Posted on: November 27, 2006
Michael Kennedy, the great ("formerly not terrible," he would interject) American alpinist, has been getting up some of the best routes of his life lately. For someone who made first ascents of lines like Mt. Foraker's Infinite Spur and Mt. Hunter's Wall of Shadows, this is no idle boast. So what now, Michael: a new Alaska Range testpiece? Another shot at GIV's west face? No, far more than that. School has been out for the last three months, and Michael has been on the road, getting dragged up climbs by his son, Hayden.
"He doesn't slow down until runout 5.11," Michael says over the phone, chuckling. Hayden's parents have raised him well: he's polite, intelligent and good-natured. He's also a climbing zealot. Hayden and Michael managed Zion's Touchstone Wall and the Regular Route on Half Dome this summer, and Hayden redpointed his first trad 5.13, Ruby's Cafe, in Indian Creek, in May. He is sixteen.
"I'm at a point now I can't even toprope the routes he wants to do. He warms up and then I belay him. Instead of me teaching him, he's teaching me.
"Julie says if I ever show him how to ice climb, she'll kill me."
I first met Michael ten years ago, at his home in Carbondale, Colorado, after a long drive over roads slick with winter. Twenty-eight years old and very green, I had just begun a new job as the editor of The American Alpine Journal. My office was in the windowless basement of a former high school, in the boy's junior varsity locker room, complete with shower stalls, rust-streaked toilets and the smell of old sweat—and pile upon pile of books, containing more mountaineering history than I had ever seen in one place. After thirty-six years at the helm, the former editor, H. Adams Carter—a man fluent in four languages, a friend and mentor to untold climbers around the globe, who had taken a provincial club publication and turned it into the world's leading climbing journal—had dropped dead at the kitchen table. He'd completed his last AAJ a few days before dying; but now, nearly a year later, some 500 pages of content sat in boxes, waiting to be assembled according to the high standards he'd always set. To mitigate my inexperience, the managing editor, Jed Williamson, had assigned me advisors. One of them was Michael Kennedy, the longtime editor of Climbing Magazine.
Michael showed me into his kitchen and poured me a scotch. The creator of the best climbing magazine I had ever read, he was only forty-four, his brown hair still free of gray. As we settled into the warm glow of our drinks, I waited for him to tell me something, anything that would make the task ahead possible, but he only spoke a little about club politics. I left encouraged by his integrity and warmth, if unsure how his words could help me. I would later learn that influence can be something far more subtle, and our awareness of what we've gained can surface in unexpected moments.
Later that year, at 11 p.m. on a humid August night, in that quiet, basement locker room, after three straight months of ten, twelve, sixteen-hour days, I was finishing up one of the final sections of the Journal: "In Memoriam." When I placed Ad's photo next to his obituary, his kind-looking face, tilted slightly to one side, deeply moved me. I was exhausted; the stress and chaos of editing the Journal had been greater than anything I'd imagined. Ad's composure, however, stood in marked contrast to my struggle, and it gave me hope. Both Ad and Michael had reached out to countless climbers in their careers, with immeasurable compassion and understanding, celebrating their ascents in meticulously crafted work. I knew I had to keep trying, as those two had done before me.
In the years since, Ad's memory has continued to inspire me, and Michael still contributes his advice, which I've found to be nearly always right. At Alpinist, we've labored to create a magazine that reflects their shared values of accuracy and beauty. This last issue has reminded me more than ever of their example. As the articles came together, we began to notice how many of them dealt with the subject of mentorship: in his "Mountain Profile" essay, Chris Bonington confronts the tension that occurred when he started to outstrip his mentor, Don Whillans; in "The Weight of Thin Air," Andrej Stremfelj writes of the younger climbers he has invited on his ascents, giving them their start in the Greater Ranges, just as Nejc Zaplotnik once did for him; in "The End of the Beginning," Abbey Smith relates how Tony Yaniro's trainee, Matt Segal, and Jimmy Dunn's protege, Eric Decaria, have created a partnership that merges their mentors' lessons into a style of their own; and in "Bird's Eye View," Jim Bridwell speaks of trying to transmit what he learned, thirty years ago, from Layton Kor and Frank Sacherer, to Spencer Pfinsten on The Mooses Tooth, in between dodging avalanches and rockfall.
This theme, while serendipitous, is hardly a coincidence; whereas mentorship plays a role in nearly every aspect of life, climbing intensifies it, and as our articles show, the alchemy of runouts and objective hazards can distill it into sometimes surprising forms. No matter what the outcome, these connections are some of the most powerful any of us ever experience. Listening to Michael talk about his son and remembering how much I've learned from him over the years, I realized that the longer we climb, the less our joy becomes about the hardest routes we can get up—and the more it emerges from the opportunity to share what we find beautiful with the people we love.
Like Michael, we would like to pass on the sources of our inspiration to Hayden and his peers, along with a world still untarnished enough that they can create their own stories. As part of this effort, with Issue 15 Alpinist became climbing's first sustainably published magazine. The costs to print on recycled paper proved too great for our little business, however, so we spent the next six months looking for a company who could help us return to our ideals. We found it in Patagonia, whose generous support has allowed us to print this issue on 100% recycled paper—an even higher percentage than we used before. Coupled with Alpinist's archival quality, this practice puts us back where we want to be: preserving the places that spark all our adventures even as we celebrate them in print. We hope Hayden's generation will benefit from our choices, in ways we can only imagine.