Since last weekend, friends, family and members of the climbing community have faced the devastating loss of Hayden Kennedy, 27, and Inge Perkins, 23. On October 7, the two were skinning up Imp Peak in Montana’s Madison Range when an avalanche struck. Perkins was buried in the slide; Kennedy survived, but he couldn’t find Perkins because her beacon was turned off. After hiking out, he died by suicide. He left a note for search and rescue explaining where to look for Perkins. (A detailed report of the avalanche can be found here.)
Kennedy was a two-time Piolet d’Or recipient–once for his 2015 ascent with Marko Prezelj, Manu Pellissier and Urban Novak of Light Before Wisdom (ED+ 5.11 WI6 M6 A2, 1200m) on Cerro Kishtwar, and again for his 2012 ascent of Baintha Brakk (Ogre 1) by the southeast ridge and the south face with Kyle Dempster. Perkins, 23, was a rising star who was beginning to receive wider recognition for her climbing and skiing.
This heart-wrenching story is a personal one for many all over the world–as it is for me. Hayden and Inge forged deep bonds with people everywhere they went. They were loved not just for their highly impressive accomplishments as alpinists, climbers and skiers, but because of the way they had lived their lives with so much integrity and respect and with such profound interest in those around them.
“He was transcendent in that he was friends with people much older and much younger than he was. He’s somewhat of an anomaly to have so much respect from so many people of all ages,” said Penn Newhard, a longtime family friend who knew Hayden since birth. “Hayden was more interested to talk about what’s going on in your life and family, or books–anything but his climbing.”
I’ve known “HK” since he was 15. Seven years his senior, I watched him grow from an excited, incredibly talented boy into an independent adult. He seemed to do everything with an easy, flowing grace–whether it was dispatching a hard sport climb at Rifle, or else speaking his mind in a way that invited dialogue rather than argument and that made everyone around him, strangers and friends alike, feel valued and included. I’ve written my share of words about his ascents in the past, but I have struggled to form coherent sentences since I learned of his death and the death of his life partner, Inge, whom I had the privilege to get to know last summer when she stayed in Colorado to live and climb with Hayden.
The words that immediately come to mind and that frequently appear in print about these two individuals include “humble, honest, talented, respectful” to list a few. They were all these things and more, which is why it’s been a difficult task to articulate the essence of their lives in a way that might do them justice.
The other night I had a dream that I was climbing a sandstone wall with Hayden. I was leading when a hold broke. Rock dust exploded in my face and I took a huge swinging fall. Hayden, unfazed as usual, lowered me to the belay. I was rattled. And I tried to speak, but sand belched from my throat. Every time I opened my mouth, searching for words, I only vomited more sand at his feet; I wanted to tell him, I can’t believe this happened.
It is extremely hard to believe they are gone, and that Hayden died by suicide. Hayden grew up in Carbondale, Colorado–an area that I still call home–and he frequently returned to catch up with friends and with his parents, Michael and Julie Kennedy. Now, as I stroll around the town, every corner is haunted by memories.
The last time I saw Hayden was around 1 a.m. August 13 in Carbondale. Several of us had gathered at a dive bar to see him off for his new life in Bozeman, Montana. He planned to live there with Inge and pursue his EMT certificate while he rehabbed his arm after a recent shoulder surgery. As Hayden and I walked toward his van down the empty street, he told me he was looking forward to a low-key winter. There were no big climbing plans on the horizon for the time being. Now that we were out of the noisy bar with some privacy, he looked at me, and he asked me how I was doing, really doing. I was recovering from a horrendous poison ivy infection, so I could think of better times and I had a list of complaints, but then I cut myself off: these health problems were temporary, and I didn’t want our parting words to be about itchy rashes and medications. “I’m doing great, overall, actually. That’s the truth.” He nodded, and we pondered when we might have another opportunity to climb together. He sidled off with a fist bump, and as he slammed the van door, he said goodbye over his shoulder. I rode my bike home under the silent stars, glad that I’d decided to come out and see him off, never imagining it would be the last time.
I read somewhere that a person is remembered more by how they made others feel than for their accomplishments. Inge and Hayden knew how to elevate those around them: it was the way they looked at you and listened and asked questions, offering enthusiasm and encouragement. On the other hand, as soon as the focus of other people’s conversations flipped around to his accomplishments, Hayden became elusive, especially when he found himself dealing with the media.
In an Outside Online article about the two deaths, Matt Skenazy and Chris Solomon wrote:
Kennedy has long been one of the top climbers in the world. Though, unless you were steeped in the minutiae of climbing, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. He avoided most media. When Outside reached out to him four years ago about coverage he replied that he was “just not really interested in being in the mag. I have nothing against Outside but I would rather just be out of the media in general. I think that it distracts and over-hypes everything, for me it’s just not worth it. My passion for climbing is my own experience and doesn’t need to be blow[n] out of portion.”
Hayden had consented to a mini-profile I wrote about him for SplitterChoss.com in 2015, but I was always shy about pushing him for more stories, wary of creating distance between us. That’s part of what makes writing this one difficult, and it’s been nearly impossible for me to look at the multitude of social media posts about him and Inge without feeling a tinge of discomfort. One of his close friends from high school started the Instagram hashtag “#Haydenwouldhatethis”–he would hate the idea of so many social media posts exalting him, but I think he would find humor and love and grief in it as well.
Luke Lubchenco, another close friend of Hayden’s since their junior year of high school, recalled a presentation Hayden gave at the 2015 International Climbers’ Festival in Lander, Wyoming: “He gave a speech about mountaineering to a room full of sport climbers, and he ended with the three rules: ‘Come home; come home with friends; come home with a summit. Do it in that order,'” Lubchenco said. “It was one of my proudest moments to be his friend.”
That year’s festival was also where Hayden met Inge.
I remember how excited Hayden was when he told me about a woman he’d met. I’d heard him talk about past love interests but never with such enthusiasm and shine to his eyes. When I finally met her, I easily understood why. Open and friendly, and also true to herself, she radiated the same graceful strength that I knew in her boyfriend.
“We would talk about every girl,” Lubchenco said. “With Inge, I think he fell in love the instant he saw her.”
In a profile on WordsLikeRocks.com posted last February, Kelsey K. Sather described Inge as a talented athlete and vibrant individual:
…For years she was excelling in climbing, skiing, and running without anyone other than friends and the local outdoor community knowing. She’d show up for dinner and when asked what she did that day, she’d say, I went skiing. Not, ‘oh, I skied three peaks in the mountains’ nether-regions.’ She’s not one to brag, and when she received some sponsorships in recent years, I wasn’t surprised….
Inge started out as a competition climber in Bozeman but she was driven by a taste for adventure.
“I grew up bushwhacking around the Montana and Norwegian mountains with my parents, constantly whimpering from fear and discomfort, but always wanting to go out again,” she told Mystery Ranch, one of her sponsors.
She said to Sather, “…I have been pursuing sports that take me to magical places, not only mountains, for the majority of my life.”
Inge had completed several 5.14 sport routes, as well as hard multipitch trad climbs, including an ascent of Hook, Line and Sinker (V 5.12 1,800′) on Mt. Hooker in the Wind Rivers, where she also made a solo, onsight traverse of the Cirque Traverse–which entails 11 summits and climbing up to 5.8–in 17 hours, 15 minutes. Inge had originally intended to complete the Traverse on her recent birthday but a friend persuaded her stay closer to home that day so she wouldn’t miss a surprise party that Sather and Hayden were planning.
In a memorial tribute to Inge, Sather described the successful party:
We had gathered from Lander and Jackson, Colorado and Montana. Inge’s array of friends spanned across states and decades, with the average age being, I’d guess, 35. This had been the case as long as I’d known her. When we first became friends, about eight years ago now, I found it hard to believe she was a teenager. At 15 years old, she already had a savings account and woke up at 6 a.m. everyday….
Inge traveled often. She has made dozens of friends in places as far-reaching as Europe. She has positively impacted hundreds of lives: through her climbing accomplishments–yes, hell yes–but more so through the radiant, kind, and generous person she grew to be.
Like Hayden, Inge sought direct and profound connections with landscapes and people, beyond the electronic streams of digital media. Sather said her friend was known for sending hand-written notes and postcards as a way of keeping in touch and for listening closely to others:
She would sit in a conversation and look at you as you talked, her eyes becoming distant only to consider what you had said. This act of being present with another person, truly present, is not something easily achieved, nor frequently encountered.
A relationship that flowed
In his article “Light Before Wisdom,” published in Alpinist 54, Hayden compared climbing to music:
“When climbing partners connect so well in the mountains, they become like musicians: there are no words spoken, just the acts of several people communicating through riffs; the sharp hit on the snare drum, the pulse of the bass; the single sound moving forward.”
From the first days I saw her climb at Rifle, it was obvious that Inge had a similar composure as Hayden: resolute, coordinated, intuitive. She climbed so smoothly it was often hard to tell if she was onsighting or redpointing. Every week, she ticked off a handful of hard routes, including a long 5.14a called Roadside Prophet. I was not surprised to learn that she won a 2016 deep water soloing contest, nor that she climbed two or three routes on the Diamond of Longs Peak, including Ariana (IV 5.12a), over the span of just a few days with Hayden. Most people, including myself, need a week to recover after doing one route on the Diamond, yet Inge seemed as chipper as if she’d returned from a regular afternoon run.
I believe their strength and fluidity in the mountains emanated from an inner calm and self-assurance–an identity that went deeper than their activities and occupations. As much as climbing had been part of Hayden’s life, he was reconsidering his direction. He weighed the balance of risk and reward in a deeply honest story that he wrote for EveningSends.com, posted about a week before his death:
Over the last few years…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…. I don’t want to be the guy who judges or resents my friends for their choices in the mountains because I know how it feels to be judged for decisions I’ve made in the mountains…. Climbing can be an incredible catalyst for our growth. But I am beginning to realize that there’s a certain danger in making climbing the singular focus of your life because it can actually limit the opportunity for growth and reflection if you don’t stop, pause, breathe, and reflect.
At the end of story, he concluded that what mattered most were the friendships he formed.
Sather wrote, “I’m not sure what’s more painful: the memories of them, or the memories left unfilled. Inge talked about moving back to Lander and teaching math. She said Hayden thought about opening a bakery there. He loved to bake. When he moved to Bozeman a few days before Inge, I swung by to see their new place. A loaf of bread was rising in the oven.”
Sun and Shadow
“The words will never represent the experience,” Hayden wrote in his Alpinist 54 article. “As Marko would say, The essence of the climb is lost just as soon as the storytelling begins.”
As I write this, that is exactly what I’m afraid of.
It’s staggering to consider the holes that these absences have left behind. On the last night in the bar, there was a perfect moment when Hayden was seated in the middle of a table surrounded by smiling friends of all ages. I tried to take a photo with my phone before anyone noticed, but he saw me, and the moment was lost…
He had recounted just such a moment on Cerro Kishtwar:
“Hayden, stop! Stop!” Marko screamed as we continued toward our advanced base camp. Most the time, I had my headphones in and couldn’t hear his shouts. Then I noticed him running through the talus, “Jebi Se!” he yelled. “You motherfucker with your headphones. You are not in nature with that shit in your ears. I want to take a picture. The light is ideal.” Marko grabbed his camera and gestured for me to move a few steps back.
“You aren’t in nature with that stupid camera lashed to your chest and eyes all day either,” I responded, and I put my headphones back in. But as I kept walking, I could see Marko smile out of the corner of my eye. Sharp angles of sun and shadow appeared across the glacier, casting silhouettes that looked almost like die-cut paper. I understood why this moment meant so much to Marko: in an instant, the light would change again, and the sudden clarity of each line and edge would dim.
In the bar, aware of the fleeting experience, I gave up on capturing an image that was already gone. I put my camera away and rejoined the bubble of conversation. I allowed the vibrant pulse of the moment to stamp my memory instead, where I still hear it, feel it and see it so much better than I could through any photo, as if I’d been staring at the sun.
Hayden Kennedy is survived by his parents Michael and Julie Kennedy. Inge Perkins is survived by Heidi Hersant (mother), Steve Perkins (father), Gunnar Perkins (older brother), Katrina Perkins (younger sister), Jim Carter (“bonus father,” husband to Heidi Hersant), C.J. Carter (“bonus brother,” son of Carter), Barbara Hersant (grandmother, aka “Omi”) and many loving cousins, uncles and aunties and mountain partners.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) offers resources for those coping with bereavement: https://afsp.org/find-support/ive-lost-someone/. The JED Foundation provides some ideas for how to support people grieving: https://www.jedfoundation.org/someone-close-to-me-has-lost-someone-to-suicide/. Julia Samuel’s book, Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, contains in-depth and wide-ranging stories about mourning and recovery. Resources for anyone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide or who is concerned about someone who might need help can be found 24/7 by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or by texting “START” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.