Inside Climbing's Kennedy Dynasty
The Kennedy Family (Michael, Hayden, Julie); Credit: Michael Kennedy
Hayden in the Canadian Rockies. (credit: Jason Kruk)
With the exception of free soloing, no form of climbing is more dangerous than big-range mountaineering. Every enthusiast who goes after new routes on difficult, remote peaks must come to grips with the fundamental question: Is it worth the risk? And every mountaineer who keeps returning to the Himalaya, Alaska or the Andes comes up with his or her rationale as to why indeed the rewards outweigh the chances of getting killed.
Rare, however, is the case of a cutting-edge mountain climber becoming the parent of a son or daughter who, decades later, emerges as an equally ambitious athlete who takes on a new generation of big-range challenges. In these situations, the parent knows all too well about the inevitable close calls from leader fall, avalanche, hypothermia, falling rock, crevasse falls and the like. In such a relationship, the question, "Is it worth the risk?" takes on a vastly more complicated moral and emotional dimension.
The premier example of such a pairing in the United States is 60-year-old Michael Kennedy and his 22-year-old son Hayden.
From the late 1970s through the 1990s, Michael pulled off some of the most daring first ascents in Alaska, Pakistan, Nepal and India. His two most legendary exploits were an all-out assault on the north ridge of Latok I in the Karakoram, with an all-star cast of teammates (George Lowe, Jeff Lowe and Jim Donini), thwarted only 500 feet below the summit (still the high point 34 years later; after 20 subsequent attempts, the route remains unclimbed); and the long, intensely committed first ascent of the Infinite Spur on Alaska’s Mount Foraker, with George Lowe. Other landmarks in Michael’s career include two fine new routes on the north face of Mt. Hunter in Alaska, a new route on Ama Dablam near Everest, and the first alpine-style ascent of the northeast buttress of Thalay Sagar in India’s Garhwal Himalaya.
Equally legendary is Michael’s career as an editor. In 1974, he took over the editorship of Climbing magazine, and during the next 24 years transformed a kitchen-table rag into the leading mountaineering periodical of its era in the world.
In 1983, Michael married Julie Cerre. Seven years later, she gave birth to their only child, Hayden. They taught Hayden to climb on the crags near their home in Carbondale, Colorado, and the pastime gradually became a quest. By early 2010, at the age of 20, Hayden was succeeding on such monumental routes as the Super Canaleta on Patagonia’s Fitz Roy. He’s also climbed 5.14 on rock, but Hayden’s abiding passion today, like his father’s 35 years before, is technical new routes on some of the most difficult mountains in the world.
The year 2012 has shaped up as Hayden’s annus mirabilis. During the summer, he climbed two new routes in the Karakoram. The first on the east face of K7, one of the most stunning peaks in the area, and then a new route on the Ogre, the peak made famous by Doug Scott’s incredible retreat from just below the summit with two broken ankles in 1977.
Already Hayden has had a few narrow squeaks. On the Ogre, one teammate became seriously ill and had to be helped down the mountain. And on the notoriously treacherous north face of North Twin in the Canadian Rockies in 2011, too short on gear to rappel the route, Hayden and Canadian climber Jason Kruk had to make a desperate traverse to escape the great wall in the midst of an all-out snow storm.
In January 2012, Kennedy and Kruk found themselves at the eye of a storm of international controversy, after they chopped some 125 bolts on Cesare Maestri’s infamous Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia. They had hoped to restore the mountain to something like the pristine glory that once warranted it the title of “the hardest mountain in the world.” Though many climbers cheered Kruk and Kennedy’s act, others were savage in their condemnation. The two young climbers were called “assholes” and compared to the Taliban, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Neither Kruk nor Kennedy anticipated such vitriolic attacks, and both were wounded by the viciousness of their critics.
As of the fall of 2012, however, Hayden has his sights set on yet more extreme challenges in the great ranges. And Michael and Julie remain his staunchest supporters.
The Active Times’ regular contributor David Roberts recently caught up with Michael Kennedy to ask him some hard questions about being a former world-class climber who watches his son follow in his footsteps. Click to read the Q&A.
Hayden Kennedy (center) and friends. (collection/photo courtesy of Black Diamond Equipment)