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Let the Weakest Lead

In 2012, Hayden Kennedy, Kyle Dempster, and Josh Wharton took on one of the world’s most formidable mountains: Baintha Brakk (23,901 feet), AKA The Ogre.

This infamy was initially earned in 1977 when Chris Bonington and Doug Scott completed the first ascent of the craggy, steep mountain situated in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range. Things went awry for the Britons on the descent when Scott shattered both of his ankles in a rappelling accident.

“A quick examination revealed head and trunk OK, femurs and knees OK but—Oh! Oh!—my ankles cracked whenever I moved them,” wrote Scott in his seminal essay “A Crawl Down the Ogre.”

With Bonington’s help, Scott spent the next seven days literally crawling down the mountain on his knees through driving storms. The climbers ran out of food and resorted to eating rice scraps excavated from cigarette-laden garbage. Bonington contracted pneumonia. Then he had his own rappelling incident in which he broke his ribs. Toughness, mostly, and a bit of luck saw the climbers hobble into basecamp. Ultimately they survived.

It took 20 attempts over the next 24 years before the mountain was climbed again—by Thomas Huber, Urs Stöcker and Iwan Wolf in 2001.

In 2012, as Hayden, Kyle, and Josh vied for the Ogre’s third ascent, they found themselves creeping closer to that perilous edge. Josh battled altitude sickness and struggled to keep up. Josh was a veritable hero to Hayden, who once told me he considered Josh to be “the best 5.10 trad climber in the world”—fast, proficient, and unstoppable over that kind of alpine terrain.

But now Josh was ill, moving slower the higher they went.

“He just wasn’t moving like his normal self,” Hayden said.

Hayden, meanwhile, was on fire. He was 22. This wasn’t just his most impressive alpine climb, it was perhaps the best climbing year of his life. He blasted through pitch after pitch of unprotected climbing on sketchy shale. Sixty feet run out over a half-driven pin; blocks crumbling under his weight. With each heinous pitch dispatched, HK led the team higher into the Ogre’s grip.

Around 6,900 meters, the three climbers chopped a bivy ledge into the ice. Sitting in their tent, they hatched a plan of attack. The summit was within striking distance. Hayden and Kyle could taste it. They were feeling great, and the conditions couldn’t have been any better. They were in a rare position to seize one of the biggest prizes in climbing: the summit of the Ogre.

Josh, however, was now in no position to go any higher. They debated what to do, though each climber’s underlying aspirations were transparent enough to not need explicit stating.

Finally Josh said something to the effect of, “I don’t want to be the one who holds you back,” and that was enough of a blessing for Hayden and Kyle to spend the next day blasting off and tagging the summit while Wharton hung back in the tent, awaiting their return.

Hayden later wrote that his dad, the alpinist Michael Kennedy, had always told him, “When you make a choice in the mountains, you have to understand it fully and be ready for any of the outcomes.”

It wasn’t until Hayden and Kyle returned and saw just how sick Josh was—his face and hands swollen with edema; he was subsequently more or less unable even to thread his own rappel device—that Hayden realized that, in leaving Josh behind and going for the summit, perhaps he and Kyle had made a decision they didn’t fully understand.

Fortunately, all three climbers made it down and Hayden and Kyle were globally celebrated for their achievement. They won the prestigious Piolet d’Or for their ascent in 2013.

Three weeks before traveling to France to accept his Piolet d’Or, Hayden blew out his knee in a 3-foot fall bouldering in the gym and had surgery to repair his torn ACL. Oh, the irony of a young man in his prime, who had just survived the Ogre, now hobbled by the mildest gym falls.

The award was unwieldily. I seem to recall Hayden saying he was given some kind of a large wooden plaque that was difficult to carry on crutches through the airport.

The real burden of the award, however, was how it weighed on Hayden’s soul. HK ultimately concluded that leaving Josh behind to go for the summit was something close to an unethical decision. The What Ifs continued to haunt him long after returning from Pakistan. What if Josh hadn’t been strong enough to make it down? What if he died up there? For Hayden, to be celebrated for a climb that contained this element of uneasiness made him a little jaded about the climbing world as a whole. He felt as if everyone around him was in a perpetual trap of missing the point.

Social media was just then in its ascendency as it transformed climbing into a celebration of false idols who were being adored, sponsored, and promoted for mostly bad reasons. Where in this carnival of likes and #instatweetmyfacegrams was an honest conversation about what, exactly, we should be valuing in climbing? It can make you feel crazy when people, despite what they might say, actually seem to want climbers who demonstrate “summit-at-all-costs” mentality over a more respectful approach.

For HK, it took months for the lesson of the Ogre to reveal itself.

“I think the weakest member of a climbing team should be the one who makes the decisions,” he concluded.

This was a bit of a profound insight for HK, as well as being quite consequential given it would now mean that he would seldom be the one to make decisions. I saw how it manifested in all of the subsequent climbing days we spent together, in which I, the weaker climber, was consistently empowered by Hayden to lead, whether that meant going big on the rocks or deciding to have a low-energy day that was spent drinking coffee and sitting on a couch and talking about books and life.

Letting the weakest lead is a framing that places the value on substance over image, and humanity over summits. In some ways, this is a very countercultural position to take in America, where kicking ass and making fucktons of money and winning wars and experiencing endless economic growth and the fucking stock market are the metrics by which we evaluate our progress even though a majority of people in our country are being left behind. There is an enduring conversation in America about whether our weakest, sickest, and most vulnerable members are simply unwilling or unable to sufficiently pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or whether our society is structured in ways that make that all but impossible.

And yet this debate is also somehow an instance of just missing the point, which is that we could reframe this conversation to start measuring our progress by the degree to which we let our weakest members lead—because, as Hayden showed all of us, this is actually what true leadership means. After all, even the best among us are subject to being brought down by 3-foot falls in the gym.

As climbers, we tend to be in a rush to make progress. We’re all perpetually gunning for that next grade, new levels of performance, the next summit. But it’s worth considering how you might slow down, I think, if only to try going at the pace of your partners. Think about them as being integral to your progress as a climber. This is where the humanity in climbing lies. In the quality of our connections to each other, we might just find better metrics for our progress as climbers.

The post Let the Weakest Lead appeared first on Evening Sends.

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Originally posted 2020-03-07 16:37:18.

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