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Better than Lucky

Photo by Frank Huster

Colin Haley’s remarkable ascent

I first took notice of Colin Haley in 2003, when a Hot Flashes blurb mentioned that he and two others had done the first traverse of the Southern Picket Range, a tortuous, demanding, and little-known subrange of the Washington Cascades. I figured this 19-year-old rookie just got lucky. But a year later, he and Mark Bunker completed the second ascent of the Waddington Traverse in British Columbia, and in 2005 he made the first winter ascents of several significant Cascades routes. Maybe this kid had more than just good luck. I started rooting for him, hoping that his exhaustive apprenticeship in alpine obscura would mature into a noteworthy career. Or, at least, that his luck wouldn’t run out.

Raised on Mercer Island, an affluent suburb of Seattle, Haley set a life goal at the wee age of 12 to climb Cerro Torre. He accomplished that goal just 10 years later, in January 2007, doing the first complete ascent of a 4,600-foot ice and mixed climb. Still just 26, Colin Haley has lived hard alpine climbing for more than a decade.

Haley’s greatest single alpine achievement is the Torres Traverse in Patagonia, which he and Rolando Garibotti pioneered in 2008. But what really sets him apart is the staggering volume of his success in the mountains. He has completed major new routes or first solo ascents in Alaska, Patagonia, Canada, or Pakistan every year since the Picket Range Traverse.

This summer, he plans to attempt an alpine-style climb of the 6,000-foot north face of Ogre II in Pakistan. If successful, it would not only be the first ascent of that face, but also the first major route up one of the main peaks looming over the Choktoi Glacier: the Ogres and Latoks. More than 30 expeditions of the world’s best alpinists have attempted huge routes on these mountains, and all but one—including two of Haley’s own trips—have failed.

I’d wish Haley luck, but that would seem trite and misplaced. He’s racked up mega miles on increasingly difficult routes in every range he climbs; he sets challenging but attainable goals every year, progressing his lifetime vision of continuous improvement; and he chooses partners with whom he shares a synergy. Haley’s measured approach to alpine climbing exploits skills, smarts, and psych, and that makes him much better than lucky.

Colin Haley multi-tasks on a new route in Patagonia, January 2011. Photo by Mikey Schaefer

How long have you been a full-time climber? Two and a half years. Basically, since I finished my last quarter at the University of Washington. For the past 10 years, I’ve been dedicating all of my free time to the mountains, but only for the past two years has almost all of my time been time that I can dedicate to the mountains.

Scheduling an interview with you was tricky because you’re climbing and traveling non-stop. How do you stay motivated for that much dangerous and difficult climbing? It doesn’t seem odd that I’m motivated to climb all the time. For me, the whole reason to pursue climbing at a professional level is so that I can do it all the time.

How do you afford to travel and climb all year? The largest portion of my income comes from sponsors. The next largest portions are from selling photographs, selling writing, and giving slideshows. I definitely live below the poverty line. I have a really shitty old car, and I have a very low overhead to my life when I’m not on trips. Pretty much every cent I make goes into the next climbing trip.

Do your parents support you at all? Not in terms of pure money or anything. But my dad lets me live in his backyard rent-free. I can come home from any trip and have a place to stay, a place to keep my car, and a place to receive mail.

Most alpinists need time to decompress after big trips, but it seems like you don’t need that. The bottom line is that I really just love being in the mountains. It’s not like I could spend every day of the year on the Baltoro Glacier, or something like that. There is a balance. For me, it’s really only two expeditions a year, and that’s to Alaska and to the Karakoram. It’s only those two that require that deep hunger— the rest is pretty much pure fun.

Some people wouldn’t call two months in Patagonia “pure fun.” [Laughs.] Patagonia isn’t really an expedition anymore. You’re living indoors, you have access to email, and you can buy food at a grocery store. It’s really not that rough.

You seem to take safety very seriously, but you’re really sticking your neck out just by being in the mountains year-round. How do you justify that much risk? Without any doubt, alpine climbing is dangerous, and alpine climbing year-round compounds that danger. And alpine climbing at the level that I’m trying to pursue is more dangerous. That’s not an aspect of it that I’m particularly psyched about, but we all take risks. And if living the life you want to live involves risking losing your life, that doesn’t make it not worth doing.

Haley on a new variation on Vaagekallen, one of the biggest mountains on Norway

Is the risk in alpine climbing part of what makes it appealing? Oh, yeah, without any doubt. If the risk didn’t exist, then the experience would be very different, and not as meaningful. The thing that makes alpine climbing so awesome is that you end up in these situations where you have to get your shit together to survive. You can’t just sit down and be like, “Okay, I don’t feel like sending today.” I mean, if you don’t step up to the plate and do the things you have to do, you’ll die on that mountain. It just provides this intensity of life that in the 21st century in North America we don’t really experience otherwise. It’s a funny conundrum, because you don’t want to get in those situations, but at the same time you want to do climbing where, you know, from time to time, those situations will arise. [Laughs.] The climbs where I had to fight to get home are definitely some of my best memories ever.

Can you name a couple of those climbs? One of the most memorable ones was when Mark Bunker and I made the second winter ascent of the northeast buttress of Mt. Johannesburg in the North Cascades. [Bunker is a low-key, hard-core alpinist who lives in Washington state; Haley cites Bunker as one of the two people who’ve had most influence on his climbing, along with Rolando Garibotti.] We did it during the worst storm of that entire winter, and right over New Year’s, when there’s barely any light.

You climbed it in the middle of that storm? Yeah. We had set aside a week of time. The weather wasn’t good, but we just said, “Fuck it, let’s go anyways,” and we’ll pick an objective that doesn’t have too insane of avalanche danger. That’s why we went to J-Berg. The face itself is really big—5,000 vertical feet—but the approach is quite short, with minimal avy danger. We spent five days on the mountain, and it snowed at least a foot every day that we were on it. Our bivy tent got buried every night. We did all the climbing with ski goggles on. At the last bivy, my sleeping bag was frozen, we were out of food, and we were out of fuel. It was totally epic. But it was awesome! Those days are so etched in my memory.

The unclimbed face of Ogre II (ca. 6,960m) in Pakistan. Haley and Bjørn-Eivind Årtun are attempting this wall this summer. Photo by Maxime Turgeon

Any other climbs that made you fight to get home? The route that Bjørn-Eivind [Årtun] and I climbed on Foraker in the spring of 2010 is a good example. Dracula has 10,000 vertical feet of gain. It wasn’t super-sustained, but it was technically difficult, with a couple pitches of M6 and a bunch of other mixed and ice climbing. The bottom of the route is serac-threatened. To minimize the danger, we had to go as fast as possible, which meant going as light as possible. We climbed the route with daypacks. We pushed the limits of having single-push be a reasonable option because we got hit by a storm on top. We had to keep going down even though we were in this horrendous storm. If we’d waited, we would have just died on the mountain.

You had a sketchy forecast from the start. What made you roll the dice in that case? Umm… I don’t know. I guess Bjørn’s enthusiasm. [Laughs.]

You and Årtun are going to the Ogre II together this summer, correct? Yup. I’ve been to the Choktoi Glacier twice before: once to try Ogre I, and once to try Latok I. But on both of those trips, I stared at Ogre II for a lot of the time, because I think it’s the most spectacular peak in that valley. And it’s only been climbed once, in 1984, by the northwest ridge. That was a large Korean expedition, which fixed ropes most of the way. To the left of that ridge is the north face, which we hope to climb. It has a line of ice that goes most of the way up, and then this gully at the top that is kind of the big question mark. It’s close to 7,000 meters, and it could be M5 or it could be overhanging A2.

When you say “gully,” I’m thinking “easy section.” No, more like “giant, mixed gash.”

Okay, that sounds more intimidating… How long do you expect to be on that climb? We’re hoping to do the route proper in three days: two days up and one down. We’re looking at the easiest line up the face, but it’s still 6,000 feet tall, and it’s still really steep. I’m sure that on the upper gash we’ll pull on pieces here or there, and if we’re unlucky we’ll have to do a full pitch of aid climbing.


You were quoted in an interview on regarding bolts in the mountains: “It goes without saying that bolts should only be placed where there are no cracks, used to a bare minimum, and drilled by hand.” I assume you won’t bring bolts on Ogre II. It would be stupid to bring a bolt kit on things like the Ogre II. I mean, if we get into any climbing that’s so blank that you need to place a couple of bolts, then it’ll be so slow that we don’t have any chance to do it.

Are there alpine routes you’ve climbed where you’ve used bolts you thought were appropriate? I think that, used to a super-bare minimum, bolts can be justified in very specific contexts. For instance, the last couple of times I went climbing this season in Patagonia, we were trying to climb the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre—which is basically where the Compressor Route goes—without using any of Cesare Maestri’s bolts. Part of that means climbing the Salvaterra variation, which Ermanno established in 1999. It’s mostly face climbing, so there are eight bolts on it, and three of those bolts are belay bolts. I think it’s totally justified because it’s the natural line up the ridge. If you were to finish it, you would take a much more natural line than Maestri took, because he just bolted straight up blank rock. You’d probably encounter, maybe, a 10-meter section without any cracks. So, if three more bolts go in there, I think it would be totally reasonable. Basically, you can take this route that Maestri put 450 bolts in and find a way to do it with 11.

Have you considered chopping bolts in the mountains? Yeah, I’ve certainly thought about it. I feel very strongly that the bolts on the Compressor Route shouldn’t be there, because, more than any other place in the entire world, that’s where someone went totally insane with bolts. There are literally places on that mountain where you could be clipped in at one point and you could touch 10 different bolts. It’s crazy. I’ll do everything I can to convince the climbing world that they should be taken out.

You’ve done the Torres Traverse [the link-up of Aguja Standhardt, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre] and many other first ascents and first solos in Patagonia, yet you’re still psyched to keep going back there. I’ve only started to scratch the surface in Patagonia. I’ve been to most of the best summits there—some of them a lot. Like, I’ve climbed Fitz Roy six times now. But most of the hardest routes have not seen second ascents. And most of them were established in siege style, with fixed ropes. So, to attempt those routes—like on the east and south faces of Cerro Torre—in alpine style? That’s a big step forward that no one has done yet, and that’s what I’d eventually like to try.

Believe it: Even professional alpinists suffer the screaming barfies. Photo by Tim Matsui

Style and ethics in alpine climbing can seem totally contrived, if not elitist. But you tend to do what’s most practical, right? Well, it’s both. Alpine style is practical in the sense that it’s much more enjoyable. You wait out the bad weather by going bouldering, and when the good weather comes you just blitz up the face in lightweight style. But it’s way harder, and it takes more skill to climb in alpine style. In terms of actually succeeding on the route, your chances are way better in siege style.

You’ve said that free climbing in the big mountains isn’t one of your goals. Free climbing in the mountains is a contrived difficulty. In alpine climbing, I’m searching for that experience where you have to pour everything you have just to get up the route. If it’s easy enough that you can take your time to free climb the hard bits, then I’d rather try a harder route. I want to do whatever is most efficient in the moment. If it’s more efficient to free climb a section, I’ll free climb it. And if it’s more efficient to pull on a cam, I’ll pull on a cam.

And your favorite objectives are ones where you take the easiest line up some heinous wall? Exactly. You’re staring up at a wall, and you’re not trying to pick out a hard line on it. All you want to do is get up it, but it’s such a difficult wall that even the easiest route that you fi nd is still really difficult.

One could say that solo climbing is a contrived difficulty. That’s true, yeah. It’s harder to climb a route by yourself than with a partner, and so in that sense it’s a contrived difficulty.

But it seems like soloing is important to you. Climbing by yourself is a really powerful experience. It’s not just that you’re climbing a lot of terrain without a rope, so you have the consequence that any fall means death. It’s also that you’re there doing everything by yourself. The fact that it’s really challenging is what makes it appealing.

What do you consider to be your most significant solo ascent? I think soloing Standhardt this year in Patagonia. Partly because it’s quite a hard route, and partly because it was the first solo ascent of the entire mountain. My most personally significant solo was the Supercanaleta on Fitz Roy a couple of years ago. It’s a substantially easier solo than Standhardt, but I did it in pretty bad conditions and marginal weather. Soloing the Supercanaleta in those conditions and with that weather was the hardest day of my whole life.

Photo by Maxime Turgeon

I imagine you’ve had many extremely difficult days in the mountains. What made this your hardest day ever? Psychologically, it was a really big experience. The route itself is 5,000 feet, and I had one 60-meter rope. So, if I were to bail down the route I knew it would be epic. And at the time, the Franco-Argentine [descent] had never been rappelled with just one 60-meter rope. I’d rappelled the Franco-Argentine a couple of times before, and there were two places where I’d made 40-plus-meter, overhanging rappels. No one else was on Fitz Roy that day. But for whatever reason, I felt like really pushing myself. I topped out at something like 6 p.m. in pretty bad weather. I was out of water, and it was getting dark. The descent took most of the night. I successfully found alternate ways to rappel around the big overhangs, but darkness hit a few raps above La Silla [the snowy bench below Fitz Roy’s southeast face]. By the time I was down, I would hike for 15 minutes and then sit down on my backpack and drop my head until I would start shivering. And then get up again and hike for 15 minutes and repeat. [Laughs.] I felt more depleted than I ever had before or since.

What allowed you to commit to soloing the climb in such crappy conditions? I don’t know. The factors that make you really motivated at some times and less motivated at other times are complex, and I don’t think I really can tell why at some times I feel so hungry to go for it. I’d been planning that climb for months, and I hadn’t had a chance to try it, and so I’m sure the fact that it was my last chance of that season was a big factor.

What did it feel like when you were back in school after that? From the summit of Fitz Roy to sitting in the classroom in Seattle was less than three days. I was surrounded by a bunch of people who not only aren’t alpinists, aren’t soloists, but aren’t climbers at all—there was no point in even mentioning anything. I pretty much never talked about climbing in school.

Can you tell me what some of your climbing goals are for the next, say, five years? [Laughs.] Umm… let me see… The ones that aren’t secret… Right, and a lot of them are. My two big expeditions are Alaska and then Pakistan. If all goes well in Pakistan this year and we get up the route, I would like to spend the next few years focusing just on Alaska and Patagonia, which would mean that during the summer I mostly just rock climb and work on my technical skills. I basically view rock climbing as training for alpine climbing.

It sounds like you’re also an avid skier. I’ve been skiing since I was four years old—longer than I’ve been a climber. I’m much more dedicated to climbing now, but if I had to pick one to do for the rest of my life, it would probably be skiing, not climbing.

Really? If I had to pick one to do for the next decade, it would be climbing. But for the rest of my life? When I’m in my late 40s, I want to be skiing powder more than I want to be climbing.


You had a pretty close call while skiing in Chamonix last year, right? Yeah. The Y Couloir on Aiguille Verte is an extremely steep and technical ski descent. A big wet-slide avalanche came down on me while in the main couloir, and I barely managed to get out of the gully. The avalanche hit my pack and the tails of my skis hard, and if I didn’t have Whippets [self-arrest pole grips] dug into the slope, I’m sure I would have been pulled off and killed. I was right above a cliff several hundred feet tall. Extreme skiing is a funny one because it’s quite dangerous—I think it’s more dangerous than any of the climbing I do—but it’s also kind of addicting. [Laughs.] I still like steep ski mountaineering, and will still ski things that are no-fall terrain, but at levels like the Y Couloir, it’s just too dangerous for me to accept.

Other than the climbs we’ve discussed, plus the Entropy Wall on Mt. Moffit [first ascent of the Alaskan peak’s north face, with Jed Brown], what are some other pivotal climbs in your career? Climbing Cerro Torre with Kelly Cordes was a really signifi cant climb for me. It was the first complete ascent of a really awesome route on Cerro Torre [Los Tiempos Perdidos–West Face link-up]. Ever since I was 12 years old, if there was one thing I really wanted to accomplish in my life, it was to climb Cerro Torre.

You’ve taken on somewhat of a watchdog role in terms of accuracy in climbing news. You’re quick to verify or nullify climbing reports. Why is this important to you? It’s important to report things accurately, because people are eager to make news out of whatever they’ve done.

Is false reporting common in climbing media? The most common one of all—the one that I am a stickler about—is not getting to the top of the mountain. A lot of people these days claim success when they bailed, for whatever reason. For me, it’s very black and white: The top of the mountain is the top of the mountain. And it doesn’t matter how easy you justify the climbing to be that you didn’t do. Obviously it wasn’t that easy if you couldn’t do it. [Laughs.] You should have the honor to call it an “attempt.”

Haley at 16, descending from the northeast buttress of Chair Peak in teh North Cascades. Photo by Tim Matsui

Which is what you did on Drifika in Pakistan, correct? Yeah, on Drifika I soloed what was probably unclimbed terrain to within literally 10 meters of the summit [6,447 meters]. I turned around because the last bit of ridge was double corniced, and without a belay I just thought it was too dangerous. But if those 10 meters hadn’t been the most dangerous 10 meters, I would have done them, you know?

How about alpinism in general? What’s the next big thing? I think the future is going to be really technical, really large faces, climbed in alpine style. There still are tons of faces in the world that no one has yet shown enough skill to climb in alpine style. In another decade, climbers will be good enough to walk up to things like the north face of Jannu and just climb it, pitch by pitch, with two climbers and two ropes.

I imagine that all this preparation you’re doing—rock climbing, Alaska, Patagonia, Chamonix—is leading toward your own attempts on some of these huge, technical faces. Surely you’re thinking about the west face of K2, or something like that? Yeah, there’s some truth there. But I’ve thought more about the south face of Cerro Torre. It still hasn’t had a complete ascent in alpine style or siege style. So, to climb that someday in alpine style is defi nitely a dream of mine. Right now, the best way that I can improve as an alpinist is to become a stronger technical climber. I’ll be able to do that better now than when I’m in my 30s. Whereas, for climbing in the Himalaya, where it’s more about endurance and high altitude, I’ll still be able to improve at those things when I’m in my 30s.

Do you have an idea of when you may decide to tone down hard alpine climbing? I wouldn’t say I have a plan. I alpine climb so much that I can barely have a girlfriend. Well, I can’t really, you know? I make a lot of sacrifices and dedicate myself pretty fully. So, it wouldn’t be very healthy to do that for the next three decades. When I’m old, I imagine climbing at a very moderate level, skiing powder, and maybe learning to paraglide. But I don’t imagine being as obsessed and driven with alpine climbing when I’m older. I mean, I hope not.

Haley leads rime ice at dawn, near the top of Cerro Torre. Photo by Kelly Cordes

An alpinist’s education

“These aren’t what I consider my 32 best climbs, but rather a selection of my best climbs throughout my progression as a climber.” —Colin Haley

AUGUST 1997 Forbidden Peak (Cascades), West Ridge, with Jeff Haley and Booth Haley

FEBRUARY 2001 Snoqualmie Mountain (Cascades), New York Gully (IV M5), third ascent, with Mark Bunker

JULY 2001 Mt. Slesse (Cascades), northeast buttress, with Scott Beveridge

MAY 2002 Graybeard Mountain (Cascades), north face, second ascent, solo

JUNE 2002 Mt. Stuart (Cascades), upper north ridge, solo in mixed conditions

JULY 2002 Alpamayo (Peru), Ferrari Route, solo

DECEMBER-JANUARY 2002–03 Mt. Johannesberg (Cascades), northeast buttress, second winter ascent, with Mark Bunker

FEBRUARY 2003 Inspiration Peak (Cascades), west ridge, first winter ascent of Inspiration, with Forrest Murphy

JULY 2003 Southern Picket Range Traverse (Cascades), first ascent, with Mark Bunker and Wayne Wallace

SEPTEMBER 2003 Blackhorn Mountain (B.C. Coast Range), northwest couloir, first ascent, solo

DECEMBER 2003 Aguja Poincenot (Patagonia), Whillans Route, with Bart Paull

FEBRUARY 2004 The Chopping Block (Cascades), first winter ascent, solo

APRIL 2004 Summit Chief Mountain (Cascades), north face, first ascent, with Dave Burdick

JULY 2004 North Howser Spire (Bugaboos, B.C.), All Along the Watchtower, with Mark Westman

JULY 2004 The Waddington Traverse (B.C. Coast Range), second ascent, with Mark Bunker

AUGUST 2004 Mt. Robson (Canadian Rockies), north face, solo

FEBRUARY 2005 Mt. Stuart (Cascades), complete north ridge, first winter ascent, with Mark Bunker

FEBRUARY 2005 Mt. Triumph (Cascades), northeast ridge, first winter ascent, with Dan Aylward

MARCH 2005 Chiwawa Mountain (Cascades), Intravenous, first ascent, with Dave Burdick

MARCH 2005 Mt. Andromeda (Canadian Rockies), Andromeda Strain, winter ascent, with Freddie Wilkinson

DECEMBER 2005 Fitz Roy (Patagonia), Franco- Argentine Route, with Mark Westman

JULY 2006 Mt. Moffi t (Alaska), The Entropy Wall, first ascent, with Jed Brown

JANUARY 2007 Cerro Torre (Patagonia), Los Tiempos Perdidos, first complete ascent, with Kelly Cordes

MARCH 2007 Mt. Huntington (Alaska), Nettle- Quirk Route, first winter ascent of Huntington, with Jed Brown

MAY 2007 Mt. Robson (Canadian Rockies), House-Haley Route, first ascent, with Steve House

JUNE 2007 Denali (Alaska), Denali Diamond, with Mark Westman

JANUARY 2008 The Torres Traverse (Patagonia), first ascent, with Rolando Garibotti

JANUARY 2009 Fitz Roy (Patagonia), Supercanaleta, second solo ascent

MAY 2009 Mt. Hunter (Alaska), Grison-Tedeschi Route, fourth ascent, with Bjørn-Eivind Årtun

JUNE 2010 Mt. Foraker (Alaska), Dracula, first ascent, with Bjørn-Eivind Årtun

AUGUST 2010 The Diablo Traverse (Devils Thumb, Alaska), first ascent, with Mikey Schaefer

NOVEMBER 2010 Aguja Standhardt (Patagonia), first solo ascent (via Exocet)