American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Cat's Ears Spire, Second Ascent, and Devil's Thumb, Attempt

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997

Cat’s Ears Spire, Second Ascent, And Devil's Thumb, Attempt. From May 12 to June 5, Jeff Selvig, Simon Elias and I lived on the standard southeast Base Camp of Devil’s Thumb and made the second ascent of Cat’s Ears Spire and attempted the south pillar of Devil’s Thumb.

Following an arduous five-day ski trek up the Baird Glacier, we arrived at Base Camp with two days of hunger to find that all of our food was hopelessly lost. It had sunk upon impact into wet spring slush following the air drop and then was snowed upon further as we hiked in. By mere luck we located the haulbag with the majority of the technical climbing gear. Several hours after radioing a shopping list to Petersburg, we found ourselves a thousand dollars in the hole, but well fed and back in the saddle again.

After a week of attuning ourselves to the local weather pattern (or lack thereof), Simon and I descended into the Witches Cauldron, a black, ominous glacial carcass from which eerie rumblings issue forth and thick mists boil over. Clouds engulfed us, and snow began to fall at an alarming rate. We feared we were off route as we traversed through an endless whiteness; all around us avalanches roared and echoed as we peered through the fog and strained to listen for incoming slides. But we did find the left couloir of Cat’s Ears, and after 150 meters of snow and ice (70°), the couloir constricted into an ice-curtained corner and chimney system, overhanging at times, with poor protection and awkward mixed climbing. Two long pitches brought us to the col, where an excellent bivy site exists.

The next day brought much better weather. Above the col we climbed the vertical and exposed west face to gain a series of shallow chimneys, bringing us to the Cat’s Brow, the notch between the Ears. These pitches afford a foreboding view of the lower extents of the deadly and unfinished 6,000-foot northwest face of Devil’s Thumb. One additional pitch of 5.9 led to the pointy and unanchorable east summit of Cat’s Ears. We did not climb the higher west summit (damaged rope, dropped boot), and to my knowledge, this summit remains unclimbed. No bivy exists at the Cat’s Brow, but we spent an restless night pretending that one did. The best descent is accomplished off the southeast side of Cat’s Brow.

Avoiding a massive storm by only two hours after our return to Base Camp, we spent the next four days tent-bound. We were thankful for the chopped rope and dropped boot, realizing that we would have been riding out this whopper on the west face of Devil’s Thumb had we pressed on for the next route.

After the storm Jeff, Simon, and I attempted the south pillar of Devil’s Thumb. The best approach for this route avoids the Witches Cauldron by ascending the bivy saddle on the standard Southeast Face route of Devil’s Thumb, and then descending the other side for 150 meters whilst traversing toward the pillar. The route ascends the prominent right-facing dihedral for nearly its entire length. A good bivy ledge is found about three pitches above the entrance to the dihedral. We had climbed about 1,400 feet of rock when we decided to turn back. Only about 300 to 400 feet of rock were left to the summit, but they appeared to involve a good bit of aiding. Bad weather was approaching, and rockfall had claimed one sleeping bag on the bivy ledge below. We didn’t want to press our luck again. This route is an appallingly bad descent choice. The best descent probably lies on the southeast face.

In total we spent 24 days in the area; climbed on two mountains; lost $300 worth of food, a boot and three ski poles; ruined one rope; and broke two bindings, three sleds, and my camera. Ah, Alaska!

Chad McMullen*

*Recipient of an AAC Mountaineering Fellowship Fund grant.

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