“It was the nature of his profession that his experience with death should be greater than for most and he said that while it was true that time heals bereavement it does so only at the cost of the slow extinction of those loved ones from the heart’s memory which is the sole place of their abode then or now. Faces fade, voices dim. Seize them back, whispered the sepulturero. Speak with them. Call their names. Do this and do not let sorrow die for it is the sweetening of every gift.” —Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
In winter 2010, I attended a slideshow in Bozeman, Montana, given by Will Gadd. Only 33 at the time, I was gaining traction as a photographer. I was also still young enough that loss remained a mostly intangible concept, something that happened to other, more distant community members—not my immediate circle. Near the end, Gadd flashed on the screen a long list of friends who had perished in the mountains, followed by the above passage from McCarthy’s blood-soaked Western. The words hung there long enough to skim but not to fully comprehend—it would be years before that level of understanding flattened me like a steamroller.
Deaths on the periphery are just that—they don’t hit you in the gut. And like anyone who climbs (or lives) long enough, I’d experienced such losses plenty. It was a river with no end. Then, in 2016, I got leveled. That’s when two of my best friends from Utah, the leading alpinists Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson, went missing on Ogre II in Pakistan. Just over a year later, in October 2017, my friend Hayden Kennedy, a prodigious talent on rock and in the alpine, was gone as well, taking his life after his girlfriend, Inge Perkins, was buried and killed by an avalanche while they were skiing on Imp Peak in Montana.
As a documentarian of our sport, I’ve seen firsthand how much it can give … but also how much it can take. I’ve experienced bliss while documenting incredible first ascents, headpoints, redpoints, and everything in between. I’ve also had the hair on my neck stand electrified. I’ve been jolted by broken bolts and had my throat tickled with nausea from failed anchors. I’ve felt my palms sweat while watching climbers push their capabilities to razor-thin margins, and felt visceral terror as they broke holds high above gear. Nobody has ever died while I photographed them, but people whom I’ve photographed have certainly died climbing.
As I’ve grieved my friends, I’ve run through the usual litany of emotions—anger, despair, sadness, depression, confusion—we experience when someone is gone, especially so young. Kyle was only 33, Scott 35, and Hayden 27. I’d come to know them intimately, as friends, climbing partners, and photographic subjects.
Their deaths have tainted my view of the sport. I have a hard time finding motivation now; I’m still angry, and fear I always will be. When I do climb, it brings a smile to my face, for that is where I belong. But goddamn, that initial hurdle to just go climbing is huge. These are the contours of my grief, a world tilted off axis in which the approach has grown steeper and more treacherous.
One way I have found to cope is to share—and keep sharing—adventures with these friends I documented with my camera. I’m grateful to have these images to conjure up sensations of experiences long past. The emotions might disappear entirely without these visual clues. We, who are alive, are lucky to have the medium of photography to help us remember the dead. It is almost as if they are still with us, looking back from the page, reminding us to never let their faces fade or voices dim.
Hayden had that unique ability to create friendships with people from all walks of life—he genuinely cared. I can’t recall when we first met, but we moved in the same circles. Hayden and I often traveled abroad together, but my fondest memories center on our time at Indian Creek, Utah. I don’t care for the place anymore, it being predominantly overrun with the “gym to crag” generation, but Hayden was always able to look past the crowds to see the Creek’s true, innate beauty—the endless splitters, new-school faces and cracks, miles and miles of Wingate, and never-ending sunsets.
In February 2013, Hayden, Matty Segal, and Will Stanhope lured me down to the Creek with the promise of good climbing and cold beers. At the 4X4 Wall one morning, I shot photos of Hayden on his send of Carbondale Short Bus, at 5.14- R the area’s hardest pitch. That afternoon, we all ran over to Battle of the Bulge and I shot Will nabbing the FA of Down in Albion (5.13 R). What a day—two of Indian Creek’s hardest pitches going down! History. On another day, Hayden hung a rope for me so I could shoot his route Kokanee Corner (5.13+; three pitches) on the Bridger Jacks. He was apprehensive, as he’d already sent the crux pitch and didn’t see much reason to return to make photos; he had no desire to pose. I cited some bullshit about the need to document history, and in the end he capitulated.
Hayden was lanky, which meant I had to be careful when he neared the edge of the image or I’d turn him into Inspector Gadget with go-go eight-foot-long limbs. I learned to keep him in the middle or shoot tighter to reduce the distortion—this kept me honest. It prevented me from distorting reality too much, which as it turns out, I’ve gotten good at over the years. These days, really, I only need six feet of good rock to make a route look classic. Such is the artifice of the photographer.
We became friends even though Hayden despised media—which is how I make my living. Together, with an eye toward the sport’s rich history, we created imagery of wild places and wild climbs. From the Bozeman crew’s multi-pitch granite walls soaring above a raging river, to Hayden’s “rest-day” lap up Tague Yer Time (V 5.12) in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison after his one-day free ascent of the Hallucinogen Wall (V 5.13 R), to carefree cragging amongst the flowers and grassy plains of Wyoming or on the cobbly matrix of Maple Canyon, he gave himself to the present moment, to the people he loved. And he never got consumed or distracted by Instatweeting his face off.
When Hayden died, I didn’t make it to his funeral. After Scott and Kyle, I couldn’t face another memorial, and I knew I didn’t need to go to Imp Peak to understand what had transpired. I knew there would be nothing to find—only a small wind slab and nothing more.
I miss you, homie. You were a special soul. You were one of the good ones.
For years, Scott and I would bump into one another in the desert, but we were never more than acquaintances. We ran in different circles, him part of the Provo crew, Kyle and myself part of the Salt Lake scene to the north. It wasn’t until he came a-knockin’ about Zion National Park ice and The Zicicle, a mythical 300-foot pillar hidden in the deep shadows of a remote slot canyon, that we became friends. I filled him in with what I knew, and we shared the belief that there had to be more Zion ice out there. He spent many nights studying maps, and countless days questing about the upper drainages of Zion—I joined for many of them.
In January 2016, Scott and I decided to do a helicopter fly-over of Zion to see if there were any undiscovered treasure troves of ice. We left from the helipad in Hurricane, Utah, and then circled the upper reaches of the park. After an hour of searching, we realized that we’d discovered it all already—there remained nothing to unearth. In a way, this was a relief: We no longer had to worry about what was around the corner and instead could focus our energy on the existing lines while waiting for ideal conditions. Utah ice is fickle and Zion more so than the rest, which in the interim gave Scott ample opportunity to put up some of the state’s hardest mixed climbs amongst the overhanging daggers in Provo Canyon behind his childhood home.
From all our wintry days exploring, I found myself attracted to Scott’s wild side, which allowed us to create fantastic imagery of him leading verglas pasted to sheer sandstone walls. His go-for-it approach could be hair-raising, but Scott grew a lot as a climber and as a partner after coming home with a broken leg after his and Kyle’s first attempt on Ogre II in 2015. When they decided to return in 2016, I had no reservations about either their abilities or mindsets.
Scott’s wild side also attracted him to more comical adventures, making him a perfect match for the crazy party Kyle and I hosted each year on Super Bowl Sunday on the Great White Icicle in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Carry a bunch of firewood and a BBQ grill uphill through the snow and up two pitches of ice to have a fiesta on the midway belay platform?
Sure—you were always down.
I first met Kyle in January 2006 when he opened for a Mike Libecki slideshow at Our Lady of the Snows Chapel at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Kyle told a tragic tale, one of bringing his cousin, Drew Wilson’s, body home after he watched him rappel off the end of a rope while descending from an FA on Baffin Island. I remember odd details from that evening—the boxed wine out front, the bluegrass band, the way the words seemed to hang just a tad longer in the crisp mountain air. Later, I emailed Kyle to thank him for sharing his story, and he replied with a gracious thank you. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves on our first-ever climbing trip together, chasing waterfall ice in the Shuangqiao Valley in Sichuan, China.
As a photographer, I often feel like a safety net for the climber, an angel dangling above ready to swoop in if things get dire, but Kyle never viewed me as a way out. Early in the trip, we found ourselves in a tenuous situation. Kyle led up a chandeliered pillar that sounded desperately hollow, fighting for placements as he climbed. A fall was untenable—the gear was terrible in the rotten ice below. So I offered to bail him out. Between bouts of panting mixed with no breathing at all, Kyle politely declined. As I clicked frame after frame, I couldn’t help but notice his intensity, the grit of his teeth, the focus in his eyes as shards of ice flew past his head when he swung his tools. Kyle finished the pitch with a wicked pump—one of the gnarliest leads I’ve witnessed. I have no idea how he hung on, but he did. I never offered to bail him out again.
Kyle taught me so much—how to be a better human, a better father, and a better partner. To cut the bullshit and remain true to the meaningful aspects of life. He never bombarded me with it; he simply used subtle gestures, simple questions, and bits of conversation that seemed meaningless at the time but that formed a vast body of life wisdom, one that accrued the more we climbed together in Utah and across the globe.
After Scott and Kyle died, four of us went to the Choktoi Glacier at the foot of the Ogre to pay homage. There, in this hostile place surrounded by massive walls and hanging seracs, I stared up into the clouds, gazing toward the boys and wherever they might have ended up. Together, our little crew spent a week carving a 10-by-30-foot platform out of the hillside above basecamp, complete with benches and plaques—a simple place to sit and remember.
As I sat in our open-air chapel, I contemplated why I was there, and why Kyle and Scott had come to climb there. Ogre II sits at the head of the Choktoi, an icefall enclosed by such legendary peaks as the Ogres and the Latok Group. This is where the big boys in alpinism come. I found peace in knowing that in such a hostile and unforgiving arena, Kyle and Scott had picked one of the safest lines, free of almost all the objective dangers that threaten the other faces. I was proud of them—they had meant well.
You meant to come home.