Q&A: Climber Michael Kennedy on Mountains, Risk and His Rising Son Hayden

Two extreme mountaineers share a love of one of the most dangerous sports

Hayden and Michael Kennedy; Photo Credit: Michael Kennedy

With the exception of free soloing, no form of climbing is more dangerous than big-range mountaineering. Michael Kennedy, who made daring first ascents from the late 1970s through the 1990s, knows the hazards. But as his equally ambitious 22-year-old son Hayden begins his climbing career, the question Is it worth the risk? takes on new meaning.  Special contributor David Roberts conducted an in depth Q&A with Michael Kennedy on climbing, risk and family. Read his full introduction here and the complete conversation below.  

To see a slideshow of Hayden Kennedy's recent climbs, check out this story.

In your prime, on “out there” expeditions such as the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker in Alaska or your attempt on Latok I in Pakistan, you learned firsthand just how dangerous extreme mountaineering is, and how objective danger is always beyond your control. Why would you wish the same on your son and only child?
I'll admit to a bit of rationalization—some would call it denial— when it comes to “how dangerous extreme mountaineering is.” In my view the risks are almost entirely subjective and relative to the climber's experience, fitness, technical ability and state of mind. Simply put, a route that would be suicidal for one person can be quite safe, even easy, for another.

There are certainly many objective dangers to deal with—bad weather, rock fall, avalanches, illness—but these can be minimized by planning, preparation and paying close attention to what's happening around you. So I don’t agree with the idea that “objective danger is always out of your control." It's important to recognize, though, that luck is a factor. Sometimes you have to roll the dice. And we all make mistakes—you can stray too close to the edge or end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So yes, “extreme mountaineering” (a simplistic description I detest) is a dangerous and perhaps foolish pursuit. Yet the experiences I’ve had in the mountains are among the most profound and powerful of my entire life. Why wouldn’t I want Hayden to feel the same wonder and joy, the same intensity, the same sense of being in the present?

Hayden started climbing with you and Julie at age three, and leading at age eight. You’ve said it was just a matter of bringing him along on family outings—it could also have been skiing, or hiking, or kayaking. Please elaborate.
We were fortunate to be able to travel together a lot as a family when Hayden was young. We went to Thailand when he was six years old, and again when he was eight. We spent a month in the Dolomites when he was seventeen. Our summer road trips were especially memorable. We’d spend a week or ten days climbing at City of Rocks, Idaho, then go to Ketchum to mountain bike and Boise to kayak, and on through Montana and into western Canada. Just mixed it up and kept it fun, camping out and exploring for six or eight weeks. Hayden’s friend Jake Sakson, who has also fully embraced the itinerant skier/kayaker/climber life, traveled with us for three summers. Those were really magical times.

Hayden was obviously hooked on climbing by the age of eighteen. You said he graduated from high school and went straight to Yosemite. Was he emulating your career path, or had he independently discovered what mattered most to him?
Hayden has always been an independent thinker so it was no surprise when he decided to climb rather than go to college. I think he came to it on his own. I never was a full-time climber so he’s hasn’t followed a path similar to mine so far.

My trajectory was pretty typical for a climber in the 1970s. After I dropped out of college I started working right away and squeezed climbing trips into weekends and one- or two-week trips to the Wind Rivers, Yosemite, etc. Once I started going to Alaska and the Himalaya, in addition to editing Climbing magazine I worked construction and as a photographer’s assistant, did some guiding, and otherwise cobbled together the money, then took time off for expeditions. I always went back to work full-time after climbing trips.

Julie and I pushed Hayden pretty hard and basically told him he’d have to figure out how to make a living if he wasn’t going to college. He’s been financially independent since he graduated, aside from health insurance, which we still pay for. He’s still got his room at the house, and we enjoy having him around so we spoil him a bit when he’s home. But he makes enough money from his sponsors and odd jobs to live out of his van, and his expeditions are funded mostly through grants.

Hayden knows he is very fortunate to be able to climb full-time, but he also recognizes that he’ll have to come up with Plan B someday. We’ll certainly help him when he goes to school, or starts a business or whatever, assuming, of course, that we don’t spend all the money in the meantime!

You and Hayden have had long, in-depth talks about the risks in mountaineering. You’ve identified experiences each of you had that were cutting it too close. What’s allowed this candor and honesty between you?
Julie and I have always tried to be honest and straightforward with Hayden about all sorts of things. Even when he was very young, we’d try to talk rationally about whatever subject came up. We encouraged him to make age-appropriate decisions right from the start. As he got older, it was natural to continue the practice.

Sex, drugs, rock and roll, climbing, life—they each have risks and rewards, and we’ve been open about all of that. At a certain point, you can’t really tell a child what to do any more. By the time high school rolls around, you need to have faith that your young adult will think things through and make good choices.

Hayden has had a number of experiences that I think have helped him to better understand and evaluate the choices he has to make in the mountains. When he was a sophomore at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, he fell while bouldering on the climbing wall and tore his ACL, an injury that took him out of climbing and skiing for close to six months. He was around the corner on another climb when a friend decked on a sport climb and shattered his ankles. A few years later he was caught in a thunderstorm while soloing the regular route on Fairview in Tuolumne Meadows.

Since then he’s been more cautious in some ways and bolder in others. He and Jason Kruk got high on the North Face of North Twin in the Canadian Rockies and had to descend in bad weather with little gear. It was a great experience, but maybe a little close to the edge. Ditto later that summer retreating from K7, pounded by spindrift, and on the Ogre this year, when one of his partners got dangerously sick high on the mountain.

All these incidents taught him to take what he is doing more seriously, to plan well and train adequately, and to consider the consequences of any error in judgment. Valuable lessons that should help him have a long life in the mountains.

You never had any comparable rapport with your own father. Did that make it easier to go off and risk your life climbing? No obligation to justify it to your parents?
I’ll continue to argue with the idea that risk is the primary attraction or motivation or even factor in climbing. I’m very risk-averse. I hate being scared, and never found overtly dangerous climbs particularly compelling. I was always most interested in beautiful lines and hard technical climbing. And I never worried about justifying my climbing, to my parents or anyone else. It was simply a part of what I did.

What kind of pride do you get from Hayden's great climbs? Or do you just wince and feel grateful that he got away with it again? (Or both?)
Probably a combination of the two, although it’s more a sense of gratitude that Hayden is following his heart and experiencing the world in a very big way. As long as he stays humble and grounded, I’ll be happy.

How has Hayden handled the Cerro Torre controversy—especially the extremely vitriolic attacks from certain quarters?
Before he and Jason headed up on Cerro Torre Maestri’s bolts came up as a small part of our conversation about the climb, and I remember telling Hayden to just think things through before taking any action. He knew the chopping would piss some people off but I don’t think he realized how big of a deal it would be.

He’s pretty much over it by now, although the negative comments got him down for a while. A few weeks cragging in the desert and hanging out with his friends seemed to be the ticket.

Is Julie as okay with what Hayden’s doing in the mountains as you are? What’s her take on the whole business?
Julie was happy when Hayden just clipped bolts. After he started placing gear and getting interested in doing longer routes she warned me: “Don’t teach him how to ice climb or I’ll kill you.” She figured it was the gateway drug to alpinism. The first time Hayden put on crampons was in early December 2009, just before he went to Patagonia and climbed the Super Canaleta on Fitz Roy.

Julie had to live through many years of my expeditions and wasn’t all that excited when Hayden started venturing off into the big mountains. She’s come to understand and accept his drive for adventure. She gets a little more worried than I do when Hayden is on a big route, but we’re both very relieved when he’s back on flat ground.

Have any of your friends—especially non-climbers—criticized you for not reining in Hayden’s ambitions?
Julie gets more of this than I do. My basic answer when it comes up is that I’d rather see Hayden out climbing, seeing the world and doing something he really cares about than going to classes he can’t stand and partying at CU. And really, how do you “rein in” a 22-year-old’s ambitions?

Do you personally feel at this stage of your life that climbing is worth the risk?
It was for me for a great many years. I climbed because if felt good to be present and focused and using my body in a natural and unconstrained manner. Big climbs take you to places emotionally, physically and spiritually you’d have a hard time getting to any other way. Peering over the edge attunes you to mortality, gives you a glimpse of the infinite. There is a sense of delight, mystery, discovery.

Risk is just a factor you have to deal with. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more mindful of the dangers, but that seems to me to be a natural part of aging. I haven’t alpine climbed in years, and my rock climbing now can be most charitably described as “recreational.” Same with everything else I do in the mountains. At 60, I don’t have the energy or desire to get too far out there, although I hope I can continue to climb, ski, hike and bike until the day I die.

In the end we each have to decide what we’re willing to sacrifice, what risks we’re willing to take in order to live a full life. Hayden has done a good job so far with all that and I don’t have any reason to believe he’ll falter.

Q. In our generation, no American could make a living from climbing. But Hayden’s on the verge of doing so. Does this loom as a false incentive? Same question with respect to celebrity. The best ascents in our day earned us no fame beyond the ingrown circles of other climbers and the specialty magazines, like your own Climbing. But an Alex Honnold now gets a feature splash in the New York Times or on 60 Minutes.
I’m ambivalent about the whole money and fame thing. It’s great that Hayden and quite a few other young American climbers can make enough to climb full-time, but if you’re in it for the money you’re in the wrong business. There isn’t enough in climbing to make a real difference, at least in the U.S.

Most sponsored climbers in this country aren’t going to retire on what they earn from climbing. Europe is a different story, although even there the best climbers make way less than mainstream athletes. And if you’re going to make a living at climbing nowadays, or even just pay for expeditions, you have to embrace being a celebrity to some degree. Blogging, starring in videos and being in the media constantly is just part of the job.

Where all this becomes a potentially dangerous distraction is at the higher levels of performance, particularly where the consequence of error is great. Free soloing, speed climbing big walls, highball bouldering, pretty much all alpine climbing—if you fall off you’re going to get badly injured or killed. Everything has to line up just right—partners, weather, conditions, fitness, health, psyche—especially in the high mountain environment. When you’re really operating at your limit, you don’t have a lot of room for worrying about how something will look in the pictures.

Q. Obviously you’ve derived great joy over the years from teaching your son to climb, and then from becoming his equal partner on the rope. Can you describe that?
The times when we were equal partners have long past, unfortunately. I can’t even do Hayden’s warmups nowadays, although we get out on easy routes together when we can. And I’ve gotten to be a pretty good belayer.


A photo from Hayden's recent adventures in Pakistan with Urban Novak and Kyle Dempster (courtesy Black Diamond Equipment)


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