I was sitting at the counter of Higher Ground in Salt Lake City back in 2012, tapping away on my laptop, and I overheard the coffee shop’s co-owner, Kyle Dempster, talking to customers from behind the counter, explaining the new sandwich menu. One customer, a guy in a business suit, asked,
“So Kyle, are you like a professional climber or something?” I stopped typing for just a second to eavesdrop. In 2012, Kyle had already won a Piolet d’Or (2009), would be nominated for another one a year later, had won grants for expeditions all over the world, and climbed 5.13 and M11 mixed routes.
Kyle replied to the customer: “Well, I do get some money to go on expeditions, so yes, I guess you could say I’m a professional climber.” I smiled and returned to typing.
I wasn’t close with Kyle, and never shared a rope with him. I was lucky to get to work with him through our relationship with Outdoor Research, and chat with him a few times a year over the phone, via email, and in person when I caught him for a few minutes at a trade show, film festival, or at Higher Ground. Kyle always had a warm smile, and this thing you never expect from a person who did superhuman things on the biggest, scariest mountains in the world: an interest in finding something in common and what you were up to, never talking about himself unless you asked specific questions. The last time I talked to him on the phone, we spent more time talking about the house he’d just bought than his upcoming American Alpine Journal-worthy plans. He wasn’t on Facebook, or Twitter, only took a brief whack at Instagram, and didn’t seem to have a “look at me” bone in his body.
When I found out Kyle and his climbing partner Scott Adamson went missing during an attempt on Ogre II in Pakistan, I entered my credit card to donate to the rescue fund—hoping to someday be able to rib Kyle that he maybe owed me a free Americano or ten because of my contribution to help get him off the mountain and home safe. A few days later, I got a text from a mutual friend saying that a helicopter had made several passes over the mountain and seen nothing, and the search had been called off. And I had that feeling that a lot of people had, when the majority of your hope is dashed, but you can’t seem to turn off that tiny part that still wants to think they would appear the next day, or the next, with some horrific tale of running out of food and water three days ago.
Kyle started a coffee shop in 2008 with his high school friend Ty Snelling, a confluence of his love of coffee and an investment to avoid “having to be a professional climber when I don’t want to be a climber anymore,” as he said few years ago. He told me that he thought half of the customers at Higher Ground didn’t even know he was a climber–they just knew he was gone a lot.
In the summer of 2011, Kyle took a BOB Trailer full of climbing gear and his complete Kyrgyz vocabulary of 10 words to Kyrgyzstan, planning a two-month bike-powered climbing trip. He was supposed to shoot video of the trip to satisfy some grant requirements, so he packed a camera as his only travel partner. Throughout the trip, which became an adventure in the best and worst senses of the word, Kyle recorded video diaries. He later said that the video camera became something like Wilson, the volleyball Tom Hanks’ character had for company in Cast Away.
In 2013, Christian Folk at Outdoor Research looked through the footage and thought there might be something more than a four- or five-minute trip report video in it. He sent the hard drive to Fitz Cahall and Duct Tape Then Beer, and a few months later, the crew at DTTB put together a 25-minute film called The Road From Karakol, which won the Best of Festival Award at the 5Point Film Festival that year. That film is now the best way most of us will have to remember Kyle: imaginative, enthusiastic, humble, goofy, curious, daring, alive.
The last time I saw Kyle, he sneaked up behind us in City Market in Moab, fresh off a week or so out in the desert on a packraft-bike-desert tower climbing trip–another one of those adventures few people ever heard about, and that I wouldn’t have ever heard about either had we not run into him in the freezer section. We caught up briefly, went our separate ways, and the next day I found a Higher Ground sticker on the window of my van.
I can’t pretend to be close enough to Kyle to say who he was, but I know what I got from him: the idea that there is a pure joy in exploration, whatever your personal definition of that is. It was a wonderful thing to know who he was outside of his coffee shop, that he could basically jump into a phone booth, change into his climbing clothes, and go off to the wildest corners of the world and forge new paths up the world’s biggest mountains. And when he got back, he transformed right back into a regular guy who didn’t need to tell you about the other half of his life in which he was a swashbuckling adventurer.
We say all sorts of things when a great person dies too young, and nothing we say is really incorrect or correct. I think everyone who had a chance to talk with him for a few minutes, or just read the stories he wrote, probably has this feeling that I do right now: That we weren’t quite ready for him to not come back from the mountains just yet.
Photo courtesy Duct Tape Then Beer