Sunday, September 22, 2013

Marty Schmidt – Walking Your Own Path

Ahh Marty...reading that email that Kester sent to me felt like a knife being jammed between my shoulder blades. You and Denali had been killed on K2, swept away by an avalanche which blasted through Camp 3 where you were resting, waiting for your chance to finally summit that mountain which had been gnawing away on your thoughts. You had big plans for it you said last time we were in contact, soon after your climb on Everest. And you were relishing climbing with Denali, opening your son's mind to the high world you had known for decades.
Emotions and memories threatened to overwhelm me as I read the short report of your loss. A long walk on a beach near home gave me time to reflect – to try and gather a faint sense of perspective through the initial shock.
In a climbing community that has had its share of larger than life characters, you stood taller than most. So many years ago now when I first met you: back in 1993 while we were both living in Christchurch. I was pretending to study at Lincoln University, and my classmate Glenn boarded with you and your family. He said you were a hard task master at home, with another new project still to be completed. He reckoned he came to varsity to rest.
I remember going for runs and cragging on the Port Hills, having to share the babysitting of Denali and Sequoia while others took their turn to climb. At five, Denali was already competent enough to clamber around safely on his own, but you would tie knots in the end of the rope around the younger Sequoia, hoping that you could complete a route before she managed to undo them and crawl away.
You offered to take us on an expedition, but Glenn reckoned you'd load our packs too much, expecting us to carry the same as the Sherpas. The tales you told of climbing overseas reminded me of the great expedition books I had read as a youngster Your life seemed like one long, epic adventure.
Since then our paths have crossed a number of times over the years, including during the terrible challenges of the Christchurch earthquakes. We both had our stories of near misses, and shared them over coffee in your broken kitchen, and wine in our sharply-leaning lounge, listening and offering support where we could. At a potluck dinner, you accidentally threw a glass of wine everywhere while retelling another expansive adventure. I was reminded again of your intense enthusiasm for everything, along with your bottomless tank of endurance and obvious talent as a climber and guide. I felt incredibly privileged to consider you both a friend and a mentor.
Since moving to New Zealand from the United States in 1988, you always thought of here as your home. ‘Everyone has a calling inside,’ you told me once. ‘For me it was to live here in this beautiful land.’ And you explored it piece by spectacular piece, living in various locations – sometimes out of your van – as you climbed our mountains and rocks.
One of the many things that I admired about you was the philosophy you had developed over the years for your guiding. In the big money game of high altitude guiding, the large commercial companies chase increasing numbers of clients. Ropes are fixed and piles of oxygen cylinders cached by high altitude Sherpas. You chose to follow a different, more difficult path. Rather than reducing the mountain to the standard of the client, you tried to raise the client’s skills to match the mountain.
No Sherpas (above base camp), no oxygen and no drugs was your guiding motto when possible. 'It’s how we grow, how we understand more about ourselves and about the environment around us,’ you explained. At times, this meant 'piggybacking' on the infrastructure already set up by the big companies for their many clients, but you accepted that as part of the challenge.
‘I’m flexible with it,’ you said. ‘Maybe on summit day, I might suggest my client uses O2. But it’s a style I like to stick to if I can.'
This approach saw many of your clients stick with you for 20 years, an ongoing relationship that most high altitude guides would be jealous of. But, recently, you had begun to use oxygen for your clients more frequently – a safety concession you explained to me.
It's fair to say that you ruffled a few feathers over the years. Your individualistic approach didn't always fit within the more regimented systems of the mountain guiding fraternity. And this was exacerbated further on the world's highest mountains.
During my research on the recent punch up on Mount Everest, I was stunned to realise that some chose to try and taint your actions of bravery. (For those who have been in an Everest news vacuum, three European climbers had an altercation with a team of Nepalese Sherpas on the Lhotse Face, and were then assaulted by a large group of Sherpas back down at Camp 2. The three westerners involved were high profile climbers Ueli Steck from Switzerland and Simone Moro from Italy, along with Briton Jon Griffith. Some foreign climbers and Sherpas intervened, trying to calm the situation at Camp 2 enough so that the three could escape through the Khumbu icefall to the base camp further down the mountain. From firsthand accounts – people who actually witnessed the altercation at Camp 2 – Marty was among the first to try to stop the aggrieved Sherpas from attacking the three Westerners.)
Rushing up to that group of angry men, you gestured at them to stop, and tried to knock the rocks from their hands. They attacked you also, but onlookers hailed you a hero for trying to halt what could only be described as an attempted lynching. And yet, you had a finger pointed at you as an instigator by some, as if your actions could be used as a scapegoat for the wider issues of unrest that were threatening to undermine western guiding on Everest. From all of my own experiences with you over the years, and from those who I had contact with in regards to Everest, you can categorically be called a hero, and certainly not an aggressor.
And this wasn't the first time you acted heroically in the mountains. In 2010 you singlehandedly rescued three Ukranian climbers from high on Makalu, before going on to complete a successful solo ascent. This was an amazing feat of strength and bravery, and yet another example of your endless drive and energy.
But K2 proved one climb too many. As always, the loss seems pointless. I sometimes wonder at the worth of chasing our dreams, especially when the cost can be so goddamned high. But then I remember one thing you said to me: ‘If you know who you are at any given moment, you’re more likely able to cope with whatever situation is thrown at you.’
Thinking of you Marty makes me want to strive to be a better person, to step forward more often, be less afraid, or if I am afraid to still be able to act with that knowledge.
Ahh Marty...the world is a far lesser place without your energy and enthusiasm and drive to squeeze every last fulfilling drop out of life. Rest easy mate.

1 comment:

  1. Appreciate your reflections Paul. Well written and a deserved tribute to Marty.