Patagonia kept its fickle temperament under control for the most part this season, allowing for some remarkable achievements - Psycho Vertical saw its first repeat after 29 years, Torre Egger was soloed for the first time and more recently the Torre Traverse was completed in 20 hours and 40 minutes by Colin Haley and Alex Honnold.
Eight years ago, American alpinist Colin Haley teamed up with acclaimed Patagonian alpinist Rolando Garibotti and made the first ascent of the Torre Traverse. The mountain link-up - or enchainment - starts at the Col du Standhardt and joins up the striking granite spires of Cerro Standhardt, Punta Herron, Torre Egger and Cerro Torre.
Responding in a UKC interview about their ascent in 2008, Rolando already held 22-year-old Colin in high regard:
"His biggest asset is his head. He was put on this earth to climb. I am sure he will go far, very far."
Rolando's prediction has since been borne out by Colin's achievements, his recent ascents in Patagonia in particular.
Colin and Alex had attempted to complete a one-day ascent of the traverse in March last year, but dangerous storm conditions forced them to make a reluctant retreat just two pitches short of the Cerro Torre summit. Returning this season, the pair exploited their individual strengths to achieve a phenomenal record as a team - stopping the clock after 20 hours and 40 minutes.
I asked Colin about the initial ascent in 2008, his two more recent attempts and about climbing with relative alpine newbie - despite being one of the strongest and boldest rock climbers in the world - Alex Honnold.
"We had a pretty simple division - Anything in crampons I led, and anything in rock shoes Alex led. It worked great that way."
It’s almost ten years ago that you made the first ascent with Rolando Garibotti - what are your overriding memories of that ascent?
The first ascent of the Torres Traverse with Rolo remains one of the most memorable, and pivotal moments in my life. I remember being blown away by the terrain we were climbing, and mostly blown away by Rolo’s talent. I climbed with Rolo a bunch in the seasons that followed, and he has been my most important mentor. Not only did I learn a lot of techniques and skills from him, but I simply witnessed a level of dedication and talent that I’d never been exposed to before, and therefore an example of the sort of climber I wanted to become.
How has your personal climbing ability changed since 2008?
I’m happy to say that since 2008 I have slowly but consistently improved as a climber, in at least one discipline, every year. The biggest change for me since 2008 has been in my rock climbing ability. I started climbing on glaciated mountains, not in the boulders or at the sport crag, so rock climbing has always been, and still is, my biggest weakness. In 2008 I had redpointed a few 5.12a routes. In the last several years I’ve dedicated more time to rock climbing. A sport-climbing redpoint is only one small indicator of a general improvement in rock climbing ability, but by now I’ve climbed 5.13c.
How did you decide the time was right to go for the one day ascent, when you first tried with Alex Honnold last season?
Well, the truth is that the timing wasn’t right - We could’ve pulled it off in a good window, but it was a marginal window in which we decided to try anyway. We were simply quite excited by the objective, and figured we’d give it a shot, since we were at the base and all ready to go.
How did it feel to get so close (2 pitches) to the top and have to retreat from a storm?
It was bittersweet for sure. Mostly I was stoked, because despite not quite finishing the traverse, it had been such an amazing day of climbing. However, I’m a strong believer that in alpine climbing it really counts to go all the way to the top. It was such an awesome project that I knew I couldn’t leave it like that and go on with life without trying again.
Did you change your approach to the Traverse this time round? What did you do differently?
Not much. We brought a slightly better rope-ascending setup, took a slightly different line at the start of Exocet, brought lighter cams, etc... Actually, the biggest difference is that this time we made all the rappels by simul-rappelling, and that is definitely part of the reason that we were able to move faster this time.
What qualities did Alex bring to your climbing partnership?
An amazingly high level of rock climbing ability! And, honestly, aside from simply being able to pull hard, he is a very tough, strong-minded guy. There are plenty of people who sport climb harder than Alex, or even trad climb harder than Alex, who definitely would not have been capable of leading the rock-climbing blocks as quickly and efficiently as he did.
How much of the technical ice climbing did he lead?
Haha, definitely none! We had a pretty simple division - Anything in crampons I led, and anything in rock shoes Alex led. It worked great that way. Alex is definitely still a beginner at climbing with crampons, but of course he is shockingly efficient at it considering how little time he has put in. Alex is simply way stronger on rock than I am, and I am way stronger on ice and mixed than he is. However, we each have enough competence in the other person’s niche that we were able to simul-climb nearly everything, which was the real key to doing the traverse in a day.
What conditions did you find on the traverse this time round? Dry? Mixed?
Conditions all in all were pretty damn good. The biggest problem is that it was very warm, and as a result the north face of Cerro Torre had a lot of running water. We both got pretty soaked, immediately before the sun went down, which was a bit scary, but we managed to stay warm enough during the night.
How did they compare to last year’s ascent or indeed your ascent 8 years ago?
Conditions this time were a bit better than last year’s attempt, but I couldn’t say much better, simply because of all the running water on Cerro Torre. Compared to 8 years ago, conditions were better for sure. The biggest difference is that 8 years ago the Ragni Route (On Cerro Torre’s west face, on which the traverse shares the last 3 pitches) was still only very seldomly climbed, and hadn’t been climbed that season. In 2008 the last (crux) pitch of the Ragni Route took me 4 hours to lead - in recent years it has taken me between 20 minutes and 1 hour.
What are the ideal conditions and weather patterns needed for this route?
The ideal is very dry (very little rime ice), but not too hot.
Did you encounter any difficulties or have any moments where the ascent seemed in doubt?
The last pitch of the Ragni Route this time around wasn’t actually all that easy, and we hit it just a little bit after sunset - Because it’s west facing, it had been baking in the sun for the previous six hours or so, and it was totally unfrozen and slushy. That made it both more difficult to climb, and more scary to climb. In addition, I was pretty tired by then, and by the end of the pitch I was nearly failing to lock-off on my tools on an overhanging bulge.
What other ascents this year in Patagonia have been noteworthy and why?
There have been a lot of good ascents in Chalten this year - Too many to list all here. However, the climb that Alex and I did after the Torres Traverse, The Wave Effect in a day, was realistically just as hard as the Torres Traverse, at least for me.
It’s rare to see so many high profile ascents in one season due to the fickle nature of the Patagonian conditions. How have conditions been generally, and do you think there is scope for more ascents of this calibre before the season ends?
Yeah, there has been a lot of good weather since early January. It’s been a particularly favourable year without any doubt. Now the weather has finally changed for the worse, and a lot of climbers are heading home (including myself), content with what they’ve accomplished.
Will you try to beat your own record at some point, or leave it to another team?
Haha. I really doubt I’ll try to beat it.
Do you think it can be done much quicker?
Without any doubt. The thing though is that someone who wants to try to do it faster will have to dedicate A LOT of time to climbing in Patagonia (as I have), because not only do I know the terrain on that ridgeline better than anyone else, but I had probably the best partner in the world to do it with, and you have to be here and ready when the right weather and conditions arrive - which is rare.
What’s next for you?
Chamonix! Then Alaska! Then Pakistan! Woohoo! :)