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Hayden Kennedy, On a Rare Ascent of The Ogre

A young alpinist raised on climbing’s heroic tales finds himself a player in his own story.

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This feature was first published in Ascent 2013. Sadly, Kyle Dempster disappeared with Scott Adamson, while attempting an ascent of the Ogre 2 in Pakistan. In 2017, Hayden Kennedy passed away after being caught in an avalanche with Inge Perkins in Montana.

Editor’s note: Just after sunset on July 13, 1977, Chris Bonington and Doug Scott topped out on the southwest face of Baintha Brakk (aka Ogre), a 23,900-foot granite and ice monolith in the Choktoi. They made their way down the summit slopes in the dark, then slung a rock frozen into the snow at the top of a steep, 150-foot wall. Scott rappelled first, angling sharply left and heading for a belay near the base. But as he reached to clip a piton, he stepped on a patch of water ice. His foot slipped and he swung wildly back right, smashing into A wall. In his classic story “A Crawl Down the Ogre,” Scott writes, “Glasses gone and every bone shaken. A quick examination revealed head and trunk OK, femurs and knees OK but—Oh! Oh!—my ankles cracked whenever I moved them.”

Over the next seven days Scott literally climbed down the Ogre on his knees. Delayed by storms, the team ran out of food, their feet and hands froze, Bonington rapped off the ends of his rope, broke his ribs and contracted pneumonia. At one point the climbers were reduced to digging up their trash and eating the dregs of boiled rice mixed with cigarette ash. But they never despaired, just kept working their way down, and through a rare combination of toughness and teamwork they all survived. 

A year later, in 1978, Michael Kennedy, Jim Donini, George Lowe, and Jeff Lowe found themselves in a similar fix. High above the Choktoi glacier, within spitting distance of the Ogre, just shy of the summit of the unclimbed Latok 1 (23,442 feet), the team confronted a difficult decision. Jeff Lowe was sick and getting worse, but with only easy slopes separating the climbers from the top of one of the world’s hardest peaks, the choice to bail had to be weighed. After a quick conference they decided to forego the summit and get Jeff down.

Twenty attempts and 24 years passed before the Ogre was climbed again, and the north ridge of Latok 1 is still unclimbed. In the summer of 2012, Hayden Kennedy (Michael’s son), Kyle Dempster and Josh Wharton found themselves on the Choktoi glacier contemplating an ascent of Latok 1. Deterred by the objective hazards on Latok, they changed goals and set their sights on a first ascent of the South Face of the Ogre, and the third ascent of the mountain. But as Wharton battled altitude sickness, his condition deteriorating, Hayden found himself facing a situation eerily similar to his father’s conundrum on Latok, a choice that he had contemplated for as long as he had climbed mountains: With the summit in sight, would he leave a sick partner behind and climb on, or turn back?

Dempster and Wharton climb easy mixed terrain on day one. Photo: Hayden Kennedy.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. Our freshly sharpened crampons bit the ice like sharks’ teeth. We moved quickly across the icefall, knowing that once the sun hit the mountains, all hell would break loose. Josh Wharton and Kyle Dempster crested the final rise and raced off out of sight. I stopped to admire the Latok group and the Ogres, and remembered why I had traveled so far. I am not a spiritual person but these mountains have a powerful vibe. Avalanches roar in the distance, the wind bites cold, rock breaks, and ice shatters. These mountains are loud and alive. They don’t speak English or Urdu. To step into their presence is simply wild.

In the basin between the Ogre 2 and the Ogre 1 we established a safe camp for the rest of the day. The sun beat down on our tent as we all piled into the small space to escape the heat. I couldn’t sit still. My mind twisted and turned. I was the youngest at 22 and the least experienced. I found myself thinking about the coming days and tried to anticipate each moment. Dinnertime came slowly. Dehydrated pasta sat heavy in my stomach as I lounged in silence. This was Josh’s ninth trip to Pakistan. I wondered what was going on in his head. Was he nervous, too?

Sleep finally overcame my restless mind. Bizarre dreams of unknown worlds and fierce battles. Wind and snow raged through the high peaks as I floated high in the clouds. Blades of iron and steel crashed around me. The sound of Josh’s alarm jolted me awake.

It’s hard to get out of your sleeping bag when you’re looking into the darkness and know that you have nearly 11,000 feet of climbing ahead of you, but once our feet crossed the bergshrund we spanned a mental line where doubt became determination. At midnight we stepped off the safety of the glacier and into the unknown. The Ogre was in charge.

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