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Kyle Dempster’s Spirit Lives On In Solo Adventure Award 

With this year’s awardees soon to be announced, a look back at where the award took Anthony Marra—to Manaslu, for a solo climb and ski descent.

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Anthony Marra of Salt Lake City is a previous recipient of the Solo Adventure Award, which supports solo explorers who share Kyle Dempster’s passion for human-powered adventure. Kyle Dempster, 33, was a leading alpinist known for his first ascents on Baintha Brakk (aka Ogre I) in Pakistan and Xuelian West in China. He and Scott Adamson, 34, disappeared while attempting a route on the north face of Baintha Brakk II (aka Ogre II) in Pakistan in 2016.

As soon as Anthony Marra saw the short film “The Road From Karakol,” he knew it would change his life. In the 2013 film, which chronicles the alpinist Kyle Dempster’s quest to bike deep into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan to climb first ascents in the lofty Tian Shan Mountains, Dempster narrates, “Every adventure has both the light, the dark, the toil, the reward…. You no longer know where you end and the world begins.”

That was in 2016. More recently the affable Marra, who is typically composed and calm, could not keep the excitement out of his voice as he described the effect of the film on him.

“I felt as if he was speaking directly to me,” he said from his Salt Lake City home during a phone interview in March.

Marra, age 26 when he saw the film, taught himself to ski and to repair a bicycle. Within a matter of months, he found himself alone at the Canadian border, his bike loaded with everything he would need to climb and ski volcanoes on a four-month trip down the West Coast from Canada to Mexico.

Anthony Marra on Manaslu (8163 meters), the eighth-highest peak in the world. Last fall, Marra climbed and skied off the peak. Photo: Sandor Gromen Hayes.

Dempster, a two-time winner of the Piolet d’Or, was best-known for first ascents on big mountains, often solo, in remote environments. “The Road From Karakol” is an early example of Dempster’s unpolished version of adventure. Even as he battles rugged, unknown terrain, military corruption and dangerous river crossings, he is optimistic, saying, “I came looking for a line on a map; instead I just found this giant blank spot. I decided to keep pedaling.”

In August 2016, Dempster and his climbing partner Scott Adamson disappeared while attempting an unclimbed route on the north face of the Ogre II in Pakistan’s Karakoram range. Friends and family mounted an incredible search and rescue effort, but no trace of the climbers was found, and Dempster and Adamson were presumed dead. Dempster was 33 years old, Adamson 34.

The loss was an enormous blow to the climbing community, particularly in Salt Lake City, where both Dempster and Adamson had deep roots. It was there that Marra, a chemical engineer new to climbing, first learned about them, and stumbled upon The Road From Karakol.

In the wake of the tragedy, friends and family searching for a way to keep Dempster’s legacy alive created the Kyle Dempster Solo Adventure Award. It provided support to individuals who embarked on audacious human-powered journeys, and who did so alone—because, as Dempster believed, it was often the solo adventures that were most formative.

Marra was one of three recipients of the Solo Adventure Award in 2018. (Other past recipients have included Alex Gaber, Max Neale and Cassaday Bindrup.) He used the award—$2000 and gear from Black Diamond, La Sportiva and Hyperlite Mountain Gear—to support another bike trip, this time to New Zealand. In addition to skis, he added a surfboard to his load.

“Like Kyle, Anthony seems driven by both exploration of the physical world, to see the wild places out there, and by exploration of the self, to see what he’s capable of,” said Andy Anderson, a close friend of Dempster and one of the committee members responsible for selecting award recipients.

Over the course of his trip, Marra came to see human-powered travel as an apt metaphor for life: “You can’t run away from the rain. You can’t run away from a headwind,” he said. “You have to deal with it, and be positive about it.”

Upon his return, Marra met with Jewell Lund and Angela VanWiemeersch, the former partners of Dempster and Adamson, who suggested that he think about Pakistan, where Dempster had traveled on seven expeditions. Marra began planning.

In the summer of 2019, Marra started biking in Uzbekistan, wound through Kyrgyzstan, and picked up the Karakoram Highway in China. He climbed and skied Muztagh Ata (7509m) before riding into Pakistan.

There, the connection to Dempster was palpable. At the suggestion of others, he had hired Ghafoor Abdul, Dempster’s closest friend in Pakistan, as a guide. Dempster had met Abdul, a base-camp cook, during one of his climbing trips.

“There was so much connection,” Marra said. “Ghafoor would tell me, ‘Kyle did the exact same thing!’”—referencing a little-publicized bike trip that Dempster undertook in the same area. “His spirit still lives on here.”

On one section of Marra’s trip, his friend Will Jones flew in to join an attempt on Spantik Peak (7027m). On their approach, Jones fell into a crevasse, dislocating a shoulder and tearing both labrums. Marra and several porters were able to rescue him, and Jones flew home. Marra thought seriously of canceling the rest of the expedition, but ultimately continued.

Anthony Marra with the bike he used on his Solo Adventure Award expedition to Manaslu.
The bike Marra used on a four-month trip through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan before traveling to Nepal. He carried all the gear he would use on Manaslu. Photo: courtesy Anthony Marra.

After four months of biking, climbing and skiing at altitude, including a successful summit of Spantik, Marra moved toward his ultimate objective: a solo ski descent, without supplemental oxygen, of Manaslu (8163m) in Nepal, the eighth-highest summit in the world. He stashed his bike at Abdul’s house—next to Dempster’s bike, in fact—and flew to Kathmandu.

Because Marra carried everything for Manaslu on his bike, space-saving sacrifices had to be made. He used a single 20-degree sleeping bag, for example, but avoided freezing by sleeping lower and putting in more vertical on climbing days. Marra called shivering through cold nights in the name of saving weight “totally worth it.”

When a weather window presented itself, Marra gunned from Camp II toward the summit, nearly 1800 meters above. Despite a slow start due to deep snows, he persisted and eventually reached the summit in a state of near-exhaustion.

A few hundred meters off the summit, he somersaulted when he snagged a fixed line with his skis. The rest of the descent went smoothly. “It was some of the best skiing I’ve ever done,” he said.

Marra shares Dempster’s sentiment that adventure is about more than going in, completing an objective, and leaving. He pointed out, laughing, that Dempster spent more time on a bike than just about any other professional climber.

“Maybe he got some first ascents,” he said, “but the success in it for him was all about what he got out of [his trips] …. The success is in how it changes your life.”

The announcement of the 2020 Solo Adventure Awards, which typically takes place on March 27—Dempster’s birthday—is delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Recipients will be announced in the coming weeks. 

Max Owens is a Durango-based writer and climber. In 2019 he was a recipient of a ROAM Award, which recognizes emerging writers, photographers and filmmakers.