There is a moment in Kyle Dempster’s short film The Road from Karakol, where he is confronted with yet another dangerous river crossing and, as he sees it, his own death.
Before he sets off across, he makes a short statement to the camera that he’s been carrying with him to record his journey.
I’m pretty scared, so I just want to let everyone know that if something shitty happens I love you all an incredible amount, and I want you to know that if I die I was definitely doing something that I’m totally, totally psyched on … Mum, I love you. Thank you so much for a wonderful life. Dad, thank you. You’ve been an inspiration … I’m sorry that it ended this way.
This particular story had a happy ending. His head camera recorded the journey as he set off through the crashing barrage of the Inelchek River in the Pamir Mountains, Kyrgyzstan. A blue rope tied to a bank is his means of support as he struggles across. What we don’t see is that the crossing is made harder by the bike that he carries above his head.
Music rises to a crescendo, and we see the bike touch down on the far bank as a relieved man reaches safety.
Kyle Dempster’s journey across Kyrgyzstan perfectly illustrates the spirit of adventure that ran through his life, a spirit that many people wish for, but only a few truly exceptional people have.
In 2011 he took a bike with a trailer and spent a month cycling 1,200km across the country, with his climbing gear in a duffle bag behind him. He could speak only a few words of Kyrgyz, and had only two large-scale maps that proved to be less than accurate. The film doesn’t even tackle how he fed himself, but hazards that are addressed include a drunk military official who refuses to let him continue, precipitous trails that are no place for a bike, many days without seeing another human being, and most notably, a number of dangerous river crossings. At the end of the film he reaches the snow-capped tops of the High Pamirs, unpacks his climbing gear and solos an unclimbed peak.
When he arrived home he gave his self-filmed footage to his sponsors Outdoor Research, who hoped to make a four-minute promotional video from it. There were so many great moments they were able to produce a 25-minute film that went on to win an award.
The entire film is available on Vimeo, and it’s a must-watch for armchair (and proper) adventurers. His enthusiasm and confidence shine through the film like a beacon, even when he is confronted with overwhelming difficulties (which he often overcomes through recourse to alcohol).
“The road ahead is a little concerning, but we’ll make it happen,” he says as he pedals along a rocky sheep track little wider than a cycle tyre, with the river cascading some distance below him.
There is also a good deal of humour in the film. It starts with a naked Kyle standing by another river, clutching a red backpack to safeguard his modesty.
Before he sets off, once again he sets up his camera for a short piece (so to speak).
My name’s Kyle. It’s seven o’clock in the morning and I’m naked in Kyrgyzstan. You might ask, Kyle, why are you up so early?
If you’re not going anywhere for half an hour, then you can watch it right now:
He was a born entertainer, humorous and likeable. I wish I could have watched many more films like this, from someone whose charisma, love of the untravelled world, and adventurous spirit, cannot fail to take us to places we have never dreamed of (I visited Krygyzstan last year, but I had a bit more help from other people than he did, including men with horses to take me across the glacier torrents he waded across with his backpack).
Sadly Kyle died last month, along with his climbing partner Scott Adamson, while trying to make a first ascent of the north face of the 6,960m Ogre II in Pakistan. Both climbers were in their early 30s. Extreme alpinists have a tendency to die young, so there would have been nothing unusual in this, but for a remarkable event that followed.
Kyle and Scott set off to climb the north face on 22 August, but the following day a storm swept across the mountain. By 28 August there was still no sign of them, and a rescue was initiated that was hampered by the continuing bad weather. On 31 August, friends of the climbers set up a rescue appeal on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe, to help pay for an expensive helicopter search and possible long-line evacuation in precipitous mountain terrain.
I first became aware of the appeal on Facebook, when $15,000 of a $100,000 target had been raised after only a few hours. My immediate impression was that the appeal was both desperate and futile. I knew the Ogre to be a very remote peak, famous for giant cliffs at an extremely high altitude, in an area of the Karakoram notorious for storms and avalanches. If they hadn’t been seen after ten days of storms, and were last seen halfway up a difficult rock face, then there was almost no chance they would be found alive.
On the other hand, survival in that situation wouldn’t be completely unprecedented. There was a very famous example from 1977 on the Ogre II’s higher neighbour the 7,285m Ogre I. The British climber Doug Scott broke both his legs while abseiling very close to the summit after making its first ascent. He ended up crawling all the way back to base camp, and was gone so long that his teammates had given him up for dead and left camp (you can read all about this story in a previous blog post of mine).
So it could happen, but these two climbers were hardly Doug Scott – or were they?
What I didn’t know was what thousands of people in the climbing community did – that if anyone could survive in that situation it was these two. Kyle Dempster had twice won the Piolet d’Or, mountaineering’s equivalent of an Oscar, the second time for a new route on the Ogre I in 2012. Scott Adamson was similarly talented. He had once helped to fund a mountaineering expedition to Alaska by turning up to a rock climbing competition a few days beforehand and walking off with the $1,200 second prize.
Last year both climbers were attempting the very same north face of the Ogre II, and had reached to within 300m of the summit, when Scott fell. Kyle described the incident in his report for the American Alpine Journal.
The rope began moving faster and I felt relieved, thinking he had found easier ground. Several minutes later I heard him yell. Assuming this meant “Rock!,” I swung close to the wall on the hanging belay. Suddenly: sparks, a headlamp, and Scott came flying past. “Holy shit! Are you okay?” I yelled. He had come to a stop more than 15m below me. I could see his headlamp slowly scanning his surroundings, and I gave him a minute. “Well, I think my leg is broken,” was his response.
So what I didn’t know was that Scott Adamson had already “done a Doug Scott”, and got himself down from the Ogre (or at least one of them) with a broken leg.
And there was more. Just before they reached the safety of the glacier an anchor came loose during an abseil.
Four meters below, as I went over a small bulge, the V-thread popped and we both fell 90m to the glacier. Scott had no additional injuries; I had only a bloody nose.
Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson’s talent and zest for adventure had touched the lives of thousands of people in the climbing community, and they had become an inspiration to many who had never known them personally. Within a day the GoFundMe appeal had exceeded its $100,000 target, and it was increased to $150,000 and then $250,000. Within a week close to 5,000 people had dipped their hands in their pockets, raising nearly $200,000.
This astonishing response meant that no expense needed to be spared in the search and rescue operation. On 3 September two military helicopters left Skardu in clear weather. They picked up another extreme alpinist, Thomas Huber, from the Ogre base camp to assist in the rescue. He provided an extra pair of eyes as someone who could spot likely locations for stricken climbers. It was a perilous operation. The helicopters were operating in the thin air of 6,000m and hovering to within 30m of the face. They scoured the north face and the north-east ridge as a possible descent route, but found no sign of Kyle and Scott.
Many Pakistani base camp staff and porters were on hand with stretchers if a foot evacuation would be needed, and two specialists from Air Zermatt in Switzerland made themselves available to fly to Islamabad at immediate notice if a long-line rescue was needed. But despite a clear day on 3rd, the stormy weather had been otherwise continuous, and by the end of the day a difficult decision was reached and the search was called off.
The appeal remains open as costs are calculated. The fundraisers have promised to post a breakdown of how the money was used and return any excess to donors. In the meantime many tributes have been posted, including this one by The Alpinist magazine, for whom Kyle occasionally wrote, which includes quotes and memories from their friends and climbing partners.
People are still donating as I write these words. If you are still wondering why, you need only to watch The Road from Karakol for the answer.
Because life goes on. As Kyle Dempster explained at the very end:
[Real adventure] burns brightest on the map’s edges, but it exists in all of us. It exists at the intersection of the imagination and the ridiculous. You have to have faith; it will find you there.
And when it does, remember, there’s just one question. In this life, when the road comes to the end, will you keep pedalling?
Not all of us have faith in the ridiculous, but life would be more fun if we did. That’s why these two were such an inspiration, and why 5,000 people had faith in what seemed like a lost cause.