Kim Schmitz, California, 1968 ~ Edgar Boyles
Former Exum Mountain Guide and longtime Jackson resident Kim Schmitz was killed in a single-vehicle car accident Monday. Jackson Hole News&Guide
POSTED: WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2016 4:30 AM
By Melissa Cassutt
Kim Schmitz spent the final days of his life paddling down the Salmon River in Idaho, meditating in the sunshine and soaking up the wilderness he had longed to be in for months.
Schmitz died Monday night in a single-vehicle car crash. He was 70.
The mountains were a place that was hard for Schmitz to get to anymore, a place he had been sequestered from for too long. For most of the summer, he was cooped up at St. John’s Living Center, battling a MRSA infection that left his right leg swollen and throbbing. He spent his days reading and meditating, his afternoons in physical therapy, learning to walk again.
The battle was just the latest on a long list of ailments and traumas the iconic, legendary mountaineer battled during his prolific climbing career.
“He really couldn’t walk anymore,” said Dr. Bruce Hayse. “It was basically the only way we could get into the mountains, into the wilderness, was on river trips.
“He just loved going on those river trips,” Hayse said quietly.
Hayse was his doctor and landlord. For the past several years Schmitz had rented a room in Hayse’s home. But more importantly he was “a very good friend” who was with him on the river trip this past weekend, he said.
The group pulled off the river Monday evening, and Schmitz took off on a solo road trip toward Spokane, Washington.
“We pulled off the river at sunset, packed up the boats and gave a round of hugs in celebration of a perfect day,” Brian Whitlock, who was also on the trip, wrote on his
Facebook page. “It was the last time we would ever see him.”
His friends were later notified Schmitz was killed in a car accident. His vehicle ran off the road and smashed into a boulder, according to Lemhi, Idaho, County Coroner Mike Ernest.
In his Facebook post, Whitlock recalled Schmitz being at peace on the river.
“When it rained, Kim raised his face to the drops,” Whitlock wrote, “when the sun shines, he raised his face to the rays. On Kim’s final Sunday, he was in a sacred place.
“It was kind of a beautiful last weekend of his life,” Whitlock said in an interview with the News&Guide. “In retrospect you realize it was almost like he was saying goodbye.”
Mark Newcomb, who met Schmitz as a teen when he was on his first ascent of the Grand Teton, called his passing “such a big loss.”
“He’s a towering figure in mountaineering and, for a considerable amount of time, set the standard for high mountain alpine climbing,” Newcomb said. “He also had an intense drive and a really kind heart.”
Schmitz was the first to scale some of the biggest walls in Yosemite, where he also set a few speed records. He was the first to ascend the Great Trango Tower in 1977 and Uli Biaho two years later, both located in Asia’s massive Karakoram mountains. He spent nearly 50 days traversing the same range on skis, a 300-mile trek. He logged climbs in Asia, South America, Canada and throughout the western United States, exploring the mountains with other climbing giants such as Jim Bridwell and Yvon Chouinard.
But his passion for scaling some of the highest and most difficult terrain in the world almost killed him — twice.
While on a 1980 expedition up Mount Gongga in China, an avalanche pulled Schmitz from the mountain, dropping him 1,500 feet and breaking his back. One of his climbing partners was killed.
Three years later, while guiding a trip up Symmetry Spire in Grand Teton National Park, he fell again, this time dropping 80 feet and breaking both his wrists and legs. He was put back together, but was never quite the same.
He battled addiction through his recoveries, finally choosing pain over taking pills.
“It was a constant struggle,” Hayse said. “He was in pain all the time and he couldn’t take pain medicine because he knew what it did to him. It was a very tough situation for him. We did a lot of meditating. He was very spiritual.”
Despite his suffering, friends say his spirit always shined.
“Kim was a real power of nature in many ways, an indomitable strength,” said Wesley Bunch, who met Schmitz in the early ’90s when they were Exum mountain guides. “He lived through so many hardships during his time. Despite all the hardships he went through — extensive surgeries, health issues — he always had an upbeat and Buddhist mentality. And a smile.”
Jim Williams, founder of Exploradus and one of Schmitz’s closest friends, echoed the sentiment.
“He has one of the most positive attitudes of anybody I’ve ever known,” Williams said.
Williams met Schmitz nearly 50 years ago, when he took a Royal Robbins climbing class. Schmitz was one of the instructors.
The two stayed in touch after the course, and eventually met back up when Williams became a guide at Exum. Eventually they became family, sharing nearly every Sunday dinner together for the past five years, Williams said.
“He was a kind and loving soul who had room for everybody in his life,” Williams said.
“I’m proud to have been part of it.
“He will be missed,” he said.