May 2008: 17-year-old Hayden Kennedy, Jonas Waterman, and I were a few pitches up El Cap’s El Niño (VI 5.13 b/c A0), a notoriously runout, nearly-free route on El Cap’s steep southeast face. The wall looked absolutely huge from our belay stance a few hundred feet off the ground.
Hayden stepped off the anchor and headed into one of the first few cruxes—near vertical face climbing with minuscule handholds and little crystals for footholds. He moved quickly, confidently, and when he got into big-fall territory on hard climbing he simply “journeyed on,” as he said. It didn’t take long to see that Hayden, on his first El Cap route, was the future of climbing. Here was a kid ticking off 5.14s at Rifle every few weeks, with a solid lead head, and miles and miles of hard and varied climbing under his belt. I was impressed.
Then Hayden and I drove out to Yosemite that May, he pointed out towers that he’d climbed long before he “officially became a climber,” when he began taking the sport seriously at age 13 or 14.
“I grew up climbing with my dad when I was super young. But I wasn’t that into it,” he tells me. “Then as a teenager I did more sport and trad climbing. When I was in high school, when I met you, I started climbing with other people then, and not just my dad, and that’s when I became my own climber. Know what I mean?”
Hayden has it in his genes. He’s the son of Julie and Michael Kennedy. Michael, a renowned alpinist in his own right, established such routes as the Moonflower Buttress on Mt. Hunter among others. He has completed countless first ascents on ice and rock and was editor-in-chief at Climbing magazine for 30 years. Hayden graduated from high school at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colorado, and decided to pass on college for that moment, and just focus on his passion: To climb how he wanted to, where he wanted to. Oh, how he has succeeded.
“My first expedition, I went to Patagonia in 2009-2010. I turned 20 there. I’ve been there three more times. I climbed Fitz Roy my first year, and then smaller peaks and started free climbing peaks.”
To sustain a living Hayden works like anyone else—just not a regular job. “I work for sure,” he says. “I have the sponsorship gig, and I hang Christmas lights, paint. I’ve worked at a bar, consignment work, odd jobs and different stuff.”
Kennedy relies on grants from the outdoor industry to fund his expeditions. “We got the AAC [American Alpine Club] Mountain Fellowship grant my first year. I also got a grant to go to the Bugaboos one time. That was pretty cool.”
n recent years, Kennedy has grown as an alpinist, climbing more towers in the Fitzroy massif, including a near bolt-free first ascent of the southeast face of Cerro Torre. It was an ascent that proved controversial due to their removal of over 100 bolts of the neighboring Compressor Route when they rappelled down the wall. Back in town, they were threatened by locals, arrested, and spent the night in jail for removing the bolts.
His career highlights include the first ascent of Carbondale Short Bus (named after his van) a 5.14- in Indian Creek; an ascent of the notoriously runout Bachar/Yerian 5.11c R/X; climbing a new route up K7, followed by a new route up the South Face of the Ogre (Baintha Brakk), a formation near K2, topping out at 7,285 meters that had only been previously climbed twice. In May, he and Nik Berry made a 10-hour all-free ascent of the Hallucinogen Wall (VI 5.13+ R) in Colorado’s Black Canyon.
Regarding Hayden’s ascents of K7 and the Ogre in the same season, Berry stated that Kennedy had “probably had the best season of climbing in alpine history. Its ridiculous. It’s so fun climbing with Hayden Kennedy. He’s such a rad, humble dude. He has this lighthearted attitude about everything. And super-psyched as well. His skill base is insane. This kid can climb everything. He doesn’t get super pissed if it’s not his day or things aren’t going well or whatever. He doesn’t throw wobblers. He’s just like ‘whatever, I’ll come back or not come back, it’s not a big issue.’”
Hayden takes it in stride: “I’ve had lots of big adventures and lots of close calls. In 2011 Jason Kruk and I tried to climb the North Face of North Twin. It was scary. We got caught in bad weather. It was too dangerous to rappel off and we had to traverse off. We spent a few nights out in the open without enough bivvy stuff. I don’t know if I would call that an epic. We got out of that unscathed.”
Regarding his success rate of climbing big mountains, Hayden says, “I think alpine climbing comes down to 40 percent luck, 40 percent motivation, and 20 percent skill. You have to be really motivated to do that. You have to be able to climb pitches that aren’t that good. You’re just climbing to the top of these things instead of the next pitch. You just keep building and dealing with the bad rock and deal with whatever. I feel if you’re really motivated to do it you can just keep doing it. I don’t really know.”
I ask him how he does it and his reply sums up what makes him so special: “I’m just trying to have fun and not take it too seriously.” Indeed, Hayden Kennedy’s career is going to be fun.