Last Saturday, Inge Perkins and Hayden Kennedy were six miles into a backcountry skiing hike up to the top of Imp Peak, a mountain in Montana’s Madison Range, when they triggered an avalanche. The slide was 300 feet long and 150 feet wide at a depth of one to two feet, and both Perkins and Kennedy were swept up in the wall of onrushing snow and taken to the bottom of the slope. Kennedy was partially buried, and he dislodged himself from the snow and tried to find Perkins, who was fully buried. She had an avalanche beacon, but it’s not clear whether or not it was turned on.
After fruitlessly searching for her, Kennedy hiked out of the area to find help. But he never called 911, and authorities only found Perkins’s body after Kennedy committed suicide and left a detailed note telling them where she could be found. He was 27 years old, and she was 23.
Perkins and Kennedy were each renowned climbers, and Perkins was also an accomplished skier. The couple was living in Bozeman, which is where Perkins grew up and won accolades for her backcountry skiing and climbing skills. She was a professional climber with prominent sponsorships and a series of tricky climbs under her belt, including the second ascent of a 5.14A sport climbing problem (Vesper) at the Fins in Montana. The same week she crushed Vesper, she also finished a 20-mile backcountry skiing traverse with 13,000 feet of vertical gain.
Perkins was finishing a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and education, while Kennedy was in Bozeman working on his EMT certification. Kennedy has long been regarded as one of the best climbers in the world, and in 2014, Elevation Outdoors said he “may be the best young climber on the planet.” He was born into a climbing family—his mother ran the 5Point Adventure Film Festival and his father edited Climbing magazine for 30 years—and he was cruising through 5.14 sport routes as a 16-year-old, which is part of why he became a full-time adventure athlete after finishing high school.
Kennedy was notoriously media-shy and didn’t document much of his accomplishments on any online platform, a rarity in the climbing world. When Outside tried to interview him in 2013 he told them, “My passion for climbing is my own experience and doesn’t need to be blow[n] out of portion.” He didn’t really need to blow anything out of proportion, as the bare physical specs of his historic ascents are awe-inspiring enough. In 2012 alone, Kennedy charted a new route up the east face of K7 as well as another fresh route on the south face of the Baintha Brakk, two peaks over 22,700 feet near K2 in Pakistan’s imposing Karakoram range. Baintha Brakk is famously difficult, and 24 years passed between the first ascent and the second.
He has plenty of other first ascents, although his most prominent piece of climbing was an act of removal. In 2012, Kennedy and Jason Kruk climbed up the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre, an iconic spire on the border of Chile and Argentina. On their way down, they removed 125 bolts from the mountain, bolts that controversial Italian climber Cesare Maestri used in his 1970 ascent of the tower. Maestri claimed to have climbed the tower in 1959, although later ascents cast doubt on his claim, and he only vaulted up the mountain in 1970 because he drilled some 400 bolts into the rock and used them as a ladder. In a 1971 essay entitled “The Murder Of The Impossible,” legendary explorer Reinhold Messner admonished Maestri for cheating, rhetorically asking “Who has polluted the pure spring of mountaineering?”
Kennedy and Kruk’s removal of the bolts was an attempt to reclaim that “pure spring.” They noted that climbers had to use bolts, just not so many that they erased any of the uncertainty or difficulty of climbing.
There had been a lot of talk over the years about chopping the compressor bolts. Undoubtedly, it is a lot easier to talk about it than to actually do it and deal with the consequences. After a lengthy introspection on the summit, we knew the act needed to be initiated by one party, without consensus.
Reasonable use of bolts has been a long-accepted practice in this mountain range. Often, steep, blank granite would be folly without the sparing using of this type of protection … Five bolts for 400 seemed like a pretty good trade to us. Our ultimate goal was respect for the mountain …
The question that remains is why? Maestri’s actions were a complete atrocity. His use of bolts and heavy machinery was outrageous, even for the time. He stole [his] climb from the future.
Both were arrested by Argentinian police and tsk-tsked by certain swaths of the climbing press, but the Cerro Torre incident is a good window into the sort of person Kennedy seemed to be. He had utter reverence for the power and beauty of the outdoors, and ultimate respect for the inherent danger of pushing into uncharted physical territory.
A week before his death, Kennedy published a heartfelt essay on his trip to climb Logical Progression, a famed route in Mexico’s Sierra Madre range, and the subsequent deaths of two of the climbers who went with him on the trip. It’s a powerful story of adventure and climbing a large rock, but more than anything, it’s about friendship and the fragility of a life spent on the edge. Both he and Perkins lived that life, right until the very end.
Here’s Kennedy, in his own words.
Over the last few years, however, 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. This is the painful reality of our sport, and I’m unsure what to make of it. Climbing is either a beautiful gift or a curse.
This is a story about the day we sent Logical Progression, a big-wall route in Mexico. The route was amazing, but it wasn’t all that hard. The experience was incredible because I was with three good friends: Chris Kalous, Kyle Dempster, and Justin Griffin.
There’s no easy way to say this, but half that team is now dead.
I think about Kyle and Justin all the time. Their absence from this world is felt by so many who are left in a wake of confusion, anger, and frustration.
In many ways, I am still processing what has happened to my dear friends. Waves of sadness overwhelm me at times, making it hard to stand up or focus. At other times I am able to think only of the enchanting adventures, contemplative conversations, and the simple yet enriching moments we shared as friends. These pendulum shifts between various emotions will never go away, as I am starting to learn.
I see both light and dark in climbing. Through this recognition, true learning begins and a full awareness of the brevity of our time becomes clearer. It’s difficult to accept the fact that we cannot control everything in life, yet we still try, and maybe our path changes to something totally unexpected.
I am still in the process of finding my own path, and I’d be lying if I said these deaths haven’t affected its direction. How does climbing fit into “real life”? If we only take the surface level experience—endlessly chasing the next hardest project, the next most futuristic alpine objective—then, in my opinion, climbing becomes too much of a selfish pursuit.
Maybe the most genuine aspects of any tale are the sputterings and the silences, the acknowledgments of failure, the glimmerings in the dark. And maybe one genuine reason to try to share our stories about days we actually send something, when we are alive and at the height of our powers, is to try to bring back what’s past, lost, or gone.
Perhaps by doing so, we might find some light illuminating a new way forward.