American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Devil's Thumb

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  • Publication Year: 1974

Devil’s Thumb

George H. Lowe

ABLUR—too much, too fast. We sat in the sunshine packing for our climb. The past week had seen almost 3000 miles of driving, a major Rockies climb on Mount Deltaform, a ferry ride, the packing and sorting of gear, an airdrop and two days’ hiking to Witch’s Cauldron Base Camp. No rest for the weary: the weather is good. Late in the afternoon we shoulder our oversized loads and start up the glacier to the base of the southwest face of Devil’s Thumb. A short scramble over the lower icefall, a rock slab over which hangs a fixed rope (Culbert, Starr, Douglas 1972) and we are on a lush heather slope covered with flowers. It’s pleasant to contemplate the harsh mountain environment of crashing ice and granite slab as we sit amid lupine, with hummingbirds flitting about.

Firm snow gradually gets deeper and sloppier until we are going in to our knees in the crevasse field, crossing bridges that look no more than a meter thick. We dash across an avalanche slope and then the snow on a steep slope gets deeper and deeper. We give out with the daylight and dig a platform in the snow.

It rains lightly during the night, clears in the late morning as we get started. These Alaskan days are so long. Keeping going until dark means sleeping past the dawn. So tired after going so long. More slogging now in thigh-deep snow. Were these slopes ice, it would be steep. Wonder what keeps it from avalanching?

Finally we repack the loads on a small ledge under the rock of the face. The rock above is slabby with overhangs—no continuous cracks. Chris Jones takes a lead up the one crack that goes for forty meters: good mixed free and aid. Then I take my turn. The cracks are discontinuous. Tension traverses or sections of free climbing connect various expanding flakes. Chris nails and nuts the one crack which goes through the overhangs. Hauling is difficult; the bag continuously catches on flakes. Our three-man method doesn’t really work because of the hangups. We are slow, but the weather holds.

We break out onto a lower-angled section for two leads of free, marred only by a few dangerously loose flakes. A few moves of aid are necessary to avoid an easy-looking poised flake. We have to be so careful here and can't make mistakes. So far away, help is essentially nonexistent. Our team of three seems small.

The ramp we reach alternates between overhanging sections and ledges covered with sand and gravel. Hauling is almost impossible. Night comes with misty rain a few pitches higher. We excavate a platform on the edge, sending rocks tumbling over into the void. It is flat and wide but too exposed to the chunks of ice which have been falling from above all day. Nevertheless fatigue takes over quickly.

Again the late start, this time in mist. As we climb further up the ramp, the rock gets better and the weather worse. We reach the top of the huge flake we’ve been climbing and it is raining. Clouds alternately cover and expose the Cat’s Ear Spire. Another pitch over superb rock and it is obvious that cracks connect to the summit dihedral.

We are above any good ledges for a bivy. The wind increases and the rain changes to sleet. We think we’ve come prepared for these conditions with fiberfill sleeping bags, etc., but how bad can the weather get? Lito Tejada Flores thinks we should rappel off the route. Chris feels we are prepared. I question. I want to go on. But it seems that I always do. It is so difficult to evaluate rationally the odds. If this turns into an ice storm can we handle it? I know what I’d do for myself, but there are two other lives involved.

We procrastinate—let’s put up two more rope-lengths. Chris and I go up. Lito hasn’t felt like leading. After Chris follows the first pitch, we discuss how to keep Lito going. Put him in the two-man bivy sack tonight. Must make him still feel part of the team—because he is. Lito’s tough. He’s been in worse situations.

As Chris leads the last pitch, I shiver in the cold and wind despite all of my clothing. It must really be bad for Lito below. At last Chris is up. Down I go to join Lito, Chris following on the line above.

We set up, Chris and Lito with their feet dangling into the mist and me on a sloping ledge ten feet higher where I can actually sort of lie down if I can keep my feet jammed in the crack in the back. Pass the food and water back and forth. It’s so important to keep fueled. We can’t let apathy take over.

Night is spent dumping water out of the sack, rewedging my feet. It’s so inconvenient to roll off a ledge in a sleeping bag. I try to keep the wet, sticky fabric from suffocating me. I’m warm, though, in my fiberfill bag.

In the morning we can’t even see to the top of the first fixed rope and it’s still snowing. Jümars don’t bite on the snowy ropes. Fortunately we’ve brought two Gibbs ascenders. It goes slowly, passing the ascenders up and down.

The dihedral is coated with melting snow, warm enough for fingerless gloves. Normally it would be almost all free but the snow forces some aid. We reach the notch at the end of the dihedral and hurry to the other side to escape the wind. A giant flake up the crest is the obvious way to go. I try, but the wind blowing through it is too much. We must back down to the west on a sloping ledge above an overhang. An ice-filled crack puts me above and just west of the notch. Chris follows the lead while Lito lets himself out into space, then uses the ascenders on the haul line. Chris starts the next pitch. Lito needs a belay with tension to get over the overhangs so down goes the climbing rope. Chris stands and freezes as Lito comes up. Too cold now, I have to take the lead.

A couple of tied-off pins in a shallow traverse crack and the angle drops back to fourth class. I’m up and haul the bags while the others Gibbs it.

The ridge crest is slabby but we find a ledge to clear and settle down for the night. My bag feels as if it contains blocks of ice when I pull it from the stuff sack. In the morning it oozes water as I restuff it. But it was warm. I couldn’t have made it this far with a down bag. Lito’s down jacket, brought for reserve, is pathetic—two sheets of nylon separated rarely by a balled-up clump of sopping down. Yet our fiberfill vests and bags still retain their loft.

We sit in the top layer of cloud and bright sun temporarily lights the hoar frost. Everything is plastered. We head up the slope to the summit ridge. The ridge is a serrated knife-edge overhanging on the southeast and 70° snow overlying slabs on the northwest. Frost feathers preclude any search for a cairn. Besides, which gendarme is the summit?

Down again into the mist and snow, we climb along the ridge for several hours, draping the rope over opposite sides of bollards for protection.

At a notch we find an old piton and sling. Whose?

Down we go into the white, hoping to end up on the hogback. Each succeeding rappel brings more respect for the first ascent (Becky, Craig, Schmidtke 1947). At last we reach the snow, which fortunately, has avalanched earlier. We kick steps down, jump a schrund and promptly get lost on the glacier in a whiteout. Another bivy—our fifth.

In the morning we luck out and find the route back to camp through a rockband, by-passing the top of the icefall which drops from the hogback.

Lito remarks as we enter the tents, “You know, I decided by the fourth bivy that we could have kept going for days longer.” He is correct, I think. Nevertheless, we collapse for one-and-a-half days. The blurring finally stops. Time to play a little chess, read a little pornographic literature. We talk of more climbing, but it rains.

It takes four days to pack everything possible back to Scenery Lake in the rain. It is clear again in the evening as we thrash through the devil’s club to the lake. Out comes our 30-watt transmitter. We call again and again. No response. Just slight static. Then, half an hour later, we hear the buzz of an airplane. Miracle of miracles; they heard us.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Coast Range, near Petersburg, Alaska.

New Route: Devil’s Thumb, 9077 feet, South Face, NCCS VI, F8, A3, July 14 to 26, 1973 (Lito Tejada Flores, Christopher A.G. Jones, George H. Lowe).

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