In the spring of 2014, I was working at the climbing gym in Jackson, Wyoming. I had just bought my first rope and was obsessed with all forms of climbing but oblivious to its history.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m., a motley crew of older dudes would come into the gym. I soon learned they were the legendary climbers Paul Horton, Andy Carson, David Dornan and Kim Schmitz. Paul and David were friendly with me, always asking about my day, and if I was fortunate, they would tell me some story about an epic climb they’d done when they were younger. Kim would walk in some time after them, moving slowly with a cane. He would quietly sit down and put his shoes on, climb one 5.7 or 5.8, and then spend the rest of the session hanging out with his friends. There was something special about Kim, something that made me want to know more. He had these beautiful pale blue eyes, and his skin was worn like old leather–the kind of weathered appearance that a person can only get from spending a lifetime in the mountains. I was shy, but I desperately wanted to talk to him.
A few months later, I tore my labrum in the Red River Gorge, and I had to have shoulder surgery. I had only been climbing for a year, and I had experienced nothing but improvement, so I felt really discouraged by the long recovery time ahead. I saw Kim in the gym a couple of weeks after my surgery, and when he noticed my left arm in a sling, he asked what had happened to me. As I talked with him about my injury, I finally got the courage to ask him why he walked with a cane–he was known for using two canes, but I mostly remember him with just one–and the story that followed astounded me. While guiding in the Tetons in 1983, he survived an approximately 70-foot fall off Symmetry Spire. He broke his back and both of his legs, and since this was before the town of Jackson had a helicopter, he had to wait for hours until a helicopter arrived from Utah to evacuate him.
Jack Tackle recounted the incident to me recently in an email:
I remember all this quite clearly…. I followed the helicopter to St. Johns and went into the ER. I was dating the ER doc who was on duty at the time. I walked in, and she had her hand “inside” Kim’s head, but he was talking to me. He had compound fractured both legs below the knee. Both of his tibias and fibulas exploded when he hit the ledge from 80 feet standing up… It was like someone had taped two grenades to both his calves and pulled the pins… He did break his back also, and his teeth and jaw, and the head wound [required] 150 stiches. When the climbing rangers got to Kim on the ledge, they put the blood-pressure cuff on him, and his BP was 60 over zero…[so much] blood had pumped out of the wounds in his legs…tough boy.
In comparison, my shoulder surgery seemed so small–like a scrape on the knee. I spent the rest of the afternoon on Google reading about Kim’s adventures. In 1967 Kim had set a new benchmark on the Nose of El Capitan with Jim Madsen, beating the five-day speed record of the time by two and a half days. In 1977 he made the first ascent of Great Trango Tower (6286m) in Pakistan with John Roskelley, Dennis Hennek and Galen Rowell, followed by the first ascent of Uli Biaho (6109m) in 1979 with Roskelley, Ron Kauk and Bill Forrest. Uli Biaho was the first Grade VII done by Americans and might have been the first in the world. The team spent twelve days on the climb, and 10 nights in hammocks at high altitude as they climbed 34 technical pitches up to 5.8 A4. In 1980 Kim completed a 285-mile ski traverse of the Karakoram over six weeks in a mostly self-supported style with Dan Asay, Ned Gillette and Galen Rowell. The four had minimal contact with other people as they crossed long glaciers that reached elevations as high as 6858 meters, and they endured sub-zero temperatures and difficult snow conditions while pulling heavy sleds on Nordic skis.
After learning a little of Kim’s past I wanted to know more. Every time he and his friends came into the gym I’d try to get another story out of him. He was quiet, though, and reluctant to share. Since he didn’t say much, I had to ask the other guys for tales about him.
At the end of that summer, the climbing gym closed, and I decided to leave Jackson for the road. While I was traveling, I kept in touch with Kim via Facebook and phone calls.
With the gym shuttered, it made me sad to know the boys weren’t getting together every Tuesday and Thursday to climb anymore. Kim wrote to me about dreams of traveling to Asia again. He’d spent some time in Thailand enjoying warm weather and the beach, but he wanted to go back to climb there one day.
While I was on the road in May 2016, I learned that Kim was in the hospital for yet another surgery on his knee related to a fall he’d suffered while skiing the past winter. He was 69 and had already had over 30 surgeries by then. On the phone, he told me it was his hardest recovery yet, physically and mentally. After developing an MRSA infection, he was going to be in the hospital for eight more weeks.
I had just started dabbling in filmmaking, and I knew I wanted to do something on Kim. After gaining experience with a few other projects, I started to shape a story pitch. My idea was to make a documentary about Kim and to use whatever money I made from it to take him to Thailand. I called my friend Greg Von Doersten, a Jackson local and well-known outdoor photographer, to see if he wanted to get involved, and he agreed.
Kim made it out of the hospital eventually, but he was in a lot of pain. I made another trip to Jackson to visit him when he got out. We went out for coffee, and I helped him get new tires out of his storage unit to put on his car: he was already planning his next road trip. While we were there, Kim handed me a heavy cardboard box and told me to keep it. I thanked him, took his portrait, gave him a big hug and said goodbye. That day, August 16, was the last time I saw him. On September 19, 2016, as he drove home from a river trip, his car hit a boulder, and he died shortly afterward.
The photos here have been scanned from prints in the box that Kim gave me. Kim’s friends Rick Ridgeway, John Roskelley and Jack Tackle helped me identify some of the details, but we’re still not sure exactly when and where all the photos were taken. Nonetheless, they provide a glimpse into the life of a quiet man who was born June 26, 1946, in Oakland, California, and who grew up in Portland, Oregon, where he found his calling in the mountains. We share some of these images with you now on his birthday in his memory….
Savannah Cummins is a photographer based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. You can find more of her work at SavannahCummins.com.