Perfect Partners #7 - Alex Honnold and Colin Haley

In this series of articles, Tom Ripley interviews some well-known climbing partnerships to dig up their dirty secrets and find out what they really think of one another...

Americans Alex Honnold and Colin Haley are two members of world climbing's A list. Whilst Alex is best known for his rope-free exploits, Colin - also no stranger to solo climbing - has occasionally persuaded him to tie on for a climb or two. As you can imagine, when one of the best granite climbers in the world teams up with one of the world's most experienced alpinists, on some of the world's most beautiful mountains (the Torre Range in Patagonia), the results are pretty spectacular.

Colin and Alex on the summit of Cerro Huemul, on what was most likely the second ascent., 193 kb
Colin and Alex on the summit of Cerro Huemul, on what was most likely the second ascent.
© Colin Haley

Their first time climbing in Patagonia together, in 2015, they nearly traversed the four main Cerro Torre summits, Cerro Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger and Cerro Torre, in a single day. They failed on the last pitch of Cerro Torre's Ragni Route, when strong winds arrived 24 hours earlier than forecast. These made the final snow mushroom unjustifiable. The winds were so great that the only feasible option was to abseil down the Ragni Route onto the Southern Patagonia Icecap. From here they endured a long march back to civilisation, without food and walking into a headwind. Colin and Alex arrived back at the road 53 hours after leaving their tent (which blew away without trace) in the Torre Valley. In 2016 the pair returned and, with refined tactics and better weather, successfully traversed the Torres in 20 hours and 40 minutes.

Alex on Colin

1. How did you first meet?

I honestly don't remember. Our first time climbing together seriously was in 2014/15 in Patagonia, though we may have climbed together more casually before that.

Oh! I just remembered that we'd climbed together in Squamish many years ago. And he took me on a solo mission up Mt Slesse before I'd ever even hiked on a glacier, I think. We did a sketchy traverse of the pocket glacier - it was all broken up and falling off the mountain. He just said it was normal and we soloed across it. In retrospect I think it was sketchy. Hard to know.

2. Did you know Colin by reputation before meeting him?

For sure. I've always known Colin to be one of the best alpinists in the country. Whether that's true or not is another matter! I've never known much about alpinism so I didn't really know what he'd done (and still don't fully appreciate it) but I knew that he was the man.

3. What was your first impression?

Good, I guess, which is why we're still friends and still climbing together. I think the thing I liked most about Colin is that he's smart and thoughtful and interesting, which makes all the long hikes pass more quickly. There's always something to talk about with Colin.

In a lot of ways we're virtually the same person - same age, demographic, upbringing, similar tastes in music, equally clean living, singularly focused on climbing (though he prefers snowy mountains because he has bad taste). We've pursued different kinds of climbing objectives but we're similarly motived and driven.

Group selfie while changing into crampons, at the top of the rock on Spigolo dei Bimbi., 185 kb
Group selfie while changing into crampons, at the top of the rock on Spigolo dei Bimbi.
© Colin Haley

4. What was the first route you climbed together?

I think the North or East something on Mt Slesse maybe. I forget which route exactly, it was something Colin wanted to solo. To me it seemed like too much hiking for climbing on bad rock - we could have just done a lap up the Chief in Squamish instead. Besides maybe casual bouldering or something in Squamish.

5. Why do you enjoy climbing with Colin?

Well I've already said why I like hanging out with Colin and hiking with him, but I think the best thing about his climbing is that he really is safety conscious. He's basically my guide in the mountains. He knows how to do things and go places that I could never do myself. He takes care of logistics, deals with camp, leads all the ice, and normally leads the rappels. I'm basically the pampered client that he escorts up to the rock.

6. What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

Either the Torre Traverse in a day or the Wave Effect, both in Patagonia. We did both in the span of about a week. We were pooped afterward. Both climbs represented our partnership at its best - climbing smoothly and efficiently and covering outrageous amounts of ground. I love big pushes with Colin. We climbed seven Patagonian summits in a week! Outrageous.

Though actually the season before, when we failed on the Torre Traverse, was maybe more memorable. It wound up being a 54 hour push back to town after retreating in a storm. By the end we were taking short naps on the trail in the rain - nothing makes you feel defeated like laying down in the dirt, in the rain, to sleep for a few minutes before you wake up from the cold. We were really pooped.

7. Sum up your partnership in three words.

Big, fun, Tool. [The band]

8. What's the most scared you've been when climbing together?

Probably soloing up to the Standhardt Col each time we've climbed on the Torres. I don't like soloing on ice or mixed terrain and each time Colin has had the rope in his bag and said that we'd take it out if it got too gnarly, then soloed the whole way over my protests. I rose to the occasion each time, but didn't like it.

Group selfie on the summit of Torre Egger.
© Colin Haley

Though some of the rappelling we've done was maybe scarier. The first time we dropped off the south side of Torre Egger I just about shit myself. It's like an overhanging wall of ice.

9. If you could change one thing about Colin what would it be?

Dunno if I'd change anything. Colin is a singular character - that's what makes him so great to climb with. A lot of the things that are challenging, like him being uber motivated and never wanting to miss a weather window, are exactly why I climb with him. Sometimes I might not want to hike back into the mountains, but I know I always should. And that's the beauty of Colin - he's always ready for more.

10. What are your plans for the future?

Not sure, hopefully some more outrageous pushes in Patagonia. And maybe something in Alaska. Or maybe just going sport climbing with our respective girlfriends. . .

At the base of Cerro Torre’s north face before starting up Directa de la Mentira., 197 kb
At the base of Cerro Torre’s north face before starting up Directa de la Mentira.
© Colin Haley

11. What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Colin?

Maybe doing Torre Egger in a day? Just because it seemed kind of stupid compared to just doing the whole traverse. One of my friends in Patagonia that season told me that at the time I said, "I don't know why we went to all that trouble just to climb the dumb one in the middle." Cerro Torre is so much more inspiring, yet Torre Egger is so much effort (because you have to cross Standhardt, summit Punta Herron, and then climb Egger). It was still a good day of climbing, just not as cool as the other link-ups that we've done.

12. Has Colin ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

I don't think so. I never have much of an agenda in Patagonia, so I'm open to whatever he wants to climb.

13. What have you learned from climbing with Colin?

What little I know about ice climbing and alpine rappelling is all from Colin. I've covered more ground in the mountains with him than anyone else. And I've learned a lot about patience and strategy with weather windows. He's really good at the whole camping/expedition side of going into the mountains and being comfortable. He knows how to pace himself on the approaches and take his time so that when the weather is good he can drop the hammer and charge up big objectives. Basically, he's a great mountain climber and I'm a complete beginner, so I've learned a lot.

Colin on Alex

1. How did you first meet?

Hmm, to be honest I don't remember where Alex and I first met, or how, but the first time I specifically remember hanging out was in Squamish, during the summer of 2009 or 2010 I believe.

2. Did you know Alex by reputation before meeting him?

Uh, yeah, he's kinda a big deal! I think the first time I heard about Alex was after his free-solo link-up of the East Face of Washington Column (aka "Astroman") and the North Face of the Rostrum. I then remember talking with a friend of mine from Seattle, Ben Gilkison, who had climbed with Alex some, and Ben told me about Alex on-sight free-soloing "Boogie 'til You Puke" in Squamish (the same route that Jason Kruk famously shat himself on), when he was still just some unknown introvert.

Alex starting the second pitch on Directa de la Mentira., 160 kb
Alex starting the second pitch on Directa de la Mentira.
© Colin Haley

3. What was your first impression?

I think my first impression of Alex, like many people's first impression, is that he was a bit socially awkward and shockingly blunt. He can come off as a bit cocky, which rubs some people the wrong way. As I've gotten to know Alex better over the years I've come to really appreciate these qualities about his personality that put some people off at first. I appreciate clear communication with people, and Alex is very good at that. And I actually vastly prefer to hang out with someone who honestly (and correctly) believes and admits that he/she is a badass, than with someone who is full of false modesty but secretly thinks himself/herself to be the shit. Alex is very open and honest about his skill, and also about his weaknesses. He is a very self-confident person, and I think that liberates him from some of the psychological baggage that causes some other people to act in weird, passive-aggressive ways.

4. What was the first route you climbed together?

Our first time climbing together was the classic Northeast Buttress of Mt. Slesse, in the summer of 2010. It's a 1,000m alpine rock climb in southwest British Columbia with awesome views and exposure, but mostly quite easy climbing. We simul-soloed all of it except for a 2-pitch direct variation in the middle that is about 5.11a. Three memorable moments were: 1) Meeting up with Alex in a Tim Horton's parking lot in Abbotsford and discovering that, despite being on a 6-month climbing road-trip in a big van, he didn't have a single device that allows for rappelling down two strands of rope - only a Grigri! 2) Taking Alex through a very broken glacier for his second-ever time wearing crampons (he did very well, of course). 3) Being nearly done with the hike out and Alex saying something like "This alpine stuff sure does involve a lot of effort for very little actual climbing."

On top of Cerro Torre at midnight, after the second ascent of the Torre Traverse., 183 kb
On top of Cerro Torre at midnight, after the second ascent of the Torre Traverse.
© Colin Haley

5. Why do you enjoy climbing with Alex?

Well, first and foremost, simply because he's an incredibly good climber, especially on rock, and particularly on granite. I think that some of the climbs I've done with him in Patagonia would not have been as successful or fast with any other partner in the world. However, he's definitely not just someone who can crank on small crimps and therefore put the rope up on a crux rock pitch. When climbing up the north face of Cerro Torre together, in the middle of the night, in high winds, and with tons of verglas on the rock I realised that while Alex is principally a rock climber, he is actually a rock climber with the mentality of an alpinist. I realised that even in a place like Yosemite, I think he approaches climbing objectives in a similar way to how alpinists approach big mountain ranges. People who can climb 5.14 are a dime a dozen these days, but people who can climb 5.14 and are also happy to do humongous climbing days, climb with heavy packs, climb through the night, climb very far above gear, climb on bad rock, climb on wet, icy rock... they are not nearly so common.

But, of course I don't necessarily want to go climbing with someone just because he/she is super badass. I actually really enjoy hanging out with Alex in general. I like that communication with him is always very clear. I admire that he's a very self-reflective person, and we share a lot of values that we enjoy chatting about together (minimalism, environmentalism, atheism, some of the most strongly-shared values between us).

6. What's the most memorable route you've climbed together?

I would say that our first one-day ascent of the Torre Traverse is the most memorable route we've climbed together... except in truth our nearly-successful attempt on the same objective the year before was the more memorable experience. In both cases it was an absolutely incredible day of climbing, covering thousands of metres of steep snow, ice, and rock climbing, and passing over some of the coolest summits on the planet. The successful ascent ended with a long, nocturnal descent of the Southeast Ridge - exhausting and trying for sure, but the standard Patagonia experience. The nearly-successful ascent, on the other hand, ended with a very intense descent of the Ragni route in incredibly high winds, and then a brutal, soul-destroying trek along the South Patagonia icecap and out the Rio Electrico Valley. By the time we made it to the road we had been on the go for 53 hours, the last 35 of which without any food.

Group selfie on the summit of Aguja Desmochada during the first one day ascent of The Wave Affect., 190 kb
Group selfie on the summit of Aguja Desmochada during the first one day ascent of The Wave Affect.
© Colin Haley

7. Sum up your partnership in three words.

Collaborative. Exciting. Productive.

8. What's the most scared you've been when climbing together?

I think when we began our descent of the Ragni route in full-on storm was the scariest moment I've had climbing with Alex. The wind was so strong that I was sometimes nearly unweighting the rope while rappelling on vertical terrain, because the wind gusts were lifting me up so much.

9. If you could change one thing about Alex what would it be?

I'd make him stop being such a celebrity, making movies and stuff, so that he could go on more climbing trips with me. Oh, and I'd teach him to take a few pictures while out climbing! ;)

10. What are your plans for the future?

We've chatted about a few potential trips together. I'm quite eager to do more climbing with Alex, although I think right now he has two main competing priorities: 1) Being a celebrity and dealing with being a movie star. 2) Trying to climb a really hard sport route, which of course is much harder to do if you're going on big alpine climbing trips.

Alex taking shelter from the rain at Piedra del Fraile after failing on the Torre Traverse in 2015., 183 kb
Alex taking shelter from the rain at Piedra del Fraile after failing on the Torre Traverse in 2015.
© Colin Haley

11. What's the least enjoyable route you've done with Alex?

Well, Alex and I have done a few amazing climbs together, but we haven't actually climbed together very much in total. So, our ratio of quality climbing to crappy climbing is quite good, and the "least enjoyable" would probably be the NE Buttress of Mt. Slesse, even though it was a great day!

12. Has Alex ever cheated on you and climbed a route you really wanted to do together with someone else?

No, not really. He did climb the Fitz Traverse with Tommy Caldwell, which I would've loved to have climbed with him (or Tommy). But that climb is 90% pure rock climbing, and I'm under no delusion that I would've made as strong a partner for it as Tommy...

13. What have you learned from climbing with Alex?

A bunch of cool things, actually! One of the things that has been most fun about climbing with Alex is how much we've learned from each other. We have such drastically different climbing backgrounds, and areas of expertise, that I think each of us has learned some cool tips and techniques from the other. For me, Alex really opened my eyes to how well it works to simul-climb with microtraxions, and how much harder the terrain that you can reasonably cover simul-climbing is than you might think, rather than with fixed belays, using that system.

Forums 11 comments

I read his autobiography recently and he came across not so much as cocky, but as single-mindedly arrogant and unappreciative of his environment and opportunities he has had. All he seems to care about is...
For me very interesting article, particularly the summit shot which shows the line taken by myself and Tom Proctor on Cerro Torre in 1981. Had conditions been as shown here I think there,s a good chance we would have...
I only met Alex very briefly when he came to the Fairhead meet a couple of years ago - but the idea of him coming across as 'cocky' rings true for me, in so far as only total self knowledge, not humility, or arrogance...
It's amazing how degrading the word 'huh can feel... I recall Hazel telling Alex that she had climbed the nose in 14/15 hours on her first go, to which he cocked his head and replied 'huh', in a way which suggested...
To my knowledge, Tommy C has done some fairly extensive tests with micro traxions holding falls in that way in Yosemite, and they don't tear sheaths almost as much as one might imagine, although obviously it's still a...
By attaching a traxion or other progress capture device to a runner above a tricky section, if the second falls off the device will prevent the leader being dragged off - probably at the expense of the rope sheath,...

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