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Family

The truth about what happened when K2 claimed the lives of my ex husband and cherished son

''I would like to set the record straight now,'' says Jo Patti.

By Lynley Ward
Jo Patti cherishes the days she spent with her son Denali celebrating his graduation before he headed to the roof of the world - all the while harbouring a deep foreboding that she would never see him again.
A treasured photo from 2013 is tucked in her wallet, the dashing 25-year-old artist in full academic regalia, smiling, a colourful floral lei draped around his neck.
"He had just graduated top of his class at California College of the Arts; it was such a celebratory 10 days we spent together before he left," tells his proud mum. "He wanted to teach and paint, and marry adventure sports with art."
Tragically, a few weeks later on K2, the second highest peak in the world, the skilled skier perished alongside his mountaineering guide father Marty Schmidt, attempting to summit in chest-deep snow, conditions considered too dangerous by other climbers who refused to go on.
It's a painful period in her life. But now, almost six years after the treacherous peak in Pakistan's Karakoram range claimed the lives of her ex-husband and son, Jo has reached a place of acceptance.
Denali graduating from arts college in 2013
The American-born Kiwi has returned to New Zealand to promote her latest book, Getting off the X, and tells the Weekly it's time to set the record straight about what happened on that ill-fated expedition, for the sake of her son.
"There was a lot of spin that had come out in the media after his death that was actually inaccurate, and nobody asked me. Honestly, I didn't want to talk to media for years.
"But I would like to set the record straight now."
She says after completing a ski patrol qualification at Wanaka's Tai Poutini Polytech, Denali worked in the United States and Australia for two years to test the waters. It was during this time he had decided against an alpine career.
"Denali had wanted to travel – he wanted to go to Pakistan, but didn't actually want to be a mountaineer. He told his father that and there was actually a big fight a few years before."
However, Marty insisted that Denali join him at the end of his art studies to become the first father and son duo to reach the top. It would be the experienced mountaineer's third attempt at K2, a notoriously difficult summit that had repeatedly eluded him throughout his guiding career.
"Denali hadn't been able to train because he was doing his last year at uni and his concentration wasn't on the mountains," the author recounts. "He wasn't even sure if he was going to go."
Yet for the deeply spiritual mum-of-two, there was something more disturbing about this expedition − a number of premonitions pointed towards a deadly outcome.
"I knew once they were going to go up K2 that was the last I would see him – and I did warn him that there was going to be a situation," Jo says, adding she even made one final bid to persuade Denali not to climb the peak as she hugged him goodbye for the final time.
Jo says according to detailed video accounts by sherpas on the expedition and from reading Denali's journal, she has pieced together her son's final days.
And it's led to the alarming discovery that not only did the pair summit an additional mountain, the 8000m Broad Peak, but they also attempted a high-altitude rescue of stricken climbers a week later.
"Then they went to K2," she tells.
"Marty had already been injured − he had a rock thrown at him during a skirmish on Everest a few of months before and suffered a concussion at altitude, so he wasn't thinking right. Even if he had probably looked at somebody else doing that, he would have gone, 'That would be crazy. A third 8000m.' But he had an obsession. We had photos of K2 in our houses and it was his third attempt. It was like Marty's Moby Dick."
She says she will never understand what made Marty ignore red flags and proceed when no-one else would.
"At the end, Denali had a terrible choice to make because Marty was going to go up regardless," tells Jo, who has recently returned from China where she trained in the ancient Shaolin martial arts of qigong, kung fu and tai chi.
"Denali wouldn't let his father go up by himself. He really sacrificed his life."
Denali and Marty Schmidt in 2011
Jo says even though she was half a world away in Umbria, Italy, she was aware something was dreadfully wrong.
While the pair are thought to have died in an avalanche on July 27, she firmly believes Denali was still alive for a further 24 hours.
"I felt heavy all day," she recalls. "I was in terrible pain and collapsed in my bed. I felt Denali's body for hours and it was so painful that I passed out for a little while. Then I heard him calling me.
"I heard him say, 'Mum, Mum, over here.' I woke up, and the stars were up and I was following his voice, walking down a path in the forest. He said, 'Up here, up here,' and I looked up and saw the stars and I knew," she tearfully recounts.
With no bodies to bury, she describes the torture of her grief, saying, "I felt as if my skin had been ripped off."
Throwing herself into work as an educational curriculum specialist and Chinese health practitioner, she's spent years undertaking humanitarian projects while grappling with the heartache of losing her son.
It's experiences from these times and the people she met that has seen her capture lives lived on the edge and healing after tragedy in her latest book.
Jo with son Denali in Yerevan, Armenia in 2008.
For now, Jo is enjoying catching up with friends made when she and Marty settled here in the late 1980s, where their daughter Sequoia was born in Napier, and where she worked with the Ngati Kahungunu iwi as a teacher and choreographer for Kahurangi National Maori Dance Theatre.
She's also scheduling a break in Nelson where the talented dancer and musician intends on pulling out her flute, writing, running and hiking. After working in constant danger, in some of the world's most hostile places, it's a much-needed break.
Reflects Jo, "I'm in a place of acceptance. I have been for a while. The media spins it out, 'How wonderful, a father and son going together and dying together'. No, it wasn't wonderful, and no, I don't think it was responsible parenting.
"Of course Denali made his own decision, but my children know you couldn't really say no to Marty if he's saying, 'I'm going up.' I want to dispel this mythology that Denali was going to follow in his father's footsteps and be a guide. He was not. He loved the outdoors and he was a wonderful skier, but he was just emerging as an acknowledged artist and he really wanted to teach."
As the sixth anniversary of the tragedy approaches, Jo says not a day goes by when she doesn't think of her boy.
"I pray every day and hold Denali and Marty in my heart. His birthday in some ways I suppose is more special to me, though. I like to look at the positive side of when he came in rather than his death."

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