Andy Zimet may have been the greatest explorer no one ever heard of, his humility betraying the depth of his relationship with big mountains and remote whitewater and the sprawling, almost incomprehensible level of self-reliance and commitment required of his global expeditions.
Humble and tenacious, and with a resume rivaling those of even the most accomplished mountain athletes, Zimet, of Whitefish, died earlier this month in the grips of great mountains, his body discovered in the Pamir Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, somewhere below the summit of 23,406-foot Lenin Peak. He was found in his tent, inside his sleeping bag; with no signs of trauma, the preliminary death certificate lists edema and cephaledema, or altitude sickness, as the cause of death.
An experienced mountaineer and longtime physician – Zimet had worked as an anesthesiologist at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish since 1989, and leaves behind his wife, Linda – friends say he never sought out recognition for his expeditions, even as he dispatched first ski and kayaking descents across the globe, traveling to China, Argentina, Bolivia, Nepal, India, Chile, Alaska, and Canada among other mountainous regions.
Instead, he relished the commitment, concentration and self-sufficiency that are requisite to the sports, as well as the beauty of the wild landscapes he moved through.
“He never was one of these sponsored hot shots skiing the big spines in Valdez for a million-dollar film project, he never played the game at that level,” said longtime friend and mountaineering partner Jon Turk. “But very quietly and without causing any attention, he accumulated a resume of a lot of amazing ski and kayak descents all over the world. He loved being in remote places, and he loved doing it solo.”
In part, Zimet loved solo expeditions because few people could keep up with him, and even at the age of 60 he considered skiing 15,000 vertical feet in a day an attainable goal, skinning up and climbing to massive peaks and descending steep, narrow couloirs and avalanche slopes with style and panache.
“Andy was a flippin’ hard charger, just super fit and very mentally strong,” said Don Scharfe, a regular climbing and skiing partner of Zimet’s, and the owner of Rocky Mountain Outfitter in downtown Kalispell, a nerve center for mountaineering lore and news. “If you went skiing with him you had to have it in your head that it was going to be a really big day.”
In 2012, Zimet became the first known person to ski from the summits of Glacier National Park’s “Big Six” – the half-dozen snow-marbled peaks that tower above the park at an elevation of 10,000 feet. He spent two decades quietly chipping away at the project, skiing first descents whenever possible, and finally obtaining the crown jewel by skiing Mount Jackson, Mount Merritt, Mount Siyeh, Mount Cleveland, Mount Stimson and Kintla Peak, the project’s center piece, off which he logged not one but two first descents.
His passion for and skill at skiing was matched by his talent as a whitewater kayaker, and in the fall of 1999 Zimet and four other Americans trekked deep into the Inner Dolpo region of Northwest Nepal and set out on a first descent of the Langu Khola River in whitewater kayaks. An extremely remote and difficult river, the Langu Khola drainage parallels the Nepal-Tibet border running east to west and is flanked by 22,000-foot mountains.
Zimet, along with Paul Zirkelbach, Kurt Casey, Dave Friedman, and Ethan Greene, trekked for 10 days and climbed over a 16,400-foot pass to reach the river. They began kayaking at an elevation of over 14,000 feet, traveling for 13 days through treacherous, vertically walled gorges and numerous sections of Class V and VI rapids before concluding a successful expedition that was fraught with uncertainty.
“I think about all the things that Andy did in his life, and that whitewater descent in Nepal was probably the most significant adventure that he ever did on a world scale,” Turk said. “I mean, it was so way scary, so committed, where they’re down in this gorge not knowing whether they’ll be able to get out, not knowing what’s around the next corner, they were so committed and it was such an ambitious thing on a global scale.”
Turk, 69, is a writer, Arctic explorer, kayaker, skier and climber who has pioneered big-wall climbs on Baffin Island. He was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year numerous times, including in 2012 after completing a 1,485-mile circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island – the 10th largest island in the world – fending off polar bears while covering the distance by ski, kayak and foot.
He first met Zimet 20 years ago on the Kahiltna Glacier base camp in the Alaska Range during an attempt to reach the summit of Denali, and was immediately impressed with the Montana physician’s style and attitude.
“We’d all been blown off the summit by this big storm and we were disappointed, so we started talking to this guy and he said, ‘Hey, let’s go to Ruth Gorge and just ski some cool lines,’” Turk recalled. “So we hopped on a bush plane and went skiing for 10 days. And I thought, ‘this guy is pushing the limits.’ I mean we were skiing crevasses deep in the Alaska Range, steep stuff with consequences if you read something wrong, reading snow bridges and crevasses and reading them at speed. And he was just magnetic in his enthusiasm for it.”
He continued: “Throughout my life Andy has always pushed me to my limit, pushed me to always find something within myself to go harder, stronger, faster. But at the same time there was such a join in it, such a love. He always helped me find that spark within me. And for the next 20 years we continued to do a lot of stuff together.”
In Zimet’s final correspondence with Turk, in which he described his plans to ski Lenin Peak from its remote south-side approach, where he knew there would be no chance of rescue if things went to pot, Zimet told his old friend that in August they should plan a relaxing trip in the mountains, employing the term “relaxing” in the context of its most liberal definition, but divining the same magnetic enthusiasm that characterized their first encounter on Denali.
“I wrote back and said, ‘Andy, I’d love to,’” Turk said. “And that was our last communication.”
A memorial service will be held July 17 at the lower lodge of Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain. The family will receive guests at 6:30 p.m. and services will begin at 7 p.m.