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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Dragons, Dracula and the Future of Climbing

The Open Championship was held this past weekend.  I know what you’re asking, what does this have to do with backpacking and climbing on our vacations?  Clearly the heat in Peaklessberg has gone to Andrew’s head.  Well, something the color analyst said about the up and coming generation of golfers struck me about our own sports.

He said that television and the Internet have transformed players’ knowledge and their ability to prepare for those golf courses.  They can see golf courses they have never played, like St. Andrews or TPC at Sawgrass, and know where the hazards lie or the way the ball will roll over a particular part of the green.  Golfers today come to these courses more knowledgeable than golfers before.  For example, when players from the United States and Canada in the 1960s went to play St. Andrews in Scotland for the first time, the only guidance they had was a rudimentary rendering of the layout of the course.  So when Jack Nicklaus (golf’s version of Reinhold Messner) first arrived at the Old Course, he could not predict or know what precisely the ball would do at various aspects of the course.

One hundred years ago, backpacking and mountaineering was also guided by rudimentary guidance about the territories we explore.  But since the 1950s and 60s, these sports have evolved upward as well.  Maps, trail guides, and route reviews online have exposed what was once a mystery of topography.  While man, as a species, has not yet been to every point on earth, there is little secret about what is there… generally speaking.

The big, obvious mountains have all been conquered and some of the lesser peaks too.  One day, it will be recorded in Alpine Journals that all the peaks have been climbed.  There ought to be a celebration at that point.  It would be a significant junction, where the touching the points ended and the familiarizing ourselves with the intimate aspects of the mountains and climbing might begin.  Only, this familiarization has already begun in many of the great ranges, such as the attempts on the infamous Magic Line up K2 or the new route up Mount Foraker in Alaska, aptly named Dracula, which was just scaled this June.

The age where there is a blank on the map is over.  Finding dragons in the unknown is a preposterous idea.  We cannot stop this trend from happening, where the map is being filled-in and the peaks are being bagged.  But the thrill of making an ascent yourself – your own first – or creating your own route will never be surpassed.