American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Devil's Thumb, West Buttress, 1990

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1992

Devil’s Thumb, West Buttress, 1990. In pounding rain in May, 1990, Jim Haberl, Michael Down and I helicoptered from Petersburg to set up Base Camp at the fork of the Witch’s Cauldron just north of the Devil’s Thumb. When the weather cleared, we learned two things. First of all, there is no north face, per se, but rather a northeast face (solo attempt by Krakauer in 1977), a north buttress (climbed by Stutzman and Plumb that same year, 60 pitches, 5.9) and a huge northwest face (attempted by Bearzi and Klose in 1982). Second, we learned we didn’t want to climb there. We shifted our focus to the unclimbed west buttress, which Bearzi and Klose had attempted in 1980. We moved camp up the south arm of the Witch’s Cauldron and ascended the icefall and glaciers under the Fox Head (the double summit immediately west of the Cat’s Ears). In deteriorating weather, we set up a gear cache at the bottom of the 55° ice couloir leading to the Cat’s Ears-Devil’s Thumb col. When the weather cleared, we moved to camp at the cache and climbed the couloir and the first two rock pitches (5.6), but severe weather forced us to fix ropes and descend. Our third attempt took us six pitches up steep comers and huge flakes (5.9, A2) to below the prominent roof which splits the route at half height. Again, the weather pushed us down. An early start on June 7, 1990 put us at our previous high point just as clouds began to move in. A few dicey A2 moves surmounted the roof and delicate slab-and-corner climbing led to a good ledge. The next two pitches followed steep dihedrals visible from the glacier. The climbing was on wild flakes and steep comers (5.10). The weather turned ugly: 10-meter visibility, strong winds and snow, and rime on the rock and ropes. At the top of the buttress, some 20 meters from the true summit, the difficulties lessened to fourth-class. We turned back there in truly miserable conditions. A lengthy descent followed in blowing snow, darkness and rime. We had prepared the rappel stations on the way up but were unable to find them under the ice on the way down. In the interests of climbing light, we had not carried boots and had only one headlamp between us. There were several hanging stances, cold and slippery feet and much fumbling about. We continued rappelling down the couloir, finally arriving back at our high camp at 7:30 A.M., after a 27-hour round-trip. We walked out to Thomas Bay via the Baird Glacier in four days.

Alastair Foreman, Alpine Club of Canada

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