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Colin Haley Solos the Infinite Spur, Gets Caught in Storm During Descent

Rob Smith near the end of the “Knife-Edge Ridge” during his and Colin Haley’s May 27 ascent of the Infinite Spur (Grade 6 5.9 M5 AI4, Lowe-Kennedy, 1977).

[Photo] Colin Haley

[Sultana is the indigenous Tanaina Athabascan name for the second-highest peak in the Central Alaska Range, also known as Mt. Foraker (17,402′). It is Haley’s preferred name for the mountain–Ed.]

Colin Haley has recently completed back-to-back rapid ascents of Sultana’s Infinite Spur (Grade 6 5.9 M5 AI4, Lowe-Kennedy, 1977), including the first solo climb.

Haley’s first time up the route was on May 27, with Rob Smith, of Boulder, Colorado. The pair accomplished the fastest ascent to date, topping out in just 18 hours and 20 minutes.

But that wasn’t enough for Haley, and after fewer than two full days of rest, he returned on June 1 (departing base camp on May 31) to climb the route again–this time without a partner. Haley climbed entirely unprotected. He brought only a single 15m piece of 5mm cord that he used to haul his backpack up two hard sections. These tactics, combined with his fitness and familiarity with the route, allowed him to finish it in an astonishing 12 hours and 29 minutes “‘schrund to summit.”

With the impressive solo ascent, it’s easy to overlook the earlier speed ascent. Even Smith downplayed it:

“What’s to report?” he wrote in a text message. “We repeated a route first climbed in 1977.”

That’s one way of looking at it, but the Infinite Spur has a legend nearly as big as its name implies: first climbed in 1977 by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe in 7 days ‘schrund-to-summit, it sat unrepeated, but not unregarded, for 11 more years before Mark Bebie and Jim Nelson made the second ascent in 11 days base to summit. In 2000 Barry Blanchard and Carl Tobin completed the third ascent in eight days. A year later, Steve House and Rolando Garibotti managed the sixth ascent in a mere 25 hours, reducing the route to 6 “pitches.”

Low on the route during Haley’s June 1 solo ascent.

[Photo] Colin Haley

Since then, Infinite Spur has been climbed occasionally. But after 2006, a sense of grief surrounded the route when Sue Nott and Karen McNeill disappeared during an attempt. Their bodies have not yet been found.

Haley reported difficulties of about 5.7, M5, AI4, and he was surprised by his pleasant experience of the ascent. The descent was a separate matter.

Garibotti–Haley’s mentor and close friend since their 2008 first ascent of the Torre Traverse–had been sending him weather forecasts via text message. A storm was predicted to hit on the evening of June 2, at which point Haley would have been safely back in base camp. Instead, it arrived on the evening of June 1.

“At that point I sent him a frantic text message,” Garibotti wrote in an email, “hoping he had decided to take his [satellite] phone and would turn it on. We spent the next three days freaking out, looking at the forecast and webcams of Denali, imagining what he was going through and hoping for the best.”

What Haley–who was not carrying his sat phone–was going through, it turns out, was one of the “most intense experiences of [my] life,” he later reported.

“From the moment the bad weather came in on the evening of June 1,” Haley wrote in an advance version on his blog post, which he made available to Alpinist, “it took me nearly 48 hours to reach Kahiltna Basecamp. The descent was a long, harrowing blur, done entirely in storm, in which I became progressively more sleep-deprived, finally arriving in basecamp after being awake nearly three full days.”

As the storm raged, it dumped snow, creating serious avalanche hazard and poor visibility. During part of the descent, Haley was able to stay on top of ridgelines, allowing the many slides that he triggered to slough away from him. But in some cases, this tactic was not an option, and he instead down climbed ice up to 60 degrees in order to avoid pockets of deadly snow.

Low on food and fuel, Haley realized it was dangerous to wander around the huge Sultana Ridge looking for the safest descent route in whiteout conditions. Thus, he explained, “I switched to a program where I would only move if I could see something, and when the visibility was absolutely zero I would simply wait.”

“In one instance,” Haley wrote, “I spent an entire six hours in one spot sitting on my backpack, alternating between bouts of light exercise to stay warm, and extremely brief cat-naps with my head resting on my knees.”

Such self-discipline is one of Haley’s hallmark traits as a climber. “What I am most impressed about is his resilience (and endurance) to pull of the harrowing descent,” Garibotti wrote in an email. “Once he was in the ‘wolf’s mouth’ he was able to make many good decisions to survive.”

Haley soloing through the “Black Band” (the crux portion of the climb) during his June 1 solo ascent.

[Photo] Colin Haley

“I was often honestly very concerned for my survival,” Haley recalled, “something which is very scary and which I have experienced very seldom in my years of climbing mountains.”

He had cached some food and fuel in a crevasse during his earlier descent of the mountain with Rob Smith. By the time Haley arrived at his cache, it had been 20 hours since he’d had anything to eat or drink. His last meal had consisted of less than a half a liter of water and a couple of energy bars.

Descending the final portion of the Sultana Ridge, off a sub-peak called Mt. Crosson (12,352′), Haley encountered “the scariest avalanche slopes of all.”

“I didn’t dare stray even a meter from the ridge crest,” he continued, “and thus scrambled down a lot of third-class snowy rock when normally one would be plunge-stepping easy snow slopes to the side. The bottom of Mt. Crosson is normally ascended via big snow couloirs on either the east or south side, but there was no way I was touching those huge, loaded slopes.”

Haley arrived back in Kahiltna Basecamp around 7:30pm on June 3.

“Of course the weather improved drastically right as I was making my way across the glacier back to base camp.”

In some respects, Garibotti points to the existence of weather forecasting for Haley’s ordeal:

“The last years we have celebrated what a wonderful tool weather forecasting can be, but it is not often that we discuss its limitations and how it can lead you into the wolf’s mouth, without the gear to fight your way out. The ‘dump’ initially (before Colin departed base camp) moved back by 24 hours, to the evening of June 2nd (he would have been down by then). Then on the evening of May 31, when he was resting at the base of the route, it moved forward once again, to 6 p.m. on June 1. This turned out to be true.”

Indeed, Haley found himself in the fight of his life.

“Few times have I been so worried for a friend,” Garibotti wrote. “Undoubtedly forecasting is a great tool, but…”

Haley’s two climbs represented part of a flurry of ascents of Infinite Spur, potentially ushering in a new era for the climb. Smith and Haley were joined on the route by a team of three British climbers–Ben Silvestre, Pete Graham, and Will Harris–who together completed the route’s tenth ascent. Haley’s solo marked the route’s eleventh, and fastest, ascent, with a simultaneous attempt by another British team composed of Dave Sharpe, Gavin Pike, and John Crook, who descended after being caught in the same storm as Haley.

Self-portrait while making a brew stop at the end of the “Knife-Edge Ridge,” during Haley’s June 1 solo ascent.

[Photo] Colin Haley

Sources: Colin Haley, Rolando Garibotti, Michael Kennedy, Ben Silvestre, Pete Graham, Will Harris, Sarah Mitchell,, colinhaley,