Devil's Thumb Solo

Publication Year: 1978.

Devil's Thumb Solo

Jonathan Krakauer

AT the end of April, with a month’s food, a pile of alpine paraphernalia, and $200, I hitched a ride north out of the Seattle area on a salmon seiner that was short on crew. Five days out, we docked in soggy Petersburg, on the Alaskan coast, and I jumped ship.

I had come to solo Devil’s Thumb’s north face. I was there in the spring for a number of reasons: 1) I theorized that the Thumb’s north wall would largely be an ice climb in the spring; soloing steep ice is, for me, faster and more reasonable than soloing steep rock. 2) I figured that glacier travel would be easier and safer in the yet cold days of early May. 3) My life in Boulder was degenerating into drudgery, affectlessness, and chaos for want of a meaningful focus. The intensity, the concrete and tangible problems and rewards of a serious alpine climb would provide an immediate spirit-saving focus, even if only a very transient one. Or so I theorized.

I hadn’t the money for a helicopter, so I arranged for an airdrop and resigned myself to the long ski in from the sea. On May 3 I caught a ride across Frederick Sound with some tree thinners and was dropped off at the head of Thomas Bay, where the snout of the Baird Glacier comes to within an easy gravelly mile or two of the sea. In three days I skied 30 circuitous miles up the Baird, put up my tent on the Stikine Icecap northeast of Devil’s Thumb, and called it Base Camp.

Beckey had written, “Long, steep icefalls block the route from the Baird Glacier to the icecap near Devil’s Thumb.” I encountered only one bad icefall, and not a very long one at that, but it was steep and scared me badly. In my haste to make my rendezvous with the airdrop plane on the icecap by the appointed day, I ended up travelling through the icefall below Mount Burkett in a blizzard. The storm’s flat light made simply judging whether a sérac’s slope went up or down very difficult; picking out a logical route or spotting the depression of a hidden crevasse was not really within my capabilities. I blundered, terrified, from dead-end to dead-end among the labyrinth of top-heavy séracs and blue-black caverns for most of an afternoon before I escaped onto the upper icecap. Twice I plunged more than a little way into covered crevasses. Being alone in this icefall was the worst experience of my trip, and one of the most unpleasant times I’ve ever had in the mountains.

After a few days of high wind and heavy snowfall I received my six boxes from the sky and faced up to the now all-too-rudely concrete and tangible problem—the absurd yet terribly serious task I had contrived for myself: getting up the north side of Devil’s Thumb.

On a cold, bright morning I made my way through the small but messy icefall that leads out from the edge of the icecap, above the Witches Cauldron, to the striking buttress that bisects the Thumb’s north face. Above the uppermost bergschrund, itself a problem, the climbing on the actual wall commenced with 300 feet of steep water-ice plastered into a right-facing dihedral. This ice hose was three to six feet wide and often not more than two inches thick over the granite. It was steeper than 75° over its entire length and had sections of true 90° verticality. It was remarkably like the first two leads of the Repentance Icefall in North Conway, though the ice was less candled and more plastic, which made axe placements considerably more secure. I trailed a long, light rope for descending, but I climbed unbelayed and unprotected at all times. I climbed in this fashion in order to move rapidly and avoid the inhibiting burden of food, fuel, and gadgets that the sluggish yo-yoing of a belayed solo climb would demand. I decided that I would simply retreat if I met up with terrain that was beyond my ability to third-class in control.

And I did indeed meet up with such terrain. About 650 feet above the schrund the route turned into six inches of powdery rime-ice glued poorly onto 60° slabs. I had seen from my camp that the mountain was plastered white with something; what I had in optimism believed to be solid ice or névé was in actuality these crumbling frost feathers. Since I could not climb this stuff competently, I descended.

Three days later, in intermittent storm, I made another stab at the wall via a line further left, up a curving couloir in the middle of the northeast face that I hoped would provide a passage of water-ice through the hideous rime. I was beaten this time even lower on the wall, on steep verglas, by a continuous barrage of spindrift down the couloir.

This line might have been a reasonable thing to solo in fairer weather, and I probably should have gone for it again. Hell, Ed Ward, or some such, would have thought it reasonable in fouler weather and gone right up it. But I’m no Heavy, and my two failed efforts had taken a toll on my confidence. I had gone to the limits of my control and only gotten about a quarter of the way up the wall. It was time to admit defeat: TKO in the second round. I accepted the judges’ decision with a slight outward show of contempt and excuses, but secretly glad that the mismatch had been stopped before I’d gotten hurt. However, I did try to figure out a way of saving face somewhat. If I could somehow sneak safely up the mountain, even though the miserable failure of my original grandiose and stupidly broadcasted ambition could not be denied, it would be a good deal less conspicuous. Tactful people could pretend to overlook it.

And there did seem to be a chance of sneaking up the Thumb’s backstairs. A week earlier I had skied over to the southeast side of the mountain to get a look at what would have been my descent route if I’d succeeded on the north face. I remembered seeing a network of steep snow or ice patches between the 1946 and 1973 routes that had struck me as a relatively easy way up the mountain.

On May 15, a balmy afternoon, I left Base Camp for the southeast face. In what would turn out to be a typical underestimation of a route, I did not take a rope or any hardware save two ice tools and crampons. I spent that night bivouacked on a spectacular knife-edged buttress-top that juts out from the southeast face and went for the top in the cold first light of May 16.

The climbing was mostly up and across small patches of solid névé linked together by runnels of verglas and a few 50- to 100-foot sections of steeper rock. The rock stretches were covered with nice incut holds and never got difficult enough to necessitate removing my campons. Such fast secure movement in that spectacular landscape made me ecstatic. Higher on the peak, though, the good times were squelched by the verglas I had to deal with. Though never steeper than 70°, and not extensive, it was fragile and had to be done delicately.

In what must have been only a few hours from waking (I had no watch on the trip), I found myself on the crumbly winter rime of the summit gendarmes. I stayed a few minutes on top to take pictures, eat a little, and straighten a bent axe, and then descended my route. Down climbing was difficult, especially the verglased sections, and I was much longer going down than up. I deeply regretted not having a rope and some anchors along; just a few rappels would have spared much anxiety.

After an afternoon and night unwinding on the high buttress, I went back to Base Camp, loaded up my Kelty, and started in a leisurely way for the sea. Two days after hitting the beach, after twenty days alone, I flagged down a small boat in Thomas Bay and begged a ride back to Petersburg.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Coast Mountains, Alaska-British Columbia.

New Route: On the southeast face of Devil’s Thumb, 9077 feet, May

16, 1977.