Top 10 Expeditions of 2022, #2: First Winter Solo of Fitz Roy’s ‘Supercanaleta’

Colin Haley’s September expedition to Patagonia to solo the “Supercanaleta” had all the makings of a classic: close-lived experience on the route, overtones of death, and drama leading to grave concerns.

The route stats: 1,600m, 5.9, WI4, M5-6. It splits the west face of Fitz Roy, taking a steep, deep gully more or less directly to the tower summit. Complicated tracts of shattered granite are the typical medium. Several hundred metres of gendarmes (a series of pillars that block progress) guard the summit.


The west face of Fitz Roy, and Supercanaleta. Topo: Rolando Garibotti


No one had ever tried to climb the behemoth alone in winter before Haley. Very few had attempted to solo it at all.

Haley pulled off the feat on Sept. 19. The veteran alpinist later wrote that he “felt very, very far away from everything” when standing alone on the Fitz Roy summit in the blood-red sunset.


Haley’s long affair with Supercanaleta

Though this time was different, Haley had been in the same position several times before. He first climbed it 15 years ago, with Canadian alpinist Maxime Turgeon. That outing resonated in Haley’s memory due to a “miserable” forced bivy. But it didn’t stop him from making the second-ever solo ascent of the route two years later in 2009.

Finally, he speed-climbed it with Alan Wyatt in 2016, capturing the first one-day ascent of Fitz Roy in the process.

So Haley arrived in El Chaltén this September prepared for what lay ahead — in a way. Because it had been so long since he’d touched the route, he said that he couldn’t remember it well enough to make a difference.

And he’d also seen the results of the worst possible outcome on the dangerous route first hand. Twice on the Supercanaleta, he wrote, he happened to pass by the remains of solo climbers who died in falls.

From Haley’s exhaustive first-hand account of his winter solo attempt, the possibility existed that he could have joined them.

First-round beatdown

Haley arrived for the climb in El Chaltén on Aug. 29. Then he started running loads up to Piedra Negra, where he would leave a gear cache for his ascent. He would speed solo the route, attempting to climb and descend all 3,000m+ in a push.

fitz roy

Fitz Roy, Patagonia. The mountain’s west face is to the right. Photo: mzagerp via Flickr


His first reasonable weather window opened on Sept. 12. Bitter temperatures gripped Haley while he kitted out, but he started up the Supercanaleta that morning anyway.

About 300m of “easy” snow led to thin cover, then a smear of gray ice that frustrated progress.

“D​​espite being technically easy, all the hard ice made the couloir drastically more tiring and time-consuming than in typical summer conditions, when it is filled with snow and névé,” Haley wrote. “[Although] I wasn’t surprised by the difficult conditions, it wasn’t until four hours after crossing the bergschrund, and a humongous amount of front-pointing and axe-swinging, that I arrived to the Bloque Empotrado, and the start of the more technical climbing.”

Haley arrived at a key rappel location around 2:30 pm. The Patagonian night would set in soon. He considered his options, but the promise of frigid overnight temperatures forced a retreat.


“With the winter temperatures, I knew that I couldn’t risk being high on Fitz Roy in bad weather. It was pretty clear that the only reasonable choice was to bail,” he wrote.

That’s when things started to turn ugly.

Because the evening sun was drenching the gully below, keeping it warm, Haley didn’t feel rushed. So he stayed there for a few minutes — and entertained enough existential dread to make him doubt whether he’d come back to try again.

“I spent 30 minutes pondering life, climbing, the people I love, soloing, ambition, risk, and the desire to stay alive. I felt as I have many times before, that what I was doing was ridiculous, and too stressful and scary to be enjoyable. Already before setting up the first rappel, I thought it was very unlikely that I would make another attempt.

“In fact, I concluded, once again, that it was time to put hard, solo alpinism behind me.”

A long, nerve-wracking rappel ensued and frequent rockfall impeded his progress. So did blowing snow back at his gear cache, which was stiff enough to break Haley’s tent poles and fill his jacket pockets.

Finally, torrential rain soaked him to the bone on the hike out.

Down, but not out, in El Chaltén

Haley was demoralized.

“It was particularly heinous because I hiked out with all my equipment and therefore a very heavy pack, confident not only that I wouldn’t make another attempt on the Supercanaleta, but that I wouldn’t do more solo climbing on the trip at all,” he wrote.

Resolving to engage in some fair-weather sport climbing with his partner, Alisa Owens, he dumped his saturated gear in El Chaltén and tried to forget about the Supercanaleta.

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Winter in El Chaltén. Photo: Jose Galleguillo via Wiki Commons


But soon, the weather improved and the objective captured his focus again. A game familiar to many climbers began: rationalization and compromise.

“Just the day after returning to town, I started to think about the Supercanaleta again. I thought about how I could improve my strategy and rationalized that it wasn’t so bad up there. It soon became clear that another spell of good weather — in fact, a much better spell of good weather — was on its way. Within a couple of days after returning to town, I began to pack and plan for another attempt,” he wrote.

On the morning of Sept. 17, Haley hiked back out to Fitz Roy.

A ‘focused frenzy’

Haley started at the same time as before and found roughly equivalent conditions on the first 1,000m of the route. So he made it to his previous high point just 15 minutes faster than on his Sept. 12 attempt.

That meant that again, he’d lose his light soon. (And with it, a lot of his warmth.)

But nonetheless, the forecast still looked like it would give him a marginally better shot in the gendarmes. So he went for it.

“I was in a sort of focused frenzy for this whole section of the climb, moving as fast as I felt I safely could, but having to take a lot of care in many places, and a lot of time in several places. On some sections, there was a bunch of rime plastered to the rock, which made progress slow, but in other places, the rock was nearly bare, which was very advantageous.

“As the sun was dipping to the west it was filtered through low clouds above the South Patagonia Icecap and made for utterly gorgeous scenery. I finished the last difficult pitch at 20:05, just as it was getting dark,” he wrote.

Some of the hard, tenuous gray ice still lurked above. Haley charged up it, though the thought of downclimbing it made him reluctant. He persevered to reach the Fitz Roy summit at 9:23 pm.

“[I] could see the lights of El Chaltén 3,000m below. I wondered if anyone down in town was outside taking in some fresh air, and might see my headlamp,” Haley wrote.

He didn’t linger at the “very, very far away” outpost for long.

“I felt extremely anxious about the descent, and started down just a couple minutes after arriving on the summit,” he wrote.

An arduous descent in the dark led to the safety of Haley’s tent at the base of the formation around 5 am.

Haley concluded his long blog just three days later. In it, he thanked his longtime friend Rolo Garibotti for his support — and one key element he needed most of all.

“[He] helped me in many ways, from sending weather updates, to loaning me a bicycle, to offering advice in countless ways,” Haley wrote, “and most importantly, for encouraging me to buy the ticket and take the chance.”

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.