The obituaries are the underrated part of the American Alpine Journal. They cover lifetimes of climbs, and speak to the people that make each edition of the Journal what I have loved to pour over since I was a kid in high school.
But reading them requires different tolerances: The 71-year old and the 91-year old that passed away at home from old age or poor health covers climbs, careers, marriage, children, are about a degree of fulfillment and respect. Reading the ones of younger AAC members, like Dean Potter and Justin Griffin are more difficult to read through without getting choked up.
Justin was originally from Kentucky but got into climbing and moved to Bozeman, Montana. He finished college and became an architect/builder. He was married to a woman he loved. He helped buy her a stable, where she could train horses for clients. Justin and his wife also had a young daughter and lots of plans for the future. He died in the fall of 2015 on descent after putting up a new route in the Himalaya. His climbing partner Skiy DeTray, was unable to revive him, and had to come home alone.
There seemed to be fewer early deaths of young climbers in the last couple of years (or so it seemed to me.) But then something unique, in my experience, happened; News of two climbers I admired were missing, and not only that, the news came with a plea for help. I gave a little money and urgently helped spread the word about the need for a search and rescue for Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson. What happened next was simultaneously wrenching and inspiring.
Once or twice a day I scan the climbing news headlines and feeds on Facebook or Twitter. It’s usually a pleasant distraction and helps me shift gears between big tasks at work of managing a team and a network of stakeholders fighting for affordable housing. I mainly look for inspiration for daydreams and an innocent attempt to live vicariously.
Yet, at a little before 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 31, 2016, I read an unusual headline on Adventure Journal: Alpinists Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson Missing in Pakistan.
Normally the headlines are about an accomplishment (like “team makes first alpine style link up”), or about controversy or conservation (“President names new national monuments”), or someone was heli-evaced or died. But this time, two well-known climbers were overdue and the AJ article included a link to the GoFundMe campaign page that their family and close-friends had set up. Thousands of us waited hoping for news that Kyle and Scott were coming down Baintha Brakk II. Perhaps they were coming down the wrong side of the mountain, and maybe a little hungry and scratched up but alive and well. The GoFundMe campaign page, as of yesterday, September 11, 2016, reported having over 15,000 shares.
For three days, we collectively held a quiet vigil. Not at temples, churches, bars, or living rooms, though some of us may have done so, but mostly through our phones, waiting for updates and good news on Facebook and Twitter. We all shared in hope and put our money down as an act of faith and friendship.
The actual giving was another story by itself.
Giving of Alms
In 16 hours, the friends and fans of Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson gave $100,000 (US) toward their search and rescue. The giving didn’t stop there. The money kept coming. The “positive thoughts” and prayers carried on too.
The search and rescue efforts blossomed from a sole helicopter reconnaissance and a neighboring expedition pausing its efforts to look for Kyle and Scott, into multiple flights and assistance from the Pakistani military. The bill expanded as well, and the goal increased from $100,000 to the current goal of $250,000.
Kyle and Scott had rescue insurance, however, it would only cover a small portion ($10,000) of the massive bill accumulating as more resources were enlisted. The helicopters and pilots were the greatest cost. And the final total, according to Black Diamond Equipment, 11 days after the public call for help was made, still hasn’t been realized with some costs and fees still coming in and payments being made. (Unspent money will be repaid to contributors, but how that process will work will not be decided until the debt is paid, which it might not fully be.)
The cost is hefty and heftier still because we couldn’t find Kyle and Scott. The hole in the pocket is deeper than financial, and sadly the momentum to keep the money flowing in may be dwindling. After eight days, over 4,900 people gave $198,000. After three more days, fifteen other contributors have given an additional $400, still hundreds away from the amount currently necessary to settle the debt.
But what has amazed me, and amazed so many others, how 4,980 people (as of yesterday, September 11, 2016) have opened their wallets; many of whom after the family and immediate friends of Kyle and Scott called off any further searches.
As much as we wanted Kyle and Adam to succeed on Baintha Brakk II, we also wanted them to come home safely. We wanted them to come home safely even more. Even in the era of social media in climbing, it’s still about the climbers not the climb.
Had Justin Griffin still been with us, his wife and his daughter, he would have made the number of individual contributors as of yesterday 4,981. Justin climbed with Kyle in Alaska and the Canadian Rockies. Kyle was the more experienced alpinist, and Justin was catching up quickly.
And I think there are dozens more stories like this about Kyle and Scott. They probably are underlying the individuals of the final tally. I never met Kyle but I remember the first time I came across him. It was of a photo of him leaning on a table in the coffeehouse he co-owned in Utah advertising Outdoor Research, I think. While his Piolet d’Or and grants validated him, it was that photo that made him out to be a role model or hero to me. He ran his own business, an admirable accomplishment by itself, and he managed to climb at a high level.
On top of that, everyone who actually knew him liked him. One of his editors recently told him that he was extremely likeable and he really listened to people. For Kyle, life was not about him or an ego, but the people around him. He was the type of person that is given the grand, rare moniker of being “just a good guy.” That’s someone I can tell my kids about; they’ll know him as the guy that climbed mountains and owned a cafe, but I want them to remember that he was a good guy to everyone he met.
Climbers are not a wealthy bunch, generally speaking. And their family and friends shouldn’t get stuck with the bill for our mistakes, accidents, and risks that don’t play out as we want. If Scott or Kyle’s lives have touched you, or this story has affected you in some way, please help their families grieve and don’t leave them with a bill. I’m going to give a little more. Maybe you can too.