Kyle Dempster and friends had been moving for 14 hours on the unclimbed Xuelian West, a 6,400-meter peak in the Tien Shan, when he found himself on an M6 pitch at 17,000 feet, spindrift ripping down all around, and his last cam 20 feet below his boots.
“And we were kind of lost,” he recalls, “or anyway the route direction was in question.”
He suddenly started laughing, and then calmly, with mental clarity and even joy, led through.
Dempster learned that day, he says, “that I have a part of my cousin in me. It comes out when I am climbing in the scariest or most harsh conditions, and it comes out as laughing.” Drew Wilson, Kyle’s de facto older brother, “had this very playful nature when confronting intimidating terrain,” Dempster says. “He’d sing, curse, talk in strange voices, smile and laugh as he delicately inched forward.” The two were together when Wilson died in 2005 at age 24 rappelling a new route on Baffin Island after a 12-day effort. Topping out, he had hugged Kyle, then 22, and exulted, “Man, I’ll go climbing anywhere in the world with you.”
Kyle Dempster was in the midst of repeating Happy Hour (M6), a route he had just onsighted in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, for a photographer, when an ice dagger, still holding an ice screw from the earlier ascent, sheared off. He was unharmed.
The autumn after the accident, Dempster soloed the formidable Reticent Wall (VI A4+ 5.10) on El Capitan, and, in a return to Baffin Island the following spring, skied 400 miles solo to explore and reflect. He has climbed in Venezuela with Mike Libecki, a role model in solo adventuring, in 2007 putting up the Dempster-Libecki Variation (VI A2 5.11) over nine days on the Acopan Tepui. In 2008 he attempted a solo second ascent of Tahu Rutum (6,651m), on the Hispar Glacier, Pakistan, putting in 24 days on the wall: “I pushed it pretty far on that trip,” he says, “went in a little too deep.” He returned lighter by 40 pounds and one frostbitten fingertip, and with an abiding appreciation of the porters who waited extra days for his return. On a trip to Asia this year, Dempster brought those porters medical supplies and a hundred pounds of clothing collected from the REI returns department.
In February, Dempster traveled with Bruce Normand to ice climb in the Shuangqiao Valley and check out winter conditions for a possible attempt on Mount Edgar and other peaks in the Siguniang chain, Sichuan Province, China. His next trip is to the awards ceremony in Chamonix in April, as a nominee for the Piolet d’Or (see rockandice.com for update) for the Xuelian West climb, one of four new routes done on the Xuelian massif last August with Normand, Jed Brown and Jared Vilhauer. His summer plan was at one time to climb with Kelly Cordes on and near K7 in Pakistan, but that was deferred when Cordes broke his leg ice climbing. Dempster currently plans on Pakistan in August to attempt either the fabled North Ridge of Latok or the also unclimbed Khunyang East.
In conversation Dempster is expressive, thoughtful and forthcoming. Asked how he sustains his schedule, he says with a laugh, “I’m 27 years old and still live with my parents,” in Salt Lake City. “And I haven’t had a car for the last three years.” A graduate of the University of Utah, he used to string Christmas lights for 10 weeks every year, but is now co-owner of a coffee shop.
YOU STARTED SOLOING ROUTES ON EL CAP AT 19. MOST TEENAGERS STRICTLY WANT TO BE WITH OTHER TEENAGERS.
It started when I graduated from high school and got pressure to go to college. I thought, I need to figure out who I am first. I went and hiked about 900 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was 18. I didn’t associate that well with a lot of the kids here … I just wasn’t on that path and I knew it. I still enjoy [solo trips] and I think it’s necessary: confronting that loneliness and being able to cope with that and enjoy your presence in nature.
WORD IS THAT YOU LIVED IN A TENT ON THE ROOF OF YOUR COFFEE SHOP LAST YEAR.
I came back from China to a whole new world, with so much to learn. The first two months, it was really difficult to me to learn how to walk away from the shop. I’d be stressed about something or wanted to learn how to do something, and didn’t have a car, was just on my bike … So I packed up my tent and my sleeping bag and set up camp on the roof.
ER, IS THAT LEGAL? WOULDN’T PEOPLE SEE IT?
[laughs] I would collapse it every day. … A few weeks before Christmas, I finally bought a car.
HOW DID YOU KEEP CLIMBING AFTER DREW’S DEATH?
Drew taught me to climb … In 2003 I moved out to Yosemite and spent several summers there. Drew and I spent a summer out there together climbing and really learned of this partnership that we had, built of years and years of knowing each other. It was a camaraderie, competitive but totally supportive. We really pushed each other. We got a lot of stuff done.
Drew and I climbed that wall [in Baffin] together … Those were my best moments with my cousin, watching my cousin climb, which I still think about and feel in my own climbing.
After he fell I rappelled down to his body ... I thought of everyone he loved and who loved him. [Later], I remember thinking, Am I done? It took me a long time to answer that. … It kind of came down to the conclusion he would never, ever want me to stop climbing. If I died, I would want him to keep climbing, and take everything I taught him and burn bright with it.
TELL US ABOUT TAHU RUTUM.
I got really close to the summit, within 150 meters, [and] that was close enough. I didn’t have enough food …. but stuck out the bad weather and kept climbing. The snows returned when I went for the summit. I had half a liter of water and one Clif Bar. I crested the rock wall to the snowy ridge to the summit [and] my headlamp was dying. It was pretty steep snow and ice climbing, and getting dark. All the signs were pointing to no, so I bailed.
WHAT ARE YOUR STENGTHS IN CLIMBING?
Maintaining mental calmness and clarity in precarious, difficult terrain. And enduring. For some reason I’m very good at suffering. I love the 24-hour and 40-hour pushes on walls or alpine routes. I love that stuff.