In Loving Memory of Inge Perkins

I arrived to Lander for Inge’s surprise birthday party and she invited me over to her friend’s house to “help” her bake a cake for her party. The party she was baking a cake for was a fake party, a decoy from the real one Hayden and I had been planning. Regardless, leave it to Inge to bake a cake for her own party. 

Her friend wasn’t home; Inge had asked to borrow the kitchen. While living out of her white truck, which she often did, she would shower-hop around friends’ homes. Wherever she ended up, Inge made friends good enough to garner free utility passes. 

The night before, Hayden and I had been pulling our hair out when Inge revealed her plans to do a traverse in the Winds the day of the party. 

“We both know Inge’s an incredible athlete, don’t get me wrong,” Hayden had said over the phone. “But that traverse is a full-day endeavor. Like, 17 hours. She’d be lucky to be back by nine or ten.” 

I was already en-route to Lander from Bozeman. A dozen other people were also on their way from places as far away as Oregon. 

At last, her friend convinced her to go to Wolfpoint, a local crag, instead. “The party’s on!” Hayden cheered into the phone. “Party’s on.” 

So Inge was baking this drunken prune cake for her fake party while Hayden was baking two cakes for the real one. As she looked for ingredients and pots and pans in her friend’s kitchen, she told me that she had decided not to do the traverse. I pretended to act like I hadn’t learned this already as I texted to Hayden with my phone hidden under the table, There’s too much cake, said no one ever.

“It would have been a little strange if you didn’t show up to your own party,” I said. 

We laughed. “Yeah, I figured people would still have fun,” she said.

She showed up to the real party and we all shouted surprise, though not in any uniformed way. We had gathered from Lander and Jackson, Colorado and Montana. Inge’s array of friends spanned across states and decades, with the average age being, I’d guess, 35.

This had been the case as long as I’d known her. When we first became friends, about eight years ago now, I found it hard to believe she was a teenager. At fifteen years-old, she already had a savings account and woke up at six am everyday. At twenty-two, I was pawning Christmas presents to buy gas and sleeping through hangovers. Our mutual good friend, Leslie and I would joke that Inge was more responsible than both of us combined, though half of our age.

More than being responsible, Inge had this deep way of listening that spoke of an older-than-her-years way of moving through the world. She would sit in a conversation and look at you as you talked, her eyes becoming distant only to consider what you had said. This act of being present with another person, truly present, is not something easily achieved, nor frequently encountered.

But that was Inge in general: a type of person rarely encountered. 

For the better part of Tuesday following Inge's death I perused the internet. I spent more time on my phone and computer in a single day than I had in a week. Her face was everywhere, and I looked for her, compulsively checking Facebook and Instagram for new photos. But I couldn't find her. She was gone. Truly gone. 

I think one of the challenging things right now about the passing of Inge and Hayden, with the waves of media crashing in about the loss of two great climbers, is that celebration of their athletic achievements doesn’t tell the whole story of who they were as people and the impact they had on individuals and communities.

And it's hard not to let headlines hit in the wrong way, with Inge's death sometimes feeling like a subtitle. Renowned Alpinist and girlfriend dead. Something ravenous inside could not be satiated no matter how many stories I read. An anger grew as well, dulled with grief. She was a girlfriend, yes. But she, too, was renowned. She was the hero to so many of us.

I’m trying not to hold this against anyone or any news source: I get it, somewhat, anyways. Most people who receive the story of their deaths knew of them through climbing or skiing. The way they pushed the limits of mountain sports deserves a bandwidth of admiration and applause.

But they were so much more than athletes. As Hayden wrote in his essay for Evening Sends, quoted now a hundred times over, climbing was secondary to relationships. It's the people that matter, who they are inherently versus what they do. 

I’m writing this because I’m hoping to find solace in sharing what Inge meant to me as one of my closest friends. It seems the only real solace I can find in the moment, ironically, is in the mountains—that, and in sleep. I’m writing this because I was obsessing over their deaths since discovering their absence Sunday night while I was at a wedding in Texas.

I'm writing this because I'm hoping to find healing in stories of who Inge was as a daughter, sister, coach, mentor, role model, and friend, alongside being a girlfriend and athlete.  

I can’t stop thinking of their families. Inge loved her siblings and parents with this fierce, unconditional love. She celebrated and supported her kin, even when she worried about them.

This summer she and Hayden had visited her family in Europe. My feet and legs have never been as sore and tired as they were trying to keep up with my brother while walking the streets of Berlin, she wrote in a postcard. Yep. Inge wrote postcards. She also wrote birthday and holiday cards and emails, (on time, no less). Many of us came to know the nourishment of Inge’s words she generously gave to those close to her. She went out of her way to express her love and gratitude for the people in her life. 

As her good friend Blake wrote in a letter of mourning, addressed to Inge: “You never forgot to let me know how much you appreciated our friendship and time spent together. You even had this way of making me feel super important and wanted.”

I couldn't agree more. Last Christmas, she wrote in a handmade card, “This might sound kind of funny, but one thing I truly admire about you is your awkwardness in social interactions sometimes…seeing that you can…build meaningful relationships while not socializing perfectly has really helped me with my insecurities.”

This made me laugh then and still does now. Because, truth, sistah, this lady can be awkward. But really, I also know where Inge was coming from when she wrote it. When she was in high school, she sometimes found it difficult to relate to her peers. I think that’s partly why her closest friends were in their 20s and 30s. But in the last few years, Inge had really stepped into herself, growing more confident and outgoing with each trip she took.

Inge traveled often. She has made dozens of friends in places as far-reaching as Europe. She has positively impacted hundreds of lives: through her climbing accomplishments—yes, hell yes—but more so through the radiant, kind, and generous person she grew to be. It didn’t always come naturally for her to connect with people. But once she found her way of connecting, she did so with authenticity and depth. 

The truth of this was more evident than ever at her birthday party. Hayden grilled up sausages and burgers as her friends set bowls of potato salad and greens, bags of chips and six-packs on the pop-up tables. People threw beanbags into cornholes and kids ran around as their parents leaned into camp-chairs. They had built a tribe together. They were loved, wholly and widely. 

One of the real highlights of the party for me, though, was when her sister rolled in. Inge jumped up, sprinted over to her car, and embraced her youngest sibling as if she hadn’t seen her for years. They sat close to each other all night, sharing smiles like they held a lifetime of secrets between them. 

My lungs grow tight with Inge and Hayden’s family in mind. When I left the wedding and tried to help her brother track them down Sunday night through phone calls and Facebook, I was already preparing for the worst. Death from nature, from chaos, seemed like the inevitable story after 30 hours of being MIA. Hayden’s taking of his own life, though, wasn’t something we could have braced for—I don’t think anyone can brace for death, truly, but suicide feels like a special brand of chaos.

Though I didn’t know Hayden like I knew Inge, there was one thing I did know: he loved her. He loved her with a care that had him texting and emailing me daily to make sure everything went perfect for the party. When we had drinks the weekend before their passing, they leaned into one another, his arm around her, and they were happy. Happy and relaxed. I remember thinking, he's the one, and I had felt this immense joy for my friend who, in many ways, was like a little sister.  

I cannot blame Hayden for his decision. I will not, and I hope we can all respect and honor his life, and the decision to end it, without judgment. 

I’m not sure what’s more painful: the memories of them, or the memories left unfilled. Inge talked about moving back to Lander and teaching math. She said Hayden thought about opening a bakery there. He loved to bake. When he moved to Bozeman a few days before Inge, I swung by to see their new place. A loaf of bread was rising in the oven. 

We leaned against the kitchen counter and he opened up about feeling this grief and guilt for the recent tragedies in Charlottesville. He then gave me a handwritten card, thanking me for helping plan Inge's party. When I got home and read the card, I chuckled at the odds of two eloquent letter-writers ending up together.   

I know the memories will become a balm, or they’re supposed to, but right now I’m trying to recall all the conversations in cars, at the crag, over ciders, campfires, and food that Inge and I shared. I can’t help but feel like I didn’t appreciate our friendship enough.

Though I express this concern, I know, deep down, that she knew I loved her. I only share it because I imagine other people might be feeling the same thing, and that it’s hard, I think, to show our feelings in their full extent and this shortage of expression—the shortcomings of words, of hugs, even—is one of the challenges of being human. 

Inge sometimes expressed struggles with juggling a life of pursing her passions with a life of social connection. She relished a day alone in the mountains, and the months she spent in remote places often drew her away from the people she loved most.

She did end up doing that traverse, the Cirque Traverse, in 17.25 hours—alone, I mean to say. She would often venture solo on trails, running full marathons without mentioning mileage. When she showed up to my bachelorette party, for example, she had just finished running up to an alpine lake, totaling 25 miles round-trip.

All my non-climber friends watched in awe as she scampered up a 5.7 in her tennis shoes. I wanted to say, yeah, you should have been there the day she sent the Hellion. I didn't get to witness her throw down the handful of 5.14s she succeed in climbing, but I did belay her on the send of that Ten Sleep classic, and she made it look like a warmup.

The first time she asked me to go climbing, (where I had asked myself, she wants to climb with me?), we went to this world class destination called The Cave. It's a good place to catch Hantavirus and a rock to the head, but we take what we can get in Montana. I was pretty new to sport climbing at this point. She sent a local classic called Weapons of Mass Destruction, 12c.

She climbed it with such ease that I figured I could probably get up on a top rope, but I ended up lowering half way and she climbed it again to get the draws. There were countless more experiences like this to follow: climbs she waltzed up with her characteristic pairing of grace and power. We spent a week in Ten Sleep once, and she ended up sending a 5.12+ or 5.13a/b a day, if not two or even three.

The Inge casual-crushing became legendary as she traveled the U.S. and world, doing what she loved most. She wasn’t afraid to pack up her truck and head to a crag by herself. After a certain point in her climbing career, she knew she could meet someone there willing to exchange belays. 

And while she "pranced around the world," as she liked to call it, she was always the first to send an email or card to stay in touch. In the same card where she expressed admiration for my social stickiness, she also wrote, “To me, it is so special to be able to share adventures, travels, and good food with you even if we go into our own hermit worlds and don’t keep in constant contact. That is what friendship is all about.” 

For those of us who can relate to Inge’s struggle with feeling connected to people when we are called into our hermit worlds, I hope her words offer company as they did to me. Friendship is all about not seeing someone for months and then, when you do, feeling like no time had passed at all. 

Yet it’s also about making the extra mile, or few hundred, to see someone. I hate admitting this, but I had my hesitations about going to Lander for the party. Sure, I had helped plan it, but I could only go for a day and a half and it was fourteen hours round-trip. My husband ended up not being able to come, so I was especially hesitant to drive the distance alone. 

And now, needless to say, I’m grateful I did. Though that’s not to say there weren’t other times, other opportunities, to connect with Inge and I vouched to stay home. She had sent multiple emails, asking me to come to Rifle the summer she lived there, and I didn’t make the trip. I know we can’t always, or we just don’t, go the distance. That part of the grief and healing comes with reveling the times we did spend with our deceased loved ones while simultaneously mourning the couldas and shouldas.

It’s a difficult task, one spanning months, years, most likely. We will grieve for our loss of Hayden and Inge. We will also continue to celebrate their lives. Because if Inge would have wanted anything following her death, she would have wanted us to celebrate.

One of the things Inge loved most was listening to her weird techno music and dancing for hours. In the interview she did with me for The Work Behind the Body series, she finished the piece with, "Lastly, don’t be afraid to let it all loose on the dance floor. It is the most wonderful way to forget any notions of others judging you and for me one of the most special times for my emotions and movements to connect." 

There's much to dance for, much to celebrate with the lives of Inge of Hayden: the athletic prowess they both expressed; the spunky and authentic ways they acted; the generous, kind, and bright spirits they embodied that must have been just too big for the human body to hold.