Originally Published in Backcountry Magazine, 2002
“The Crazy Swede”
Once in a while the universe spawns a human being of greatness: larger than life yet humble and approachable; imposing in achievement yet gentle in spirit, living dreams that will amaze generations to come yet capable of relaxing in the moment. Such a person was Göran Kropp.
Göran Kropp was killed in a rock climbing accident in eastern Washington on September 30th while climbing a route called Air Guitar in Frenchman Coulee along the Columbia River. He had relocated earlier this year from Sweden to Seattle with his fiancée and climbing partner, Renata Chlumska.
If the measure of a human being is tallied by the positive impact one has upon others, then Göran long ago went off the chart. He was a truly unique and compelling person who was capable of reaching out to those around him to share his endless enthusiasm for life. This was true for complete strangers and long time friends alike. Magnetic is a word that comes to mind. Magnetic in that people very often found themselves calling him a friend after one encounter. In the presence of Göran life seemed like pure potential.
Göran became famous in 1996 after cycling from his home in Sweden to Kathmandu with all his gear and provisions, climbing the mountain solo, and pedaling back home. But as is so often the case with such things his instant fame was many years in coming. Göran was a meticulous planner and inexhaustible trainer. He had prepared for his Everest adventure for over 9 years, climbing difficult peaks up to 8,000 meters including a solo climb of K2. His overnight success had been a long time in coming but his love of the adventurous life sustained him throughout.
Since I first saw Göran speak several years ago I have described his now famous presentations as one part Reinhold Messner and one part Jim Carrey. Stunning deeds communicated in the most humorous way imaginable. A stage presence without equal in the world of adventure and, perhaps, beyond. But his amazing deeds and appealing performances pale when compared to his most powerful gift – the ability to inspire. Somehow, without ever seeming like he was boasting, he was able to tell his stories of unbelievable vision, strength, and endurance and all within earshot were both amazed and electrified. Amazed because his deeds seemed like they sprang from another time not our own. Electrified because if one human could achieve these things, and still remain approachable and down-to-earth, perhaps our dreams might also see the light of day. Göran demonstrated that with perseverance and belief in self, anything is possible, and sharing it with others elevates us all.
On a recent climb of Mount Kilimanjaro I witnessed Göran quietly demonstrate the humility that I’ve so admired in him. Just after sunrise on that equatorial summit he was recognized by a climber from another party. The gentleman was reveling in the reality of his 65th birthday on the top of Africa. We congratulated him with smiles and handshakes. He suddenly recognized Göran: “Your Göran Kropp, my hero! This birthday just got even better.” The man opened his arms and began to address everyone on the summit. “Hey everybody, do you know who…” He never finished. Göran politely stopped the birthday boy from introducing him. He knew this was not his day, his summit. This was a day for others to shine in the sun.
Like a gentle giant, Göran was keenly interested in and moved by the people around him. His friend, Peter Downing, recently shared with me a typical example of the utterly human side of Göran Kropp. “I think what strikes me so much about Göran, and what made him such an incredible man for me, was that on the one hand he was this larger than life adventurer, performing amazing feats in incredible places. And on the other hand he was one of the most down-to-earth truly human men I'd ever known. I have this very vivid memory of him on one of his visits here, sitting on the ground in front of my house, carving pumpkins with my two kids. It was completely new to him, this Jack O'Lantern thing, yet he tackled it with the same joy and enthusiasm he did everything else. He carved this horrible pumpkin, but he laughed and played with my kids in this delightful way. He was the best.”
The spirit of adventure developed early in Göran and in unique ways. In his book Ultimate High, My Everest Odyssey, is a black and white photo of a young Göran taken by his father, Gerard Kropp. It is a shot from a climb they did of the highest peak in Norway when Göran was just 6 years old. But a story that gave me a needed laugh recently was told by his mother, Sigrun. Apparently Göran was very interested in fish as a kid. One day she found him literally immersed in his aquarium, getting a closer look at his pets. “I did not discourage such behavior,” she said with a chuckle in her Swedish accent.
At the base of the climb where Göran left us is a large rock with an inscription put there by his belayer that day, Erden Eruc:
With a thumb up
“Kropp on Top!”
Just 2 weeks after the accident my 3 year old son, Nils, walked across the room toward my wife and me, stopped, reached out with both hands and gave us the trademark Göran Kropp signal – “thumbs up mom and dad,” he said with a smile. To my knowledge Nils never saw Göran flash the “Brazilian Double Thumb.”
Yes, I believe Göran lives.
Kaj Bune is a photographer, writer, and consultant to outdoor companies and lives with his family near Seattle, Washington. He says of his reaction to the loss of his friend:
“When I heard of Göran's death I thought right away of what Albert Einstein said after Gandhi's passing. For me it applies equally to Göran:
'Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.'