Colin Haley, a strong American climber and, until recently, a committed soloist, confesses to the following. Soloing is almost like an art form in itself, a form of mountaineering stripped of rope – and friends. By his own admission, Colin Haley is not about to go back to a fully roped route if the opportunity for a nice solo arises. Instead, he vows to share (more). Is a solo for two the new horizon or simply the rope route ? Colin Haley is frank enough to admit that he simply wants to share his next adventures.
There are a number of things that attract me to hard soloing, but I think the most significant reasons stem from my perfectionist personality and detail-oriented mind. Some climbers manage to get up hard climbs by just throwing some stuff in a backpack, heading out, and figuring it out as they go along, in a sort of “whatever, it’s all good” mentality. Or, at the very least, they present it that way. By contrast, my climbing involves a lot of thinking, analyzing every little detail to maximize efficiency and safety. My favorite climbing partners, and the ones with whom I’ve done the best climbing, are all people who similarly think through every aspect of the climb in detail. With those partners I’m never puzzled by their choices or decisions. In a decision-making scenario they always seem to make the same decision I would’ve made, or if they do something differently it’s usually something that makes me think, “Interesting. That’s a good idea.” But those are my best partners. (Read Part 1/2).
With other partners I sometimes find myself thinking, “What the hell is he/she doing? That makes no sense!” This can be with really minor things, like seeing my climbing partner put his/her bottle of warm water down directly on the snow (where it loses heat really quickly) instead of on his/her backpack or parka (where it is much better insulated), or it can be with pretty serious things, like people making belays which don’t seem certain to be safe.
There are lots of people I know who are very good climbers but who I am hesitant to climb with because I don’t trust them to always make solid anchors, to always put in enough good protection when simul-climbing, or to always give me a safe belay. Of course, with my best partners we don’t always do everything in the safest possible manner, but all short-cuts of safety are done for calculated reasons that gain efficiency in other aspects of the climb, not just because of laziness, or inattentiveness, or lack of thinking. The beauty of solo climbing is that the control-freak perfectionist in me is in complete control of the equipment choices, the route finding, the anchors, and the strategy, able to decide all in a manner that I think is as efficient and safe as possible.
However, while soloing is in some ways a nice fit for a perfectionist like me, it has all sorts of downsides as well. One downside is that for the bigger, harder objectives, you almost always end up carrying a much heavier backpack into the mountains than you would with a partner. Another downside is that if it’s hard enough to self-belay, it becomes very slow and cumbersome compared to climbing with a partner. Not only is the climbing itself drastically more psychologically stressful, but for the more far-flung, expedition-style solo objectives, there is a lot of time before and after the actual ascent, hanging out by oneself, which is simply kinda boring and lonely!
Of course the most significant downside of hard soloing is the increased risk. Like any kind of climbing, how risky it is really depends on the manner in which it’s done, and realistically no one can evaluate very accurately how much risk a solo climber is taking except for the climber himself/herself. I am proud to say that I think the hard solo ascents I’ve done I have undertaken with a much higher safety margin than many people who have done similar hard alpine soloing. Nonetheless, even if I solo more safely than others, there is no doubt that unroped climbing involves increased risk.
Even if one is extremely careful and the climbing is far below one’s abilities, there is always the chance of being hit by falling rock or ice. Also, injuries that would be relatively non-life-threatening with a partner, like a broken tibia and fibula, could be disastrous if by oneself in a vast alpine wilderness. I have had so many friends who have died climbing, and I am more conscious than I’ve ever been before of how badly I want to avoid that outcome.
I am not vowing to never try major solo ascents again. I’m sure there will still be objectives now and then that are particularly inspiring ones to try solo, and I’m sure I’ll still do plenty of the mellow, easy, un-stressful type of soloing or simul-soloing that is truly fun. I’m vowing to majorly de-prioritize hard soloing. During the past decade I have become increasingly focused on solo objectives. I have found myself daydreaming about solo climbs more than about climbs with partners, and turning down opportunities to climb with good partners to pursue these solo objectives. That is the big mistake, and that is what I want to stop.
I am very proud of the soloing I’ve done, but I’m sure that it has also held me back to a large degree. There have been many good weather windows in Patagonia during which I accomplished nothing because I was out soloing, but surely would have done something cool if I were out with a good partner (because hard soloing is so much riskier and more intimidating than climbing with a partner, I tend to bail whenever things aren’t totally perfect). If I had spent more time climbing with partners I would have surely done a lot more hard climbing as well.
Perhaps most importantly, if I had spent more time climbing with partners, I would have enjoyed myself more – it’s simply more fun with a friendly companion!
It is funny how hardcore and psychologically intense hard solo climbing is, yet the same route for the same climber with a partner would feel pretty chill and easy. Perhaps most importantly, if I had spent more time climbing with partners, I would have enjoyed myself more – it’s simply more fun with a friendly companion!
The perfectionist, control-freak aspect of my personality gets frustrated with partners who don’t do everything in a thoughtful, competent manner, but the wiser, more zen aspect of my personality (buried somewhere deep inside!) recognizes that even climbing with a partner who makes mistakes is usually drastically more safe, more fun, and more confidence-inspiring than climbing with no partner at all! Also, taking the time to foster good climbing partnerships would probably turn some of the OK climbing partnerships into really good ones.
My mom has been begging me for years to stop soloing. I’m not exactly doing that, but perhaps this will be a real step in that direction. A bit older, a bit wiser…
Here’s a nod of appreciation to the best climbing partners that I’ve had: Mark Bunker, Jed Brown, Rolo Garibotti, and Alex Honnold. I have, in fact, had lots of really great climbing partners who I really appreciate climbing with, but those aforementioned four are probably the ones I was most “in sync” with.
And here is a synopsis of my best solo ascents – the top few, and a list of others that are pretty good too. Listing these here may make me seem like a braggart, and I’ll certainly admit that I’m proud of this list, but the process of making it and looking over it is also a reminder to myself that I’ve accomplished enough in this niche of climbing to feel content, and hopefully happy shifting my focus in other directions :
THE TOP FEW :
1) Sultana (Central Alaska Range), The Infinite Spur, first solo ascent of the route, and speed record, (12:29 bergschrund-to-summit), 2016-06
2) Torre Egger and Punta Herron (Chaltén Massif), Spigolo dei Bimbi and Espejo del Viento, first solo ascents of both peaks, 2016-01
3) Begguya (Central Alaska Range) The North Buttress, first solo ascent of the north side of Begguya, and speed record (7:46 bergschrund-to-summit), 2017-05
4) Aguja Standhardt (Chaltén Massif), Exocet, first solo ascent of the peak, 2010-11
5) Mount Waddington AKA Mystery Mountain (BC Coast Range), Flavelle-Lane Route, first solo ascent of the peak, 2012-08
7) Chaltén (Chaltén Massif), Supercanaleta, second solo ascent of the route, 2009-01
8) Chaltén (Chaltén Massif), California Route, fourth or fifth solo ascent of the route, 2015-12
OTHER GOOD ONES:
Aguja Poincenot, Whillans Route, solo ascent, 2009-12
Aguja Guillaumet, Amy Route, solo ascents, 2009-12 and 2018-02
Aguja Mermoz, Argentine Route, solo ascent, 2010-03
Cerro Pollone, South Face, solo attempt to 2m below summit, 2011-11
Aguja Rafael, Anglo-American Route, second solo ascent of the route, 2011-12
Aguja St. Exupery, Kearney-Harrington Route, second solo ascent of the route, 2011-12
Aguja de l’S, North Ridge, solo ascent, 2011-12
Adela Sur, Central, and Norte, El Ñato, El Doblado, and Cerro Grande, solo traverse of 6 peaks, 2013-03
Cerro Domo Blanco, North Ridge, first solo ascent of the peak and first winter ascent of the peak, 2013-09
Cerro Electrico NE, South Face, solo, first ascent of the peak, 2013-09
Aguja Guillaumet, Begger-Jennings Route, first solo ascent of the route, 2:06 bergschrund-to-summit, 2013-11
Cerro Solo, El Dragòn, solo, first ascent of the route, 2016-01
Filo del Hombre Sendtado, solo ascents of both summits, I suspect perhaps the first ascent of one or both summits, 2018-02
Blackhorn Mtn, Northwest Couloir, solo, first ascent of the route, 2003-09
Mt Robson, North Face, solo ascent, my first alpine climb in the Canadian Rockies, 2004-08
Mt. Combatant, Mt. Tiedemann, Mt. Asperity, first solo ascent of each peak, 2012-08
Chair Peak, North Face, speed solo ascent after school (2:33 car-to-car), 2002-03
Graybeard Peak, North Face, first solo ascent of the route, second ascent of the route, 2002-05
Mount Shuksan, North Face, speed solo ascent (5:48 car-to-car), but without summit pyramid, 2002-05
Eldorado Peak, Northwest Couloir, first solo ascent of the route (I’m pretty sure), 9:15 car-to-car, 2002-11
Dragontail Peak, Gerber-Sink 1971 and Triple Couloirs, solo enchainment, both routes in 5:45 lake-to-lake, 2003-04
The Chopping Block, Southeast Route, solo, first winter ascent of the peak, 2004-02
Mount Terror, North Buttress Stoddard Route, solo ascent, 2004-06
Drifika (Karakoram), South Face to East Ridge, solo attempt to 10m below summit, 2005-09
Les Droites (Mont Blanc Massif), Le Ginat, solo ascent to Col des Droites, 2009-04
Mont Blanc du Tacul (Mont Bland Massif), Supercouloir with Gervasutti Pillar start, solo ascent to summit, 2010-04
*I learned on this trip that a bunch of teams winter climbing in Chaltén are hiring porters for the approach, including the most recent attempt to solo the Supercanaleta in winter. It is easy to understand why, as the mid-winter temperatures and snowpack require leaving the trailhead with way more weight on your back than one would in summertime. I don’t think there is anything wrong with hiring porters for the approach (although it is cost prohibitive for me!), as I think there is a clear distinction between approaching and climbing, but I never really thought of it as a “thing” in Chaltén, even though it is so standard in the Himalaya and Karakoram.
**My ascent of the North Face of Graybeard was the first solo ascent, and in fact only the second ascent of the face. Near the middle of the face I made a “back-loop” off a couple of pitons before climbing the crux. Above the crux, when I tried to retrieve my rope, it got horribly stuck below. I had no way to make an anchor above the crux, so my only option was to cut my rope and continue up the upper face with about 20 meters of 6mm cord, which felt pretty committing. Several years later the route was climbed by my friends Andreas Schmidt, Chad Kellogg, and Roger Strong, and my piton anchor and mess of cord was still there. This past year the route was finally soloed for a second time, by Seth Keena-Levin, and my mess of cord was unfortunately still there hanging off my piton anchor !