Maybe it really was? Spitting thick amounts of blood and unable to speak, I held out my fist for a bump from Scott Adamson.
Two months later, at home in Utah, I placed my foot delicately on dry pine needles. In complete silence, I nocked an arrow and crept closer to a Rocky Mountain elk. A slight breeze tickled my nose with sweet smells of late-summer grass. Eyes fixed on the young spike, I pushed a leafy pine branch out of my path. In absolute stealth I swung my bow into my shooting hand.
Snap! The crisp stick broke under my foot and echoed through the woods. I saw into the animal’s dark, black eyes, and in a moment that was too brief to measure, he turned and sprinted from sight. Death evaded, yet the chance is always present.
It was my first season hunting with a bow, and I had entered the woods with the aim of harvesting high-quality, sustainably sourced meat. To do so, I intertwined myself as best I could in nature’s tempo. I camouflaged myself with the colors of the landscape and became less audible as I condensed my attention solely to the natural environment. The chance of crossing paths with an elk is thin and is improved by entering a state of heightened awareness. Sight, smell, and sound became the sponge with which I swabbed my surroundings. In the silence I often thought about what it would be like to kill an animal. Could I do it? How would that experience help me address my own fears about death? Would killing an elk help to better understand my own fragility within nature, or maybe, reveal more clearly the narrow window of chance that Scott and I escaped through as we limped away from Pakistan?
Scott’s leg had been broken for nine hours when the anchor ripped. The injury was from the first fall, occurring around 8 p.m. at an altitude of 6,600 meters on the unclimbed North Face of the Ogre II. He had been leading by headlamp when his tools skated through snice in the final few feet toward the exit snow ramp that led to the summit ridgeline. I caught his 100-foot whipper as he whizzed past in a confusion of snow, sparks, and a flash of light.
Our fight for upward progress turned into an exercise in downward technical jiggery. Scott popped painkillers and I organized the necessary equipment to rappel the steep 1,300-meter North Face. Our intended descent route, had we reached the summit, would have been off the low-angle Northwest Ridge, and I silently wondered if we had enough gear to get down safely. With Scott’s pain under control I began leading us directly down, through the night, and into the dark abyss. Here we go!
The anchor ripped at 4:30 a.m., just as soft blue light welcomed the day and answered the mystery of our location on the face. We were close to the ground. What had been swirling snowflakes higher on the peak was a torrent of spindrift and snow-covered slab on the lower flanks. I remember the feeling of that screw winding into the ice as I built the V-thread, like drilling into Swiss cheese; both are aerated and gloppy when warm. We had still been 300 feet from the ground when my ego placed me into the future. I had mentally transported myself to a place where Scott and I were standing on the flat glacier and removing our harnesses. I had pictured myself making water using the stove and helping him with his broken leg. Coasting on 10 years of placing V-thread anchors and 20 years of experience rappelling down mountains and technical big walls, I let my mind lapse, thinking that that anchor somehow wasn’t important.
For the remainder of Utah’s three-week archery elk season I found several more opportunities to witness the incredible survival instinct and caution that elk possess. It appeared their survival depended on being exquisitely alert and deeply conscious of their surroundings. In the presence of a predator, any lapse in their awareness meant game over. For the elk, as well as the climber, complacency kills. My fault in judgment and lack of presence nearly cost me Scott’s life as well as mine. Statistics regarding anchor failure typically result in “team fatality.” We had cheated the numbers. And it was my fault. Owning my mistake will help further ingrain its severity.
I emerged from the hunting woods without blood on my hands and thus questions still unanswered. Slowly, I began reintegrating into Salt Lake City and my community of family and friends. From past experiences and the deaths of loved ones, I know that it is the living who are confronted with the dark labyrinth of anger, despair, and confusion. It happens in a chance moment when we become stuck between a personal connection with someone and a forced degradation of love as time elapses and erodes the voices, the touch, and the feelings. Eventually, even the spirit fades.
When people asked about my summer expedition to Pakistan, I found a myriad of ways in which I could answer. All were true, but some substantially briefer than others. To family and friends I prefaced the complete experience with, “I’m really sorry. I nearly died. I could have killed Scott. It was my negligence, and I promise it won’t happen again.” I watched as their faces melted from excitement to concern to heartbreak. Tears were shed, and I saw their trust in me evaporate.
Fault in judgment and action call on the individual to own their mistake. I’ve apologized. I’m grateful to have learned. And because of that lesson I’m now a safer climber. I count on seeing my future; all purpose is directed toward staying alive. After all, life is awfully fragile and something as trivial as a tiny stick breaking in the woods can change its course.
As a student of the game in a classroom that is deadly, I know that sharing our experiences and our blunders helps to further educate and keep our class alive. I’m working on the emotional comprehension of the events. Stay tuned for part 2, a technical analysis of our attempt on the Ogre II and our fall. (This story was written in 2016 and was to be part of the Rock and Ice Writing Symposium that year.)
The last time I saw Kyle was at the American Alpine Club Hall of Excellence Awards in Denver in spring of 2016. A lot of people—we women especially—use such events as a chance to dress up, pull out some of those things we never get to wear, and some of the men had on jackets and ties.
Kyle had received an award, called the Alpina Watches Cutting Edge award, shared with Hayden Kennedy (who was not present), and at one point the two of us found ourselves chatting. Again I congratulated him.
He said, with a grimace, “I’m kind of underdressed”—he was wearing a print collared shirt and jeans.
“Oh, Kyle,” I said, “this is climbers. Everything is right. Everyone is just so glad to have you here.”
Then he said quickly, “Hey, there’s something I want to tell you. This has always bothered me. A few years ago at a trade show, you asked me to write a story, and I felt like I was pretty arrogant about it. Afterwards I thought I should have been honored, an editor was coming to me and asking me to write something.
“I’ve always wanted to apologize.”
He meant it. I quickly said I didn’t even remember it, which wasn’t strictly true; but it hadn’t stayed in my mind. I thanked him, and on impulse hugged him. It was such a sweet thing for him to say, and is how I will always remember him.
“Kyle grew up with literature playing a strong role in his life, but writing wasn’t always his strongest suit—until he decided he wanted to be better,” Nikki Smith wrote in her eulogy in the AAJ. “He worked hard, pushing his mind in the same way he pushed his body in physical training.”
Katie Ives, editor of Alpinist, wrote, “I considered him one of the most promising mountain writers of his generation.”
Jewell Lund tells me in an email, “Writing was so important for Kyle.”
Rock and Ice used to host the five-day John Long Writing Symposium each summer. John Long was the marquee name, and the magazine editors were staff. We all always enjoyed the week, held at the nearby Colorado Rocky Mountain School, with a beautiful campus and library and great lunches from the school’s organic gardens, and have gotten many great longtime contributors (including the above-mentioned Andy Anderson) through it.
Enrollment was limited to 12 participants. In spring of 2016, Kyle applied and sent the requisite writing sample. But the symposium was already full up.
I was psyched to hear that Kyle was interested, sorry he couldn’t come. I asked Duane Raleigh, another editor, about Kyle’s writing sample. “Oh,” he said, eyes widening. “It was great.”
A couple of weeks later, Duane called Kyle back. “Good news,” he said. “Someone dropped out. You have a spot!”
Kyle said, “Ohhh. I bought a ticket to Pakistan yesterday.”
He and Scott Adamson were going back to the Ogre II.
One day last fall, 2021, I asked Duane if he still had Kyle’s writing sample. He looked, but that had been two computers ago. I took my courage in hand and wrote Kyle’s mother, Terry Dempster, with condolences and to ask if anyone might have access to Kyle’s computer and would be comfortable going in.
She emailed back, saying she was pleased at the interest in Kyle’s writing. “I’ll have to ask my daughter [Molly] if she can find it.”
Six weeks later came this from Kyle’s sister, Molly Grenlie: “I think I was able to find the sample you are looking for … I appreciate the motivation to read through Kyle’s writings. It has been a few years, and it was nice to hear his voice again.”
Few go to the Ogre region of the Karakoram, with fewer successes. The major peaks are Latok I (7,145 meters) and Latok III (6,949 meters); the Ogre I, or Baintha Brakk (7,285 meters); and Ogre II, or Baintha Brakk II (6,980 meters). In 1978 Jim Donini, Michael Kennedy, and the cousins George and Jeff Lowe reached a mythical high point, 90 pitches up, on the North Ridge of Latok 1, descending because Jeff fell gravely ill. In the 44 years since, there have been about three dozen attempts on Latok 1, according to Donini, and fewer (though over 20 on the Ogre, as Ogre I is often simply called) on the other peaks. In 1979 a Japanese team reached the summit of Latok I via the south side, the Biafo Glacier; the south side routes are formidable, and the north side routes from the Choktoi Glacier are yet more difficult. Both the Ogre and Latok I were first ascended from the south: Latok (as Latok 1 is often known) by the Japanese in 1979, and the Ogre by the U.K. contingent of Chris Bonington, Doug Scott, Mo Antoine, and Clive Rowland in 1977. The story “A Crawl Down the Ogre,” by Doug Scott, who broke both legs in a swinging fall, is one of the great classics of mountain literature. The second Ogre ascent was 24 years later, from the south side in 2001, by the German party of Urs Stocker, Iran Wolf, and Thomas Huber on the South Pillar.
Eventually, in 2018, Aleš Česen and Luka Stražar of Slovenia and Tom Livingstone of North Wales, the UK, summitted Latok via part of the North Ridge, though traversing to the south side to finish. No other team had reached the 1978 Lowe-Lowe-Donini-Kennedy high point on the North Ridge of Latok 1 until then. The 2018 team made only the second summit climb from the Choktoi Glacier in those 40 years; the other team to summit from that side was Kyle Dempster and Hayden Kennedy (son of Michael Kennedy) on the Ogre, its third ascent overall, in 2012. The Ogre II was climbed by Koreans in 1983, via the Northwest Ridge, for the only ascent of the peak. In 2015 Marcos Costa (Brazil) and Jesse Meese (USA) tried to repeat the route alpine style, over four days reaching 6,700 meters, but according to their teammate Bruce Norman in the American Alpine Journal, they stopped due to steep technical rock and lack of equipment.
Says Donini, reached at home in Ouray, Colorado, “When you look at the 40-year history of attempts on Latok 1 and the Ogre, you have to put them in contention for the world’s most difficult peaks.” Consider, too, that the climbers who have attempted them have been world-class.
Arriving on the Choktoi Glacier first in summer 2016 were Dempster, Adamson, and their crew, headed by their basecamp manager, Abdul Ghafoor, a close friend who had worked with Kyle for five summers and Scott now twice.
Ghafoor, contacted in Islamabad, replied to my questions with a handful of voicemails (one of which he, concerned about language, sent to Jewell Lund, who transcribed it). He says, “I never used to walk with Kyle because I was coordinating and working with the porters. The last year, on the first day of our trek, I noticed Kyle waiting and watching me. When I caught up to him, he said, ‘Ghafoor, I’m waiting for you. Walk with me.’”
Ghafoor, then of Active Tours Pakistan, has learned his English from the above climbers and others: Kelly Cordes, Hayden Kennedy, Josh Wharton and Erinn Kelly Wharton, Whit Magro, Lizzy Scully, Nan Darkis, and Cecilia Buil in basecamps.
He continues: “On the Choktoi … I wanted my climbers to be closer to the mountains they were climbing, so I went up glacier and found a little moraine to the side and built terraces and platforms there. People call it Ghafoor’s Basecamp. I set up my tent far away from Kyle and Scott. Kyle asked me, ‘Ghafoor, where is your tent?’ I told him, ‘It’s down there.’ ‘Set it up next to mine,’ he insisted. I told him, ‘No, I wake up early to make breakfast and make noise.’ He said, ‘No, don’t worry,’ and he and Scott went and picked up my tent and carried it up.
“That year, Kyle spoke a lot about home and the people he missed. His mom, his sister, [and] Jewell. He would come show me when he got messages from home. He had never shown me these messages before.
“Both my father and Kyle’s father died the same year, the year before his last climb. One day in basecamp, Kyle told me he dreamt of his father. He said his father came to take him.”
Arriving after Adamson and Dempster on the Choktoi Glacier were Donini, George Lowe, and their friend Thom Engelbach, hiking in from Askole with the German team of Thomas Huber, Toni Gutsch, and Sebastian Brutscher. The German climbers hoped to climb Latok 1 by a new line or the American one; Huber had invited all four members of the 1978 American crew, and Lowe and Donini accepted. They and Engelbach wanted to do a 6,000-meter peak.
Huber had met Adamson and Dempster in the same place the previous year, finding them full of fun and purpose. In early July, when Huber had been seriously hurt in a 16-meter groundfall (a rappelling accident resulting in a head injury), Adamson wrote in concern, sending warm wishes for Huber’s health and progress and his hopes that they would meet in Pakistan. “He said he was so happy I survived,” Huber, reached in Germany, says. Huber reassured him that he was recovering and would see the two soon.
Adamson and Dempster started up the wall early in the morning of Sunday, August 21, expecting to be down in five days max.
On Tuesday, August 23, the Huber-Donini-Lowe group got into basecamp; and the next day they were visited by Ghafoor with greetings. Ghafoor had seen Adamson’s and Dempster’s lights about two-thirds of the way up the wall the previous evening.
Huber recalls Ghafoor saying, “Kyle and Scott will reach the summit today, and they will come down tomorrow.”
Huber says, “There was already wind and a lot of clouds on Ogre II. And I said, ‘I will give them not a great chance to reach the summit because the weather looks not great.’ But Ghafoor said, ‘No, they are beasts. They will make it.’” Ghafoor had a cup of tea and left. Later, on planetmountain.com, Huber wrote of his own thinking at the time, “Maybe they’d be lucky, [and] if not, they’d certainly descend.”
On Thursday, August 25, Donini, who had been away hiking during Ghafoor’s visit, walked the hour-plus up to Ghafoor’s camp to meet him.
“Ghafoor made me some soup,” Donini says. “He wasn’t concerned yet.” Two days later, Ghafoor came down to the main basecamp, now worried. “There was no sign,” says Donini. That was Saturday, August 27.
At home in Utah, things were already moving. Jewell Lund, also an accomplished alpinist, had had an InReach text the day before the pair left, in which Kyle told her the ascent should take three days, though he gave his mother, Terry, the wider margin of five.
On Wednesday, August 24, Lund, mindful of the pair’s isolation and the accident the previous year, had begun contacting people in the climbing community with knowledge of Pakistan in case of any need. “We started gathering information and advice,” she says via email, “and by Saturday, when they were six days out, we knew it was time to act.” She and Angela VanWiemeersch, climber and partner of Scott Adamson, tracked down satellite phone numbers for George Lowe and Thomas Huber, and she sent messages.
On Sunday, August 28, at 2 a.m. Rocky Mountain Time (11 hours behind Pakistan’s), Lowe called Lund back, and Huber joined him on the phone.
“Then,” says Huber, “everything went super fast.”
Terry Dempster later wrote on a GoFundMe page (set up by others): “Over a spotty satellite phone conversation in the middle of the night, George and Thomas selflessly put their own groups’ climbing plans aside and expressed a commitment to help Kyle and Scott.”
The climbers in Pakistan recommended initiating a helicopter search. “As soon as Jewell hung up with them she dialed Global Rescue,” Terry wrote. The rescue launched. “Jewell arrived at my house at 6 a.m., with Angela [VanWiemeersch] arriving shortly thereafter.”
They’d never done anything like what transpired. “How,” Terry wrote, “does one organize a search in the middle of the mountains in Pakistan from a kitchen in Salt Lake City? The following sleepless week ran the full spectrum of feeling maddeningly helpless at the distance and remoteness of the Ogre II, to overwhelmingly warmed by the tenacity and talent of all those that became involved.”
The local and international community went all out, to full effect. Individuals were up at all hours communicating with the American Embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani Embassy in Switzerland, the Pakistani military, Askari Aviation (a subsidiary of the military), and various people in Europe and elsewhere.
Ghafoor informed his agency of the need for a helicopter search. Among the issues were that the climbers’ Global Rescue plan would only cover a fraction—under $10,000—of the helicopter and ground-search costs. An expedition to a 7,000-meter peak in the Karakoram was required to get a permit and pay a $10,000 deposit for possible helicopter use, but with the Ogre just under that height, the two climbers had eschewed those. Jewell Lund tells me, “A deposit from the tour company ($10K) was required for Askari Aviation to even consider flying for rescue, so Ghafoor called to ask for help making that deposit. Muhammad Iqbal, with Shipton Treks and Tours (who work with Thomas Huber), made the deposit for us in the middle of the night, at Thomas’s request.”
The climbers had not posted the deposit the previous year, either, and as Bruce Normand, who shared permits with them, was to say on ukclimbing.com in 2018: “In 2015, when Scott Adamson broke his ankle on the North Face of the Ogre II, we hadn’t posted the money … and so we didn’t ask [for a helicopter]: Scott gritted his teeth, sat on a mule and hopped at the river-crossings.”
The GoFundMe effort in this country asked for $100,000 and was in fact to raise twice that, $195,780, with 5,000 donations.
“So everybody got reimbursed,” says Donini.
Everyone hoped for a miracle: Other historic returns had been of Doug Scott with broken legs, and Donini-Kennedy-Lowe-Lowe, overdue after 26 days on the North Ridge of Latok.
On Monday, August 29, the German climbers went up to the initial icefall, a glacial tongue leading toward the base of the climb, and found the missing climbers’ skis. The next day they tried to climb the icefall to investigate, but a storm blew in, bringing avalanche danger and reducing visibility to nil.
They struggled over what to do. “For us it was a really, really hard decision to go back,” says Huber, “because it was this kind of feeling, ‘If we go back now, they might have no more chance.’” The three finally pitched a tent for the Americans, left food and gas, returned to base, and took up daily contact with Lund.
On Wednesday, August 31, three porters from Shipton Treks, organized by Muhammad Iqbal in Askole, left from there for a ground search of the Biafo side, expecting to be in a position to scan the area two days later. The search had only a slim chance, and they were to find nothing.
The air search had to wait for weather, for safety and visibility. Says Huber, “The worst part was the waiting, one week of sitting in the cloud and waiting for any sign of Kyle and Scott. … The chance that we will find them alive was less and less every day.”
On September 3, under blue skies, two rescue helicopters (a second one was required in support) from the 5th Squadron Army Aviation branch of the Pakistan Army flew to canvas the mountain; meanwhile Simon Anthamatten and a team of rescuers from Air Zermatt generously stood ready to join in, emblematic of the groundswell of help. Huber, who knew the mountains well, jumped in a helicopter with two rescue-supply packs, in hopes of dropping one (the spare was in case of a miss) to the climbers, after which other options could be considered. The missing pair had now been out 13 days. Still, Huber says, “Everybody had hope we will find them. Because they are beasts.”
They circled the mountain for an hour, repeatedly following Adamson and Dempster’s route on the North Face and tracing their possible descent on the Northwest Ridge, the skyline to its right.
“We went around and higher and higher, very close on the wall,” Huber says. “I was searching, looking for colors, maybe rope or something, but it was all white. From all sides … we saw nothing.”
No ropes, no packs, no bit of cloth poking out of the snow. Had the climbers been on the steep face, they should have been visible.
The pilots refueled and flew a second time, Huber in one helicopter and George Lowe, of Golden, Colorado, entering the other; they and Donini all stress that the pilots were excellent. Lowe says the air was clear and he flew within 50 meters of the face. He describes the summit ridge and ramps, from the top of the big technical face to the summit, as having big overhanging cornices, “crenellations on the ridge they would have to climb to get to the final summit area, which was very steep.”
He says, “It’s my judgment that that section would have been the crux of the whole route.”
This time Huber flew mainly on the Biafo side in case of a fall in that direction, looking on the snow and in crevasses and even rising to 7,200 meters (200 meters above the summit), circling many times. “At the end it was clear,” he says, “that Kyle and Scott will never come back again.”
On September 9, he, Gutsch, and Brutscher decided to acclimatize and possibly find any clues by climbing the Northwest Ridge of the Ogre II, for which they had a permit, first going up the initial icefall to a glacier or glacial plateau, an arm of the main Choktoi Glacier.
The bases of the North Face and the Northwest Ridge, the intended descent, are both accessible from here. Had the American pair retreated in the bad weather, they would have gone back down the North Face, as they had the year before, to the glacial plateau. The only way to reach and descend the Northwest Ridge is over the summit.
At this plateau, the German team saw a 500-meter swath of avalanche debris and serac fall. They had to traverse concrete-hard debris to reach a safe camp.
“Maybe they descended … and then they placed the tent in the middle of this plateau, but then the serac came” from the Ogre, Huber says, observing that a whiteout could conceal potential threats to the huge flat area.
He says he found it “a strange thing to think, ‘Maybe the accident happens here.’”
Some 300 to 400 meters above the plateau is a notch, which Huber calls the Mousetrap, located between the Ogre and Ogre II and leading to the base of the Northwest Ridge. The following day the German team took mixed terrain up the notch and got partway up the ridge, finding no evidence (gear, carabiners, etc.) of any rappels, reaching 6,200 meters before the weather turned, and they retreated. Huber calls the ensuing descent “horrendous,” as avalanches threatened to cut them off. “We were lucky to survive.”
Adamson and Dempster’s accident may have happened climbing or descending the big face; during a cornice collapse on the steep-sided summit ridge; while they were walking or camped on the glacial plateau; or in a fall from the Northwest Ridge, though that seems unlikely, given the lack of any rappel signs (still, a fall or anchor failure could have occurred on terrain up high there). In the event that they retreated or fell from high on the North Face, they would reach the snow- and ice-covered plateau. A fall from the left side of the sharp ridge at the top of the north face, below the summit, instead would take them toward the Biafo drainage. A fall from the right side high on the ridge or from the Northwest Ridge descent could also put them over the Biafo side. A different scenario could also be an accident descending the icefall below the glacial plateau.
The German friends brought the skis down to basecamp and made memorials by crossing them. Huber says he prayed.
“Everybody had hope we will find them. because they are beasts.”
Donini says, “I talked to Kyle four days before he left. I called him, and he was super excited and couldn’t wait to get back to Pakistan and get back on this climb.
“He was looking forward to hanging out with us. His group and our group were the only people in the area.”
Companies including Liberty Mountaineering, Black Diamond Equipment, and Outdoor Research were much involved, with Jonathan Thesenga of BD handling communications. The afternoon of September 3 on USA time, Thesenga sent out this somber message: “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.”
Ghafoor, who had descended to the lower camp and spent sleepless days texting and worrying, went back to his camp and closed it alone.
The climbing season ended.
Later, having been encouraged by the climbers and with the help of the community, Ghafoor opened his own tour company, calling it Higher Ground after the coffee house. “The dream that I had with Kyle and friends came true.”
In 2018 Angela Goodacre Donini, wife of Jim, took photos of the last place Kyle and Scott were seen, by their friend Ghafoor. The section catches the last light on Ogre II, just before the Ogre casts its shadow.
Alison Osius is the former senior editor of Climbing.