Colin Haley registered the true seriousness of his solo ascent early in the climb. He took off his backpack, in which he was carrying two thin ropes, and realized those ropes were his only ticket off the mountain alive.
“I realized that if I dropped my pack right then, I’d be committed to a death sentence,” says Haley.
It was morning on January 19, 2016. Haley, then 31 years old, was attempting a dangerous, challenging solo (a climb by himself, without partners) that he’d been scheming and dreaming about for five years: Torre Egger, a magnificent 9,350-foot snowcapped granite turret on the border between Chile and Argentina. The peak is considered Patagonia’s most difficult to reach summit, and it’s one of the most technically demanding mountains in the Western Hemisphere.
Tune in tonight at 8 PM EST for a Nat Geo Adventure Facebook Live (internet connection willing) with Adventurer of the Year nominee Colin Haley joining us live from Yosemite National Park. Each year we comb the globe to find individuals with extraordinary achievements in exploration, adventure sports, conservation, or humanitarianism. These nominees have pushed the limits of human achievement, explored the world’s hardest-to-reach places, and worked to protect the planet for future generations. Get to know the Adventurers of the Year by clicking on the link in our bio. @colinhaley1 #AdvofYear
To ascend, Haley employed a tactic called rope-soloing, in which a lone climber can self-belay using ropes and equipment on the harder, steeper sections of a route. Though it adds a degree of safety, rope-soloing required Haley to ascend each rope length twice—he had to climb 100 feet and establish an upper anchor, then rappel down to retrieve his gear, then climb that same hundred feet to return to his high point. He repeated the process over and over.
The “easiest” path to Torre Egger’s summit involves crossing one mountain, then climbing and descending another. First, Haley had to traverse a precarious ramp system across the broad southeast face of Aguja Standhardt, then climb up and over the treacherous Punta Herron, rappelling down its other side.
Only then did Haley start up Torre Egger proper. This involved ascending technical rock and ice directly beneath a menacing summit ice cap, which, from a climber’s perspective, looks like a frozen tsunami that could crash down from overhead.
For these reasons, Torre Egger is rarely climbed by standard teams of two (or more) climbers. It’s also why, prior to this year, it had not been soloed, despite a number of storied attempts by the strong German mountaineer Alex Huber, among, potentially, others.
The specific systems Haley employed during his ascent involved out-of-the-box thinking, well-considered strategies, and on-the-fly adaptations.
“I think Colin's biggest advantage is that he is smart,” says Steve House, an alpine climbing legend from Ridgway, Colorado. “In terms of climbing, this translates into an ability to intellectually conceive of ways of completing climbs that others might write off.”
Haley reached the summit of Torre Egger at 5:18 p.m. on January 19, more than 16 hours after leaving his campsite. This made him the first person ever to solo Torre Egger, and also the first person to solo Punta Herron, the subsidiary peak he had tagged earlier that day while en route.
But Torre Egger isn’t just the most difficult mountain in the Chaltén Massif to climb; it’s also the most difficult to descend.
While rappelling the steep south face of Torre Egger, Haley’s ropes got stuck. One rope dangled in the air, tantalizingly, only a few meters above his head. If he could reach it, he might stand a better chance at freeing the snag.
Unfortunately, that was out of the question, as was climbing back up to fix the problem. The rock above him was too steep—overhanging, in fact—and it was completely devoid of cracks.
He continued pulling down on the other rope end. Nothing shifted. He clipped himself to the rope and dropped his entire body weight onto it, an attempt to break through the blockage of ice or rock that was ensnaring his rope more than a hundred feet above his head.
The rope wouldn’t budge.
For over an hour, Haley pulled on the rope. The situation was turning grim. Meanwhile, meltwater was gushing down, soaking him to the core. He was stuck in an icy shower. At one point, getting desperate, he considered cutting the rope, which would have left him with only a fraction of what he needed to get down safely.
“I was really, really worried that I would be descending … with only 20 meters of 5.5-millimeter rope,” he wrote. “That is an extremely scary thought, and it was honestly one of the most stressful, terrifying situations I’ve ever experienced.”
Eventually, after nearly two hours of pulling on the ropes, his persistence paid off. He broke through the impasse, and retrieved the rope. But the stuck side of the rope had become severely abraded and lost its entire protective sheathing, eliminating its weight-bearing capability.
Haley devised yet another solution. He rappelled on the intact side, and used the damaged end of the rope as a pull line, a method that required a particular anchor arrangement.
According to many of Haley’s partners, he’s not the most gifted natural athlete. But his brand of cerebral, cool-headed problem solving under duress has made him successful.
“I don’t think he’s one of those preternaturally gifted athletes, which makes it that much cooler that he’s gotten so good. It also points to the value of being methodical, calculated, dialed, and smart with alpine climbing,” says Kelly Cordes, a well-respected alpine climber and author of The Tower, a history of climbing on Cerro Torre, a taller peak abutting Torre Egger.
After 20 more rappels, Haley reached the glacier. He returned to his tent camp at 2:45 a.m., a 26-hour round-trip. He slept the remainder of the night. The next day, he hiked back to the town of El Chaltén.
“Not until hitting the tourist trail … did I finally allow myself to fully relax and feel joy for my accomplishment,” Haley wrote. “I hiked out with the aid of my iPod, as usual, knowing I had just completed one of the best achievements of my life, if not the best.”
This achievement alone might have qualified Haley for a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year honor. Yet it was just one high point in a year that included at least three other major mountaineering accomplishments.
The biggest reason I like climbing mountains is for the challenge. And soloing is simply a way to make an objective more challenging
From New Year’s Eve to the beginning of February, Haley achieved either a new speed record, a solo record, a first ascent, or a significant enchainment (reaching multiple summits along the same ridge in a single push) at a rate of more than one per week. On December 31, Haley soloed the California Route on 11,171-foot Fitz Roy (aka Chaltén). This was his second time soloing Fitz Roy—his first time was via the Supercanaleta Route in 2009. This makes him only the second person, after Dean Potter, to solo Fitz Roy twice. Five days later, Haley teamed up with his Seattle-based friend Andy Wyatt and set a car-to-car (start to finish) speed record on Fitz Roy, climbing it in just 21 hours and 8 minutes.
On January 19 came the groundbreaking Punta Herron and Torre Egger solos, and on January 31, Haley joined forces with Alex Honnold. The duo achieved the second ascent of the Torre Traverse—a north-to-south enchainment of Aguja Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger, and Cerro Torre. Their speed of 20 hours and 40 minutes, from the Standhardt Col to the summit of Cerro Torre, is even more astonishing.
“Covering so much terrain, in an environment that has so many variables, at such speed, is beyond impressive,” says Rolando Garibotti, Patagonia’s foremost climbing expert and Haley’s mentor, climbing partner, and friend.
Finally, Honnold and Haley climbed the so-called Wave Effect, another enchainment of three towers on the Fitz Roy massif—Aguja Desmochada, Aguja de la Silla, and Fitz Roy—on February 6. They not only climbed this route without falling or resorting to aid climbing (using gear to “aid” upward progress), but they achieved it in record time: 25 hours and 17 minutes camp-to-camp. These rapid ascents of the Torre Traverse and the Wave Effect represent, in Garibotti’s view, “quantum leaps forward.”
“I don’t think there are many people out there who have such a diverse set of skills and are so effective and efficient,” he says. “He is very, very good at finding the best solutions to a problem.”
In June, Haley achieved one of the most difficult free-solos of his career, climbing the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker (17,402 feet) in the Alaska Range. The Infinite Spur is a 9,000-foot technical route that climbs a striking ridge on the south face of Foraker, the second highest peak, after Denali, in the Central Alaska Range.
Haley encountered bad weather and ran out of food and water, and the experience ended up being more of an adventure than he had originally anticipated.
“I’m proud of having managed to climb the Infinite Spur quite quickly, but in the end it wasn’t worth it in terms of all the risk I was exposed to,” Haley later reflected. “As things turned out, it was simply way too dangerous, and I’m not proud of that. I am proud, however, that, given the very serious situation, I think I consistently stayed level-headed, made the safest decisions possible, and got back without incident.”
Haley grew up mountaineering in the Cascades outside his hometown of Seattle. “I’ve been soloing technical alpine climbs since I was 15 years old. The biggest reason I like climbing mountains is for the challenge. And soloing is simply a way to make an objective more challenging,” he says.
At 17, he was off on international trips; that year he soloed the famous snow-fluted mountain Alpamayo (19,511 feet) in Peru. He’s climbed hard routes all over the world: Pakistan, Nepal, Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, and the Cascades. He frequently uses Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Nevada and Yosemite National Park in California as training grounds.
Patagonia is the international destination where Haley has spent most of his time. Much of that experience, at least at first, was under the tutelage of Garibotti. In 2008, he and Haley became the first climbers to achieve the coveted Torre Traverse. At the time, Haley was still in college, and deferred returning to his second semester as the weather was too good to leave. When Garibotti and Haley succeeded where many other world-class alpinists had come up short, they were considered to have accomplished one of the greatest feats in mountaineering that year.
“I have shared more cold bivvies with Colin than with anyone else,” says Garibotti. “Colin is so focused on every little detail that he has forced me to leave behind my sunglasses case more than once—too heavy!”
Up next, Haley is preparing for another three-month stint in Patagonia. He’ll be there December through February 2017. Despite having reached the summit of every major formation in the Chaltén Massif multiple times, Haley insists that there is still a lot left for him to do.
“We’re just at a point in Patagonia where people are really starting to get creative,” he says. “Speed ascents and big traverses and enchainments and first free ascents and all that stuff.”
“It’s definitely been a big year for me,” Haley adds. “I would say it’s been my most successful year of climbing ever.”