PULLING UP ONTO A PARTIALLY buried picket, Colin Haley watched in horror as his sole piece of pro—another picket, at his feet—slid out of the snow, loosened only by the movement of his rope. Instinctively, Haley grabbed the piece as it started to fall and then placed it above his head in a desperate aid move. Haley was leading the last snow mushroom to the summit of Cerro Torre, a bizarre pitch of overhanging fluff.
“It was the scariest moment on the entire climb,” Haley said. “I used my elbows and knees, trying to spread out my weight so I didn’t just fall through.” Haley tunneled up and into the steep snow, finally punching his way out. When his partner Kelly Cordes arrived at the belay, it was only a short pitch to the summit Haley had been dreaming about since his early teens.
“If there was one peak I wanted to climb in my life, it was Cerro Torre. It felt pretty surreal to be on a summit that I’d been obsessing about for so long.”
Descending the mountain, Haley became distracted by an odd smell. “I kept thinking, man, Kelly really stinks. But then I’d get to an anchor before he did and the smell would be there. I realized it was me, too—we smelled like ammonia.” Haley and Cordes, emaciated from 40 hours out, were burning through their muscle tissue. “When we got to the ground, I could actually feel that my harness was looser,” Haley said.
A 22-year-old college student, Colin Haley has accomplished more in the world’s toughest mountains than most alpinists will in their entire lives. His January climb of Cerro Torre with Cordes marks a milestone in Patagonian climbing: the sought-after first linkup of the ephemeral Marsigny-Parkin route with the upper West Face route (VI WI4 M5 AI6). Haley has now reached nine summits in the Fitz Roy region.
Last July, Haley, with Jed Brown, made the first ascent of The Entropy Wall (VI 5.9 A2+ WI4+ 2300 m) on Mount Moffit, in Alaska’s remote Hayes Range. Haley has also completed the second enchainment of British Columbia’s Waddington Range (VI 5.9 AI3), in 2004, and in 2005, a solo attempt to 21,300 feet on Nanga Parbat’s Schell Route. Last year, the American Alpine Club honored Haley with the Robert Hicks Bates Award for achievement by a young climber.
We chatted with Haley on a Friday afternoon; he’d just gotten out of class at the University of Washington and was packing his gear for a solo winter attempt of The Garth Pillar (V 5.10 A1) on the north face of Mount Stuart.
How long are you going to be out?
It’s a 10-mile ski in to the base of the route. I’m going to try to do it in three days, round trip.
Does that mean you’re skipping classes on Monday?
There’s a high-pressure system—you’ve got to take advantage of it.
When did you start climbing?
My dad taught me how to self-arrest when I was 9, but I didn’t start climbing fifth-class stuff until about 13. My early climbs were mountaineering objectives—fourth-class climbs using a swami belt and an eight-mil cord.
In the Cascades?
Yes. One of my main partners was Mark Bunker. He’s great, totally old school. I think a lot of people learn how to climb WI6 and then they go to Alaska thinking that they’re all set. But alpine climbing has just as much to do with knowing how to arrange stuff on a tiny bivy or how to melt snow efficiently. I learned that from him.
What has been the highlight of your climbs so far?
Cerro Torre. I’d been thinking about it for so long. Moffit [in Alaska’s Hayes Range] was a more difficult climb, but Cerro Torre was more spectacular.
What was it like to reach your life’s climbing goal?
I was super psyched to be [on the summit of Cerro Torre], but to some degree it was weird. All of a sudden this thing that you’ve held in such regard—this ideal—no longer exists.
The world’s most difficult objectives are in the Himalaya and Karakoram, so I’m sure I’ll go there. To up the ante in alpine climbing, you have to go to altitude. I want to climb Latok I, but then everyone wants to climb it.
What is your favorite kind of route?
The most inspiring climbing objectives for me are mountains where simply getting to the summit by any route is a challenge.
You’ve been to Patagonia three times, for a total of less than 11 weeks—not very long for all the summits you’ve reached. To what do you attribute your success down there?
Definitely I’ve had good luck with the weather. But I think it’s also due to being willing to climb in worse weather than most people. When Bart [Paull] and I climbed Poincenot, we had on crampons and ski goggles and belay parkas the whole time. We were climbing through a blizzard.
You’re in your junior year at the University of Washington.
I should be a senior, but I took all of last year off to go to Pakistan, France, Argentina and Norway, to ski and climb.
You went to Chamonix after Patagonia last year?
It was pretty crazy. I was on a cheap stand-by ticket and my travel got messed up in Buenos Aires. I only had 14 hours in Seattle after being in Argentina for seven weeks and leaving again for Europe for four months.
I bet your parents were psyched about that.
They still picked me up from the airport, at least.
How do you spend your time in Patagonia when you’re not climbing?
Basecamp is so comfortable there. I go bouldering, hang out in camp and listen to music.
What kind of music do you bring on expeditions?
Bjork, Sigur Roas—they’re another Icelandic group, Tool and Alice in Chains—sort of an eclectic mix.
What’s with the Icelandic thing?
Oh, it’s awesome. Do you like Radiohead? Sigur Roas is just like Radiohead, but better … and even crazier.
Did you meet any Argentine girls in El Chalten this year?
Where do you live?
I rent my friend’s floor for $100 a month [in Seattle]. I just keep a sleeping bag, a ridge rest and a pillow—all my climbing and skiing gear is at my parents’ house.
To save money for climbing?
Yeah, my parents give me enough money to live in the dorms if I want, but I realized that if I just dirtbag it, I can save enough money to go on climbing trips on my breaks.
What do your college friends think about your climbing?
They’re all disappointed that I don’t party as much as I used to.
Because you’re training?
Well, yeah … not going out and binge drinking is training for me.
You’ve climbed with a lot of different partners of all ages.
Do you look for anything specific in a partner?
A good alpine climber has to be physically strong, but intelligence and experience are also important. I think in alpine climbing more than any other type of climbing, you have to do a lot of logical thinking. … It’s no surprise that all the sport climbers out there are living the rock-star lives and all the alpine climbers are a bunch of nerds.
Does that mean you’re a nerd?