American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Coastal Range, Devil's Thumb and Burkett Needle

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1996

Devil's Thumb and Burkett Needle. On March 15, Gardner Heaton and I were flown onto the Baird Glacier beneath the south faces of Mount Burkett and Burkett Needle. On the 19th we skied the seven miles around to the base of the East Ridge of Devil's Thumb. Wind pinned us down for a day and we left camp at 5 a.m. on the 21st for our summit bid. In hopes of topping out on the equinox we bypassed the lower ridge and climbed Becky's Original Route. Firm snow made for fast traveling up to within 300 feet of the ridge on the South Face. Getting onto the ridge and traversing slowed us to a crawl; 6 p.m. found us still 400 feet from the summit. The climbing along the airy knife-edge was good and mostly free of ice and snow. The major challenges were getting over and down towers that too often were not as solid as they appeared. After a night of random body movements on one square foot of flat real estate per person, 20 feet apart, we took turns straddling the summit block at 8 a.m. on March 22. Seven 150-foot rappels brought us down to the snow slope that we had ascended.

After resting and establishing a route through the icefall to the base of Burkett Needle, we moved into a cave next to the rock on March 29. Over the following six days we were only able to fix four pitches as it snowed consistently. On April 5 we moved onto the wall. Our route started on the right margin of the nose and ascended a right-leaning four-inch crack for 100 feet where it merged with a left-trending ramp system. Five pitches of moderate aid and easy free climbing brought us to the base of the "Emerald Eye," an enormous travertine (green-white) circle at one-third height on the Needle. The left-hand margin of the Eye is a three-quarter-inch crack that runs 190 feet to a roof. On the third day I turned this amazingly fun 30-foot roof and we established high camp at the top of pitch eight. On the next pitch Gardner's trail line moved another 25 feet away from the wall as he climbed 80 vertical feet through loose blocks to emerge on a ramp system and the end of the overhanging climbing. We filled up stuff sacks with snow and returned to our hanging camp.

On day five we pushed to our high point. Two pitches of vertical climbing that included knifeblades and hooking, then a lower-angle pitch for 200 feet along a ridge brought us to the summit spire. It appeared to be approximately three more pitches to the top. We rapped down to camp, leaving all four ropes fixed. Short on food, we decided to make our final attempt on April 11. At our high point by 10 a.m. the winds had not eased; ropes were frozen and gear rimed up as fast as we could clean it. Eleven rappels brought us back to our cave by 9 nine that evening. To our frustration it dawned sunny the next day.

Joe Reichert, unaffiliated

(The climbers were recipients of The Mugs Stump Award and The American Alpine Club Fellowship Fund Grant.)

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