The Upstart – Colin HaleyColin Haley's universe may be chaotic, but something is sure working. An up-close and a little-too-personal interview with America's most promising young alpinist.
It was early January of this year, and dark clouds smeared the Patagonian sky. Forty-five-mph winds buffeted Colin Haley and Rolando Garibotti at every belay on Exocet (VI 5.10 WI6) on Cerro Standhardt. The two alpinists—one a 36-year-old veteran, the other a 23-year-old up-and-comer—were trying to do the first ascent of the Torre Traverse, to include the summits of Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger and Cerro Torre. At midday, they summited the first rime-covered granite spire and began rappelling down the Col dei Sogni.
Through binoculars, Alex Huber, who had come to Patagonia to climb the traverse with his brother Thomas and Stefan Siegrist, spied the two men summiting Standhardt. He wondered aloud about the idiots who would climb in such sketchy weather. When the two threw their ropes off the other side to descend to the col, Huber growled, “Rolo.”
Other parties had planned on climbing Standhardt, but no one except Garibotti and Haley would be rapping off in that direction.
Dust devils had whirled relentlessly around the rocky streets and wind-battered cabins of El Chalten, Argentina. Late in the afternoon, Rolando “Rolo” Garibotti had pulled into town in his beat-up white Peugot pickup to drop Colin Haley off at the Albergue del Lago hostel after a day of sport climbing. The two men gazed toward the Cerro Torre group, shrouded in storm clouds as usual. Haley had already pulled off numerous routes—Todo o Nada (WI 5 X) on El Mocho, Supercanaleta (VI 5.10 M5), on Fitz Roy, and Exocet (5.10 WI 6) on Cerro Standhardt—with Maxime Turgeon, all during marginal weather. He was now resigned to returning home—back to school, his responsibilities as a newly sponsored athlete, and the rainy city life of the Northwest.
Haley had spent two months in Patagonia and his brown curls stuck out like clumps of dead sage. The scruff on his chin and the lines around his eyes made him seem more like one of Argentina’s horseback gauchos than a young geology student, from an affluent, well-educated family, at the University of Washington.
Garibotti was wrapping up his season as well. He had spent months teaming up with three world-class climbers—Bean Bowers, Bruce Miller and Hans Johnstone—in an effort to climb the coveted Torre Traverse. He was denied each time by bad weather. The traverse, first envisioned in the late 1980s by the Italians Andrea Sarchi, Maurizio Giarolli, Elio Orlandi and Ermanno Salvaterra, would ascend all four skyline peaks. The four Italians put up one leg of the traverse, Spigolo dei Bimbi. In 2005 Thomas Huber and a Swiss climber, Andi Schnarf, completed another section, traversing from the Aguja Standhardt to Torre Egger. That same year Garibotti, Salvaterra and Allesandro Beltrami did the final leg, the FA of El Arca de los Vientos.
Before parting, Garibotti commented offhandedly: “Maybe you’ll find a cute girlfriend at the bar, and decide to stay down here and try the traverse with me.”
“I didn’t know before that moment that Rolo would be interested in climbing the traverse with me,” says Haley today. The next morning he changed his plane ticket, cancelled his Patagonia, Inc.-sponsored slide show in North Conway, New Hampshire, and bailed out of his winter semester at Washington. “It was the climb I wanted to do more than anything in the world, and I had the perfect partner.”
Colin Haley takes his alpine climbing seriously, but not much else. He describes himself as “very driven to do things that I’m interested in, but pretty lazy about things that I’m not interested in.”
I meet Haley mid-afternoon on a sunny day in Yosemite’s Camp 4 in October 2007. To save money, we’ve decided to share a campsite.
On rest days we head to the Ahwahnee Hotel to surf the web. He claims he’s doing homework for his online classes, but he seems just to fidget and listen to music until we leave.
“I stopped doing homework when I was a sophomore in high school,” Haley says. “Homework should be optional. Students should be given their own personal responsibility and not be penalized if they happen to learn the material quickly.” He claims his poor grades—“a decent amount of C’s and D’s during the second half of high school”—resulted from the homework issue. His friends say he purposely got bad grades to avoid having to apply to Ivy League schools. He got into the University of Washington with a 1,420 on his SATs, and claims he only stays in school because his parents pay for his food and housing if he does, allowing him to utilize the money he receives from grants, photos, articles and sponsors to pay for his climbing trips.
On the few days when he’s really too exhausted to climb (usually coinciding with bad weather), he works sporadically on an article for Alpinist, eventually finishing it on a rainy day.
“Ughhh, writing takes forever,” he groans. I read it months later and am pleasantly surprised to find it excellent.
Occasionally his avoidance of responsibility and his inflexibility are annoying, especially after dinner, which I typically cook and after which he typically disappears to avoid doing dishes.
“We have to climb the Free Blast in blocks! That’s the only way to climb a long route,” he says as we finish up a meal of pasta the night before doing the route. I remind him that it is only 10 pitches up El Cap, and that we’re not alpine climbing, just having a fun day out. He’s adamant, so I finally say fine.
“I guess I’m probably really obstinate,” he admits. He credits his father. “Conversation is very analytical in our family. If someone says something you disagree with, it’s always a debate. It’s what I’m used to. My ex-girlfriend asked me one time why I had to disagree with everything she said. I hadn’t noticed I was doing it.” But, he adds, there’s a big difference between that and arrogance.
“Being obstinate is asserting your opinion for the sake of truth,” he explains. “And being arrogant is asserting yourself for the sake of admiration.”
“Right,” I say, reminding him that I cooked, again. “It would be nice if you did the dishes.”
The next morning I wake up to Colin singing an Electric Six song. It’s hard to be in a bad mood around this guy, even if it is 6 a.m. The day proceeds smoothly, and we laugh at every belay. I hear dirty jokes, silly jokes—Colin easily recalls most jokes he hears. He says he has an auditory memory.
We finish the route midday. Colin moves quickly, his systems perfectly executed, from the meticulous way he stacks the ropes to the way he racks his gear in order on his harness as he follows a pitch, and he climbs well, sending the upper five pitches of 5.9 to 5.11- with only one, “Watch me!” when he goes the wrong way on a 5.11- slab.
I rest the next day, but with only a few days left in the Valley, Colin wants to climb again. Before heading out, he spends a comical 20 minutes dressing the wounds on his knees that he acquired while climbing offwidths.
“They’ll heal up faster if I take care of them,” he says gravely. That’s really the only part of his body that he keeps clean. He does laundry once during his three-week trip. Every day, he wears an old T-shirt and the too-tight Montbell shorts that I loaned him because he forgot his own. The women’s design cinches well above his waist, giving him the appearance of a hot-dog-shaped, butt-less old man.
His tent smells like dirty laundry and stinky feet.
“Showers are for Republicans,” he claims. The day we part, he returns my shorts, unwashed.
In early april, I visit Haley in Seattle. We head to the “hut,” where he currently resides, in his parents’ backyard on Mercer Island—a community overlooking Lake Washington that has an average home price of $1 million. The large shed is partitioned into two living spaces—one for Haley and one for his brother, Booth. Booth’s tidy room sports Oriental rugs, a red-tassled lamp, and plants.
Haley’s living space is a stark contrast. A few posters of mountains are stuck haphazardly on the walls, and a small black laptop blinks on a plank desk. A mattress lies on the floor of the loft. His gear room in the garage offers more color, but only because boots, axes, ropes and pieces of technical equipment are neatly stacked on shelves or hanging on the wall.
“The good thing about being a totally obsessed climber is that I’m always engaged,” Haley says. “I never have a moment when I can’t be training, organizing pictures, modifying my gear, or going climbing or skiing. The downside is that there’s a million other aspects of life that you kind of have to do half-assed if you want to be climbing all the time.”
I wonder if part of his desire for simplicity in his living space results from the disorder of his parents’ house. As we sit down to a dinner of takeout Thai food in the main house with his parents, Jeff and Misty, an oblong-shaped cat jumps on the table and sticks its nose in my bowl.
Misty protests, “The cats aren’t allowed on the table, really!”
Misty practiced immigration law for many years, but recently earned a master’s degree in psychology and now counsels domestic-violence perpetrators. Jeff—who is “sort of a mad scientist,” says his son—has bachelors’ degrees in chemistry and engineering, and was for many years a lawyer specializing in patent law. He invented and now produces a canker-sore medicine.
Books and things—lots of things—cover every available surface of their home. Dishes are stacked on the counters, and the floor looks like it hasn’t been vacuumed, ever. Misty tells me that the family has sometimes taken refuge in Colin’s room from the mess in the house. Colin claims she’s exaggerating, but adds, “I like having a chaotic, action-packed life. I’ve always had that.”
Haley grew up in a suburban cookie-cutter house on Mercer Island, less than two miles away. He lived with his parents, younger sister, older brother, and two goats, five chickens, two dogs, five cats, two doves and anywhere from nine to 30 rabbits. Family members came and went, including his uncle, who lived there for a year.
“But he preferred being homeless,” says Haley, “so he moved to Guam and Hawaii, and lived on the beach until he died.” His grandfather also stopped in on occasion. A surgeon who performed his own vasectomy, he was also a politician of sorts, never elected because of his views on legalizing drugs and prostitution.
“We always had some kind of crazy thing going on,” Haley says. When they redid their downstairs floors, Jeff and Misty set up a kitchen on the back deck with tarps and a Coleman stove, and put ladders up to the bedroom windows.
The family had no TV, but never lacked for things to do. When Colin was 8, he and Booth tore down one of the fences at their house for lumber and built a three-story tree house. The best thing about his childhood, he says, was the independence and responsibility his parents gave him.
“We believe in teaching and guiding kids until they’re 12,” says his father. “If they are equipped with the skills they need, they can make their own decisions and make their way through the world.” Colin frequently backpacked with only his brother or other friends.
“By 8, I had already been hiking for five years and I had a good sense of topography,” he says. He once got lost while hiking in the foothills near Mount Adams in the Cascades, but climbed a ridge until he could see to orient himself.
And because his parents trusted him, he was able to dive into mountaineering while most parents herded their children to the safer environs of a climbing gym. He credits his preference for alpine climbing to his love of being outside and his analytical nature.
“Since I was really young, when there was a problem to be solved, my dad would explain the physics of the situation and why it was acting like it was,” says Haley. “We’d be eating dinner, and he would explain to me how microwaves work.” He credits the thinking skills he learned from his father for his achievements in the alpine world.
“I’m more of a thinker than an athlete,” he explains. “My climbing successes are more a result of careful strategy, wise planning and analysis than actual athleticism. There are tons of alpine climbers who are stronger rock climbers and more fit than I am, but who aren’t willing to attempt the same climbs because they’re not putting in the same thinking.”
By age 12 he was consuming all the books he could find on alpine climbing, and dreaming about Cerro Torre. At 15 he convinced his parents to let him build a climbing wall in the house.
“The best example of me being totally obsessed with climbing to the point of being psycho was that during all of high school I slept on a board,” says Haley. “I wanted to sleep on a hard surface so that when I went out climbing it would feel like home, and I would get better rest.” When he started “getting laid on a regular basis” in college, he bought a mattress.
However, he adds, “I think I do sleep better on hard surfaces because of that.” For a few semesters, he paid just $100 per month to sleep on the floor of a friend’s house. He used the rest of his allotted rent money for rock-climbing trips.
The Torre traverse, says Kelly Cordes, American Alpine Journal senior editor, “is of mind-boggling significance,” and was the remaining, obvious prize in Patagonia. “People have tried it—or more like talked big about trying it—and had gotten nowhere because it’s so out there. Often linkups can be somewhat contrived, but this one follows a natural line and requires truly well-rounded skills. You can’t be just a good rock climber, or just a good ice climber. You have to be good at both, and be dialed into the intangibles that make for top-level alpinists.”
Cordes should know: he and Haley did a cutting-edge, first-ascent linkup of Cerro Torre’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and the upper West Face route in 2007. The linkup, which is the longest ice climb in the area, weaves up bits of ice and poor-quality rock on the south side of Cerro Torre and is particularly dangerous because of a serac that hangs over half the route.
The two men simul-climbed the entire first 2,600 feet. Then Haley ended up having the harder climbing, on the last part of his 1,900-foot block up the West Face from the Col of Hope to the summit. His best piece of pro was a gigantic V-thread through nine feet of snow.
“Normally I’d be skeptical of trying such a serious and committing route with someone his age, just because it typically takes so long to build the necessary experience and skills for things like that,” says Cordes. “But Colin’s record spoke for itself.”
Haley has had a few epics—the one he remembers best was with his mentor Mark Bunker on the NE Buttress of Mount Johannesburg in the North Cascades, which they attempted during a “horrendous” winter storm.
“We bivied once at the base of the route, twice en route to the summit, and twice on the descent, for a total of a six-day ordeal,” says Haley. By the last bivy, Haley’s down sleeping bag had turned completely to ice, they ran out of fuel and food, and both were hypothermic. “It was completely epic, and because of that, one of my all-time favorite climbs—a really fond memory.”
Haley has had other notable successes. He and Mark Westman did the fifth ascent of the Denali Diamond (VI WI 5+ M6 A1), in just under 46 hours.
He made the first winter ascent of Mount Huntington via the Nettle-Quirk (V AI 4), March 2007— with the Alaskan Jed Brown, who is a year and a half his senior and a Ph.D. student studying the numerical analysis of ice flow at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
“He thinks just as much as I do about the efficiency of every little piece of gear,” Haley says.
In July 2006, Haley and Brown climbed The Entropy Wall (VI 5.9 A2 WI 4+) on 13,020-foot Mount Moffit, in the obscure and remote Hayes Range in Alaska. The trip included two 16-mile gear transports on foot; a harrowing traverse across a raging river of frigid meltwater in a one-person raft Haley dubbed “the little pink sack,” using a paddle made from a snow shovel attached to an ice tool; 33 pitches of rock and ice; and 3,000 feet of snow and ice slopes to the summit.
In an American Alpine Journal article, Brown wrote that at one point he hesitated “while staring up at a series of dripping diorite roofs as it began to snow,” but was motivated by Haley’s comment: “Get up there. It doesn’t look that bad.” They summited in a whiteout, and then, lacking a compass, stumbled the wrong way down the southwest ridge. With no suitable options, they were forced to head back up the mountain and then down the northwest ridge. They arrived at camp four days after starting the climb.
One reality, as pointed out by the leading alpinist Steve House, is that so far among Haley’s many successes “the most impressive ones have been with partners much more experienced than he who generally led the cruxes and masterminded the strategy.”
Haley and Steve House did the House-Haley route on the Emperor Face (VI AI 5 M7) on Mount Robson, in just 36 hours, with House leading most of the route, for example.
“Colin’s greatest challenge now is to not let his ambitions outstrip his experience and abilities,” House added.
That is probably unlikely. Though the Torre Traverse gave him more confidence in his overall abilities, after watching Garibotti float effortlessly up rime-covered 5.11 with bare fingers, Haley recognized he lacked certain skills. “If two Rolos had tried the traverse, they would have done it a day faster; and if two Colins had tried it, we probably wouldn’t have pulled it off,” he says.
He plans on jumping on some aid routes in Yosemite and honing his free-climbing skills before he tries the bigger, harder alpine walls in Patagonia and the Himalaya.
“People still aren’t trying the hardest routes because they’re trying everything alpine style,” he says. “Steve House and Vince Anderson’s climb on Nanga Parbat”—the Central Pillar of the Rupal Face—“was huge, one of the biggest alpine-style achievements ever, but the climbing on it isn’t very technical by cragging standards.” He aspires to seek difficulty by climbing capsule style (i.e., taking four or five ropes, fixing pitches and hauling bags and portaledges up walls).
His aspirations “have more to do with my personal goals than the future of the sport.” He doesn’t see himself as a leader in the alpine world at this point, and he doubts capsule-style climbing will become the next big thing among alpinists.
“No one really has any idea where the sport is going,” he says. “But if I had to pick something, I’d say the big new thing will be climbing alpine style, naked with wingsuits. Oh, yeah, and with a mullet.”
Lizzy Scully, a senior contributing editor at Rock and Ice, is a traveling climber and writer based in Lyons, Colorado (population: 750).