Profile & Interview — Michael Kennedy — 1999

Post by blogger | November 25, 1999      
That's Julie's husband Michael.

Michael Kennedy ski touring in Canada, 2013.

Those involved with mountaineering in the past two decades should find the name Michael Kennedy as familiar as their favorite mountain. Eventually becoming one of the most influential alpinists of his generation, Kennedy took the helm of Climbing Magazine in 1974 (eventually buying it). He grew Climbing from a regional publication to an award winning tour-de-force long regarded as the finest mountaineering magazine in North America, if not the world. And dream of dreams, he recently sold the magazine and retired before his mid-life crises could hit.

Along the way, Kennedy devoted himself to mountaineering. In 1977 in Alaska, he made bold alpine-style ascents of new routes on Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter. He pioneered alpine style climbs in the Himalayas in the later 1970s and early 1980s. In 1985 he capped this phase of his career with a gutsy two-man success on the South Face of Ama Dablam. After an eight-year layoff he returned to Alaska in 1993, making a quick repeat ascent of the technical West Face of Mount Huntington, and in 1994 making the state-of-the-art first ascent of the Wall of Shadows on Mount Hunter.

My friendship with Michael began in 1972 when he showed up in Aspen and joined the local climbing fraternity. Our partnership soon evolved to a frenzy of epic winter climbs, first-ascent ice routes, huge slogs on skis, and general Aspen debauchery-all formative exercises that Kennedy attributes to his later success on the big mountains. My respect for Michael’s climbing is immense, but in my mind his mountaineering accomplishments pale before his other strengths. He can pick up a camera and make images that rival the best in the business. His mind (despite cells lost to Aspen party days) is insightful and sensitive, he’s comfortable with the spiritual dimension of his intense life, and his role as a father to son Hayden is at the top of his list. And let it be known that Michael Kennedy is also an accomplished skier, loves ski mountaineering, and has plenty of insight into issues important to glisse alpinists. Over coffee and homemade scones, I interviewed Michael at my home in Carbondale this past September of 1998.

LD: You’re best known for your alpine climbing accomplishments and your twenty-four years at Climbing Magazine, but I know you best as a photographer and generalist mountaineer.

MK: I was interested in photography when I started college at Antioch. I took a basic photo course there, and other photography classes. I got my first real job through a work-study program at Antioch. It was working as a helper in a mental hospital. Strange, but I’m sure that had something to do with where I am now. I also studied at a small school in Louisville Kentucky, the Center for Photographic Studies, for about nine months. The background I got was more of fine arts photography, rather than commercial career oriented. It was more of an expressive medium, associated with education. I was thinking about going into teaching or something like that, but I got into rock climbing and mountaineering, and my photography was mostly just recording what was going on around me. There have been times when I’ve been more focused on photography as expression, and others on climbing. It’s always been an ebb and flow of interest and energy.

LD: Did your broad interests create any tension?

A long time ago I figured out I was a generalist. That’s why I did Climbing Magazine for so long. Part of what appealed to me about that was putting the whole thing together, and understanding how all the aspects of the magazine function, and being able to integrate those and drive the process forward. Being moderately skilled at a bunch of things fits that purpose really well. I like to focus, but doing just one thing bores me. That’s why I like living here in the central Colorado Rockies; I can’t rock climb all year long; I can’t ski all year.

LD: With all your interests, do you ever have trouble focusing?

I’m usually balanced, but I’ve been out of balance when I’ve had to focus on a few things to the exclusion of more creative aspects. That usually had to do with business, when as a matter of survival I focused on administration, management, and finance. That’s something I learned a lot from, but not the focus I prefer.

LD: When did you start climbing?

MK: At college in Ohio in 1970. Climbers I’d gotten to know took me out to a climbing area called Clifton Gorge, where we top-roped some scrappy little cliffs. Then I came out to Aspen for the summer of 1971, to work as an intern at Center of the Eye, which was a photo school started by David and Cheri Hiser in the basement of the Hotel Jerome. I’d come out here more for photography, but I had a bit of climbing background, and my focus switched toward climbing. The photography work didn’t pay, so I worked as a maid and handyman at a lodge. I went back to Kentucky that winter, then came back in the spring. That next winter is when you and I started doing some winter mountaineering.

LD: Yeah, you looked gullible enough for something as painful as Colorado winter peak climbing.

MK: [Laughter] ‘Yeah there’s a dumb one, let’s take him out.’

LD: In just a year or two you quickly moved from casual rock climbing to serious alpinism. What caused that switch?

MK: That comes back to my generalist mentality. I figured out early on that I’d never be a great rock climber. I read all the mountaineering classic authors, such as Tom Patey and Dougal Haston, and I devoured Mountain Magazine, which focused on the Alps and Himalayas.

LD: Yeah, the pictures in Mountain always showed a Britt grimacing and covered with spindrift, something to aspire to?

MK: For some reason that was appealing. Alpinism is the whole ball of wax, not just one aspect of climbing. You have to know how to live in the mountains, travel, and blend in the technical skills with speed and efficiency. In rock climbing you might focus on a pitch for only a few moments, while in alpine climbing your focus can go on for months. The rock climbing has value, but the devotion that alpine climbing requires is a big part of what gives it value. It’s a complete experience that includes the mystery of other cultures and the excitement of international travel.

Also, when you’re involved in an intense and long lasting experience such as alpinism, you can connect to something beyond the surface of what we usually see. To me there is a powerful spiritual attraction. You put yourself in unique situations, and occasionally you get some sort of enlightenment.

LD: Where did you first experience those sorts of powerful feelings? And what was, emotionally, your most powerful climb?

MK: I learn something every time I go into the mountains. Each trip is a step along the path, so I tend not to isolate the experiences too much. Foraker was a huge high-point, certainly the most significant to my development not just as a climber but as a person. Another one was in 1981 when I soloed the Cassin Ridge on Denali. Not monumental in terms of worldwide climbing standards, but it had a special feeling to it. It was out there at the limits of my personal climbing, but I felt very in control and comfortable. Ama Dablam was fantastic, a coming-together of all that I’d learned in the previous decade. I was probably climbing as well as I ever have then, and felt like I could have gone on for another week. But it also marked the end of one phase and the beginning of another. Then there was the Wall of Shadows on Hunter, which Greg Child and I did in 1994. For me that was another mind expanding sort of climb, a real test of all the stuff I’d learned-not just about climbing, but about patience and calmness and focus.

One of my real breakthroughs was in Alaska in 1977, when I went with cousins George Lowe and Jeff Lowe. We tried a route on the North Face of Mount Hunter. We got about 4,000 feet up and Jeff fell and broke his ankle when a cornice collapsed. Jeff was the strongest of our team, with the most natural talent. It was weird to be there after Jeff flew out, just myself and George. At the time, doing big Alaskan routes alpine style, with a team of two, was considered a huge, intimidating thing. But we finished the route on Hunter. It was the biggest thing I’d ever done, a 7000-foot new route on the third-highest peak in the Alaska Range. And we’d felt good on the route-under control. Our other plan was to do a new route on Mount Foraker. This was a much bigger project on a higher peak (17,400 ft), with the route taking a 9,000 foot face. Hunter was more a snow and ice climb, while Foraker was more of a rock climb. A much more technical route.

Our climb of the Infinite Spur on Foraker was the first conscious sense I had that ‘Wow, you could do some really wild stuff in the big mountains. Before that I’d been on a step-by-step learning curve. I had some intense experiences along the way, but Foraker was when I decided to put my energy into this type of climbing, and kept at it until Carlos Buhler and I did the first ascent, in winter, of the Northeast Face of Ama Dablam in 1985 . During my intense period I was going to the Himalayas or Alaska every year, getting up some things and not getting up others. And having super high level experiences of big mountain alpine climbing.

LD: Let’s talk about skiing. I know it’s something you’ve always enjoyed, gotten a lot out of, and contributed to. When was your first day of skiing?

MK: I’d taken a bus out to Aspen in the winter of 1971-it was Christmas break after my first summer in Aspen. I knew a guy living up behind town in a teepee, and skiing in and out. My first days of skiing were with him and his girlfriend, doing just light touring. I remember my first days of real downhill skiing. We’d ended up at Snowmass Resort after a tour, and I remember being totally wasted, falling about 800 times on my light x-c skis, and being soaking wet. The next winter, after I’d moved here full time, I did a ton of ski touring. A lot of my early skiing was with you, when we’d ski into our climbs with various weird combinations of gear. Skiing was really just a way of getting around. I remember having almost no interest in skiing as something for it’s own sake-it was just transportation to climbs.

My feelings about skiing changed after my 1977 Alaska trip to Mt. Foraker and Mt. Hunter. I’d been really intense before that-focused totally on climbing to the exclusion of almost anything else. After Foraker I relaxed a bit, and figured out that maybe it would be nice to be a bit less one-dimensional. I felt like ‘Gee, I could get killed doing this stuff, so I might as well have good time while I’m doing it’. Also, I was spending so much time in snow, and I remember coming back from a climb and thinking, perhaps skiing could be something positive about the big storms that mess up the climbing. It also goes back to my generalist attitude.

Also, when I met my wife Julie, who had been skiing since she was three. Skiing has always been something we could share together–I know way more about the mountaineering aspects, but Julie is a better skier than I am. She still kicks my ass on a pair of skis.

LD: You became a good skier, and pursued ski mountaineering fairly aggressively. How did you transition into that?

MK: Intellectually, I’d always recognized that ski mountaineering was a part of alpinism. Through reading history, I knew that all the pioneer climbers in the Alps were guides who taught skiing. The spring before I climbed Foraker, Chris Landry and Juan Muzquiz took me up on Mount Hayden near Aspen. Chris and I had been climbing together for years, and he was a big influence on my move into ski mountaineering. Skiing Hayden for the first time helped open my eyes to the big picture: the idea of having a well rounded set of skills for going into the mountains. So during that period in the early 80’s, I probably put more energy into ski mountaineering than anything else.

LD: Can you be more specific about what made ski mountaineering something attractive?

MK: Skiing is the pleasurable part of alpinism-way more pleasurable and fun than alpine climbing. To me that’s the big difference. Climbing tends to be harder, scarier, more dangerous. Also, alpine climbing takes a huge physical and psychological commitment. Of course, ski mountaineering can have all that-but it’s easier to avoid and still feel like you accomplished something. From an aesthetic and pleasure point of view, skiing is the best. You see beautiful sunrises and scenery, and you get that great sensation of sliding down the snow, which you can’t duplicate. It’s about the pleasure of being in the mountains, traveling efficiently over the terrain, having that sense of dynamic motion which you don’t get when you’re on foot.

LD: Michael, we know that in Europe ski mountaineering is considered as much a branch of mountaineering as say, ice climbing. In our mountain culture here in the U.S., ski mountaineering has never achieved that status.

MK: That’s true. If you want to be a guide in Europe you must ski at a high level, while most American mountain guides can get away with being mediocre skiers (though we do have a number of well-rounded guides in the U.S.). You don’t have to ski to climb the great routes in Yosemite. It’s a cultural difference, and it’s also simple geography. If you live close to or in the mountains you have to develop a certain skillset, and a lot of Europeans live that way.

LD: Have you done many routes where you had to blend climbing, skiing, ropework, etcetera?

MK: Again, I’ve always ski mountaineered for pleasure, rather than going after the same kind of experiences I’d have climbing on big mountains like Hunter or Foraker. So other than glacier skiing, I haven’t carried a rope much during ski mountaineering. And belaying while I was skiing…that was not why I wanted to go. I usually go skiing to get away from that sort of thing. I can remember plenty of times, however, when the conditions during ski mountaineering have felt plenty challenging and required all the mountain sense I apply to my climbs. There was a winter in the 1980s when I skied Mount Hayden nearly every week, I went up there when most people would say the conditions were super dangerous, if not desperate. The reason I could do that is that I’d been up there so much I had an intuitive sense of the snow. I knew where things were sliding and where they weren’t. I had the right gear, food, and a sense of where to go: all the keys to any mountaineering. When people ask me ‘What should I do to get ready for big climbs in Alaska or the Himalayas?’ I always tell them to get their basic mountain skills, then do a bunch of winter climbing and ski mountaineering in a place like Colorado, where the snowpack is bad and the weather unpredictable. In other words, do a bunch of ski mountaineering. You’ll learn more about traveling in snowy mountains quicker than you’ll learn it from anything else.

LD: So why don’t more mountaineers spend time on skis?

MK: It’s too much fun for a lot of people. It’s like they get serious about climbing the hard routes, and they don’t want to be diverted in to the fun. They seem to feel ‘it’s not good if you’re not suffering.’ But what they don’t understand is you learn so much from ski mountaineering that applies to hard-core alpine climbing. Besides, you can push the ski mountaineering as far as you want, as people like yourself know all too well.

LD: Yeah, when climbers tell me that ski mountaineering is too wimpy, I send them over to Andrew McLean or give them some nice blister making boots. Speaking of the hard-core, tell me about your relationship with Chris Landry, who’s a pioneer of extreme skiing in the United States.

MK: Chris grew up in the mountains, started skiing when he was a child, and started climbing at a young age. So he always was interested in combining mountaineering and skiing. Chris and I did a lot of climbing together in the Rockies, Wind Rivers, and Tetons. As a friend he helped me with my skiing, and we did a lot of ski mountaineering together. In the late 1970s, Chris went into a time when he had some real goals, some really intense ski descents he wanted to do. He wanted me to help him with those things, so I played a support role when I could. On trips like the East Face of Pyramid Peak in 1978, the big part for Chris was just having someone else around, as a reality check more than anything else. It’s tough to travel on glaciers alone, and it’s always useful to have a partner for belayed technical climbing. There is a trend these days to look at mountaineers (skiers or climbers), as solo athletes. But there really is a lot of support that goes on, and we should remember that much of this is a team effort. Also, when most people are pushing your personal envelope, they want someone around to share the experience with. Otherwise it can get a little too intense.

LD: Tell me a little more about Pyramid.

MK: That was a big project for Chris. He was looking for ski descent goals, and though the Pyramid route is not visible from any roads, he’d spend so much time in the Elks that he must have caught a glimpse of the route at some time or another. During the few weeks leading up to the trip, we constantly talked about the snow and weather. Chris paid close attention to what the snow was doing on that exposure, and we did a lot of planning about how we’d get to the route, what to take, and what the ideal window would be.

Everything came together: work, timing, weather, snow. We left in the afternoon, and dirt hiked to the campsite below the face. We got up early and climbed in the dark. It was warming up fast. I should have taken photos of him going off the summit, but it made me too nervous. I didn’t want to disturb his concentration, and taking pictures of a guy who might blow it made me uncomfortable. I did take some photos about 100 feet below the summit, but they look pretty ordinary because of the shot angle. Looking back, I should have been more hardcore about taking more photos that showed the radical terrain. I downclimbed while Chris skied, and we stayed close together for a big part of the time. Chris was very cautious. He’d traverse a bit, sidestep into position, then make a few turns. There was this narrow chimney at the bottom, which Chris had to take off his skis to downclimb for a shot distance. The bottom part of the route was still shaded. Though technically harder than any other part of the route, the harder snow was much more secure for both skiing and downclimbing.

LD: What was it like to be done with a project as dicey as Pyramid?

MK: Chris is never the real talker. I think we were both pretty psyched to get done, and have things work out. It was a beautiful day. Warm. We stripped down and just hung out and dried off. More than any thing it was a feeling of relief.

LD: Let’s diverge to politics. How long have you been with the Access Fund, the outfit that fights for access to climbing areas?

MK: I’m now president of the Access Fund, but I’ve been involved as a board member and donor for about eight years.

LD: The glisse alpinism community is concerned about access, but we haven’t had near the problems that climbers have. I and others believe that will change, however, and access will become a key issue for everyone. Might the Access Fund grow in scope beyond rock climbing, and address the needs of the whole mountaineering community?

MK: We’ve been very involved with the Denali fee question and other issues that affect mountaineers, but most of our work does revolve around rock climbing. We’ve got our hands full there right now. But if we develop better contacts within the backcountry ski and snowboard community, we could certainly help with issues that concern those branches of mountaineering. It makes sense to find where the overlap between climbing and skiing is. If a group is addressing backcountry ski access, perhaps we could bring them into the Access Fund as a sub-group or committee, or at the very least share some of the strategies that we’ve been successful with.

Access problems go way beyond mountaineering and rock climbing. There are huge issues on the horizon that will affect all forms of outdoor human powered recreation. A big issue is ‘solitude in wilderness’ being used as a management tool and criteria for limiting the number of people in wilderness. From what I’ve seen, this whole thing is coming from arbitrary standards and views. There is a strong faction within land management agencies who have been basically anti-recreation. They’re strict constructionists when it comes to interpreting the Wilderness Act for wilderness management. When you get down to it, the way that faction would prefer to manage wilderness would be to lock it up and leave it totally untouched. There may be some areas that are perfect for that, but that’s not a realistic approach because it destroys public support from people who don’t have access to reasonably use the resource.

LD: Any thought on what role economics plays in all this? Is the trend to lock up land simply a way for the government to save money they would otherwise spend on management?

MK: Absolutely. First of all, land managers are bureaucrats. What they do is control things; they like to put things in little boxes and create rules. They want to do that in the easiest and most cost efficient way. When you’ve got a group like climbers, who want to go where they please, bureaucrats don’t like that because they can’t control it. Ditto for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. What land manager bureaucrats do like is roads, visitor centers, and overlooks you drive to. You buy your visitor guide & postcards, look, and leave.

That’s the fundamental problem we’re dealing with. Any user group that requires self sufficiency and the freedom to cross the landscape is at an immediate disadvantage. The way the economics and political power works is that when you’ve got a huge industry based on the drive-look-leave visitor or resort skier, that money talks. But the human powered recreation industry has grown tremendously, so we do have more economic and political clout, but not as much as the better established public land uses.

Another thing that’s happened with climbing, and will happen with backcountry skiing and riding, is that the land managers look for the easy ways to appear as better environmental stewards. But it’s purely political. The land managers can easily look like stewards by ‘managing’ small groups of users like climbers and backcountry skiers, while they let all sorts of things happen with logging and mining, which are much harder to control.

LD: What about user fees in particular?

MK: A good example is the Denali fee, which affects both climbers and ski mountaineers. When the issue first came up, the climbers went to innumerable meetings and basically said ‘Bugger off, we don’t need or want a million dollar mountaineering center, we don’t want rangers patrolling the mountain; we don’t want Park Service rescue.’ The Park Service was justifying the fees by saying the money would pay for all this stuff. One point we (climbers) tried to drive home was that if we are to have fees, they need to be evenly applied. I’m happy to pay a fee to support rescue-if the hiker who might be rescued pays an equivalent fee. Climbing rescues are dramatic and it’s easy for land managers (and the public) to look at them and ask, ‘Why are we paying to rescue people who knowingly put themselves at risk?’ But people rarely question the necessity, or the cost, of searching for a lost hiker or a kid who wanders off the trail, despite the fact that those types of rescues are more common and cost land managers much more, on the whole, than climbing rescues.

LD: So, do user fees have any place?

MK: Again, they need to be fair and applied across the board. If climbers or backcountry skiers have to pay, so should hikers. If that’s the way it goes, maybe we can live with it. Philosophically, I don’t like fees because it’s our public land, we pay taxes, and why should we pay more? Another important question is how the fees impact society-how fees exclude certain social classes from outdoor recreation. Our sports are already upper middle class, and increasing user fees will disenfranchise more people who can’t afford it. That’s a dangerous move, both sociologically and regarding the support of wilderness. Excluded people won’t support the backcountry. The biggest thing is that some user groups are singled out for fees, while others are not.

LD: Getting back to access. When it comes to legal wilderness, you guys in the climbing community got hit hard with the fixed anchor ban. To me this was a monumental shift, because preservationist land management had swung its focus from demonizing motors over to restricting a non-mechanized traditional use. I can only wonder who’s next, since everyone ‘damages’ the wilderness when they use it. What purpose do you think legal wilderness has, and how should it be managed?

MK: The Wilderness Act talks about two equally important concepts: use and preservation. You can’t place one above the other. All ‘use’ of wilderness has a negative impact on its ‘preservation,’ so the trick is to balance the two. The key comes from the Wilderness Act itself, which talks about legal wilderness being managed so that ‘man’s imprint is substantially unnoticeable.’ We should have free access to most legal wilderness with an absolute minimum of regulation.Whatever regulation is imposed should be based on objective criteria, not emotion.

LD: It seems like we’re dancing around a philosophical core here. Why should legal wilderness allow fixed anchors and not allow mountain bikes? Why should we be allowed to use toilet paper, but not place a few rappel slings around trees. Why should there be no bicycles but wheelchairs are allowed. Who makes these decisions, and where do we fit in?

MK: You have to aim for a manageable, sustainable way of doing things, and part of that involves accepting the fact that users will have an impact on the land. The conflict comes in because everyone has a different idea of what type and level of impact is acceptable. Plus we simply have more people doing these things, with more visibility and more impact. The best solution is to manage this stuff at a micro level. For example, you might ban fixed anchors in one part of a wilderness area and allow them in another. But such management is expensive, and the cost drives land managers to making blanket policies that are often overly restrictive.

That’s the danger to backcountry skiing. If the bureaucrats don’t like what’s happening, at some point they’ll just close the gate. They’ll say it’s too dangerous, or costing too much for rescue, or you’re bothering the wildlife-or you’re placing too many people in the area for our ‘solitude’ policy. Indeed, the solitude issue is where you’ll see arbitrary policy based on vague standards.

LD: Can we get all the backcountry users together someday to work common issues such as access, instead of categorizing everyone according to machinery. We all use machinery, whether it be a bolt drill, knee joint, ski binding, or snowmobile?

MK: I’ve talked with a number of people about that idea. The problem is that as human beings we don’t think proactively. Instead we react to crises. It’s just human nature. Climbers had a crisis with the fixed anchor ban, and we reacted. Unfortunately, you have to rally people around something that’s going to hurt them.

LD: What about the growth of human powered backcountry sports? Is this just a passing fad? Will the backcountry be overrun?

MK: It’s self limiting. It’s too much work for some people, while others physically just can’t do it. And there are plenty of people who simply prefer other activities. Also, the popularity of different sports will change so the level of use will always be cyclic. All the human powered sports are fun, and people like to be outside. So we will see some inevitable growth, but the backcountry won’t be overrun.

In the end, all these issues involve the balance of freedom and responsibility. That’s a hard thing to legislate, as it’s difficult to put into black and white. But it’s a balance we must all strive to achieve as users. And we have to make land managers realize we need a certain amount of freedom to pursue our sports.

LD: Let’s talk about the future. You’ve learned to snowboard, what do you think?

MK: A snowboard is an awesome tool! But if you’re on rolling terrain, covering a lot of ground like you tend to do in the mountains, skis are much more efficient than a split-board or snowshoes. The philosophical issues I hear about-the arguments about which is ‘better’- are ridiculous. It’s all about sliding and getting around in the mountains and having a good time doing it.


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