Colin Haley completed one of his longstanding projects on May 12 with the first solo ascent of the North Buttress of Alaska’s 14,573-foot Begguya (Haley prefers to refer to the mountain as Begguya, the Dena’ina name for Mt. Hunter). In 2012 Haley made it within 100 meters of the summit before deciding that it was dangerous to continue, given his “extreme exhaustion” which made him unsure of his ability to climb unroped safely on the upper ice slopes.
This year Haley followed the same line that he climbed in 2012, a link-up of different established routes on the buttress itself (some of which included new terrain when Haley climbed it in 2012) that he believes is the easiest line on the feature. He reported finding difficulties around M4/M5 and AI4. The crux was low on the route, which Haley described as “a sort of dihedral between rock and serac ice, climbing with my left foot and hand on rock, and my right foot and axe on ice. It was only a few meters high, but definitely required slow, careful climbing for me to do safely.”
As has become Haley’s hallmark style, he completed the ascent in a blazing time, climbing from the bergschrund to the “cornice bivy,” a location that marks the end of the technical difficulties on the North Buttress, in only 5 hours, 18 minutes. It took him another 2.5 hours to finish on the upper Northeast Ridge to the summit, climbing a few steps of AI3 along the way and arriving at 2:22 p.m.
Haley has a years-long fascination with the North Buttress, and he has climbed to or above the cornice bivy five times, but he has reached the summit on only two of those efforts (making it to within 100 meters of the summit on two additional occasions). Haley compares his 2012 near-miss of the complete solo ascent of Begguya to his 2015 near-miss of the complete one-day ascent of the Torre Traverse with Alex Honnold, which the duo returned to complete in 2016. In both cases, in spite of doing all the difficult climbing in the intended style, he was stymied short of the summit. In neither case was he satisfied to leave the goal uncompleted.
Haley credits the speed of his ascent with improved fitness and technical climbing ability, but also some changes in equipment. This time he committed to free-soloing the entire route before starting, whereas in 2012 he self-belayed some sections. This decision allowed him to carry a lighter, static rope (an 80-meter piece of 6mm cord) for rappelling, and allowed him to keep it coiled in his pack.
“Most people wouldn’t think it matters,” he said, “but if you’re rope soloing many sections you need to keep the rope handy to avoid constantly coiling and uncoiling it, and then the logical thing is to clip to the center mark and trail it up behind you. However, the resistance of dragging a rope across snow and ice for 1,500 meters of vertical, plus a lot of big traverses, adds up to a lot of extra effort.”
In addition, this time he did not take a stove, instead carrying just four liters of water in insulated bottles with him up the route. Haley said that the combination of his improved tactics, abilities, and fitness resulted in an ascent that was “way, way faster and easier” than his attempt in 2012.
He descended with a mix of down climbing and rappelling, making an estimated 40 to 45 raps, while taking advantage of previous anchors, some of which had been left by another party and some of which he had pre-placed during a reconnaissance climb a few days prior. He arrived back at the bergschrund shortly before 10 p.m., fewer than 15.5 hours after crossing it on the ascent, and he ended up with a base camp-to-base camp round-trip time of 17:13. Haley believes that all of his time splits–5:18 bergschrund-to-cornice-bivy, 7:47 bergschrund-to-summit, 15:22 round-trip from bergschrund, 17:13 round-trip from base camp–are speed records for the North Buttress. In 2009 Jared Vilhauer climbed the West Ridge via the Bouchard variation in “7-ish” hours, and in 1993 Gary Wilmot and Greg Collins climbed the West Ridge from the bergschrund to the summit in a little less than eight hours, as part of a visit to the Alaska Range that included ascents of Begguya, Sultana (the Dena’ina name for Foraker) and Denali.
After Haley’s ascent, he considered sticking around the Denali area to try some of his other goals, but with just over three weeks until he travels to the Karakoram, he decided to return to his home in Seattle.
“I just decided to be happy and come home,” he said. “If I were single I definitely would have stayed until June 2nd.”