On the Cover:
Winner of the Robert and Miriam Underhill Award for Outstanding Mountaineering Achievement.
Climbing’s Legends and Icons
An Exclusive Interview with Kim Schmitz
As part of our Climbing’s Legends and Icons Series, we had the greatest honor in getting to interview the legendary climber and mountaineer, Kim Schmitz.
We hope that we can celebrate this great man’s achievements, and honor his lifetime’s worth of work in the sport of climbing. It is on his shoulders that today’s new talent stands.
The standards he set were the building blocks of the feats of climbing we see on El Cap today. And he set the bar very high, because this talented and humble man was simply that good.
This interview is our way of saying thank you, Kim Schmitz, for creating a superb legacy and continuing to inspire everyone around you.
Editor: Kim, how did you get into climbing?
Kim Schmitz: Started a long time ago on Sierra Club trips. Galen Rowell was actually on one of those trips but we didn't meet till much later.
Editor: Which are some of your favorite mountains?
Kim Schmitz: I can't say which is my favorite mountain but I loved the Karakoram and Northern Cascades. There are too many to choose from.
Editor: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Kim Schmitz: I was born in Oakland, California and at the early age of 2, we moved to Portland, Oregon where I stayed.
Editor: When did you start climbing?
Kim Schmitz: I started at about 8 in the Canadian Rockies and soon climbed Mt. Robson and Mt. Waddington. From there I spent all my extra time in the Northern Cascades and Smith Rock and soon moved on to Yosemite, and eventually at 18, climbed early ascents of El Cap, and then on to the Himalayas and Karakorum.
Editor: What was the first mountain you ever climbed?
Kim Schmitz: The first mountain I climbed was Mount Resplendent next to Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies.
Editor: What kind of feeling does climbing give you?
Kim Schmitz: It gives me a feeling of adventure and freedom.
Editor: What were the great and massive Karakorum mountains like?
Kim Schmitz: The Karakoram seemed like it was made for my preferred type of climbing. I just loved it. I was always successful there.
Editor: Due to the natural disasters in Nepal, some want the mountain shut down, what is your opinion on this?
Kim Schmitz: If the locals want it shut down, fine. Don't shut it down if the locals want it open. They have to eat and rebuild.
Editor: What did you think of the late Dean Potter?
Kim Schmitz: What a guy. We were friends on Facebook but I never really met him. He sounded like a great person, who did what he had believed in. Without having met him, I was still shocked hearing about his death. I've known many climbers who have died in accidents and this has left an indelible imprint on me.
I didn't know Dean personally but his philosophy was so much like mine. We didn't climb like that, as we were about two generations behind. Sort of after Robbins and before the Stonemasters, in a group that has gotten little recognition.
That's alright for us that are still surviving. We were a fairly quiet group but we followed Dean’s exploits with deep interest. When I saw the movie recently of him soloing the Nose, I was blown away by his confidence and skill.
It's amazing how generation after generation produces climbers who are continually better and better. I know the use of nuts, friends, sticky rubber and bolts have helped the acceleration of that continued new talent. The climbers like Dean blow my mind. Now there are climbers like Alex Honnold who blow my mind even more. God, I hope he doesn't get hurt.
I didn't know Dean, but I sure will miss him.
Editor: Why do people love to climb, Kim?
Kim Schmitz: There are many reasons people have, but a big one is ego satisfaction and I don't think most of them stay with it, especially after the ego gets stroked for a while. It's too much trouble after a while.
They go on to other things to make the same impression on others. After all, climbing is hard work. Others who do it, do it because they love the motion and the feel of working with the environment.
I have a friend who was a great climber and I asked him about doing another El Cap route. We had done 3 new routes on El Cap in the 1960s and early 1970s.
He said he didn't have to prove anything anymore. I was super disappointed and we don't share much in common anymore. For me, I just love it. The movement and the environment.
I'll keep doing it as long as I can. If that love for it changes drastically, I don't know what I'll do. I can't imagine losing my love for the outdoors. It's always changing, every second.
The wilderness is everything to me. We care little about it seems. Where did we lose the way? It's is the treasure given to us. It requires our respect or we will lose it for good.
Editor: The outdoors and wilderness bring you much peace, and that makes total sense.
Kim Schmitz: You know, I've always loved wildness. My father got me into it early. Climbing has its wildness. You actually have a wildness in your head. It's a personal wildness, where you’re treading a wilderness of sorts, a place where you tread the wilderness of your head.
What an experience.
Try it you'll love it. Go for the wilderness, it is full of lessons. It's just beautiful.
Editor: What was Galen like to climb and travel with?
Kim Schmitz: Galen was the best ever, however he was not on Uli Biaho. We did do the Karakorum ski traverse together with Ned Gillette in the winter.
Best trip of my life.
Galen was on the Great Trango ascent and others. He became one of the best friends I’ve ever had.
Editor: The Great Trango ascent sounds amazing.
Kim Schmitz: Not as hard as Uli Biaho, but tons of fun. It was the 1st time in Pakistan.
Editor: Did you enjoy trips to the Karakoram?
Kim Schmitz: Yes, in the Karakoram, because they all went perfect.
Editor: You were a climbing guide as well, right?
Kim Schmitz: Yes, I was a guide most of my life. I worked for many guide schools, with Exum being my last one. I had my big accident while guiding there. I've had a couple of very bad climbing accidents. I've had many surgeries and need canes to walk any distance. Yes, guiding has been the way I support myself.
Editor: What message about climbing and life would you like to share with your readers and fans?
Kim Schmitz: It's the best. It's not for everyone but for some, it changes everything in their lives.
It's healthy in most every way you can think of.
Editor: Thank you for this wonderful interview, Kim. We appreciate your time.
Images of Kim with his family are Copyrighted by the Kim Schmitz Family Collection.
Images obtained from John Roskelley are Copyrighted by the John Roskelley Collection.
During the course of this interview, we contacted some of Kim's best friends.
The following paragraphs are from some of Kim's closest friends and brothers who immediately agreed to kindly pen some beautiful words to celebrate this legend in our midst.
"I first met Kim when I was 17 yrs old in Squaw Valley, I was on the SV ski team and he was on the ski patrol. At the time he was one of the best big wall climbers in Yosemite, which was beyond my imagination, as I never in my wildest dreams could imagine climbing something that big. Beyond our indifferences (he was a climber and I was a ski racer), we became friends immediately. He would go skiing with us and in return he would take my best friend Steve McKinney and I out climbing. He was extremely smooth and made it look easy, which allowed us to relax and get into it without any distractions or fear.
It was this smoothness and relaxed manner on the rock that made Kim so good. Add the fact that he was extremely talented and had the right head for climbing, and you have someone that will accomplish a very high level in climbing, and that he did. He made several big wall speed ascents and new routes in Yosemite, which were way ahead of their time. Afterwards, he took those skills to the Himalaya where he mixed his big wall skills and Alpine skills and pulled off some great climbs and first ascents that haven’t seen many if any repeats to this day.
Here’s to you Kim, you’re the best…
Your brother, Craig."
"When I first went to Yosemite Valley, Kim Schmitz was already legendary for his speed ascents of El Capitan (with Jim Madsen) and his general mastery of wall climbing. When later I joined forces with Kim for speed ascents and new routes on Sentinel and Mt. Watkins respectfully, I learned what a professional approach to adventuring was all about: choose the big challenges and the finest lines; assemble the best team; and once you start up, keep your eyes open and your energy contained (read: stay in control). There was fear and there were dangers, to be sure, but with Kim on the other end of the rope, I always liked our chances."
"Kim Schmitz has been one of my best friends for nearly 50 years, and Kim’s relationships with friends mirror his relationship with climbing: filled with adventure and commitment and pushing the limits of the possible. His extraordinary accomplishments as a climber need neither introduction nor elaboration, but I am among those who consider Kim one of the finest climbers in American history. When Kim received the Robert and Miriam Underhill Award for Outstanding Mountaineering Achievements from the American Alpine Club earlier this year, it was a long overdue recognition by his peers of a man who lived to climb and climbed to live.
And ski. I first met him as a skier in Squaw Valley before I climbed and was immediately struck by his passion for the moment of skiing, his curiosity about the world (he is an incessant reader) and the happiness he found in the outdoors. To borrow a term from our black brethren, I recognized in Kim a soul-brother and have thought of and loved him as such ever since.
All things are relative, and like everyone who has survived those years age, accidents and afflictions have taken a toll on Kim’s physical freedoms. But to climb a pitch or take a hike with Kim today and see the freedom and spirit of adventure in those intense blue eyes as he pushes the limits of the possible, just as he always has, is inspiring and instructive. Thanks, Kim."
Connie & Jeff Lowe
"It was a real pleasure to meet up with Kim at the American Alpine Club Annual Dinner in NYC this past winter. Both Kim and Jeff were being honored. It meant a lot to both Jeff and I to spend a little time with Kim. Both Jeff and Kim share an inspired climbing history and both have faced tremendous challenges. They both continue to inspire and to see them together was a treasure for me. Kim was someone I admired from afar as a young climber in the 70's and 80's. So gifted and inspiring as a climber and such a hottie to look at - hahaha!
To meet him all these years later was special for me. Jeff and Kim climbed at a level few ever get to - and so they speak a language all their own. Jeff and I were both inspired by Kim's spirit and openness. Kim has had a long rough go since his accident and yet he is still smiling and making the best of it in the face of adversity - a dance Jeff and I know all too well. We hope to see Kim later this summer in the Tetons - where Jeff did so much of his early climbing and I have always loved to hike and climb too."
"I met Kim in 1969 while working on ski patrol at Squaw Valley. Having skied all my life, I was very impressed with Kim’s skiing ability and style, so I started following him to help improve mine. The following summer he introduced me to rock climbing which I took to right away. Little did I know of his achievements in Yosemite, he was happy just showing me around Donner Summit, and Lover’s Leap. Kim has changed my life for the better and I look forward to the next time I see him."
"Kim's a national treasure. Jim Bridwell first introduced me to Kim Schmitz at Lake Tahoe shortly after the first ascent of Sea of Dreams. I was offered a job along with Kim, Jim and Werner Braun to rebuild the dock at A.P. Marsten’s estate. I had grown up reading about Kim’s notorious ascents in Yosemite and the Himalayas, but what struck me most when I first met him was how genuinely humble he was. His piercing blue eyes seemed to be a link into an old soul. No doubt he had weathered years of toil with the inexplicable void that climbers are drawn to.
Steve McKinney, a renowned speed skier and athlete extraordinaire, told me that Kim was the best crud skier he’d ever known. Kim was a legend for sure and not just as a climber. His physical prowess was something observed…never sprayed.
Over the next few years I came to learn quite a lot from Kim. My first ice climbing experience was with Kim in Lee Vining, and he patiently took the time to not only teach me the basics of ice climbing but also how to prep your tools for alpine climbing, and how to move fast over moderate terrain by not over-placing your tools. To a young climber this was like having Michael Jordan teaching you how to dunk…it just doesn’t get any better than that."
"Bouldering on the Wine Traverse Boulder behind Camp 4, I first encountered him. It was the late 1960s. I was not even twenty years old. He was already a new, powerful talent in our tiny community, in the vanguard, and I could hardly bear looking at him. I was really impressed and moved. Attracted.
His appearance was so arresting and glorious for nearly everyone, someone so unique, bold, gifted, so fundamentally decent and kind. An almost untouchable and ethereal quality still governs much of him and his interactions.
He has always had a Zen yearning for deeper understanding that is constantly at work just beneath his surface, and however it is structured for him, it brings him great respect and affection. He is totally unique in American rock climbing and represents a very modern definition of a man as he toils towards better health and freedom from his many pains."
"I had a pesky tear in my eye when I heard Kim was to receive the AAC Underhill Award this past year. Honoring Kim was long overdue. In his heyday, from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, his big wall skills, alpine background, and tenacious attitude put him in the same league as his contemporaries, Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Jim Bridwell, and other tread-setting legends.
But Kim’s real strength, beyond exceptional climbing skills and fortitude, was what I call the Schmitz-Factor – a calm, confident persona under stress that carved its way into each of his teammates, removing fear-induced doubt and emboldening them to dig deeper; to find that inner strength; to light that extra spark to get the job done. That is Kim.
I still believe today that the Uli Biaho team of Ron Kauk, Bill Forrest, Kim and I, was only successful because of the team’s melding of youth and age; intensity and tranquility. Kim’s controlled intensity was the glue that kept us on track and focused on the summit. Granted, he has had too many trials and too many tribulations, but through it all, Kim has never lost his sense of humor, his dignity, or his self-respect. That’s why Kim’s friends respect him; that’s why we’ve literally gone to the ends of the earth to bring him home; and it’s why we love him today and always will."
"Kim is extraordinaire as a human being. I have witnessed incredible feats of strength and will power. I have hiked and climbed with Kim for forty years. He had the strength of ten men.
He has the soul of a gentle Zen monk. A man of few words but well-chosen words. He is a person I look up to with respect and awe. A gentle giant. He is a pure soul.
A light on the mountain top."
A very special thanks to my father, Dr. Homi Kaikobad for helping me with the rare images.
Tom Matthiesen, thank you for going above and beyond the call of duty to drive out to bring me these photos so you could honor Kim. Many blessings.
A final thank you to Kim, for working with me to build his interview over 9 months and getting it ready for the readers and his fans. It has truly been an honor for me.