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Into The Mind: Hayden Kennedy’s Bold Approach to Climbing

Wednesday, January 3, 2018
BD Ambassador Hayden Kennedy was bold in the mountains. His first ascents on the world’s towering peaks—from Pakistan to Patagonia—are his legacy, now left behind in the wake of his untimely death. In this article, BD Athlete Hazel Findlay shares an exclusive interview she conducted with HK on his approach to the mountains—giving a rare glimpse into the mind of a truly remarkable climber.

Hayden Kennedy died in October, 2017. His words are now that bit more precious. HK had a wisdom beyond his years which he bestowed not just in his words but in how he lived. For him, climbing was a huge part of life, but it was just a part. Hayden sought struggle, fear, discomfort, and risk to learn about himself. He wanted to face his own soul and see what lay there. He also liked to just have fun; to go to the crag and not let anything taint his experience. To enjoy the movement, the flow, his friends and go climbing just for the sake of going climbing. Although Hayden was not a huge fan of spraying over the internet, I feel that this interview below, written in 2015, is too precious to keep to myself. It would be too selfish to those who didn’t get the chance to meet him. It’s my opinion that although Hayden is now gone, we can still benefit from his words, what he believed in and how he lived.

Images: Andrew Burr

Into The Mind Interview

I can think of two types of situations in climbing: type one: perceived risk and type two: real risk. Do you like this distinction between climbing situations?

I would say that I understand the difference between these two types of situations, which is very important in my mind. I might be very nervous to take a “safe-fall” but I know that the likelihood of getting hurt is very low, so I am able to push past that fear and my nerves. On the other hand, when the fall is very serious, I must first understand these risks before I commit. Yes, I do like the distinction between the two situations. They are different and make me approach climbing in different ways.

Can you always manage the first type of situations (perceived risk)? Can you always fall mid-move (however big the fall) or might you get stressed sometimes and reverse a few moves or say “take?”

Sometimes I am a wimp and sometimes I am bold, haha! I guess that’s the joy of climbing. If I was always bold then maybe I wouldn’t find it as special.

How do you generally feel in these different types of situations?

When I am about to commit to a serious climb whether it’s a scary rock climb or a big alpine route, I must first look deep into myself and ask if I am ready for the experience. Am I ready for whatever this climb has to offer me, even if that means getting hurt or worse. If I feel ready and stoked for the climb than I generally enjoy the focus that is required in serious situations. Risky climbing has taught me a lot over the years. The purity of these moments are powerful and it’s not something I always want in my life but I am very glad that I can have them.

What are your methods for dealing with those situations? How do you approach them?

I need to feel ready for the chaos and have a fire that burns deep for the adventure before I commit. If I don’t feel the true motivation then it’s just not worth it for me. We all must face our egos and ask why we want this experience. Do we want this climb because it makes us look bad-ass? Do we want this climb because we are expected to rise to these challenges? Or do we want this climb because it’s very important for our souls? Lots of questions to go through and if we ignore them then there is no point in any of this. In my mind the beauty of scary climbing is going through this dialogue.

Do you feel like internal dialogue is something good to have whilst climbing (in general and in stressful situations) or do you try to find ways to switch it off? Does this differ in different situations?

I feel like this internal dialogue is a good thing for the most part. Sometimes it can be hard to separate the difference between “real fear” and “fake fear.” Obviously, before a big climb your internal dialogue will be running through all the bad things that could happen, but that is just normal fear in my mind. It’s good to have that fear, that’s part of the fun in pushing past that fear. The “real fear” is something that I can’t explain in words. It’s just a feeling … something deep within that doesn’t sit right and you can’t explain it.

How often do you engage in negative internal dialogue? Such as “there is no chance I'll do this route,” or “I'm too wimpy for this crag,” and “my biceps are way too small,” etc.

I guess not very much when I am rock climbing because I know it’s all just for fun. I like the failure aspect of climbing, it pushes me to become better. In the mountains I take my negative internal dialogue much more serious. I will say it again, if the true desire isn’t there then it’s just not worth it.

Do you feel braver when the climbing is hard enough to distract you or do you always feel more comfortable the easier the grade?

This is a good question. I have found sometimes that the easier grades can be the most dangerous. For example, last year in Yosemite I took a huge fall on the Nose on a 5.10 pitch. The reason I fell was because I wasn’t fully focused on the climbing and my mind was somewhere else. When the climbing is hard or at your limit you are 100% focused. In the mountains sometimes the “moderate terrain” can be horrible choss or badly protected, which can make 5.9 serious. To me grades just don’t really matter much because climbing is just climbing. Sometimes you might onsight 5.13 trad and the next day you fall on some 5.9 slab … who knows.

Do you like to focus on thinking rationally when climbing or do you trust your emotions/instincts to guide you?

It’s hard to say for sure whether my emotions/instincts are always right. I have certainly backed off from climbs because of my emotions even though my rational brain says it’s fine. Generally I feel like I trust my emotions when climbing and it seems to be working thus far.

How aware are you of being either in or out of your comfort zone? How much do you seek being out of your comfort zone? And why do you seek this? To intentionally stretch what’s comfortable for you or because you like the feeling of being scared?

I truly enjoy the “safe” aspects of climbing such as sport climbing for the pure physical pursuit and movement. But in the end this doesn’t make me tick as a climber for too long. I guess I enjoy the adventurous climbs and getting out of my comfort zone because it transcends just the physical side of climbing. The mental game is a huge part of why I climb. I very much enjoy digging deep on big routes and pushing my mind through the fear or pain. Maybe the most obvious thing I like about adventure climbing is the fact that it’s just you and your buddy in the wild! For me, I am able to connect with my partners and my surroundings in a much more powerful way when I am out in the mountains or on a big rock route. I just get sick of all the bullshit at the crags these days with people and their fucking iPhones! Everybody just talks about climbing and the constant stream of this BS social media is a buzz kill for me at the cliff. Why can’t we all just climb to just climb? Does everything need to be broadcasted? In the mountains or on long routes I can find some peace in the moment.

How much do you think your ego and self-image affects your climbing? For example if you're at the cliff and there are many people watching does this affect your climbing because you are worried what they might think?

This doesn’t affect me much at all. If I am having a bad day climbing and people are watching who cares? It’s all fun and games anyways and we are just lucky to live the way we do. I try and never let other people’s expectations get to me.

Would falling off what you perceive to be an easy grade bother you?

Not really.

What motivates you?

You wanna know what really motivates me? Haha! I am motivated by hard work to earn your keep. I am motivated by my friends who I have shared grand adventures with. I am motivated by good music. I am motivated by trying hard while climbing even when I am just not feeling strong. I am motivated by the experience of life and that includes the ups and downs. Fuck, climbing is only just one part of life. I am motivated by using what I've learned in climbing and applying those skills to other aspects of life.

How much do you set goals?

I am not very goal driven in my climbing.

How do you deal with failure and bad days? Are there ever tears or tantrums at the crag?

I will cry at the crag most days … haha!

What have you yet to overcome or need to work on? What are your weaknesses mentally?

I need stronger fingers for sure! Mentally I need to work on setting goals and sticking with them. It would help my climbing I think to have a stronger work ethic and start training.

What about your friends and other people you see at the crag, what do you think is holding them back?

Their iPhones.

How much is this stuff about self-analysis, practice and training or is it a question of “you either have it or you don't?”

It seems that training really works for some folks. I’m sure it helps to a certain level. I think that training your mind is a different story.

In other words: why aren't more people training their minds as well as their bodies?

Good question, I don’t know.

Do you know what flow/flow state is? If so, what's your conception of flow or describe what you think it's like to be “in flow.” How important is it to your climbing performance and enjoyment?

I guess I know what the “flow-state” is and when it happens it’s pretty special. To me the “flow-state” comes when you just drop all expectations and just climb. It’s a pretty simple idea but it’s hard. Maybe I will get stressed out about sending a route and I’m climbing with that intention in my body/mind. I will not be able to get into the “flow-state” because my desires are holding me back.

The “flow-state” comes when you let go and let the climb show you what will happen.

—Interview by BD Athlete Hazel Findlay

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