The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. By that measure, as well as others less agonizing — including high adventure, the burning fires of passion as well as the healing waters of compassion, humility, kindness and seeking Kim Schmitz, a longtime Buddhist, lived life to its limits and, sometimes, a bit over.
Schmitz, who was born June 26, 1946, in Oakland, California and died September 19, 2016 in northern Idaho spent most of his early life in Portland, Oregon.
He was one of the finest climbers in history. After graduating from Lincoln High School he spent a couple of semesters at the University of Oregon in Eugene. But though he was a voracious reader with a keen intellect and curiosity about the world, classrooms and academia were too confining for Kim Schmitz. He lived to climb and ski in the classic tradition of mountaineers for whom mountains are the defining relationship of their lives.
By the time he was a teenager he had climbed Canada’s Mount Robson and Mount Waddington and gained a reputation for first ascents on some of the hardest technical climbing routes of the Northwest. He climbed a lot at Smith Rocks in Oregon.
“Without rival, Kim Schmitz emerged as the top all-around Smith climber during the first half of the ’60s,” guidebook author Alan Watts opined,
Schmitz and climbing partner Jim Madsen arrived in Yosemite in the mid ’60s and quickly raised the local standards of the valley’s big wall and hard free climbing. Schmitz never lived full time in the Northwest again, spending his summers climbing in Yosemite and winters working as a ski patrolman in Squaw Valley. After his friend Madsen was killed rappelling off the end of his rope on El Capitan in October 1968, Schmitz teamed up with Yosemite climbing icon Jim Bridwell and, among many other things, pioneered new routes on both El Capitan and Half Dome.
By the 1970s Schmitz was climbing and skiing in Asia. His 1977 first ascent of Pakistan’s 20,623-foot Great Trango Tower in the Karakoram range, a 4,300-foot wall, was the first big wall, hard technical climb in a high-altitude alpine setting and became know as “the biggest big wall.” In 1979 Schmitz returned to the Karakorum to be the first to climb 20,043-foot Uli Biaho Tower, 34 pitches of difficult technical climbing that took 12 days and became the first Grade VII climb in the world.
In 1980 Kim joined trip organizer Galen Rowell, Ned Gillette and Dan Asay for a nearly 300-mile ski tour called the American Karakoram Traverse Expedition across northern Pakistan. The trip started March 27 and ended May 8, and each man’s pack weighed approximately 120 pounds. Toward the end of the tour food ran low, their energies followed, and their pace had slowed from 4 miles an hour to 4 miles a day. Schmitz devised a solution that Rowell described in a fine essay about the trip: “Kim was our medical officer. Although not a doctor, he had a strongly developed historical sense of medication for mountaineering. He knew of a drug that had been developed precisely for this purpose by native people who found it necessary to carry tremendous loads at high elevations with low caloric intakes. Small amounts of this extract from a South American leaf were at one time the main active ingredient of the most successful multinational soft drink until the potential for abuse made it illegal. Propitiously, Kim had been able to purchase an ounce of this material at the Khyber Pass to add to our medical kit.”
In October of that year Schmitz was part of an American expedition to 24,790-foot Minya Konka, the tallest mountain in China’s Sichuan Province. High on the mountain Schmitz was roped up with Yvon Chouinard, Rick Ridgeway and Jonathan Wright when an avalanche took them on a 2,000-vertical-foot ride. The accident killed Wright, broke Schmitz’s back and some ribs and pummeled Chouinard and Ridgeway without seriously injuring them. The broken back was the beginning of the decline of Schmitz’s climbing career.
By then Schmitz was a Jackson Hole resident for much of the year, making his living guiding for Exum Mountain Guides, skiing in winter and climbing as much and wherever possible. Al Read, longtime owner and president of Exum and leader of the Minya Konka expedition, who invited Schmitz to work for Exum, knew him for most of his life and recalls him as “an imposing species of human who was intimidating because of his goodness, his physical presence and his unbelievable strength and skill in the mountains. Just knowing Kim made me a better man.”
On Aug. 4, 1983, while guiding a client on the Jensen Ridge of Symmetry Spire in the Tetons, Schmitz fell 80 feet, landing feet first on a ledge, shattering both legs in numerous compound fractures and sustaining a major head laceration. It is safe to say that Schmitz never experienced a pain-free moment from that time to the end of his life 33 years later.
“I was amazed on Minya Konka at how strong Kim was climbing at altitude, and then after the avalanche, at how stoic he was,” Chouinard said. “He had to ride a horse off the mountain with a broken back. After his accident on Symmetry Spire I visited him in the hospital. Kim pulled back the covers on his bed to show me his legs. The sight of them caused me to pass out on the spot.”
Schmitz endured numerous major surgeries over the years as a consequence of that fall and, later, intestinal cancer. Those who knew him best considered his return to climbing, guiding, skiing and as normal a life as one can have in constant pain, both miraculous and a testament to his inner strength (and stubbornness) as a human being.
By the time he got serious about zen practice, he was 44, and his glory days as a climber had ended. His leg injuries made it impossible to sit either cross-legged or kneeling, but he didn’t want to get up on a chair, so he usually did zazen with both legs straight out in front of him.
In the early ’90s Schmitz joined Jack Turner, Thekla von Hagke, Jeff Foott, Susan Stone, Rod Dornan and others in the Jackson Hole community in founding the Cold Mountain Zendo.
Schmitz’s life and his practice were complicated by repeated health challenges: numerous hospitalizations and surgeries, ongoing pain, recurring abuse of alcohol and painkillers, DUI convictions and incarceration and losing his job at Exum. The loss of his job also meant financial problems and forfeiting his place in the world literally (his cabin) and figuratively (his identity as a climbing guide).
Schmitz was preceded in death by his father, Alfred “Alla,” who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1929 and was himself a climber and outdoorsman and a leader of Sierra Club and Mountain Travel trips on which he introduced Kim as a boy to his destiny. Kim’s mother, Virginia “Ginny,” and his sister, Dede, also passed before him. He never married and had no immediate family, but he leaves a large extended family of friends and cohorts, none more devoted than Dr. Bruce Hayse, Jim Williams, Andy Carson and Thekla von Hagke.