A few weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking with Kyle Dempster about his 2011 trip to Kygyzstan and the resulting film, The Road from Karakol. In 2011 Kyle took his bicycle and cycled around the mountains of Kyrgyzsan climbing and adventuring, eventually riding through China and into Pakistan to climb some more. Kyle is an award winning alpinist who’s at the leading edge of modern climbing. It was a treat to get to talk to him about his experiences in Kyrgistan and what he thinks about the environment’s role in the evolution of alpinism and the incredible miracle of Cycling Alpinism! Enjoy!
NOM: Most people know you as a climber, and for you to take this trip, for a lot of people, was a step outside of that, it was something completely different. But it’s not really as mutually exclusive as people think, cycling, touring, and climbing, and I think the film has helped show how they’re all shades of a greater concept of mobility, one that’s more deeply rooted in personal experience and adventure. But I’m interested, besides this interest, in sort of a bigger adventure, or a more intimate experience, did you have any environmental considerations for this trip?
KD: Well, I’m mostly a climber, or at least identified by most people as a climber, and I certainly love going on these big alpine climbing trips, and prior to the Kyrgyzstan trip, and definitely since, I continue to do these trips, but there are parts of these trips that are just a little tedious, and heinous, and extremely wasteful. It’s funny, climbers try and exude this all caring nature, harmony with nature, and being super respectful, but I mean, I try and do my part, but Good Lord, I spend a lot of time and energy flying around the world, and my carbon footprint is as huge as anyone’s.
So, that year I wanted to do something different then flying to the other side of the earth and then getting in a car and not seeing the country really other then behind the windshield, and getting to the mountain and staying there for the month.
I grew up on a bicycle with my dad’s influence and I certainly know the benefits of traveling by one, mostly that it just slows you down. So that’s what I wanted to do, go somewhere and just slow down and see the place, run into people. It’s just such a different mode, such a more approachable mode of travel for others to stop you and ask you what you’re doing.
Yeah, it’s an incredibly friendly form of travel. I’ve got a friend who’s said it’s like bringing a welcome mat with you wherever you go. No one ever thinks, oh shit, here comes this guy on a bike, here comes trouble. But I think you’re right, you know, it’s been a huge motivation for us just trying do understand and come to terms with the irony of associating as climbers, people who love mountains and wilderness, and who interact with the natural world on probably a deeper and more intimate level then just about any others out there, and yet, we sacrifice so many of our ecological values and morals to pursue our passions, driving and flying around the globe to firsthand experience these different destinations.
But this seems like a unique problem that also offers an incredible opportunity for climbers to embrace fossil fuel free means of transportation and mobility that would at once bring another aspect of satisfaction and understanding to our passion, as well as to send a message to the rest of the outdoor community, and society at large, that we truly do love and respect the places we recreate and we’re not willing to sacrifice their health in the pursuit of our own ego-driven passions. Do you see this as any sort of possibility for the core climbing community, or for yourself, to give up fossil fuel powered travel? I mean, for you, with the passion for traveling to Pakistan, that might mean sailing across the ocean or not going as often, or both.
Yeah. Certainly the dreamer in me has that desire. I’ve read sailing books like ‘Dove’ that have totally inspired me to move around the earth, and to see a ton of the earth, just at a slower pace. That all has a huge, huge appeal and, I guess the thing holding me back from that is there would be things, mostly people, in our lives that would have to be sacrificed, at least to pursue climbing in a very green method at a global scale. You know it wouldn’t be like get on a plane and go climbing in Pakistan for two months and I’ll take a plane back home. To get there on your own would be like, cool, well in December I’m gonna leave to go to Pakistan to climb for the summer and I’ll be back in a year, and 100 years ago, that how it was.
I have a pretty cool glimpse in to what life would be like without a car, at least locally. My dad lives that life, he doesn’t really drive a car, doesn’t own one and lives his life on a bicycle and… he’s pretty damn happy about it. So that’s a little bit of an influence there.
To answer your question in regards to the climbing community, I think yeah, I think that there’s certainly part of the climbing community that would be interested in pursuing something like that. I don’t know if the elite level climbers would be interested in something like that because it impedes upon their climbing which is what they love to do, what there very talented at doing, but that’s not to say that they totally wouldn’t, they could…
Yeah, I think so. I hope so anyway, and I think that there’s a lot to be said for the integration of all of these top tier sports, like how extreme the America’s Cup is now, on these incredibly fast boats, and the simplicity and speed and efficiency that’s coming from competitions like the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race, bikepacking, endurance running and modern ski mountaineering… I just think that there’s this opportunity for professional climbers to integrate aspects of all these specialized human-powered and clean energy sources of mobility into climbing that would help make it more, I don’t know, more holistic in a physical and ecological sense, especially considering if we do it with that intent, or purpose.
But it’s interesting that you mentioned sacrificing people, I think that’s something a lot of us don’t think about when we’re considering all these sacrifices that would come from not flying, not driving, stuff like that. You know, I think that’s a really hard thing to accept now-a days, especially with the revolution of social media and how much for granted we take our daily level of interconnection with other people. I really wonder how much it’s worth for climbers, people in general, to sacrifice time, to slow down.
But taking a step back from all of that, how do you see climbing evolving, where do you see it going and what role do you see the environment playing in it’s future?
I guess to answer that question I can only express my hope in the direction of the sport, and my hope is that people, and climbing expeditions, continue to pursue cleaner methods of climbing. I think that mountains will also be climbed faster and at a higher level of difficulty, like new routes that are pursued on the worlds biggest peaks will become increasingly difficult, technically, which is cool to see and to be a part of a little bit.
I also think that it may be becoming more dangerous and that is because of climate change and these microbursts of irregular weather and how extreme they are. I’ll just give one example of that… This last month my girlfriend and I were climbing in the Denali Range and the first three weeks of May it hovered around 0 degrees to negative 20 and then in just a few days time toward the end of may it went to a high of 50 degrees and we just watched mountains fall apart, essentially.
Wet slide central.
Yeah we watched a 6000 foot avalanche rip down the entire south face of Denali, it was wild, but I think that it has been happening for a long time, you know, in Peru glaciers are melting, all these snow flutes that were necessary to climb peaks, they’re becoming impossible to even get to now. Probably people will continue to try, but I think if the weather continues to get more unstable that it’s going to become quite risky.
Well so you brought up an interesting thing there, the role of speed in the future of climbing. Traveling light and moving quickly is pretty much synonymous with alpine climbing, but now we have this offshoot where people are climbing purely for the speed, and I think that’s incredibly ironic considering the huge amount of plane or automobile travel that usually goes into these ascents, only to sprint the last 20 or 50 miles and consider it done…
And… I know that there’s a lot to be said about how that reflects on how we live the rest of our lives, and maybe about how climbing is changing along with it, but when we are exposed to a trip like you did in the Road from Karakol, well, I think climbers relate much more with the adventure and lifestyle of a trip like that, then with a speed record on some flashy mountain.
But, I see the speed thing having some positive influence on climbing in many ways as well, one of which is the fact that no one is including their time spent in the car as any part of their overall “record”, so there’s hope there that the current paradigm of car to car records could easily become one of door to door, starting the approach from home, and honoring our entire experience of living in the mountains, and on the Earth, by paying respect to it and considering our overall mobility and lifestyle as a reflection of that.
You commented on your hopes for climbing to continue to evolve in terms of clean ethics, and I guess I see the outward manifestation of that as climbing’s evolution from first ascents, to first free ascents, you know, Yvon Chouinard and Peter Metcalf’s huge influence on “clean” climbing and, well to the point that now we’re on the cusp of realizing these fossil fuel free first ascents, at least in terms of transportation, it just seems like sort of a natural progression to me.
But I guess I’m wondering, practically, do you see any impediments with our current means of transportation in climbing, Do you see practical advantages to cycling or foot travel in terms of a means of transportation for climbing?
Yeah, there’s a huge, huge benefit. And there are also disadvantages, but for me, the benefit in my mind is presence. The bike, it really slows you down and puts you completely present in the moment once you begin pedaling, and if that’s at the airport or at the back door of your home and your headed toward the cliff, or the mountain with your skis, or an alpine face, or whatever it is, I think when you finally arrive at that destination, you’re going to be all the more focused and prepared and fit, and yeah, mostly mentally present, and ready to climb. I think as my life as a “professional climber” seems to be going faster and faster that’s something that I’m really increasingly desiring of.
I think the other challenge is once you start doing it, like in Kyrgyzstan, I pedaled my bike to the Tien Shan mountains where the Terskey Ala-Tau is, which is a bitchin’ mountain range, but one huge limiting factor with the bike is that I could only carry, maximum, 14 days of food, along with everything else, and it took me, like, 4 days to get out there from where I bought my food, and four days to get back and that only leaves 4 or 5 or 6 days to climb and I had bad weather 3 of those days so…
So you were just getting a taste. And probably in such an unknown area it’s difficult to be heading out there with a specific objective in mind.
Yeah. And I don’t regret it by any means cause I got to go out there and it was awesome.
Right, but that’s a challenge you’d run into under other circumstances, like if you were simply trekking, or… pretty much anytime other then flying or getting driven back there, maybe. If you had had a partner and the ability to carry extra food, and had the confidence to climb technically harder, do you think that cycling all the way out there would leave you in a more depleted state or like you said, you show up fit and present, and almost more prepared to climb? You know, you have limited means of communication, virtually no means of self-rescue, do you think your climbing ability would be compromised? Do you think it helps or hinders you?
Ah, I think that’s debatable. I mean…so that Kyrgyzstan trip, the movie, the full story of that summer was 6 weeks through Kyrgyzstan on my own and I pedaled through Western China and to Pakistan, well, a combination of pedaling and taking buses because the Chinese require you to take a bus near all these, “sensitive border regions”, so I pedaled where I could and I was forced onto a bus when I had to. But eventually I rode to Pakistan, met up with Kelly Cordes and Hayden Kennedy and did a 5 week climbing expedition in the Charakusa, at what point I was really glad to put the bicycle down cause my ass needed a break, and go on a climbing trip.
But I felt great, I felt like pedaling the bike and doing a little bit of climbing in Kyrgyzstan had me acclimated, my legs were strong. Yeah, I lost a little bit of weight, but when I was in towns in Pakistan I just chomped hard on everything and anything, and we climbed a lot of stuff on that trip to Pakistan. I mean I could definitely see how pedaling the bike with all this climbing gear could leave you kind of worked once you get to where your going, but, it works, I’d certainly try it again.
Yeah, I feel like the bike always leaves you really well prepared for the next move. For example, on the smaller scale trips I’ve done, I’ve always thought that the transitions you experience when you’re cycling to do some climb were perfect. It’s like, you’re ass and legs are getting tired on the bike and it’s time to start hiking, once you’re feet are getting sore from all that pounding, you’re at the wall and it’s time to climb, then when you’re arms are pumped and you’re totally spent, it’s time to walk back down to the bike. It always felt like the perfect warm up and cool down, usually.
Yeah, I understand very well what you mean there, good transition points, whenever it was time to start walking I was ready to put the bike down. Take a break.
The other nice thing about traveling like that on the global scale, is that if you wake up and don’t want to go pedal, fuck it, don’t do it.
Ha ha, yeah, the trip is what you make it, do what you want.
So, we currently have this movement, with 350.0rg and the Climate Coalition, to raise awareness about the whole climate issue and to take action personally, but also to urge companies, corporations, and most notably universities, to divest, in a financial sense, from fossil fuels and unsustainable practices. It’s an incredibly popular thing, for all these organizations with endowments and trusts, to invest some of that money into oil and gas, which I understand is lucrative, and keeps them going, but it’s also pretty much in direct opposition to the views and values of many of these organizations. Some of theses organizations are waking up to this realization and they’re severing that connection, and much of that is because of public scrutiny and outcry, but I’m just wondering, with organizations like the American Alpine Club, and all these other funds and trusts that offer grants to climbers…well… First, I feel like it’s again ironic that these organizations with obvious ties and interests in preserving our natural and wild environments also support exploration and recreation that’s so fossil fuel intensive. But I guess, how do you think the climbing community can encourage these organizations to support human powered, or fossil fuel free expeditions, even if they’re a little less flashy, a little less in line with the current understanding of modern alpinism? A little more like the Road from Karakol?
I think first, for these organizations to recognize, it needs to be a little more popular then it is. For example, right now, this Road from Karakol movie is blowing up all over the place because, one, its a good story but two, it’s a unique kind of story. When people ask about the influence there I say, yeah, Goram and Maxime, and I agree with you that there are a lot of amateurs that are out there, like you and your girlfriend are a great example of two folks that are getting after it and doing fossil fuel free first ascents, which is rad, but I think it needs to become a little more mainstream, a little bit more practiced before an organization with money will chose to support that or offer some sort of financial grant project.
I think there has to be a change because, it’s gotta evolve to something different from where it’s going. We’ve cited this speed ascent, this new interest in going as fast as possible on these well known mountains, but even that is becoming problematic, it’s kind of counter productive. I think it’s commendable, but I think it’s entirely commendable on a respect for an individual’s fitness level. Like Chad Kellog, who is an incredibly fit individual and for three or four times now he’s tried to do this Everest speed record and it’s so ironic the problems he run into when he tries to like, trail run Mount Everest essentially, is crowds, and tripping over an oxygen bottle. It’s not like, oh, I just got worked I need to train harder.
Right, he’s getting tangled up in fixed lines and stuff…
Yeah. You know, one, I don’t understand the fascination there, that sounds heinous to me, right, but if he does pull it off… man, respect to you, that’s awesome, you are a fit individual. But that doesn’t really mesh with what you and I are talking about, and I don’t know, for myself and possibly you, what is much more appealing is some year-long or multiple year-long world adventure, on the bicycle, with small bits of climbing gear, and one or two partners who you want to spend a lot of intimate time with and explore the world. Yeah, you’re going to make sacrifices like saying goodbye to your friends and family but I think you’re also inspiring them and inspiring others and like, with the Road from Karakol I hope it does, I hope it inspires others.
I think it does and like I said I think it’s so necessary now. I really think a lot of people are like, waiting for a kick in the ass to take action, not necessarily just in terms of the whole climate discussion, but there’s like an overall sense of malaise and disconnect in society that I think carries over this overall lack of purpose into people’s lives, and I think striking at the heart of that, more then the environment, more then societal issues, is encouraging people to seek out adventure, to incorporate some sort of purpose and inspiration into our lives, and it seems like the film will really speak to that.
The last sentences of the film summarizes what you just said, and…people are going to watch the film and hear that last sentence and think, huh, am I gonna do that? And hopefully some people will.
Check out the full movie at www.theroadfromkarakol.com