Colin Haley in the Niponino Bivy, Torre Valley, January 2007. I originally did the following interview of my old friend for the La Sportiva website… As often happens, the following conversation was condensed into an eight-hundred word piece for their print catalogue, but here is the raw-cut.
Colin’s meteoric alpine career began by spending as much time as possible in the mountains — by the time he was eighteen he’d already pulled of successful climbs in Peru, Patagonia, and logged serious time in his home mountains, the North Cascades. And these early trips were only the harbinger of what was to come. In 2007 alone, Colin pulled of major new routes in Alaska (The Entropy Wall on Mount Moffit), Patagonia (The first complete ascent of the Marsigne-Parkin/West Face route on Cerro Torre), speed-climbed established test-pieces (The Denali Diamond on Mount McKinley), and turned more than a few heads with his exuberant, outspoken personality and willingness to discuss alpine climbing’s addictive nature.
I first met Colin in 2000, when he was a fifteen year-old high-schooler with an awkward, seventies-glam-rock haircut. But it was obvious even then that he was completely captivated by the mountains, and committed to learning the diverse skill-set necessary to climb them as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s been thrilling to watch his early years of apprenticeship pay-off big time, and I know there will be much more to come from America’s most promising alpine talent.
1. Talk to me about the North Cascades. I have a ton of respect for them, mostly from all the time I’ve spent with Bart and Miles. Is it the terrain, accessibility, or having a vibrant alpine scene with climbers from the older generation who are willing to mentor, or all three?
Actually, I consider the lack of easy access the only thing that makes the North Cascades not a world-class climbing destination. At the same time though, I feel that I owe most of my alpine experience and route-finding skills to long, rugged approaches that the North Cascades require. The North Cascades are the only real alpine-climbing in the Lower 48 – period. The approaches are long, the weather is foul, but if you want to prepare for Alaska or the Himalaya the North Cascades are the only area that will give you a relevant experience. This is of course why so many of the US’s best alpinists have come from the Cascades: Fred Beckey, Tom Hornbein, Willi Unsoeld, Ed Cooper, The McNerthny Brothers, Doug Klewin, Todd Bibler, Rob Newsom, Steve Swenson, Jim Nelson, Kit Lewis, Mark Twight, and Steve House – to name just a few of the many.
2. Name the three most influential partnerships in your early years as a climber.
1. Bart Paull was willing to attempt big routes with me when I was only sixteen. He showed me the determination and pragmatic approach to alpinism that allowed us to attempt almost anything in the Cascades as a day trip.
2. Mark Bunker became my regular climbing partner when I was seventeen. On countless trips into the Cascades in winter he taught me all the techniques of full-blown, cold-weather, multi-day routes. These are the skills that I feel prepared me for climbing in Alaska, Patagonia, and the Himalaya.
3. Rolando Garibotti is the most talented climber I have ever tied in with, and the person whose advice I trust most in discussing what might be possible to try.
3. Your epic with Bunker on the NE Buttress of Mount Johannesburg seems like it was the full expression of how committed you can get in the Cascades… How did that prepare you future trips farther a field?
Yes, our winter climb on the NE Butt of J-berg still remains one of the most intense climbing experiences I’ve ever had. After that climb, things like the south side of Denali no longer seemed like impossibly big objectives.
4. Having meet both your parents, my impression is they are each pretty unique and free-thinking personalities to let their son have so much freedom in high school. Your first international trip was to Peru, right? Do you remember if you had to work very hard to convince them to let you go?
I went to Peru by myself when I was seventeen. I didn’t have to convince them at all – I just told them I was going to Peru! My parents have both lived incredibly adventurous lives – in many ways I am actually quite cautious and conservative relative to both of them.
5. Describe your first trip to Patagonia.
I went to Patagonia for the first time with Bart Paull during my winter break from my freshman year at the University of Washington. I only had 2.5 weeks actually in El Chalten, and we had no amazing weather windows, but we still managed to summit Poincenot, Guillamet, and Aguja de la S. It was an incredibly successful trip for me at the time, and really opened my eyes to what I consider to be the most beautiful mountains on Earth. I’ve been a Patagonia addict ever since.
6. The time you came over and stayed with us in Chamonix was around the same era. You are definitely an extrovert, and enjoy hanging out in other cultures, meeting people, trying to learn the language… how much of this appealed to you when you began to do lots of expeditions? Does the travel ever get old?
The travel itself gets old – the planes, buses, and baggage fees. But once I’m there, I love it. Chamonix and El Chalten especially are such fun places to hang out between the climbs – with whole communities of people that are alpine junkies, just like me. In many ways, I feel more at home surrounded by other alpinists and skiers in Chamonix and El Chalten than I do surrounded by generic Americans in the US.
7. Empanadas or dumplings?
Whatever it is, if it’s free I’ll probably eat it.
8. It seemed like something happened a few years ago, when suddenly, you just went on a tear. I know that it’d been quietly building for sometime before, but was there a tipping point, sometime you realized that you really wanted to raise the bar?
I think it appears that way to someone else, but I feel like I have been steadily applying the same determination and energy to alpine climbing that I have since I was fifteen. It’s just that a few years ago the climbs I was doing starting getting media attention, but I was operating the same as I always have. Now that I have finally finished school, however, I hope to devote more time to climbing than I’ve ever been able to before.
9. What’s the most committed you’ve ever felt on an alpine route?
The first ascent of The Entropy Wall with Jed Brown (on Mt. Moffit, in Alaska’s Hayes Range) was definitely the most committed I have ever been. Two climbers, two ropes, in an extremely remote area, with no radio, attempting a super-technical, unclimbed face that is almost 8,000 ft. tall, with precipitation every day, and the hike out involved two days of tundra and a serious river crossing.
10. Doing the Torre Traverse with Rolo, and Emperor Face on Mount Robson with Steve, climbing two of the most iconic mountain features around with two of the sport’s current legends – that must have been pretty cool for you. What lessons did you take away from partnering with each of them?
The Emperor Face was a really great climb, but I don’t think it was a particularly significant climb for either Steve or I. The Torres Traverse, however, was far and away the best climb I have ever accomplished, and I felt that I learned a huge amount from climbing with Rolo that season. I’ve never seen someone so “dialed,” with extremely proficient climbing skill and also extremely calculated attention to detail.
11. What’s the appeal of alpine soloing?
Alpine soloing is an extremely satisfying game. To put it simply, it is the most difficult style in which you can attempt a route. I think that climbing a difficult route with a partner is always more impressive than an easy route by yourself. But still, I think soloing is the ultimate demonstration of mastery in your climbing discipline.
12. Let’s talk about the Himalayas. You’ve done four trips to Pakistan, and in your own words, failed each time… But, by the scale and commitment of the objectives you are attempting – Nanga Parbat, Ultar, the Ogre, Latok 1 – It’s obvious you thrive on throwing yourself into the deep end, going after some of the most impressive unclimbed lines in the Karakorum, especially on the 7,000 meter peaks. Why would you rather fail on the truly gnarly beasts, versus picking objectives where you know you would have much better chances of success?
There is no adventure, and therefore no appeal, in attempting a route that is easy for you and ensures almost certain success. Climbing in the Himalaya is an extremely large commitment of time and money, so why would I waste it on climbing something easy? Climbing the standard route to the summit Cho Oyu would feel like a failure just as must as climbing half-way up the North Ridge of Latok I.
13. Are you content calling the Seattle area and Washington State in general “home”?
My financial situation at this point in my life dictates that I live with one of my parents when not on climbing trips, who fortunately are kind enough to let me do so. I would love to live in Chamonix if I could, but I am pretty grateful that my parents live in Seattle and Bellingham, as the only place I’d rather live in North America is Squamish.
14. What other personal challenges or goals have you set for yourself in 2010?
I’m about to head to Patagonia for three months, to hopefully climb with Rolo most of the time. I’m also planning a big Alaska trip for this spring. I am taking a year off from the Himalaya though, and during the summer I hope to keep improving my rock climbing skills.