The Life and Death of Mountain Climber Hayden Kennedy

Kennedy
Kennedy, in Keketuohai Park in China, was at 27 one of the best alpinists of his generation, having established dozens of difficult routes around the world. Photograph by Corey Rich

On October 7, Hayden Kennedy, 27, and Inge Perkins, 23, two of the most talented mountain athletes of their generation, decided to hike deep into Montana’s imposing Madison Range to ski Imp Peak, a little known, 11,202-foot summit blessed with a long, perfectly cut couloir. Imp often holds soft, early-season snow even when the leaves are still golden in the valleys. Most hardcore locals stick closer to town, but Kennedy and Perkins were never the type for easy summits. They were also deeply in love, and had moved to nearby Bozeman together two months prior, so perhaps they wanted to have the mountains to themselves for the day.

In the predawn darkness, Kennedy and Perkins parked and hiked six miles in. When they hit the snow line, they fixed climbing skins to the bottoms of their skis and began to glide across a foot of fresh snow to reach the base of Imp’s powder-filled chute. They had not ascended far when they set off an avalanche. A slab 150 feet wide, 300 feet long, and up to two feet deep released on top of them. When it settled to a stop, Kennedy found himself buried up to his chest. Perkins was nowhere to be seen.

Kennedy extracted himself and frantically probed the mess, digging with a collapsible shovel, hoping he could find her. (Perkins had an avalanche transceiver, but it was in her backpack switched off.) After searching for three hours to no avail, stricken with grief, Kennedy gave up and hiked out alone.

He drove to the couple’s apartment in Bozeman and wrote a dark, 16-page note that included detailed directions to the spot where he had searched in the slide, marked by his shovel and probe like a makeshift grave. He then killed himself by overdosing on a mix of painkillers and alcohol.

The deaths hit the climbing community, no stranger to tragedy, particularly hard. Though both were brand ambassadors, Kennedy and Perkins were not the typical pro climbers and skiers out to prove themselves in the wild. Instead, they were part of a new generation raised in mountain towns where climbing and skiing are simply things you do—the way other American kids play soccer or football. They were part of an extended family of like-minded people, and the outpouring of shock and sadness from the outdoor community only grew more complicated when Kennedy’s parents made a public statement about the accident, saying with straightforward courage that they accepted Kennedy’s choice to end his life. Though climbers and skiers too often perish “doing what they love,” this was different.

“I don’t know if losing him to the mountains would have been better,” says Patrick Pharo, a Denver-based climber and a friend of Kennedy’s. “It would have been less tragic, I think.”

Everything in Kennedy’s life lined up for him to become one of the world’s most distinguished alpinists. His father, Michael, had made a name for himself in the mountains by completing, among other things, the first ascent of the northeast face of Nepal’s Ama Dablam. He was also the editor of Climbing magazine in its golden years, from 1974 to 1998, and later revived the beloved title Alpinist in 2009. Kennedy’s mother, Julie, founded the 5Point Adventure Film Festival in Carbondale, CO.

“I don’t know if losing him to the mountains would have been better,” says a friend of Kennedy’s. “It would have been less tragic, I think.”

In the mid-2000s, Kennedy became a fixture on the crags in Carbondale, and around the offices of Climbing, where he met Californian Chris Van Leuven, who had just finished a decade living the big-wall life in Yosemite. “I was amazed by how skilled he was at such a young age,” says Van Leuven. “By the time he was a teenager, he had completed routes in Colorado and Utah that represent lifetime achievements for everyday climbers.”

In 2008, Van Leuven and Kennedy, along with Jonas Waterman, set their sights on one of El Capitan’s hardest routes: El Niño, a demanding big-wall puzzle rife with long sections of exposed climbing with no spots to place protection. At just 18 years old, the strong, affable Kennedy blew away the two older Yosemite vets with his bold confidence. At one point, Kennedy was climbing a long pitch above the two, and Van Leuven turned to Waterman and said, “Here we are watching the future of climbing.”

That prediction proved true as Kennedy tallied up a string of impressive ascents. In 2012, he helped establish a new route up the unclimbed east face of K7 and one on the south face of Ogre I, both in Pakistan’s Karakoram range. He also pioneered dozens of difficult lines closer to home. Kennedy’s most famous achievement in alpinism, however, came on one of the sport’s most infamous routes, the Compressor, on Patagonia’s Cerro Torre. The line, which runs straight up a mile-high granite tower, had been a source of controversy since 1970, when Italian Cesare Maestri hauled, via a rope system, a 200-pound gas-powered compressor up it (thus the name). Along the way, he jackhammered in more than 400 bolts that made the peak, which only Maestri had claimed to have climbed at that point, far easier.

Plenty of alpinists saw the Compressor as a sad scar on one of the world’s most difficult and iconic summits and had discussed cutting off the hardware. Once, a threat to do so nearly erupted in a fistfight with Cerro Torre’s professional guides. In 2012, Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk climbed the Compressor with minimal use of bolts, and, while on the summit, decided to take action. They removed more than 100 pieces of hardware as they rappelled down.

“They essentially restored Cerro Torre to its proper place as one of the world’s most inaccessible summits,” says Matt Samet, the current editor of Climbing, “and they reasserted what alpinism should be: fair means and respect for the objective.”

Kennedy and Kruk were briefly detained by police and took heat from some corners of the climbing community, but they considered their route the first “fair means” ascent of the Compressor, completed not for ego but for a sense of style. Increasingly, that style became paramount to Kennedy. He avoided social media fanfare, and though at the highest level of the sport, he played down his achievements, instead enjoying life in “Sweet Melissa,” his van, climbing for the joy of it, and writing for Alpinist, Rock + Ice, and climbing blogs.

“Hayden was one of those anomalous few who had it all, and also climbed on his own terms,” says Samet, “no spray, no hype, as little media as possible, just climbing to climb.”

Kennedy also broke the climbing mold by falling unabashedly in love—and committing to it, a rare thing in a world where relationships often take a backseat to mountain objectives. Perkins, a Bozeman native, ticked off some of the hardest climbs in the Rockies. She knew Montana’s Madison Range well, too, having ski toured across its highest peaks in 2015, during which she first skied the chute on Imp Peak.

Kennedy’s love for Perkins intensified as he evolved as a climber who was never interested in the sport as a business or brag-fest. In a piece he wrote for the site Evening Sends less than two weeks before his death, he reminisced about a climb in Mexico and lamented the loss of two of his partners, Justin Griffin and Kyle Dempster, who perished in separate incidents in the Himalayas. In a now much-quoted passage, he wrote: “Over the last few years, however, as I’ve watched too many friends go to the mountains only to never return, I’ve realized something painful. It’s not just the memorable summits and crux moves that are fleeting. Friends and climbing partners are fleeting, too. This is the painful reality of our sport, and I’m unsure what to make of it. Climbing is either a beautiful gift or a curse.”

Perhaps Kennedy was contemplating turning his back on high-profile climbing to enjoy life with a fellow mountain athlete. Kennedy’s and Perkins’ deaths are also frustrating because they made errors in judgment that mountaineers of their ability should not have made. They skied in questionable conditions and neglected basic protocol by not wearing and checking their avalanche transceivers. And yet so many make similar mistakes without paying such dire consequences. Perhaps that weight of responsibility pushed Kennedy over the edge.

“His death was a tragedy in the classic Romeo and Juliet sense,” says Dougald MacDonald, editor of the American Alpine Journal. “I’m never one to blame or shame suicides; it just makes me sad that we’ll never see what course he might have charted. It’s very possible he might have achieved greatness in something completely unrelated to climbing.”

Kennedy and Perkins will ultimately be remembered by those closest to them for the love and laughter they spread in the world and for their commitment to the mountains outside of the vapid pressure of social media. Bold is perhaps the most common word those who climbed with him use to describe Kennedy. “When you climb with someone, you find out who they really are,” says Van Leuven. “If you are cowardly, you will see it. If you are brave, you will see it. Hayden was brave, and he saw the deep beauty of the mountains.”