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Adventure / October 22, 2017

For Hayden Kennedy, climbers grapple with a different kind of loss

Written by: Brenna Stevens

On October 8, climber Inge Perkins and her boyfriend, Hayden Kennedy, set off an avalanche while skiing in Montana’s Madison Range. Perkins was fully buried by the slide, but Kennedy was able to dig himself out. Unable to find his partner under the snow, he eventually hiked six miles out of the mountains and reported the avalanche to authorities. He killed himself the next day.

As his parents wrote in a statement, “Hayden survived the avalanche but not the unbearable loss of his partner in life.”

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The news of Kennedy’s death sent a shock through the climbing community. That community is sadly familiar with the death of promising young climbers, but Kennedy’s story evoked a different kind of darkness. His death was not only a suidice, but a suicide driven by his own loss in the mountains.

In response, climbing’s elite opened up on social media and in niche publications about their own experiences. Perhaps the most stirring post was by free solo climber and wingsuit B.A.S.E. jumper Steph Davis, who lost her husband Mario in a 2013 wingsuit accident. In her posting about that experience, Davis offered herself as a source of support for climbers and other athletes reeling from loss.

“There were hours, days, weeks and months when I truly didn’t think I could live through the pain,” Davis wrote, explaining that a “fucked little club” of adventure sport enthusiasts helped her withstand the tragedy.

“I figure if even one person reaches out, then it would be worth posting it,” Davis told Shoulders of Giants.

Even as they commemorated him on Facebook and Instagram, friends described Kennedy as a humble soul who eschewed social media. Climber and filmmaker Cedar Wright described Kennedy as “the best all-around climber in the country,” and “a total natural born bad ass who could have easily had whatever sponsor he wanted.”

Kennedy had opted out of a professional climbing career, Wright wrote, partly because he preferred not to take unnecessary risks in the mountains.

“Ironically, Hayden was becoming a vocal advocate of dialing back the risk and hubris in climbing. He had lost too many friends and was of the opinion that no climb was worth dying for.”

This sentiment had been expressed by Kennedy himself just days before his death. In a Sept. 26 blog post on EveningSends.com, Kennedy described an ascent he made in 2014 with climbers Chris Kalous, Kyle Dempster, and Justin Griffin.

In the years after that ascent, two members of that climbing party died in mountaineering accidents. Griffin fell to his death in 2015 while descending from a first ascent in Nepal. Dempster disappeared while climbing in Pakistan a year later.

“I think about Kyle and Justin all the time,” Kennedy wrote. “Their absence from this world is felt by so many who are left in a wake of confusion, anger, and frustration. In many ways, I am still processing what has happened to my dear friends. Waves of sadness overwhelm me at times, making it hard to stand up or focus. At other times I am able to think only of the enchanting adventures, contemplative conversations, and the simple yet enriching moments we shared as friends. These pendulum shifts between various emotions will never go away, as I am starting to learn.”

The last surviving member of that crew is Chris Kalous, who is perhaps best known as the host of the Enormocast climbing podcast. A close friend of Kennedy, Kalous said before his most recent podcast that he would speak on the loss at a later date.

Coverage of the deaths of Perkins and Kennedy by the climbing and outdoor media has been universally respectful. Outlets have chosen to omit details about either death, generally choosing to report that Perkins and Kennedy both died “following a Montana avalanche.” While obituaries in Rock and Ice magazine, Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper, and other outlets have been focused on Kennedy, his partner has rightly been commemorated as well.

Though not as well-known as her partner, Perkins was herself an elite climber and skier. Her climbing CV included 5.14 redpoints, bouldering and DWS competition wins, and several extreme long-distance ski tours. Her achievements are perhaps best presented in an obit by Climbing magazine.

Kennedy was perhaps best-known for his ascent of Patagonia’s Cerro Torre (with Jason Kruk), and for his subsequent dismantling of that peak’s controversial compressor route. He also put up a number of first ascents, including the 5.14 Carbondale Short Bus in Indian Peaks. Not willing to sacrafice his freedom by taking on sponsors, Kennedy made his living by hanging Christmas lights during the holiday season.

His parents, Julie and Michael Kennedy, recently established the Hayden Kennedy Public Lands Defense Fund. All dontations to the fund will help support advocacy efforts for public land in the U.S.

Do you have questions or comments about this feature? Email them to us at [email protected].

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about the author

Brenna Stevens

Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Brenna has spent more of her life outdoors than in. An avid camper, backpacker, and wine drinker, she writes primarily about outdoor culture for Shoulders of Giants.

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