Bold Alaska: Colin Haley’s Infinite Spur Solo


Infinite Spur Solo. (All rights reserved)

Go ahead and grumble, if you want to, that mountaineering and climbing isn’t what it was in the 1960s in Yosemite or the Himalayas of the 1950s, or even that exploration is actually dead. Go ahead. But you might be missing some of the more amazing things happening in climbing.

For instance: fast-and-light ascents are being claimed with greater frequency (that’s not necessarily taking the fun out of sufferfests, for those of you fans of alpine suffering), routes like the Compressor on Cerro Torre have gone free, long traverses are being claimed from the Mooses Tooth to the Mazeno Ridge, lengthy linkups are dispatched in hours rather than days, and women are demonstrating an unquestionable prowess in alpinism.

Still, for the last couple of years, nothing has wowed me more than the solo ascent by Ueli Steck of Annapurna’s South Face in October 2013. I actually found it chilling. I think I lived on a happy high over it for some time. So it’s been relatively dull, by comparison… until yesterday.

By now you should have heard about Colin Haley’s solo ascent of Mount Foraker’s — er, well, since McKinley is going rightly by Denali now we ought to call Mount Foraker more formally Sultana — Sultana’s Infinite Spur. If you haven’t heard click here for the recap and here for Colin’s personal take.


Just over a year ago, I named the first ascent of the Infinite Spur by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe in 1977 as an Honorable Mention among the top five Boldest Climbs in a Alaska. That climb took Kennedy and Lowe 14 days to navigate and deal with the conditions before topping out on Sultana’s north (and higher) peak.

But as Colin points out, no one had yet soloed the Infinite Spur. Other significant lines on Denali had, of course, been done alone. But Sultana has often been overlooked.

Colin’s experience here was also a powerful footnote to say that the climb is only half done upon reaching the summit. He got to the top in under 13 hours, but it took days in low-visibility to descend to safety.

Bold Solo Ascents

I have always been attracted to great solo feats and performances. I like goalies in hockey and pitchers in baseball. They’re unique and critical role to their team can’t be overplayed. A shutout and a perfect game are the pinnacle for those athletes.

In climbing, partnerships are highly valued. Teams are celebrated. And most of all, they are best experienced with teammates; because there is always more to climbing than climbing, just as there is more to fishing than fishing. And in regards to the Infinite Spur, even Steve House and Rolando Garibotti pulled off a lightning ascent in 2001.

But once in a while, someone like Reinhold Messner, Johnny Waterman, Ueli Steck, and, heck, even Alex Honnold, need to try something different.

Climbing is a game and the scenarios and the rules change (perhaps terms is a better word than rules), and the challenge is different. The failure and the accomplishment is weighed differently. Decisions are praised and criticized in that context.

It’s a matter about style, ultimately. Colin demonstrated boldness and style. I don’t recommend anyone follow his footsteps and approach, but when the next climber is ready, hopefully their judgment is sure and fortune will be with them.

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Clint Helander and Alaska’s Revelation Mountains

I received my 2012 American Alpine Journal in the mail shortly before I left for vacation with my family. It barely made it. I’d been planning on dropping whatever I was working through and taking the journal with me as my sole reading material. It was delivered just days before we drove north and I was thrilled to find several features that I had already been seriously daydreaming about (obsessing might be more appropriate.)

One of those topics was the first ascent of Mount Mausolus (9,170 ft. / 2,795 m.) in the Revelation Mountains, a southern section of the Alaska Range. It’s relatively little known and remote, though I suspect more ambitious alpinists seeking first ascents — the kind on virgin peaks, not virgin lines — are becoming tuned in to the history and opportunities of the region.

There have only been two key figures for the “Revs,” including author and climber David Roberts, who was the first to explore the region, and the current and active expert, Clint Helander. Helander wrote a featured article on his FA on Mausolus and I caught up with him earlier in the season over email after another FA in the Revs — Golgotha (7,930 ft. / 2,417 m.), which David Roberts essentially called his secret climb. Helander has had some significant first ascents in the Revs, in addition to Mount Mausolus including the Ice Pyramid (9,250 ft, / 2,902 m.) and Exodus (8,385 ft / 2,556 m.), Golgotha, a notable second ascent on the Angel, as well as several new ice and mixed routes in the Chugach Range.

I wanted to know a little bit more about what made him who he is and how he has become a leader in this range so I reached out to him and he consented to answer a few questions. You can learned more about his climbing accomplishments on and in the American Alpine Journal, but here are some answers that give us insight into the influences that lead him to be a first ascentionist. Here’s our brief conversation:

TSM: Your climbs could be characterized as aggressive. Did you have mentors lead the way?

CH: I have always had an IMMENSE amount of respect for Mark Westman and Joe Puryear. It brings me endless amounts of pride to have been able to call Joe and Mark friends. They just accomplished so much in Alaska, no one else can really even compete with the overall volume of climbs they have completed. They learned together, climbed the hardest routes of their lives together and always remained humble and clear to their morals. They didn’t seek fame or self-promotion. They both climb(ed) for the pure love of the endeavor itself.

TSM: You have a core group of friends. Were they influential?

CH: My group of friends in Alaska is so unique. I met them in college as part of the Outdoor Club. I was 18 years old and didn’t know two shits about anything when it came to the outdoors. They took me out rafting, sea kayaking, ice climbing, mountaineering, rock climbing, hiking, etc. They had climbed Denali, traveled around the world. They were all so accomplished in my eyes. Now in many ways I have surpassed many of them in technical pursuits, but it is purely because of them that I am who I am today.

TSM: Who are your heroes?

CH: My friends are my heroes. From those who shaped me from a know nothing 18 year old punk to the Mark Westmans of the world. It makes me beam with excitement to be in so much awe of my friends. I love sharing laughs with Westman and then looking down and thinking to myself “why is this guy climbing with me? Am I worthy???”

TSM: What does alpine climbing mean to you?

CH: I feel like alpine climbing has given me a different perspective on every day life. My heart sings when I am in the mountains. My body pulses with a feeling of complete happiness. I love the bite of the cold air, the ice, the extreme vertical relief, the risk, and the reward. I love going into the unknown and pushing myself in the mountains. I love confronting my fears and doubts. I hate the failure in the moment, but I love the desire it gives me to better myself for the future. I love succeeding at a long awaited goal. It is the most meaningful form of personal expression that I have.

TSM: Will you climb forever?

CH: At this point, I honestly cannot see outgrowing climbing. I have no intentions of slowing down. I want to find a way to work seasonally or on my own time and still make a decent living, while still being able to devote a significant amount of time to climbing in Alaska and beyond.

TSM: What is your next big challenge?

CH: After my Revelations trip, I attempted the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter. We climbed very well, but a broken crampon and core-shot rope forced a retreat from 15 pitches up. I plan on returning next year stronger, faster, and with more time to succeed on the Moonflower. There is another route in the Alaska Range that terrifies me, but I think that with a year of training, I will be ready to give it a shot if I maintain my focus on training.  I also will return to the Revelations and attempt what I imagine will be my most difficult route yet. I plan to go to Yosemite in the fall. In the winter I will enter some endurance ski races and perhaps the Winter Alaska Wilderness Classic.

TSM: Thanks for indulging my curiosities, Clint. Keep up the great work, and stay safe out there.

Thank you for dropping by yet again. If you got something out of this post, you might want to consider following me on Facebook or Twitter because I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

No Rush for News from the Revelations

I like to keep this anecdote in mind whenever I think about how most news about alpine climbing accomplishments and attempts arrive weeks or even months afterwards: When the Erie Canal was built in New York State the rate news moved across the state accelerated the pace of life. Reports of a crop failure or family events like death or childbirth often proceeded the usual message delivers, like the newspaper or family members.

Supposedly, this was the first Information Superhighway. It was even said to have created anxiety about how to process the new information at its new pace. I heard this story a couple of times from representatives of the Erie Canal National Heritage Area when I was working as a Congressional aide helping to support the region. It made me think about several things, including how news from areas without a lot of information and media infrastructure travels, especially from the remote mountain ranges.

Of course, things aren’t what they were a couple of decades ago. Hayden Kennedy wrote in Alpinist 39 what his legendary father, Michael, said to him once after a climb during the hike out: “Dad told me stories of the old days, when going on expeditions was like launching into space — no SAT phones, no video dispatches, no blogs — just the mountains and your partners.”

Today, this is rare. Even if your team left the electronics at home, another team on the same glacier or mountain may still be tweeting about your activities, let alone their own.

So I get a kick out of getting news — “freshly” reported — of climbing accomplishments from a few weeks or months ago. It means the activity evaded the information stream or the network had gaps. The thought of that is somewhat liberating! News is news to the recipient, not because it was delivered through the immediacy of 24-hour news.

A language barrier was one factor delaying reporting in this case; in April, Anze Cokl led a Slovenian expedition to the Revelation Mountains in Alaska and climbed 11 new routes, which including first ascents.

The less traveled ranges, as in the Revs or perhaps Sikkim, can still be good for this. The Revelation Mountains are part of the Alaska Range — which, contrary to common belief, are much greater and longer than what resides in Denali National Park and Preserve. It’s southwest of Denali and Northwest or Anchorage for reference. Still, many expeditions or alpine teams launch from Talkeetna, and the additional cost to get there dissuades many climbers, except the truly resourceful and committed, from exploring there.

The Revs were pioneered by David Roberts in the 1960s and more recently by Clint Helander. The little information that is available is limited to a mere few pages in David Roberts’ narrative On the Ridge Between Life and Death and a few more pages in the American Alpine Journal, most of which are by Roberts and Helander. Anze Cokl paid a visit to consult Helander before his team’s expedition in April.

The news and rumors of the Slovenian ascents may have also been delayed because of their dominant language and that they were filming a documentary of their exploration, which was not immediately produced. Even those they met in Alaska apparantly treated what they heard about their ascents with little fanfare; they went to the mountains and climbed. That may have been news enough.

Thanks for dropping by again, as always. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Sources: 1); 2) Anze Cokl’s website; and 3) Clint Helander.

Mountain Drool: The Underated Mount Foraker


Sultana with Little Switzerland in foreground. (All rights reserved)

Mount McKinley, aka Denali, saw nearly 1,200 mountaineers climb its flanks for the 2012 “spring” season, and as of Friday 126 were still there. Forty-four percent, or 484 climbers, made it to the summit, which is accurate presuming that everyone’s objective was the top; sometimes it isn’t nor does it have to be. Even for a mountain as large as Denali, it can start to feel like a ski resort with all of your friends from your neighborhood showing up on your route.

I’m certainly not a Denali naysayer, but there has to be a better way. Fortunately, you don’t have to go far.

Denali’s largest neighbor, Mount Foraker (17,400 ft./5,304 m.), aka Sultana, sees far, far, far fewer climbers. According to the National Park Service, only  six climbers registered for Foraker’s 2012 spring season and they all left the mountain without reaching the summit. The annual disparity between the attraction to Denali and Foraker are usually this vast: The number of climbers flocking to Denali has increased in the last 20 or so years and the number of attempts on Foraker have remained relatively steady — about 10 or so.

I think those few Foraker climbers knew or appreciated something about climbing the 1,200 people on Denali may not have. Perhaps they already climbed Denali. Perhaps they wanted a wilderness experience. Perhaps the idea of climbing the biggest peak in the range wasn’t exclusive enough.

It makes me wonder whether the majority of big mountaineering routes are done on only a handful of the most notable mountains.

While Denali towers an additional 1,100 ft./800 m. or so over Sultana, Foraker is still the sixth highest mountain in North America and the fourth highest in the United States. In terms of foot traffic, it seems it suffers worse than Lohtse, which is the 8,000-plus meter peak immediately neighboring Mount Everest.

Foraker has been climbed moderately — rather than extensively — since it was first climbed in 1934 by the great early American alpinist Charles Houston — best remembered for his two attempts on K2 — the adventurous English climber T. Graham Brown and their partner Chychele Waterston. Waterston is supposedly related to actor Sam Waterston (but that could just be rumor.) Because of its under-appreciated, Foraker’s routes, other than widely traveled ways like the Sultana Ridge (which has been quite popular lately,) might only have had a handful of successfully completed ascents. Other routes, have only been repeated a very few times.

Lines like the remote Infinite Spur on the south face first climbed by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe in 1977 is occasionally attempted and rarely repeated. For instance, the second ascent by the Infinite Spur didn’t come until over a decade later in 1989 by Americans Mark Bebie and Jim Nelson. They cut down on the Kennedy-Lowe time to reach the summit of 18 days to 13.

In a day-and-age when the general public is talking about how dangerous climbing Everest is and alpinists are repeating routes up in conga lines, there are places that are off the “radar” of the critics. Good news and sad news happens here. Loss still happens in these places: Sue Nott and Karen McNeill made an all-female attempt on the Infinite Spur and were never heard from again.

More recently, in 2010, Colin Haley and Bjorn-Eivind Artun made a new route on Foraker, which got a lot of attention. Haley and Artun climbed their new route, which they named Dracula, after climbing what they believed, by comparison, was a more moderate route on Denali: The Cassin Ridge.

On a personal note, my back is doing better. Not perfect, but I’m sleeping later into the night, which is somewhat of an improvement. I’ll also be roping up again with Chris in the next couple days as part of my “treatment.” I’m looking forward to it!

Thanks for dropping by again, as always. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

The Rumor of Haley and the Moonflower Buttress

On Sunday, I saw a Tweet saying that Colin Haley had soloed the vast majority of the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter in the central Alaska Range. I got excited immediately. The word came from the John Frieh. That’s credible. John wouldn’t post news he didn’t think was untrue.

A short while later Frieh posted a correction; it wasn’t Moonflower — the route made by legendary alpinist Mugs Stump on the toughest wall in the Alaska Range — but it was indeed a solo on Mount Hunter’s North Buttress. According to the updated Tweet, Haley came to within about 300 meters of the summit. Stump didn’t go to the true summit either, for the record.

This is exciting because it hasn’t been verified yet. And it’s Wednesday night now when I am writing this! We live in a time when a plane crashes, everyone knows about it. Twenty-four hour news alerts us and our friends. Twitter travels faster than sound too, it seems. News is inescapable.

But news from remote ranges (at least other than Everest and El Chalten) news still travels slowly. Like before Twitter, on-demand TV, and speed internet. Well, maybe not quite, but you get the idea.

Compare the Central Alaska Range (other than Denali basecamp and it’s West Buttress route, of course) to news from Mooses Tooth, the “Moonflower” wall, or Mount Huntington: Recently on Mount Everest we saw how the news trickled out from Mount Everest a few weeks ago where 10 climbers died. However, the town of Mount Everest Basecamp (unincorporated) is wired. While I don’t know the quality, phones and Internet are available in some format. Getting news is simply (as if anything is simple) a matter of passing radio messages from up high to Basecamp, Khumbu, Nepal. From there someone will be happy to email, Tweet or update their blog with your information.

So why hasn’t more news come forward about Colin Haley’s attempt? My guess is that Haley is probably exhausted in camp, or climbing something else, or trying again. He doesn’t tend to sit still for long.

But there is also the matter of how inconvenient it is to get word from his location to the rest of the world. Some other unconfirmed news has it that Haley descended with a group of Japanese climbers. If so, we may have received word of his work from them.

All of this speculation and skepticism reminds me of golf. I played a round of golf on Friday with some work colleagues as part of a charity tournament. It was up to us to record our strokes accurately. What was to stop one of us from claiming we had a lower score on a hole? It’s about honesty and honor, really. But there is credibility too. It’s unlikely that I would be putting down a string of birdies. People know my handicap.

In Haley’s case, most of us know his track record. It’s Stump-esque. And if he turned around about 300 meters from the top, I’m sure it was tougher than what 99 percent of climbers today could do.

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Mount Rainier and then onto Alaska

I’ve got an exciting announcement to share with you. Over the next few months I am going to do a series of posts on all things Mount Rainier. Later I will focus on Mount McKinley and then expand to the broader Alaska Range. I will continue to provide insight on alpine and hiking events, trends and news periodically as I always have.

I am going to start by covering Mount Rainier from its climbing history, the guides, the routes, the Wonderland Trail, Paradise, Camp Muir, and maybe even some of the speculations about what would happen if it ever blew its snow cone!

After that, I am going to discuss climbing Denali and later broaden out to the greater Alaska Range, including Mount Foraker, Mooses Tooth, Little Switzerland, the air services, guides and even romantic Talkeetna.

My idea for this comes from what I thought I would do once I completed college, started my career and had some income. I would have climbed Rainier on a long weekend, maybe moved to Seattle, then traveled every chance I could to climb in Alaska. Well, let’s say things did work out that way and it’s not heading that way. But I will share the knowledge I have and will be finding as I review some new information and pull on some old stuff.

If you’re interested in following these posts, please consider getting updates from me on the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. There, you’ll also get news and other interesting mountain life and adventure news and information as I come across it.

Here we go!