Climbers know that in the mountains, there is a lot that can and usually does go wrong. No one really conquers the mountain so much as the mountain allows you to reach it's summit --and then comes the rarely discussed getting down. That's why a roll of summit successes is a rare thing, especially if you're pressing the standard, and attempting difficult routes. Washington state climber Colin Haley, 22, however, is on just such a roll.
"It's been a good year, " Haley says. "It began with a first ascent on Alaska's Mt. Moffit, near Fairbanks, in July of 2006 with Jed Brown. There, the Entropy Wall (VI, 5.9, A2, WI4+), approximately 1,500 meters and 33 pitches, is followed by approximately 900 meters of snow and ice slopes leading to the summit." Colin still claims it as his most difficult climb to date.
"It was the most serious and committing climb I've ever done; a real eye opener, and good to do with someone close to my age. Some rock was poor, but some was excellent and splitter. Highlights included a perfect snow-mushroom bivy, a 3 meter horizontal roof, steep water-ice pillars, and lots of free climbing and aid climbing up steep cracks. We did a lighter leader pack, and a heavier follower's pack, but on the harder pitches we hauled the leader's pack and the follower jugged. We had a 9.9 mm lead line, and a 8.0 mm rap/haul line."
As would be the trend in the incredible year to follow, Haley would always take measure and make mental notes about what worked and what didn't when going light. And the climber always took time to revel in the uniqueness of the adventure.
"We didn't take any tarp or tent or bivy sacks, but we did both take synthetic sleeping bags, which turned out to be really important. Jed had a 20 degree bag, and I had a 35 degree bag, so I slept with our one belay jacket. The most interesting gear of the trip must've been the snow shovel, attached to an ice tool--we actually used it as a rafting paddle to cross a river on the hike out..."
In summarizing the climb, Colin and Jed compared it to the North Twin in the Columbia Ice fields of Canada. "Think of it as a granite and grano-diorite version of North Twin, with snow and ice above..."
From that auspicious beginning Haley has been on a climbing tear, arguably knocking off one of the most impressive one year strings of climbing successes.
Colin Haley first started as an undergrad in engineering at the University of Washington, but he switched to geology so he would have more free time in his future. The climber seized his next opportunity during the 2006 Christmas winter break. On a three-week trip in Patagonia, Argentina, Colin fulfilled a 10-year lifetime dream in summating Cerro Torre by the first link-up of the Marsigny-Parkin and West-Face with Kelly Cordes. Amazingly, just as the notorious Patagonia weather seemed to thwart their ambitions, with just days remaining before departure, a four-day window of good weather miraculously appeared.
"On the first day of the window, Jan. 4, we hiked up to the Niponino bivouac and tried to go to sleep early. We left Niponino at 2:30 am on Jan. 5 and hiked up the glacier below Cerro Torre's South Face. We started up the route (Marsigny-Parkin route (aka "A la Recherche Des Temps Perdues") at about 5:30 am, and climbed it in 8 hours, with 5 really long simul-leads, using Ropeman ascenders to make the simul-climbing safer. The crux of the Marsigny-Parkin was moderate at perhaps M5, but the route was very sustained: consistently WI3-4, with almost no snow-patches on which to rest calves. We divided the climb into two massive lead blocks: Kelly led all 800m of the Marsigny-Parkin to the Col of Hope, and I led all 600m of the West Face from the Col of Hope to the summit."
"Above the headwall we decided that route finding in the dark would be too tricky, so we dug/chopped ourselves a little ice-hole to get out of the wind. We spent about six hours melting snow, eating, and huddling together (we hadn't brought sleeping bags). The first pitch on Jan. 6 climbed up a natural tunnel in the ice to above the first mushroom of the summit ridge. The second pitch wormed into another tunnel to climb the second mushroom. The third pitch of the day was the crux of the route, and involved vertical and then overhanging snow climbing, followed by two aid moves off of pickets. The best piece of pro was a gigantic V-thread that I made by tunneling through the ice for about 3 meters."
Of his entire 2006 climbing successes, Cerro Torre was the most significant for Haley. In reaching his long dreamed summit that was visualize with classic wall posters in his room, the aesthetics and unique character of the route was grander than he ever imagined.
"The view was spectacular, and it was surreal to stand on top of a mountain that I'd been dreaming of for 10 years."
After Cerro Torre, Haley took advantage of spring break, in March 2007. Colin, with Jed Brown (of Fairbanks) flew from Talkeetna to the Tokositna Glacier below Mt. Huntington.
"On March 12th we climbed to the summit of Mt. Huntington via the West Face Couloir (Nettle-Quirk route), and descended via the same route, in just under 15 hours roundtrip. We believe this might have been the first ascent of Huntington during the winter season. Although many teams descend from the top of the ice ramp, we found it to only be half-way to the summit, in terms of time and effort. Conditions and weather were excellent, although the temperatures were extremely cold; we both frost nipped a few digits. After a few days contemplating other objectives, we gave in to the cold nights and flew out of the range on March 16th."
In May 2007, Haley, skipped some classes to make for a long weekend and accomplished a first ascent on Mt. Robson's, Emperor Face (House-Haley) (FA), (VI, AI5, M7).
"Excited by a good forecast, Steve House drove north from Bend on Wednesday afternoon for his 7th attempt on Robson's Emperor Face. Fortunately for me, all of the more talented climbers he approached could not go, so we met up in Seattle and hit the road up to Robson on Thursday morning."
"We climbed the face in two long lead blocks, both seven pitches long. My block had longer pitches (about 80 meters on average) and moderate climbing, then Steve's block had normal-length pitches (about 55 meters on average) and much more difficult climbing. Our route roughly followed the gully system immediately left of the Stump-Logan, but on the last pitch we suddenly encountered 3 fixed pitons. Presumably Stump and Logan finished a little bit to the left of the arete that is shown in most photos. Our route shared at least the last pitch with theirs, and perhaps the last two or three pitches.
"I reached Steve's belay at the top of the headwall at 11:30 pm, and we spent the short night sitting on a small ledge chopped from the ice. In the morning Steve led two easy mixed pitches up to the crest of the Emperor Ridge, which we then crossed onto the upper Southwest Face. We traversed across the South Face, me now feeling very sick for some reason (I think a bug that I have had ever since Patagonia), and joined the Wishbone Arete in deteriorating weather. The upper Wishbone Arete included some funky gargoyle climbing, and we topped out in a whiteout at 1:00 pm."
With classes breaking finally for summer, Haley cut loose once again in June 2007, and ascended the rarely climbed Denali Diamond (3500 feet granite wall left of the Cassin Ridge, which continues up an additional 4500 feet of steep snow terrain alongside, then on, the upper Cassin Ridge) on Denali with Mark Westman.
After Colin summitted the West Rib, followed by a ski descent, Mark conveyed the character of that ascent this way: "We spent the day resting as light snow fell and visibility remained limited, but a forecast for 2, possibly 3 days of sunny skies (as it turned out it was the only 2-day good weather window out of three weeks) and high pressure kept us optimistic. At midnight that night, the clouds evaporated and we began climbing. We simul-climbed a half dozen easy pitches of snow and ice to where the wall steepened. I then led several easy to moderate mixed pitches with some simul climbing. The route unfolded beautifully, with astounding rock quality and well iced chimneys and grooves that provided continuously stellar climbing. Colin led a block of pitches up some wonderful mixed terrain that brought us to the "Diamond", an enormous block that dominates the wall.
"I then led a very steep squeeze chimney filled with ice, followed by a difficult mixed pitch. Colin led two very steep waterfall pitches (5+) which held sustained and continuous 90 degree sections. I thought these quite reminiscent in terms of difficulty and quality to the "Shaft" on the Moonflower of Mt. Hunter. The first of these leaned left and actually overhung in places, requiring some delicate and technical stemming. The second pitch began with a short but technical M6 mixed step, followed by relentlessly vertical but excellent ice. As with everything we had climbed to this point, the protection and rock quality was absolutely superb, allowing us to focus entirely on the climbing, and maximizing our enjoyment. A short ramble above the second step led us to the infamous crux pitch. To the right, the FA party's notorious 25 foot, A3 roof loomed. This looked very intimidating."
At a relatively young age for a serious alpinist, it would be easy to conclude that Haley's unparalleled climbing successes have simply been the result of lucky conditions and overzealous youthful enthusiasm. In fact, Haley comes by his skill honestly, his lessons going as far back as a mountain bivouac with his father on the North Cascade's Forbidden Peak, at age 12. From there the Cascade ascents continued to accumulate, along with numerous forays into Canada. His passion fired, a winter in Chamonix was the next evolution for Haley in 2005, then a try at Nanga Parbat that summer. Haley had been honing his skills for just such a run as he pulled off in 2006/07. Each mountain experience as added to the next. On Moffit it was about finding his limits, on Cerro Torre he learned dreams do come true, on Huntington he learned how to manage extreme cold, on Robson he recognized his rock climbing weakness and learned from the master, House.
What makes Colin unique in this climbing era is that his skills were not born from sport climbing. He has always be an alpinist, who enjoys the mental planning and strategy, the approaches, and weather diversity as much as the climb. In many ways he is a renaissance mountaineer out of the same mold as Teray, Bonatti, or Messner. With a classic mountain approach, Colin simply describes his weather attitude best with his contrary impression of Patagonia bad weather: "Coming from the Cascades, weather in Patagonia doesn't seem that bad."
So can a fabulous mountain year continue for yet another? Haley says that what interests him around the Northwest is a continuing focus on winter alpine climbing. Recently, he's been off to Squamish to work on elevating his rock climbing skills. In August Colin is heading to Pakistan to climb Ultar Sar's (7,388 meters), Southeast Rib/Pillar that has seen 3 previous attempts. With Jed Brown, if successful, it will be yet another first.
At a time when seemingly everything that can be imagined in big-mountain alpinism has been done, Colin Haley is succeeding in making the community take notice. Not bad for a 22 year old climber. Haley is on a journey that commands the kind of deep introspection that often only the intrepid adventurer understands, rising out of the recognition that through risk, life becomes clearer. Beliefs are defined, priorities set straight, and, for Haley, that's enough to drive him forward for one more year.