A Day with Hayden Kennedy

Hayden Kennedy belays Ben Yardley on Fault Line, a 5.13d testpiece at the Puoux  outside Glenwood Springs, Colo., on Feb. 14. Photo courtesy of Andrew Bisharat/eveningsends.com.

Hayden Kennedy belays Ben Yardley on Fault Line, a 5.13d testpiece at the Puoux outside Glenwood Springs, Colo., on Feb. 14. Photo courtesy of Andrew Bisharat/eveningsends.com.

I’ve known Hayden Kennedy since he was 15 at least, maybe longer. I was about 25 when I first met him, this psyched kid pal-ing around with the adults at Rifle Mountain Park. He was sending 5.13 well before he got his driver’s license.

The world came to know him in 2012 when he made the first “fair means” ascent of the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre with Jason Kruk. That was when they chopped a great deal of Cesare Maestri’s controversial 1970 Compressor Route. Maestri had used an air compressor to drill his way up the mountain with a line of bolts, and the global climbing community had debated chopping it ever since. (Click here for more on Maestri’s shady relationship with Cerro Torre.) Kennedy and Kruk had the gumption to take action on the matter in light of their ascent that did not use Maestri’s bolt ladder.

The cops in El Chalten put Kennedy and Kruk in jail when they got down from the climb, but not so much because they were in legal trouble; it was more for their safety. Because there’s no telling what a sudden angry mob might do. Both sides of the chop/don’t-chop debate were reignited across the world; there’s plenty of media surrounding the incident for the history books to consider. Naturally, there was an avalanche of Internet threats and comments accusing Hayden and Kruk of being egotists.

I can’t help but chuckle at the accusation of Kennedy being an “egotist.”

Allow me to share with you a recent Wednesday afternoon with “HK.”

He’s now 25 years old. He never pretended to go to college, instead he saved that money to travel the world and climb. It appears to have been a very sound investment, for he has an informed worldview based on first-hand experience that surpasses the global awareness of most of the people I meet.

For a guy who slays the sickest mountains of his time, and dispatches 5.14 sport climbs as a matter of fitness routine, HK could get much more attention than he does, and it would be well deserved. But he has an aversion to publicity. Just last summer, he considered if his status as a pro climber was worth it when it came to self-promotion. He had a Facebook account before the Cerro Torre eruption, but not for long afterward. He was already a bit shy of media attention before that, and now more so. Here’s a guy who could be handed a lot more fame and fortune with just a little more marketing on his part, but who has chosen a different path. Yet he still holds status as a top climber because that is exactly what he is. Just is. He’s always been a climber and he is as self-aware as any young 20-year-old I’ve met, or even 30-year-old, for that matter.

“You don’t go to the mountains for fame,” he said in the car last year. “You go there to suffer and get scared and learn about yourself.”

I immediately grabbed onto that quote. I agree with it very much, but I can remember some climbs when I lost sight of what I was really chasing at the beginning.

I still see that light in Hayden. Such is my story of our day at a dead-bird crag called the Puoux, which lies off Interstate 70 just east of Glenwood Springs, Colo.

As many readers of this site are probably aware, I’m recovering from open-heart surgery that was done last October. Three and a half months after the operation, I got the doctor’s green light to climb again, as long as it was on toprope.

My first day back on rock was a sunny Saturday at the Puoux. I knew several friends would be there, cranking any variety of the hard pitches at the crag. I just didn’t know which friends. I figured I could roll out there solo and catch a toprope on a couple of their warm-ups, which pretty much always consist of a particular 11c called Youth and a 12a called Urban Cowboy. I wasn’t sure I could climb that hard off the couch – I barely managed two pull-ups a couple days before – but I knew the moves of my old warm-ups well enough that I felt safe to simply try them and see how my body felt. Five of my favorite people greeted me when I arrived.

HK gave me a high five. He and Andrew “AB” Bisharat immediately asked what I would like to climb. AB gladly racked up and hung my rope on Youth, which was fitting, because he was the last friend to belay me before I went to Denver for open-heart surgery (he wrote an article about it here). Thus, my surgery and recovery had essentially come full circle; I was climbing again, almost like the surgery barely happened. I floated Youth, feeling better than I had dared to hope.

Hayden then towed my rope to the top of Urban Cowboy, a steep route sustained with long pulls between drilled jugs. I floated that, too! I did another lap almost to the top and called it a great day.

The next day, I ran into HK during his trail run and he enthusiastically offered to hang more topropes for me. Uh, thanks!

He picked me up at home three days later.

“Is it cool if my dog comes along?” I asked as we loaded into his van.

“Sure! … Wait – do you have anything to cover up some screws that are sticking out of the floor?”

He seemed more concerned than I was about a distant chance of the dog getting hurt on some screw tips that were barely poking up behind the front seats.

Hayden hung my topropes and soon we were hiking up the hill to his mini-project, a soaring 13d called Fault Line.

The route often has a line of suitors, and I’d never seen anyone actually send it even though I myself have been projecting it for years. In fact, I know some talented climbers who sent the famous 5.14b to the left (Gutless Wonder) in fewer tries than it took them to send Fault Line.

HK had only been on Fault Line three times before and approached it with a humble demeanor that belied respect for its difficulty. He’d been on a ski trip to Japan and was just getting back into shape. He tied in as shade stole over the blue-streaked headwall and semi trucks growled into a tunnel on the highway below.

“We’ll see if I’m any stronger since Saturday,” he said. “I doubt it.”

He hopped off the yellow dirt and latched the opening dyno. Even I forgot about the traffic sounds and heard only silence as the 6′ 1″ Hayden monkeyed his way cleanly up the wall. I could tell how pumped he was by how fast he climbed, but that was the only indication of difficulty, even when I shorted him on slack for the crux clip near the end, causing him to drop the rope and try again (oops!).

No harm, no foul, apparently. He didn’t say a word about it when I lowered him. And he wasn’t about to say a word of his send when some friends came up the hill and asked how it went. I couldn’t help spraying for him. He deserved some props, and not just for his send, but also for his low-key style. We stayed and cheered another friend on his redpoint attempt, then hiked down. We passed some more friends and Hayden still wasn’t about to say a word of how he stomped that mother of a sport climb on his fourth try.

On the way back to the car, we passed a slab of dinky sport climbs on solid, blue limestone.

“You, know, I’ve never climbed any of these,” he said.

“Really? They’re pretty good. I climb them with [my fiancée] all the time.”

“Do you want to do this one right now?” he said, already excited for more climbing, even though it was but a toenail of the world-class route he just sent. He was legitimately stoked to climb a 5.9 that was beautiful for its rock quality but otherwise piddly in terms of its length and position.

I don’t often see such genuine stoke for climbing in general, not to mention from a guy who gets to enjoy routes most of us will only dream of touching. Likewise, it’s rather common to hear climbers pay lip service to the fact that “it’s not about the grade, it’s about the experience.” I’ve said it myself quite a few times. But if I’m honest, I remember plenty of times when that wasn’t completely the case inside my heart.

As for Hayden’s part in the gory spotlight of the Internet forums, he’s shrugged it off from the beginning, as far as I can tell. The slander of angry strangers just doesn’t have anything to do with his climbing or his self-respect. It can’t hold him down, and in a perfect world, we’d all rise above it.

If you want to elevate yourself, you have to leave the trash behind, or you won’t be able to hold onto the things that are pure and good. The route of joy is so simple and yet so often overlooked. A climber like HK reminds me of what I love most about climbing.

Derek Franz writes a blog for SplitterChoss.com once a month. To find more of his writing, visit www.derekfranz.com.

5 Responses to A Day with Hayden Kennedy

  1. Derek, very nice piece, I enjoyed it.

    So glad your heart surgery went well and you are back at it!

    Lee S

    Lee Sheftel March 10, 2015 at 6:49 pm
  2. Great piece of writing! Good to know you are back on a rope and that young Hayden knows who he is and who he wants to be.
    I miss seeing you all at the crag! Maybe this year : )

    piz March 11, 2015 at 7:44 am
  3. Thanks, guys. I look forward to seeing you back at the cliffs, too!

    Derek Franz March 11, 2015 at 3:30 pm
  4. Great story! Sounds like a rad guy. Listened to him and Chris Kalous a few times on the enormocast (shoutout!) and they’re kind of a crack up together.

    Calder March 12, 2015 at 11:39 am
  5. It’s really nice to read a genuine article about a humble young crusher. Albinist who float hard sport routes are few and far between. I think the mountains breed modesty, which is far more beautiful then self proclaimed egoism.

    Derek, I wish you the best of luck on your recovery. Your story is inspirational.

    Alex Motal December 6, 2015 at 10:37 am
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