It’s likely that many who knew renowned alpinist Kim Schmitz reckoned he would die a traumatic, even painful, death.
He should have been killed in an avalanche in China in 1980 when a snow slide swept him 2,000 feet and killed his companion, Aspen, Colorado, photographer Jonathan Wright.
A 70-foot fall in the Tetons should have done him in instead of leaving him permanently crippled. Friends wouldn’t have been surprised if his pain-driven drug and alcohol addiction, which he repeatedly shook, resulted in some deadly tragedy.
Even when his climbing days appeared over, he was a hobbling medical marvel, walking only with the aid of two canes. The internationally acclaimed alpinist had prostate cancer and, this summer, a postoperative MRSA infection that swelled his knee to the size of a melon and kept him in a hospital bed for three months.
His spectacular climbing resume included notorious first ascents in the Karakorum Range of Pakistan and an epic winter ski traverse there. The American Alpine Club lauded him for his achievements with an award a year ago.
So when word of the Jackson, Wyoming, climber’s death in a car crash in Idaho spread through the climbing world last week, it stirred emotions. Life was pain for Schmitz. But death, especially in a car wreck, seemed a cruel and banal ending to a heroic life. A California native who grew up in Oregon, he was as tough as they come but his armored shell shielded a gentle soul.
“Those of us who knew him all marveled at his resilience, his lack of self-pity, his dignity under the circumstances, and his joy of life despite the pain he lived with constantly,” climbing partner John Roskelley wrote in a tribute for Rock and Ice.
A guide with Exum Mountain Guides of Jackson Hole, Schmitz freely passed on his wisdom and inspired scores of young climbers and adventurers. “When he talked with me, I felt like the most important person [on] earth,” said “Scuffy B,” on the climbing forum at Supertopo.
Meeting Schmitz was like peering into a crystal ball. “He had those eyes that were as powerful as you would see on anybody,” his friend, Dr. Bruce Hayse, said. “The whole universe came through them.”
Yosemite climbing tribal elder Werner Braun summed up the tragedy in a stonemaster’s patois. “Not cool,” he wrote. “After all the sh!t he’s been thru and now this.”
But “this” was perhaps not as bad as imagined. In his community of extreme explorers, there’s something righteous about a wilderness death, especially when contrasted with expiration in a nursing home or an end trapped in twisted car metal. The Idaho coroner and deputy sheriff who investigated the death scene told WyoFile that Schmitz survived the car crash. He pulled the two canes he needed to walk out of his crumpled Toyota 4Runner and hobbled toward the last populated campground he had passed. But his walk ended short of that, surrounded by one of America’s greatest wildernesses.
The River of No Return
In mid-September Schmitz, along with Bruce Hayse, cinema sound man Brian Whitlock, and Tim Walther, a business-leadership consultant, set off for the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Wending through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the Middle Fork is a classic whitewater adventure with numerous hot pools for soaking. One can meditate surrounded by bugling elk and howling wolves. Lewis and Clark’s highway to the West Coast, the Salmon River is got its nickname “because it is impossible to go upstream the length of the river by boat,” historian Robert G. Bailey wrote in his 1935 book River of No Return.
A boat was the only way for Schmitz to get back to his wilderness element, Hayse said. “He could not walk. He couldn’t even ride a bike. This was his only opportunity.”
The four arrived in three separate vehicles and arranged them to be shuttled to the confluence of the Middle Fork and the main stem. They loaded gear for three days, a cataraft, (an inflatable catamaran-like whitewater raft) and two pack rafts into a bush plane. It would land them part way down the Middle Fork for a three-day adventure. Schmitz would hobble to the cataraft with his two canes. One person would row the cataraft with him in the front. The other two would paddle the small packrafts.
“I realized I would be rowing a [cataraft] with Kim as my passenger and would get the opportunity to share some quality time with him, do my best to keep him safe and assist him in having a great experience on the river however I could,” Walther later wrote on Facebook. “What an honor that was.”
Actually, they didn’t have a cataraft. They had two halves of two catarafts. Hayse, who worked late the night of his departure, had loaded parts of two different boat frames before he left Jackson. At the wilderness landing strip, as the sound of the plane faded beyond the canyon, Hayse mulled the mismatched parts. The adventure had begun.
“We were able to tie the whole thing together and make it work,” Whitlock said. Except the seat was missing, too. That would make the cataraft somewhat awkward to row. So the crew “borrowed” a Forest Service sign, used Swiss army knives to auger holes in the corners, then duct-taped a Crazy Creek camp chair and toilet seat on top to complete the setup.
They launched for three days of paddling and rowing, including Class IV wilderness whitewater. Schmitz would cane his way to and from the boat at landings, sometimes falling. “He would quickly recover and say something like ‘well, it just is,’ and bound up again like a springboard,” Walther said in an interview. The two ogled at the towering rock walls, dreaming of climbs both there and elsewhere around the world. Walther hardly needed the improvised seat at the cataraft oars.
“[Schmitz’s] recounts of his early first ascents of El Capitan in the ’60s, the first ascent on the Trango Tower, and his two month ski traverse in Pakistan were just a few that kept me literally on the edge of my seat,” he wrote. The talk wasn’t all about Schmitz’s heroics, however; the alpinist wanted to know about his boatman. “He was equally interested in hearing about my climbing adventures and shared a mutual desire about going to the places I spoke about.”
Walther asked Schmitz what advice he gave people over the years. “Put your consciousness into the ‘soul’ of your feet,” Schmitz told him.
Whitlock witnessed an idyllic three days. “Kim meditated with Bruce Hayse every morning and every evening. When it rained, Kim raised his face to the drops, when the sun shined, he raised his face to the rays.”
Walther shared Schmitz’s sober tranquility. “I felt both peace and beauty inside me, thinking, ‘There is a man embracing what life has to offer. Right here, right now.'”
Despite his age and disabilities, Schmitz still plotted future adventures. “His plans were to travel to Cambodia and Laos this winter to ‘get some walking in and get strong again,'” Walther wrote. “His goal was to climb El Capitan again next year. Of course, it would be a new route he had yet to climb.”
As certainly as a river flows downstream, the adventure had to come to an end. After 30 miles, the team reached the confluence with the Salmon at sunset, September 18. “On Kim’s final Sunday,” Whitlock wrote, “he was in a sacred space.”
Schmitz, Hyase said, “was totally at peace at that moment. It was very powerful, the unity he felt with the whole universe.”
The team packed up its gear and there embraced in a round of hugs. They set off, a caravan of three cars, Schmitz last in a Toyota 4Runner. He was headed back to a difficult world, away from his beloved hills and woods. He was headed back to a difficult place, a place where he could hardly get around, where there were hospital beds, nursing homes, curbs, traffic.
Reaching out to the Reaper
Kim Schmitz had tried to die before. He told his friends that at his coffee klatch at Jackson Hole Roasters.
“Peter Haan, myself and Kim were enjoying an early morning java,” friend Lawrence Bennett wrote in an email. The talk between Haan and Bennett turned to an unfortunate who had died of exposure. Schmitz was on his iPad, half an ear to the conversation. The talk turned to hypothermia and whether death by it was a benign passing. “Some folks like to conjecture that expiring due to hypothermia/cold is somehow comforting in that you simply get cold, go to sleep and slip off into the mystery so to speak,” Bennett wrote.
“He was listening to our banter…and without skipping a beat and not even looking up, Kim said, ‘Oh, I tried that…but…I got cold!’
“Of course our Kim was no doubt telling the truth. He just stated it so casually and off the cuff that Peter and I exploded with laughter.”
It rained a bit on the last day of the Middle Fork expedition. The temperature dipped to 37 degrees in nearby North Fork — no doubt lower in the mountains. At the takeout, the group discussed plans before driving off. The trip was over, but Schmitz’s guardians had one more duty. The dirt road along the Salmon clings to the hillsides for 42 miles before the pavement begins.
Schmitz was determined to head for Spokane to visit friend John Roskelley. His three boating buddies, knowing his limited stamina, told him no. They tried to convince him to go to only to Salmon or another close stop. The compromise was Missoula, Montana, a two-hour drive. “We agreed to that,” Whitlock said. “I gave him directions.”
There were deer and elk crossing all along the gravel byway. On a straight section of road nine miles from the takeout, Schmitz’s 4Runner went off the road, down an eight-foot embankment, and into a rock. Half the size of a VW bus, it was the only obstacle between the road and the river for 2,000 feet, friends who visited the scene said. The boulder kept the car out of the river. The force of the collision pushed the engine into the cab, but the driver’s space was relatively undamaged. The airbag went off, Lemhi County Coroner Mike Ernest told WyoFile.
On Monday morning a river guide driving boats to a put-in on the river passed the scene. Doran Bricker saw a cane “stuck in the ground” by the side of the road, Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Morelli wrote in his report. There was a pair of red/orange sunglasses next to it. He then found Schmitz a short way down the bank “with his knees up a little, as if sleeping” the report said. “There was some rain that night and it was cold,” coroner Ernest said. “He had a real light jacket on. He died of exposure.”
The crash didn’t kill Schmitz. He suffered no significant exterior trauma — perhaps he hit his head. “There might have been some internal injuries,” coroner Ernest said.
Deputy Morelli observed the driver’s seatbelt cut. Later, a friend discovered an open knife in the 4Runner. Schmitz had extricated himself from the car, opened his pack, and rummaged through clothes. He opened a first aid kit.
He grabbed both his canes. He got himself up to the road. Morelli followed poke-holes from Schmitz’s canes down the middle of the road toward the campground. “He was going back to where he knew there were people,” Morelli said.
Schmitz hobbled about a quarter mile. Morelli found a butt mark in soft dirt by the side of the road, two deep poke holes where Schmitz had raised himself from his seat. The first cane was 90 feet farther. He didn’t fall down the bank, “He walked down there,” Ernest said. He got down to a bench 15 feet from the river that was home to a grandfather tree. There, surrounded by the largest wilderness in the Lower 48, he got cold one last time. At some time between 9 and 11:59 p.m., perhaps lulled by lapping water on its inevitable way to the sea, Kim Schmitz lay down by the River of No Return and died.
This story was produced by WyoFile. Photos by Brian Whitlock