Dirtbag Gourmet: Alpinist and Coffee Shop Owner Kyle Dempster

In 2012, alpinist Kyle Dempster climbed a new route on 20,900-foot Ogre I with Hayden Kennedy, only its third ascent

dirtbag gourmet kyle dempster 660In 2012, alpinist Kyle Dempster climbed a new route on 20,900-foot Ogre I with Hayden Kennedy, only its third ascent ever, and put up a new route up the then-unclimbed east face of K7 (22,750 feet) with Kennedy and Urban Novak. In 2013, he won a Mugs Stump Award grant to attempt a route on the west face of Tahu Rutum (21,820 feet) in Pakistan with Kennedy and Novak.

Dempster, 29, spends his vacations on some of the world’s most remote and dangerous mountains. When he comes down, he returns to work at Higher Ground, the coffee shop he co-owns in southeast Salt Lake City. Most of his customers don’t read Alpinist, don’t know about his Piolet d’Or award, or his multiple Golden Piton awards for bold, pioneering climbs in Pakistan and China.

“They just kind of know I’m gone a lot of the time,” Dempster says. He says maybe half of his regular customers know he’s a climber.

In 2008, Dempster went to Pakistan and spent more than a month in the mountains by himself, 24 days alone climbing Tahu Ratum – he finished climbing the wall, but didn’t go to the summit, choosing to bail and still barely surviving the descent and the walk back to civilization. He says he “kind of went off the deep end with that one.” He lost 40 pounds and ended up losing a third of his ring finger to frostbite. And he missed people during all that solo time.

When he returned to his hometown, he went back to his regular coffee shop, and the owner told him the shop was for sale. During and after his college years at the University of Utah, Dempster had paid for expeditions by working construction jobs and hanging Christmas lights, and he didn’t want to go back to construction. He asked a high school friend, Ty Snelling, if he’d be interested in co-owning a coffee shop, and the two took over the 660-square-foot space in southeast Salt Lake City.

Dempster and Snelling ran the shop, and at first split five shifts a week between the two of them. Five years later, they’ve got four employees and spend all their time managing – but still shovel snow. Each picks up the slack when the other is out of town – Snelling is an avid traveler and surfer, and Dempster spent several months of 2012 away from the shop on climbing trips to Alaska, Pakistan, Turkey and Greece. But when he comes down, he gets back to work providing espresso for the shop’s customers.

“One thing that I definitely knew that I wanted to avoid doing was marketing that coffee shop as an ‘alpinist’s hangout,’ Dempster says. “I knew that I didn’t want to use me or my achievements as some marketing campaign for the coffee shop.”

Dempster says when he and Snelling bought the shop in 2008, being a “professional climber” wasn’t something that seemed like a realistic career option. It is now, but he’s committed to having something besides climbing in his life.

“The thing that I personally wanted to avoid is having to be a professional climber when I don’t want to be a climber anymore,” Dempster says. “I don’t know if that day will ever come – I don’t know if I’ll be the Fred Beckey, climbing when I’m 85 years old or whatever – my friends certainly tell me that I will be, and if I am, then yeah, I’m stoked. But the coffee shop is an investment.”

During one visit in January 2012, I overheard a customer ask him, “So Kyle, are you like a professional climber or something?” Dempster, from behind the counter where he’d been making lattes and hawking paninis all morning, said, “Well, I do get some money to go on expeditions, so yes, I guess you could say I’m a professional climber.”

He climbs M11 and 5.13, won that Piolet d’Or in 2009, was nominated for another Piolet d’or in 2012 (for The Ogre), is sponsored by Outdoor Research, La Sportiva, Black Diamond, and Edelweiss Ropes – yes, Kyle is a indeed a professional climber. And he’s a guy who’s excited about the space he’s built for coffee drinkers in the neighborhood. He’s proud of the eclectic mix of working folks, students, grandmothers, teens and students who come to Higher Ground for their coffee.

“It’s really cool to see the diversity and who a cup of coffee brings to the same table,” Dempster says. “These folks from very different backgrounds and different ways of life were all huddled together because of this one cup of coffee.”

Photo by Michael Crook


Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
Showing 8 comments
  • garyg

    There’s a typo regarding the height of the Orge. I think it’s 23,900 ft.

  • brendan

    whoops, thanks gary. fixed it.

  • Cody

    Love these personal profiles Brendan. It’s very cool to learn how people are living their lives.

  • Cody

    Love these personal profiles Brendan. It’s so cool to see how other people are living out their lives.

  • Ray

    Had one of those “so you’re a climber” moments happen the other day to me as well (I was the one asking). Picked up 2 climbers in the Ghost area after a ice climb, the one guys introduces himself as Sean and mentions he was guiding. I said “Cool – what’s your last name?”. He said Isaac.

    Outer-voice – Sean Isaac Eh? Right on – nice to meet you.

    Pro climbers are so obscure and laid-back. Just regular dudes who don’t ever talk of who they actually are. Love it.

  • Matt Minich

    That’s awesome. I wonder how often unwitting customers spray at him about their own climbing exploits.

  • Alastair Humphreys

    What a wonderful story! I feel a deep sense of envy and admiration for the balance in his life.

  • Alastair Humphreys

    This is awesome! I feel a deep sense of envy and admiration for his work-life balance. Brilliant.

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