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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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!

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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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Colin Haley Versus the Snail

Let me put this time of year in perspective. I’m not referring to the holiday season. This time of year is a little slow for me in the way of climbing news that typically interests me, and maybe you too. With Alaska and the Himalayas, it’s all about winter ascents on Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter — which are few and far between.

Ordinarily, for those of us geographically limited to North America, the fun is typical winter fun — skiing, snowshoeing, ice climbing, skating, hockey (preferably outdoors) — is all we have. No breaking news from there.

So thank goodness for the Andes, Patagonia and Colin Haley’s progressive climbs! The summer season is on now down there and Haley, as usual, is seizing every moment he has.

Haley and Jorge Ackerman of Bariloche, Argentina, worked the “un-finished” route on the south face of Cerro Standhardt. It was originally attempted by a 1977 British team, but remains a line that hasn’t brought alpinists to the summit.

The photos on his report are quite nice (see link below) but my favorite part of what these guys did was improvise on their objective and still came away with a decent prize. These climbers intended to ascend the O’Neill-Martin route on Cerro Egger. However, conditions were poor; they planned on a rock route, but lingering winter conditions required crampons and tools. Slow advancement and limited supplies made the decision to abandon the attempt clear.

They shifted their energies and efforts on Standhardt. Needless to say, they finished the job on the 1977 south face route — now the Haley-Ackerman 2011 route! They named the completed route El Caracol, meaning the snail, both for the spiral pattern of the snail shell and their weaving route and also because of their slow pace due to some route finding challenges and errors.

So going forward this winter, we’ll be monitoring whether the Russians make a winter ascent in the Karakorum on K2, any projects in Denali National Park, and of course, the attempts in the southern hemisphere. If you hear anything interesting, leave me  comment or shoot me an email. I’ll do the same here.

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Source: “Cerro Standhardt, El Caracol” on December 6, 2011 on Skagit Alpinism, Colin Haley’s blog.

Colin Haley Solos Cerro Standhardt

This past weekend, alpinist Colin Haley was in Patagonia where he sended the Exocet route on Cerro Standhardt solo, according to his blog.  Cerro Standhardt neighbors Cerro Torre and Cerro Egger.

The Exocet route has never been soloed, until now.  It involves some scrambling, water ice (WI5) and some mixed climbing.

The route had been attempted solo before in 1994 by Tommy Bonapace, an Austrian climber, but was forced down due to one of those legendary “broom of God” Patagonian storms.

Haley’s accomplishment is all the more interesting when all the peaks in Patagonia have been conquored and the most challenging routes have been mostly repeated.  It’s good to know there are still some records that can still be a “first.”

Well done, Colin!

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