Blogging should be personal, sharing, deep. Right? I’ve struggled with those things for years. Gear reviews are easy. Dropping your heart on paper is hard. Allow me to make the shift — at least for a moment. Many of you know the tragic story of our family friend Hayden Kennedy’s recent death. We’ve been hit hard by this — as have many others. I’ve struggled with writing about it. But in the end, with help from friends and loved ones, I’ve come to know that sharing memories of those departed helps the living to find renewal.
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now
You’re gonna wanna hold me
Just like I always told you
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone
Nobody here will ever find me
But I’ll always be around
— Billy Joe Shaver
I dream: Julie Kennedy pulls up next to our home in Carbondale. She’s driving a van, a version of the camper Hayden custom built with his father Michael, and used for his road trips. It’s a complicated vehicle, dreamscape delivery rig and RV rolled into one. She clicks through our backyard gate and meets me on our deck.
“Hey Lou Dawg,” Julie says in her excited way of sharing, of making it sound like she’s offering a special tidbit of information just between you and her, “There’s something in there you’ve got to see — over on the passenger side.”
I head out the gate, walk around the front of the van, and lean into the open front window. He’s there, Hayden at about five years old. He’s relaxed, serene; engaging my look with those enormous eyes he had at that age. Our silent appointment lasts a dream hour, eye to eye. The overarching emotion is peace.
“Nobody here will ever find me…but I’ll always be around.” Shaver’s song echos.
When I wake, the dream is vivid. My heart tells me I’ve seen Hayden in one of myriad ways he’ll be remembered by all of us who were around his family these past decades — but mostly by his parents — as a spirited yet contemplative child, taking in the world with a tranquil gaze, embracing such life as he’d been given.
My friendship with Hayden wasn’t as deep or nuanced as for some of you reading this. It had more to do with him being a mountain boy of similar age and inclination as our own son, as well as being the child of good friends, folks I’d hung out with in Aspen during my formative years as a climber. His father, Michael, came to Colorado in 1971, involved in photography workshops and immediately immersing himself in Aspen’s vigorous alpinist culture. His mother Julie showed up around that time, an enthusiastic ski instructor who embraced our mountain valley, found her beau in Michael, and never left.
As he became an adult I began relating to Hayden as a climber — with great pride that my buddy’s boy had become so good at the game (he’s been acknowledged as one of the best all-around climbers in the country). He was humble in his success; calling his father a “badass” and referring to his dad’s alpinist peers in the same way. That was pure Hayden, to value the concept of “respect” whether he deferred to El Capitan or his elders.
I cherish the times Hayden was generous in helping me understand modern alpinism. A favorite of such conversations feels like yesterday. I’d been fascinated (if not thoroughly terrified) by the story of Alex Honnold free solo climbing El Capitan. Hayden had been up there plenty (on a rope, thankfully), so I accosted him to explain, exactly, the crux moves Honnold climbed without a cord. The ensuing exclamation was thorough and amusing, including classic climber’s hand gestures that mimicked the required bodily contortions.
Ultimately, thanks to Hayden’s sharing, I got the gist: Hang onto a sloping little granite shelf with your right hand, move to nothing else. “And for a bit there is nothing for your feet!” Along with that we did a bit of mutual head shaking and philosophizing about free solo rock climbing and pushing boundaries in mountain sports, with no clear conclusions, but definitely food for later thoughts on the matter. Clearly, Hayden was as much a thinker as an athlete.Along with his vibrant personality and talent as a climber, many of us will remember Hayden for his equally exuberant skiing. As our family is more one of skiing than of climbing, that’s the sport arena in which we connected with the Kennedy clan.
Hayden had grown up on “two planks,” of course, so his ski skills were that congenital mix you get if your parents slid you around their snowy backyard at the advanced age of two. Later, he’d taken a brief diversion to telemark and gained a few odd habits from that venerable discipline. I remember my first time skiing with Hayden as an adult, during a cabin trip high in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. I couldn’t help but crack a smile at his antics. He’d unweigh and initiate turns by flinging his long arms around like swords, all with vigorous deep knee bends and tall bodily extensions that were clearly as close to telemark turns as you could get with your heels locked down. The overall effect was enhanced by his towering, gangly climber physique and a snow caked grin. Hayden tightened up his form over ensuing years to become a smooth and powerful alpine skier. Yet every time I see ski photos of him from those early days, I light up with nostalgia for the innocent crazy days of youth.
I’m tempted to end here with a lightweight circle back to Shaver’s song, but in view of hearts broken with cracks deep and wide as the gulf between El Capitan and Cathedral Spires, everything seems banal.
This one for example: “Hayden, as you ski onward with perfect form, we know you’ll always be around.”
But will he really be — around?
It is said we honor the departed — and create a form of eternal life — by keeping memories of them in our hearts. Moreover, I believe when we encounter a deceased person in a dream we’re experiencing the actual individual, not a construct. Visiting in his van was the Hayden his parents and their friends cherished so much during his youth — the child within that remained so wonderfully evident in Hayden’s spirited adult persona. But that’s just belief, the verity of which will be known to all of us only after we pass. Until then, in this life, Hayden lives forever in our memories, in our dreams — and in spirit. He is always around.
In memory of Hayden, his parents, Michael and Julie, established the Hayden Kennedy Public Lands Defense Fund, check it out.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.