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Colin Haley: Young Alpinist on Fire

Jed Brown and Colin Haley made the first winter ascent of Alaska’s Mt. Huntington (12,240′), on March 12, 2007. Haley and Brown climbed to the summit via the West Face Couloir (aka Nettle-Quirk: V 85 degrees, 3,250′). [Photo] Jed Brown

At 11:00 a.m. on January 24, 2008, Rolando Garibotti and Colin Haley stood on the summit of Cerro Torre after linking all four of the Torre Group’s iconic spires in a single, alpine style traverse. Their success marked the completion of one of Patagonia’s greatest problems.

To be sure, a great deal of groundwork had been laid–much by Ermanno Salvaterra–by the time Garibotti and Haley roped up. In 2005, Garibotti opened a new line on the north face of Cerro Torre–El Arca del los Vientos (VI, 1200m, Beltrami-Garibotti-Salvaterra)–that made the project seem just within reach. And in 2007, he almost completed the traverse using the new route. But the enchainment of these four peaks is one of the most captivating and elusive lines in the world, and the erratic Patagonian weather had always vetoed its completion.

After they’d completed the traverse, for many people, the story that emerged–the trip reports up on the web, the photo spreads in national magazines–was less of a retrospective into the project than it was a look toward the future. For Garibotti, the traverse was a culmination of 23 years of work. For the 23 year-old on the other end of the rope, it marked just the beginning. Colin Haley lives with his parents in Seattle, and sometimes signs his emails ‘Skeletor.’ His accomplishments are as undeniable as his youth.

Colin Haley. Alongside a cast of some of modern alpinism’s greatest, Haley played a role in authoring some of the most significant alpine-style ascents of the past several years. Following a first ascent of Mt. Moffit’s Entropy Wall with Jed Brown in 2006, Haley gained a momentum upon which he still seems to be capitalizing. In January the following year he made a new linkup, with Kelly Cordes, of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and the Ferrari West Face on Cerro Torre. Two months later, he and Brown claimed the first winter ascent of Alaska’s Mt. Huntington. And two months after that, Steve House recruited him for the first ascent of a new line on Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face. It didn’t stop there… [Photo] Courtesy Colin Haley

While Haley’s story is eleven years in the making, his past three have included an unprecedented number of big ascents from a climber of his age. Alongside a cast of some of modern alpinism’s greatest, Haley played a role in authoring some of the most significant alpine-style ascents of the past several years. Following a first ascent of Mt. Moffit’s Entropy Wall with Jed Brown in 2006, Haley gained a momentum upon which he still seems to be capitalizing. In January the following year he made a new linkup, with Kelly Cordes, of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and the Ferrari West Face on Cerro Torre. Two months later, he and Brown claimed the first winter ascent of Alaska’s Mt. Huntington. And two months after that, Steve House recruited him for the first ascent of a new line on Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face. It didn’t stop there. With a college degree sidelined for the time being, Haley traveled back to Patagonia, to Central Asia and again to Alaska for more ambitious projects, many successful, all at an extremely high level of commitment. For a 23-year-old kid, running on a fraction of the experience of many of his contemporaries, his storyline seems unlikely. And those who have spent decades cutting their teeth on the worlds most foreboding peaks inevitably view it with skepticism.

It is most appropriate and educational for the layman to understand Haley through the eyes of these people–the veterans, his mentors. They have the proper perspective to view him in a broader context, because there have been others like him who are gone now. Haley is a 23-year-old on fire, neck deep in the most formative and crucial years of his life. But unlike many other young alpine climbers, he has proven an ability to undertake substantial projects and see them to completion on a very consistent basis. “Colin is ‘different,’ and different in good way,” said Mark Twight. But everyone I spoke to agreed that would be a shame to present Haley as a “rising star.” This is not the discourse of alpinism. Such an idea cheapens what he does–what they do. Rising stars and up and comers do not exist in alpinism.

Rolando Garibotti and Colin Haley followed the Torre Traverse from north to south by starting up on Cerro Standhardt via Exocet, descending to the Col dei Sogni, climbing up Spigolo dei Bimbi on Punta Herron, descending to the Col de Lux, climbing up Torre Egger via the Huber-Schnarf 2005 route, descending to the Col of Conquest via Torre Egger’s south face, up Cerro Torre via the upper portion of El Arca de los Vientos to join the Ferrari West Face route, and finished by descending via the Compressor route. They had a vertical gain of approximately 2200 meters. [Photo] Rolando Garibotti

The first time I spoke with Haley was on Thanksgiving Day, 2007. He had just finished another term of his undergrad geology studies at the University of Washington–a project he prefers to take in small, easily digestible bites–and was preparing for his, now, impressive 2008 trip to Patagonia, during which he completed the Torre Traverse, along with ascents of El Mocho, Cerro Standhardt, Desmochada, plus two lines on Fitz Roy. While Haley alluded briefly to the Traverse in our conversation, he was tight-lipped about his intentions, somewhat of a requisite trait in his line of work. We spent more time talking about the past, the Northwest, and the years that had allowed him to reach this level at so young an age.

As one might hope, Haley learned how to self-arrest long before he ever clipped a bolt. At age 12 he first pushed the plunger, releasing alpine climbing into his veins. All climbers can look back to the moment that grabbed them first–the feeling of pulling through a scary crux or the alpenglow on their first alpine start. For Haley, this moment was close to home in North Cascade National Park, a place where he came of age and would return to time and time again as he progressed–honing his skills and pushing his personal limits. In 1996, with his dad and brother, Haley ran the west ridge of Forbidden Peak. With fifth class climbing, glacier travel and legitimate exposure, one can only imagine the impact this experience had on the 12-year-old psyche. “Ever since then I’ve been kind of obsessive about climbing,” he said. “I would devise all these tricks of hitching rides and taking metro busses out to try and get as close to the mountains as I could.”

Colin Haley on Denali Diamond (Alaska Grade 6: 5.9 A3, 7,800′, Becker-Graage, 1983) on Denali’s (20,320′) massive south face. “Forty-five hours and forty minutes later, he and Mark Westman became the fifth team to complete the route. In doing so, they may have also ushered in Denali’s new alpine benchmark.” [Photo] Mark Westman

From that point to now, at a narrow and uninformed glance, the level Haley’s accomplishments have reached compared to his age might make sense if they were charted on an exponential curve. But after following his progress over the years, a more steady, linear growth becomes apparent and his presence alongside Garibotti, or Steve House on cutting-edge climbs at age 23 comes as less of a surprise. In alpine climbing, commitment is relative to experience. “I was pushing myself just as hard in high school as I am now,” said Haley. “It’s just that no one outside of the Cascades has heard of Mt. Johannesburg, Graybeard Peak, or Chiwawa Mountain.”

For someone with aspirations like Haley, there is no better place to push oneself in the lower 48. Washington is the ideal training ground for the world’s greater ranges. The approaches are never cake. The ice is often rotten, the rock often chossy. Everything requires a bit of elbow grease and character. Those mountains see a lot of snow, and a lot of rain and it’s no wonder that some of the United States most accomplished alpine climbers–Steve Swenson, Steve House, Jim Nelson, Tom Hornbien, Mark Twight–logged their time there. With these peaks, often called the American Alps, in his backyard, Haley was able to take on projects in line with his level of skill and acceptable risk, building a strong foundation from which to launch into the more elite realms of alpinism, where he climbs today alongside men decades his senior.

As Haley Reports in his May 29, 2007 Trip Report on “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 on WI3-5 ice slopes connected by short, M4/5 rock steps. Steve’s block had normal-length pitches (about 55 meters on average) and much steeper and difficult climbing, especially in the last few pitches. At the top were two pitches of M7, and Steve was fully on his arms for the final 30 meters of the route.” The photo shows Haley leading during his block. [Photo] Steve House

Winter character-building in the North Cascades was instrumental in Haley’s growth. “When I was 17,” Haley said, “my friend Mark Bunker and I went and climbed the Northeast Buttress of Mt. Johannesburg–in winter–up in the North Cascades. And I think, to this day, it’s still the hardest climb I’ve done relative to my experience level at the time. We just got totally worked. It snowed like a foot every day we were on the route—and we were on the thing for five days. It was super windy. My sleeping bag and jacket were just lumps of ice by the end of the trip. We ran out of fuel and ran out of food. The last bivy we were, basically, genuinely hypothermic. It was just a full-on epic. If I were to do the same climb today, I don’t even think I would rope up on much of it. But at the time, it was really pushing things for me, you know. I’d never pitched a bivy tent on a little ledge before, or slept tied in.”

If you ask rangers in the North Cascades, they all know Colin Haley. They’ve known him since he was a teenager. All the old school guys like Fred Beckey keep tabs on him. All the nameless alpinists in the northwest have watched him come up. “That kid’s been getting after it,” they’ll say. In many ways, he’s still the hometown boy. But there seems to be a time around 2006 where all that he’d been doing around Seattle, all the routes he’d been climbing, reached a critical mass with enough inertia to carry him away from the Cascades. Since then, he’s ramped up the intensity and commitment of his climbing, and of his goals.

One of the things people like to report about Colin Haley is the fact that when he was a kid he had pictures of Cerro Torre on the wall of his bedroom. How touching to think of the boy who dreamed of big foreign mountains and then grew into a young man able to climb them. But the fact that the great ranges of the world have been in Haley’s mind’s eye since the time his friends were playing little league is quite real. He was captivated with these peaks most have never heard of–Gasherbrum IV, Mt. Waddington. Eventually, trip reports with his name on them started trickling in from these places. By reading them you could almost feel his growing ambitions.

From reading Haley’s writings about his climbs, along with the reports from his partners, a powerful determination is clearly evident in his approach to climbing mountains. Garibotti described his style as “very motivated; giving up is not an option.” On he and Kelly Cordes’ new link-up on Cerro Torre, Haley tunneled vertically inside the unstable rime guarding the summit, a technique for which Black Diamond built a prototype “wing” that could be fixed to the head of an ice tool in order to give more purchase. He emerged thousands of feet off the deck in overhanging snow, and then proceeded to aid through this undesirable ground using snow pickets. Indeed, many would have balked at the option. Haley described the undertaking as “a bit tenuous.”

“The thing is,” he said, “when you’re placing a picket way above your head on vertical rime, it’s really, really hard to get it angled steeply. It’s basically just going in perpendicular to the slope. So, it can slide out really easily. I stood up on one, and placed the other one up over my head. As soon as I stood up on that one, the movement of the rope basically pulled the first one out. The only decent piece of protection on that whole pitch was the massive V-thread I’d created by tunneling up through the rime.”

Haley’s ability to improvise and creatively approach solutions is apparent in many of the details in his trip reports. In his article detailing the first ascent of the Entropy Wall on Mt. Moffit (read this March 1, 2007 Trip Report for details), he describes the journey back to the front-country from the face. He and Jed Brown used a tiny inflatable raft with a snow shovel as a paddle to cross the not-so-tiny Delta River. The synergy of this sort of resourcefulness, his uninhibited motivation, a growing record of impressive ascents–not to mention a willingness to skip school based solely on an email (like the one from Steve House with a simple link to the weather forecast for Mt. Robson)–eventually brought Haley into the collective consciousness of North America’s elite alpine climbing community. “Colin is super capable and very motivated. Partners like that are hard to find,” said Garibotti. “His resume is far fatter than most of the ‘sacred dinosaurs.’ He is climbing stuff that is far more serious than most people his age. The kind of alpinism he practices is not very popular these days; less among young people.”

Haley on the East Buttress of El Capitan, Yosemite Valley. [Photo] Kelly Cordes

But time and time again, the veterans of alpinism mentioned that Haley’s unbridled motivation is what might ultimately get him into trouble. While he exhibits “wisdom beyond his years” in some cases, according to Mark Twight, “some other of his comments [recounting climbs] indicate a lack of maturity to balance that wisdom, which is expected and not at all negative.” In many cases, alpine climbing is akin to a game of Russian roulette. Steve House stated, “The most important thing is for Colin to survive the next ten years. For now, he is still young and still learning.”

While Haley might be a breath of fresh air in a generation of climbers that appears to be losing the alpine aesthetic, he is still among them in terms of years out of the womb. “Colin has had some fantastic successes,” said House, “but it is important to understand that the most impressive one (The Torre Traverse) has been with a partner much more experienced than he who generally led the cruxes and masterminded the strategy. There is nothing wrong with that. It is an immeasurably valuable set of experiences he has accumulated.”

Kelly Cordes had similar thoughts, saying, “Sure, Colin has a lot to learn, and who doesn’t? Nobody I know–check that, nobody I know who’s still progressing and doing
impressive things, whether on an absolute world-class scale or on their own personal scale–has stopped learning. I think it’s rad that Colin’s been able to climb with some partners who’ve been around the block a bit, and learned from that. Hell yeah, that’s awesome, and I doubt he takes it for granted. But we should also remember that he didn’t get to the point of climbing with folks like Rolo [Garibotti] and Steve from being a random bumbler. None of the more veteran partners he has would be willing to climb with him if he hadn’t already shown something.”

In 2007, House invited Haley along for an attempt of one of his long-time projects: the Emperor Face of Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies. House had attempted the route tens of times, the first a decade ago with Barry Blanchard; a legend in North American alpinism and mentor to House. Despite the team’s successful first ascent of a new line, Haley had difficulty–possibly due to a viral infection he’d been suffering from. “You have to understand that Colin is still a young man, and alpine climbing is very complicated,” said House. “He was bummed because I wanted to bring, and brought, a video camera that weighed 14oz. I thought he was going to mutiny over that camera. And when he discovered, high on the route, that he had left his cell phone in his jacket pocket, I thought he was going to jump.”

Haley had put up a first ascent on the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies with the man who climbs at the highest level in the world. But he made some mistakes, wasn’t feeling strong on the second day, and had possibly rubbed House the wrong way. But these types of mistakes are a part of learning and growing as a climber, a process to which House can attest. After being dubbed ‘the great white hope of American alpinism’, House dropped his and Barry Blanchard’s stove on the exact same face of Mt. Robson. Blanchard wrote: “The pump to the stove has gone down the face, and with it all of Steve’s pride and self-worth. The man is suicidal and I worry that he is going to jump, or slash his wrists with his ice axes.” One can assume that House sees elements of his past in Haley. He warned, “The climbing media and the outdoor industry should be careful not to put too much pressure on young alpinists whose hobby can so easily be fatal.” These are sage words, as there have been many prolific alpinists who, after reaching public consciousness, fell victim to the mountains that so inspires them-the late Mugs Stump being perhaps the most obvious example.

Even if Haley ever was an ‘Up-and-Comer,’ he is not now. Not anymore. He is already there, as Garibotti said, on the cutting edge of alpinism. The Torre Traverse is the clearest evidence of this. Peak enchainments are thought to be the next frontier of alpine climbing. While they’ve become an established type of problem in the Alps, climbers have dreamed of what potential this paradigm might hold for some of the larger, more remote ranges around the world. Garibotti and Haley’s traverse represents the application of this idea to one of alpinism’s most sacred temples–the Torre Group. Beyond that, for Haley, it was a foreshadowing of what’s possible in the years to come.

For now, we wait and see what happens next. We’ll try to keep Haley’s character in perspective, and try to keep the hype in perspective. Most importantly, we’ll hope that he has the maturity to do the same. But soon, in the American Alpine Journal, in Alpinist, or somewhere on the web, there will be a new trip report from Seattle’s own. It will be very well written; engaging, respectful, full of drive. It will most likely take place on a plane of epic achievement in some corner of the world, on some big, lonely mountain. Old, young, seasoned, or just beginning, it will undoubtedly inspire us to get out into the mountains and get after it.

A smiling Haley. [Photo] Courtesy Colin Haley