Death and the mountains are inextricably linked. When a death occurs in the community you are forced to reflect, look inside and question your motivations for going into such dangerous places for a largely selfish pursuit. So when I saw the first reports on the loss of Hayden Kennedy on my Facebook feed I thought, “Shit. Another incredible person lost from our community.” However this was different…
The last 12 months have seen the loss of several leading Alpinists. Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson were lost in a storm whilst climbing the North Face of Ogre II (6,980m) in Pakistan. When Ueli Steck, the ‘Swiss Machine’ known for his bold and insanely fast solo climbing in the European Alps and the Himalaya fell off Nuptse (7,861m) on an acclimatisation run, even those outside the climbing world heard about it.
These are the circumstances around death that the world of alpinism is associated with and knows well. Objective hazard is part of the game and requires high levels of technical and mental skill to negotiate safely. Even then, it sometimes is not enough. When someone dies in this way I and many others are able to interrogate the incident rationally, identify and understand the contributing factors and learn from that experience.
I often talk about the mental side of climbing and its importance. Personally it is a large part of the appeal that alpine climbing holds. That sense of adventure. Climbing into the unknown, route finding, problem solving, assessing the weather, your fatigue, your partner’s fatigue, not knowing whether you will be able to complete the climb and always trying to ensure you can retreat if needed. It requires judgment, resilience, tenacity, courage and the ability to remain calm under pressure. So if your mental aptitude is constantly being tested in the mountains, would it not be logical to conclude that you’re less at risk of things like anxiety, depression and suicide?
To be honest, I thought so. At least until I read about Hayden Kennedy’s death.
Hayden (27) and his girlfriend, Inge Perkins (23) had been backcountry skiing on Imp Peak in Southwest Montana when the slope above them avalanched. Hayden was partially buried and was able to free himself however Inge was buried under three feet of snow. Her avalanche transceiver was switched off and so Hayden was unable to find her before she died.
“Hayden survived the avalanche but not the unbearable loss of his partner in life,” his father wrote in a public Facebook post. “He chose to end his life. Myself and his mother Julie sorrowfully respect his decision.” Hayden took his own life three days after the incident.
This was the passage that stopped me in my tracks. I was now a deer in the headlights. Once again death was forcing me to ask questions of myself. Though this time it was challenging me in a completely new way.
At the age of 27 Hayden was an accomplished professional climber. Among his feats were:
- Completing the first ‘fair means’ ascent of Cerro Torre’s SW Ridge in Patagonia. One of the toughest peaks on Earth.
- First ascent of the East Face on K7 (6,934m) in Pakistan.
- First ascent of the South Face on Ogre I (7,285m) in Pakistan. The team won a Piolet d’Or for this – a kind of Oscar in the world of Alpinism. It was the 2nd time Hayden had been awarded this prestigious accolade.
- Multiple first ascents on rock and alpine walls up to grade YDS 5.14 (Australian 32)
So here was a guy who had tested himself at the cutting edge and passed with flying colours. He had forged a reputation for being cool, calm and collected in any situation and shown he had the mental capacity to not only be an elite Alpinist, but to push the limits of the game.
He was capable of climbing some of the toughest peaks in the world but could not contend with the mountain of his mind. If he is capable of taking his own life then what does this mean for the rest of us?
It means we are all capable.
I am not an expert in suicide and so will not claim to understand the thought processes individuals like Hayden go through up to the moment of their death. However under the right circumstances I believe we are all capable of things we never thought possible. We need to recognize this as individuals and as a society.
It is simply not acceptable to believe we are somehow immune and therefore it will never happen to us. We must recognize that the highly developed and complex neurological and emotional responses that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom; the very thing that enables life to be so rich and fulfilling is also what make us vulnerable. Therefore we need to be actively involved with mental health.
It means we must remain ever vigilant, be brutally open and honest with ourselves and those around us about how we are feeling.
For me, this is the essence of being an active participant in mental health. We all do things to maintain our wellbeing. Exercise, read, sleep, cultural activities, hanging out with friends and family. So what’s missing? The feedback loop.
We use feedback loops in almost everything we do. From managing our car’s speed whilst driving to pouring a drink of water. We constantly measure a variable (e.g. speed) against a target (e.g. speed limit) and use the differential to adjust our controller (e.g. accelerator). Having an earnest conversation with either ourselves or others about how we are feeling is one of the most critical feedback loops available to help us manage our mental health.
Sounds easy enough right? We have all heard it before. So ask yourself when the last time you did this was. Then ask yourself what state of mind you were in. More often than not, we only reflect on our mental state during periods of distress, anxiety, isolation or sadness. That’s natural. We don’t want to feel that way so when we do, we think about it and try to identify strategies to help us feel better.
So why not have those conversations on a regular basis regardless of how we are feeling? Why wait until we are no longer feeling relaxed, fulfilled, happy or engaged? Perhaps by utilising this feedback loop as often as we use others we will better manage our mental health and improve our baseline level of wellbeing. Surely doing so can do no harm.
It means we should know what constitutes our identity and ensure we have freedom in our focus.
Each of us places certain value on a variety of aspects in our lives. It is these things which make up our identity. We may identify as a partner, a parent, our job, a runner, a musician or indeed a climber. For most of us one of these identities tends to dominate, however like any investment having too many eggs in one basket can potentially lead to danger.
What happens if that part of our life is suddenly taken away? What happens if we lose a child through divorce or death? Lose our ability to play music or sport due to an injury? Lose the job we have been investing 60-80hrs per week by being tossed aside like yesterday’s rubbish in a corporate re-structure?
The potential effects of losing the biggest part of how you identity as a person can be devastating. Our identity gives us meaning and losing that makes us extremely vulnerable. In my opinion, our best mitigating action is to ensure our identity is constructed in a well-rounded manner, where we are not too invested in one particular aspect of our existence. Though this is easier said than done, particularly when we conveniently only consider the benefits. Hayden reflected on this in an article he wrote only months before his suicide. At a time after he had lost several of his best friends in the mountains. I quote verbatim.
“Climbing can be an incredible catalyst for our growth. But I am beginning to realise that there’s a certain danger in making climbing the singular focus of your life because it can actually limit the opportunity for growth and reflection if you don’t stop, pause, breathe, and reflect.” (Source: “The day we sent logical progression, eveningsends.com)
It doesn’t matter whether it is climbing, music, being a parent or a leader in your industry. Making anything the singular focus in your life can be incredibly dangerous. I know I am at risk of this and so need to identify how I can achieve a better balance in my life.
Finally, it means we must continue to challenge the way we view mental health.
Perceptions are important. They fuel our beliefs which in turn, fuel our behaviours. There is no shame in reaching out for help. Letting those around you know you are not dealing well with something in particular, or generally feeling ‘off’ is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength and takes great courage.
When most of us notice a weird rash and it doesn’t go away, we seek out a doctor. So why not seek out a professional when we notice the first signs of deterioration in our mental state? That should be seen as a positive thing.
As climbers we expose ourselves to fear, anxiety and sometimes the very real possibility of death more so than the average Joe. I am resolute in my belief that engaging with these emotions has significant benefits for us and will continue to encourage others in our society to do so. However I don’t think this makes us immune to mental illness. It is not a cure and we cannot fall asleep at the wheel. Hayden’s death is evidence of that.
Next time you are out climbing or you’re down at the pub enjoying a cold beer after your latest adventure and you notice your partner is not quite themselves. Please. Ask the question, have the conversation, don’t judge and offer support. Let them know you care and that they are not alone. It could save their life.
ReachOut Australia has amazing resources on anxiety, depression and suicide prevention. I encourage you to jump onto their website and have a read. You can also support this amazing organisation by donating to the Vertical Year campaign and by having conversations with those around you about mental health.