Nuts, Cams & Hexes: 2 Decades of Climbing Doodad Stories
Today, dozens of my friends, mentors, and climbing partners gather in Carbondale, Colo., to celebrate the life and mourn the death of a fellow climber. I feel sad to not be there to support the community and people I love. But, I attend in spirit. I publish this today to pay homage to HK and to that which lives on in climbing–gear and stories. Yes, gear is trivial compared to human life, but stories are not. Stories inspire and motivate us to push boundaries, seek ever greater adventures, and to, hopefully, become better, kinder human beings. HK’s stories will inspire thousands of climbers for decades to come. And if any future climber actually finds and booties a piece of HK’s gear … well lucky her/him. That cam, nut, or biner will be extra special because it represents a small, but relevant and inspirational piece of HK’s vision of first ascents and adventure. #haydenkennedyforever
Two-dozen years of stories live in my brass and aluminum cams, nuts, T-blocks, ATCs and other miscellaneous rock climbing doodads. I’ve forgotten most of the tales, but some remain fresh like this morning’s coffee. My favorite pieces, always with me, remind me of the alpine sun shining hot on my face as I belay a good friend up a difficult pitch I just sent. Or maybe they’re just the best, most practical, lightest pieces I’ve used. Others don’t come out often, except when I really need them; they ache of a broken heart with the name of an ex-lover inscribed in the tattered, peeling electrical tape or the faded name inked in the webbing.
My first gear—a rack of DMM Walnuts, loudly clanking hexes and old golden-gate D-shaped REI carabiners—was the least expensive I could find. I climbed through the 5.7s in Little Cottonwood Canyon with it. Eventually I spent my junior year college book money on a set of BD Cams—.5 through #3—the ones with the two-stem triggers. I told my professors I couldn’t afford my books. Too poor, I didn’t work because I climbed every day, obsessively.
My first full set of TCUs appeared when I embarked on my maiden expedition. I told the folks at Metolius I’d give them my Ford Escort as a company rally car if they’d give me gear for my big wall trip to Pakistan. Totally green, I had no high altitude experience and had just climbed El Cap a few times. But the allure of a rally car was too enticing for Jim Karn. So despite my obvious naiveté, he wrote: “If you drive it up to Oregon, I’ll give you whatever you need.” I called him the next day, and a few months later dropped off the car and went back to Yosemite with some of the most cutting-edge, “light,” black wire-gate biners of the 2000s (I still have four of them). Without their generosity, I would have been woefully under-geared for the adventure. I was already pitifully unprepared for climbing giant alpine walls in the Karakoram. However, I quickly lost my big wall virginity.
Gear has come and gone from my life like a string of lovers. I’ve been mostly totally enamored with the shiny newness of them, but then eventually frustrated, angry, disappointed. I’ve struggled when my triggers have frayed, rusted or frozen when I most needed them. And I cursed that damn blue TCU when it pulled out and I hit the ground in Little Cottonwood Canyon, though it was entirely my fault because I placed it poorly. Luckily I only bruised my butt. And the gear I’ve lost… well, I don’t want to talk about that. I’m still bitter.
But mostly I adore my equipment, playing lovingly and absentmindedly with whatever biner or cam is at hand. It’s almost as if I leave them around—in that bowl, in a drawer, my glove box, hanging from a backpack, or in my underwear drawer—just so I can cop a feel whenever I’m missing the insides of rough sandstone cracks rubbing skin off the back of my hands or the sensation of my palm slapping a granite sloper with just enough of a shallow dish to barely hold on.
At least one-third of my rack is booty—much of it found on Magical Chrome Plated Enema Syringe, a 5.6 on the Pear, Lumpy Ridge, or any number of 5.6 to 5.8s that I’ve lapped with my best climbing buddy of the last 15 years, “Hemmes”. Gear litters these routes after Colorado’s frequent summer rainstorms. I never intended to gather the gear of retreating newbies, but Hemmes and I ended every day on “Lumpy” doing a lap on our favorite 5.7, White Whale. And back in the day there was no MountainProject.com on which to advertise lost and found gear. So what was one to do except put a new piece of electrical tape on it?
My favorite bootied pieces of gear are my green and blue Aliens and 3 of my Camalots. I saw the green Alien sticking out of the very start of the Bastille in Eldorado Canyon. It was the end of a hot summer day, the lines of climbers had disappeared, and dark was falling. But we could do just one more route, I told my partner. Not long after, I found the blue Alien half way up the neighboring route. Those well-loved pieces are all the more appreciated because I knew I had scooped all the other Eldo regulars.
I spied my #4 Camalot from afar, sticking out of a crack on the Bookend, 20 feet directly climber’s left from the crack Hemmes and I climbed. Before he arrived to the belay, I called…
“I saw it first!”
“Damn!” He replied.
I don’t actually use my favorite rock climbing booty. I simply admire it. I easily pulled my 40-year Chouinard Lost Arrow out of a crack while rappelling down the Diamond of Longs Peak. Banged up and smashed, you can just see the “C” stamp by the eye. It lives on my mantle, a reminder of all my Diamond days—when I’ve been hailed and rained on, when I’ve sent pitches made harder by the altitude, and the day I stood alone with my partner on the summit, when the entire world disappeared in a sea of clouds leaving us the only people in Colorado in the blazing sun.
Rubbing the rough iron of my precious piton, I remember when I pined away watching others climb the “Big D.” It wasn’t until I turned 26 that I convinced a new boyfriend to climb it with me. Little did he know. That morning we woke up to wind blowing hard enough to convince all the other aspiring Diamond climbers that day to return to the parking lot.
“Shouldn’t we go back?” Scotty asked me.
“Not a chance!”
I never had trouble finding partners after that. And I never stopped climbing the Diamond. The day I pulled my cherished piton out of the wall, my friend John and I had avoided certain death by lightening storm. We had just finished the Obelisk, when the storm raged in faster than we could out-rappel it. We sat far from gear that we had ditched 20 feet away, under an overhang, drinking the beer we had carried up to honor a fallen comrade. As we sipped the brew, the storm parted like the Red Sea, and went around the Diamond in two frightening curtains of flashing gray. We lived.
And then there’s my old-style .5 Camalot… the story is shorter and the area we climbed in one I visited only once. I found my prized camming device on pitch 13 or 14 of the South Howser Minaret, on the new free route that Heidi and I put up in the Bugaboos. I found it where we crossed someone’s aid line. I found it when I knew success was inevitable. I found it near the top of the wall, early on day two. The highlight of my entire climbing career, I see those two perfect sunny days of some of the best crack climbing of my life in that little, manky, rusty, cherished “purple.”
I’ve been lucky to get all the gear I’ve ever needed, mostly for free. Though never officially sponsored, industry people who believed in my women’s expeditions have generously shared their company’s gear with me for two decades now. I abandoned much of the bequeathed hardware as rappel anchors, leaving them behind like integral parts of a story that just didn’t make the editor’s final cut. But I still have miscellaneous pieces. Pieced together, they weave a jumbled, irregular tale of successes, challenges and some tragedies in my rock climbing life.