View Full Version : On the Edge

12-05-2005, 04:18 PM
On the Edge - Part 1 of 2

The ascent that put cousins atop a 2,400-foot granite cliff changed their lives in ways impossible to imagine.

By Brett Prettyman
The Salt Lake Tribune

Sometime between the "real" summit shot and the customary costume picture - this one with a grass skirt, coconut bra, blow-up monkey and Viking hat - Drew Wilson and Kyle Dempster reveled in their extraordinary mountain-climbing accomplishment.

"I'd go climbing anywhere in the world with you," Kyle, 22, told his cousin.

"I'm with ya, bro. We did some damage to that wall," Drew, 24, answered.

It was mid-May and the first cousins stood on solid ground for the first time in 12 days after navigating an unnamed, unclimbed 2,400-foot granite wall in the Stewart Valley of Baffin Island in northeastern Canada. The lighthearted photos on the summit only strengthened the bond between the cousins and longtime climbing partners.

The Canadian Arctic changed them. So did the Inuit people who helped them get to the valley and the formidable wall itself.

In another 48 hours, everything for the cousins would change again, this time tragically. Reaching the summit would come to mean everything - and nothing.

To make time go faster, the cousins talked about past and future climbs, past and current loves, funky family members and what they would name the route and wall if they made it to the top.

Climbing cousins: For Dempster, of Salt Lake City, and Wilson, of Louisville, Ky., the climb began decades ago during family vacations stretching from Colorado to Cape Cod, Mass.

Drew was the leader - make that daredevil - and Kyle tried his best to keep up.

"At times Kyle was a bit scared to follow, but usually did so because Drew was very convincing that 'it would be all right out there on the edge.' He convinced a lot of people of that," Drew's mother, Kate Wilson, said.

To keep the pair out of trouble, their families sent them each summer to Anderson Western Colorado Camps in Gypsum, Colo. By the time they were teenagers, Drew and Kyle, who shared the middle name Barrett, their mothers' maiden name, had tasted adventure sports including kayaking and mountain biking. Climbing had emerged as a favorite.

When they were able to get together, they climbed: Yosemite, Zion, Red Rocks, Whitesides and more.

"Get your shoes and get ready for this," Drew would say to Kyle. "We are going to do something stupid and dangerous today."

Their parents always sighed with relief when they returned. Drew frequently found ways to get his friends into trouble, but was always there to help them get out of it.

He drifted from his family in his late teens and for about three years only talked occasionally with his cousin, mostly about climbing. Kyle, meanwhile, developed into a sport climber, focused on getting up and down quickly on well-known routes with safety pitons or bolts already in place. Drew preferred traditional climbing on big walls, which required picking a route and placing his own safety devices.

Kyle longed for time with his cousin and took up traditional climbing, hoping it meant he could spend more time with Drew.

Kyle headed to California in May 2004 to become a Yosemite big-wall climbing bum. Drew eventually joined him, and it didn't take long for the cousins to find the important rhythm, trust and shared desire partners of the wall must have.

They had become more than childhood companions in adventure. They were now officially climbing partners with big plans and serious destinations.

"Two partners are needed": Cruising the Web looking for gear one summer day in 2004, Kyle saw a posting that caught his attention. It sought climbers for a trip to the Stewart Valley in spring 2005. Kyle, like many climbers, had seen pictures and video of the enormous granite walls found on Baffin Island, the fifth-largest island in the world.

He picked up the phone and called Pete Dronkers at his Reno, Nev., home. They planned a trip to Yosemite to get to know each other and talk about plans for Baffin.

Ross Cowan, an experienced climber also from Reno, and Grover Shipman, a physician from Klamath Falls, Ore., already had committed to the trip.

As Kyle shared his excitement about the pending climb, Drew showed more interest. Kyle ended up calling and asking whether his cousin could join the team.

Pete asked Kyle to have Drew send a r

12-05-2005, 04:19 PM
Part 2 of 2: Reaching the Summit

Climber watches his cousin fall 800 feet from granite cliff

By Brett Prettyman
The Salt Lake Tribune

"Drew! Drew! Drew!"

Kyle Dempster yelled his 24-year-old cousin's name in vain. He heard no response, only the sound of his own voice echoing off massive granite cliff walls the cousins had climbed on Baffin Island.

Drew Wilson, the best climber on the expedition, lay motionless at the bottom of the sheer cliff in the Canadian Arctic, the victim of a "beginner's" mistake and an 800-foot fall.

Some 20 hours earlier, the first cousins and Pete Dronkers, their climbing companion, had stood in triumph on the summit of an unnamed, 2,400-foot-tall cliff that until then had never been climbed.

The climbers were breaking down a precarious hanging wall camp where they had spent a dozen nights on their ascent when Drew clipped on a line and headed down, planning to handle gear sent down.

Then came a scream and the sound of boots scraping against rock.

When Kyle realized there would be no answer to his cries, the 22-year-old collected enough rope to get down to his cousin - his climbing partner, his idol, his mentor and his friend - and prepared himself as best as he could for whatever would come next.

The letdown: Statistics show that most climbing accidents happen on the ascent, but climbers know getting back down is often more dangerous than making the summit.

They call it the letdown. Fatigue, the loss of adrenaline, the desire to be on solid ground, feeling that you don't need to be as focused because you have already made the top. Mistakes are common, including the one that killed Drew.

Kyle doesn't know how much of this affected Drew, but he expects to work that riddle in his head for the rest of his life.

He only knows that his cousin incomprehensibly released his brake device on the wrong end of a 300-foot rope hanging below the wall camp. Instead of the long end, Drew rappelled off a short, 30-foot knotless stretch dangling in the wind.

Kyle quickly reached Drew at the base of the cliff, but knew there was no need for speed the moment he saw his cousin.

"I had never seen him that still, . . . that at peace," he said.

Kyle checked for a pulse, placed his hand on Drew's back and wept. It was May 19 at about 2 p.m.

Back up at the wall camp, Pete began yelling to Kyle that they should leave the gear and the body and get off the cliff. The cousins as a pair had been able to deflect Pete's sometimes irritating comments during the ascent. Now Kyle was on his own and wanted nothing more than to get away from this climb.

Still, Kyle knew he had to retrieve Drew's body from the ice and rocks of this remote land, "because he would have done the same for me."

First, Kyle and Pete agreed after some debate to get their gear to the ground.

Kyle started his way back to the wall camp. About 400 feet up, he paused to catch his breath and spotted something red, white and black snagged on the gray granite - Drew's necklace, a memento from a climbing trip to Mexico with his girlfriend, Kristin Connolly. Kyle pendulumed over to grab the necklace, which he now wears on his wrist, all the while wondering if some greater force had made him stop at that exact point.

Their gear now at the rocky base of the cliff, but still about 400 feet above the floor of the Stewart Valley, Kyle didn't wait for Pete before heading down.

Grover Shipman and Ross Cowans, who had stayed at base camp during the climb, immediately knew something was wrong even from a great distance. Most obvious was the fact that, Kyle, his face swollen and red with tears, walked toward them without Drew at his side.

"If they had done the wall as they had planned he would have been carrying at least a backpack," Grover said. "But he was still wearing a harness and he was walking really fast. He wasn't even wearing a rain jacket and it was pouring."

Kyle gained his composure long enough to say, "I don't know how to tell you this, but Drew is dead."

A rocky recovery: As Kyle collapsed in a tent, Grover picked up a satellite phone and called the Royal Mounted Canadian Police in Clyde River, the nearest town some 110 miles away.

"It wasn't a race against time, just a matter of figuring out how to get the body out," said Randy Slawson, corporal of the police detachment at the time.

The weather complicated the task. The spring rain was melting the snow and ice that allowed Palituq Outfitting to get the climbers and their gear into the valley on snowmobiles. After a day's rest, the climbers went to get Drew.

Drew had always been the leader, his daring spirit inspiring Kyle to become more adventurous in climbing - and in life. Now Kyle inexplicably found himself taking the lead, pulling his cousin's body through five miles of thigh-high slush and busting through the top layer of lake ice, all in the rain. The effort took about 15 hours, and Kyle never let down.

Grover watched Kyle and couldn't help but wonder if the young man was trying to punish himself for something that was not his fault.

About a quarter-mile from camp, Kyle could take no more - physically or mentally - and fell face first into the cold slush on the frozen lake. The others split their loads and Grover helped Kyle to his feet and to camp.

Finally, Kyle was ready to call home. He reached his father, who said simply, "Come home." Hours passed and Kyle tried to sleep. Then, in the distance, the group heard a loud "eeeeeeeeeeeeee-eeeeee," mixed with occasional crunches.

A snowmobile was on its way. Jushua IIlauq, known as an "Inuit funky bad ass" and member of the volunteer Clyde River Search and Rescue team, had managed to get his snowmobile over vast areas of open rock, essentially destroying the machine in the process.

"He walked up to me smelling like whiskey, told me he was sorry for my loss and then loaded up Drew and was gone," Kyle said. "He will never know how much I appreciate his effort."

Randy met the team, and told the young climber, "My house is right there. My wife is home. Get some food, take a shower and get some sleep."

Kyle asked for one thing first - a final farewell.

"I didn't know what I was supposed to do," he said. "I kissed his forehead and told him goodbye."

The tragic news from Canada had come as little surprise to Drew's mother, Kate Wilson, now living in Utah.

"It had occurred to me many times before that I might get a call like that about Drew," she said. "I never expected him to grow old."

The family soon gathered to grieve in a way that said everything about the love of the outdoors that drove Kyle and Drew since childhood. The family took a hike in Utah's Mill Creek Canyon.

In Clyde River, Kyle found support from the community. People on the street offered their condolences. Shari and Jake Gearheard, the only people in town who met the cousins before the accident, helped Kyle deal with his emotional angst. Randy and Vera Slawson made Kyle feel like he was home, despite being so far away from family.

Kyle, rested and cleaned up after the month of camping and climbing, surprised his new friends by asking if they wanted to watch five hours of video from the trip, including up to 10 minutes before Drew's fall.

"I was totally blown away by his level of maturity," Vera Slawson said. "None of us will ever be able to truly understand what he went through. Watching the video was heart-wrenching. I was crying and I didn't even know Drew. I think it was therapeutic for [Kyle] to share the climb with others. He was absolutely beaming when we watched the part of them on top."

The epic achievement of reaching the summit had come to mean everything - and nothing - to Kyle.

His memory of Drew will always include the stellar effort they shared to reach the top and the love they felt for each other while there. At the same time, he will never be able to forget the image of Drew falling through space before violently colliding with the rock they had battled so hard to conquer.

Epilogue: His family agrees, Drew would have gotten a big laugh about the fact that Canadian customs officials initially refused to let the container with his cremated remains leave the country, suspicious the ashes were cocaine.

Six months later in Salt Lake City, Kyle is grappling with baggage of a different kind.

The team left an estimated $10,000 worth of personal and borrowed gear at the lake shore in the Stewart Valley.

"If Drew knew I left all of our gear in Arctic, he would be pissed," Kyle said.

While Kyle feels obligated to retrieve the gear, he also feels that returning to the valley - solo - will help him grieve and deal with the guilt of being the one to return, something his mom also feels every time she faces her sister, Drew's mom.

"I understand his desire to go back and I think he understands my point of view of not wanting him to go," Terry Dempster said. "I supported the trip the first time. I don't know if emotionally I could get to the point where I tell him it is OK to go back by himself."

And, of course, there are the painful questions that will never be answered about the fatal fall. Why didn't Drew, so experienced and accomplished on big wall climbs, make sure he was on the long line? Why was there no knot at the short end of the rope?

"Grin and Barrett." That's the name the cousins agreed to call the route they achieved, in honor of the middle name they shared, the maiden name of their moms. And it says much about how Kyle is trying to cope.

After the funeral, Kristin and Kyle took a trip to Zion to share their memories of the man they both loved. It was Kristin who came up with the the name "Will of Wilson" for the wall the cousins climbed.

Kyle has every intention to continue climbing; he expects it will be where he feels closest to Drew. He and Drew always dreamed of climbing Trango Towers in Pakistan. That's where he plans to scatter Drew's ashes - if he can get them through customs.


12-05-2005, 10:06 PM
Wow, what a tragic story. It was long, but well worth it.

I just doubled my knowledge (or perception) of rock climbing by reading that, as I haven't even begun yet.

I have a question, when they ran out of the 1400' of rope, and had 800 feet to go, they were still tied together right? They weren't free climbing I suppose.

12-06-2005, 08:30 AM
That was a little vague in the story, but I'm guessing they just took 400 feet of rope and climbed to the top protecting the route along the way. Only thing different is they were no longer "fixing" the route, which means leaving ropes in place. If I understand what they were doing correctly they would climb up the fixed ropes from the Wall Camp every morning and fix more rope above and then retreat to there wall camp again to sleep and eat.

When they made the final "push" they had to go all the way or re-climb the route again as there would be no fixed ropes in place.