Colin Haley: Cascadian Climber
North Cascades Institute welcomes Colin Haley and his presentation “From Shuksan to Cerro Torre” to the Mountaineers Seattle Program Center April 10, 2015 at 7 pm as part of The Mountaineers BeWild Speaker Series. See bottom of the post for a special discount code!
Colin Haley was born in Seattle in 1984 and grew up on nearby Mercer Island. For as far back as he can remember, he’s been exploring the Cascades, hiking and skiing, always looking upward, drawn to the summits of the high peaks.
At the age of twelve, Haley ascended the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades—named one of the “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America”—with his father and older brother. It was the beginning of a new life.
“I had climbed Mount Hood the year before,” he remembers, “but Forbidden was my first technical climb. It had all the elements that make alpine climbing such a memorable pursuit: ascending a steep ridge that scared the crap out of me, rappeling the last several pitches down in the dark, getting back to camp completely exhausted. It was a taste of the physical and mental hardships that climbing mountains often puts you through and from then on, I was hooked. That’s all I wanted to do with my life.”
Alpine climbing became “by far the overriding focus” of Haley’s life, and once he got his driver’s license at age sixteen, he was in the mountains every chance he could get. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty, he figures he logged more days in the American Alps than any other climber.
“Everything I learned,” he says, “I learned in the North Cascades.”
It was one of the best classrooms a young, hungry climber could hope for.
“The North Cascades are the only range in the Lower 48 states with legitimate alpine terrain, beside the volcanoes to the south and a tiny bit in the Tetons,” Haley explains. “People who don’t climb think elevation is what’s important in mountaineering, like the Colorado Rockies and Sierras with their summits of 13,000 to 14,000 feet. But they are snowless, iceless, grassy mountains. For developing mountaineering skills—navigating icefalls, crevasse rescue, traversing permanent north-facing snowfields or glaciers—the North Cascades are by far the most real mountains we have.”
Unpredictable weather and a hardy climate contribute to making the range a proving ground for mountaineers. The North Cascades get pummeled with tons of precipitation from the Pacific Ocean, and it’s usually cold enough to fall as snow instead of rain in the winter. Mount Baker set a world record for the most snowfall ever recorded in a single season: 1,140 inches at the ski area in 1998–99.
“Alpine climbing in the North Cascades in winter is about as hard-core as climbing gets anywhere in the world,” Haley says. “These mountains are already a pretty rugged range in the summer, but in the winter they are five times more serious: access is more difficult, approaches more arduous, conditions more extreme. And snowfall amounts are often very, very big.”
Because of the region’s unique combination of terrain and climate, the Pacific Northwest has produced many of the most skilled American climbers, such as Tom Hornbein and Steve House. But according to Haley, one legend stands above all the rest.
“Fred Beckey is without a doubt the most accomplished climber ever to come out of North America, among the best alpinists in the world,” Haley says. “His legacy of climbing, with all of his first ascents, is completely unparalleled.”
Beckey, ninety-one years old and still climbing, has been a lifelong hero of Haley’s, “a tangible inspiration because I grew up in the same region and learned to climb on the same peaks as he did.”
Like Beckey, Haley has used his time and training in the North Cascades to prepare himself for extreme expeditions in Alaska and British Columbia, as well as climbs farther afield in the Karakorum, Himalaya, and Alps.
“My views on nature have evolved with spending lots of time out in it,” he reflects. “There is less of a separation in my mind between the human world and natural world. Friends of mine who lead the ‘normal life’ view the city as life, and there’s this other thing out there called wilderness. I don’t feel that division. I feel more immersed in nature and view ourselves as just another species who happens to have built a whole bunch of infrastructure.”
“I’m glad there are places like the North Cascades,” Haley says, “where we can go and climb spectacular, rugged mountains in 100 percent wilderness environments.”
Originally published in The North Cascades: Finding Beauty & Renewal in the Wild Nearby, Braided River 2014.
North Cascades Institute friends can use promo code NCI for $2 off the Colin Haley ticket, or $10 off of the entire BeWild series, when buying tickets via eventbrite at www.bit.ly/BeWild15.