North America, United States, Alaska, Alaska Coast Mountains, Devil's Thumb Massif, Everything
Devil's Thumb massif, everything. Four years ago on an expedition to nearby Oasis Peak, Dieter Klose planted a seed: the complete traverse of Devil’s Thumb. This seed grew into a dream that blossomed into reality in July, as Andre Ike of Squamish, B.C. and I were deposited below the East Ridge of the Thumb by Temsco Helicopters. A week of mostly bad weather followed, with just enough sun to advance a camp and scope the logistics of our mission. Finally the skies cleared, and we set off with three days of food and high hopes for the splitter white granite we had seen from the heli and from our scoping mission. We ascended through a crevasse maze to the ridge below the Witches’ Tits and climbed eight moderate pitches to the base of the steep, clean headwall. This lower ridge had been previously climbed by the late Guy Edwards and John Millar in 2002. We climbed a new route to right of theirs on the headwall: Witches’ Cleavage (eight pitches, 5.1la) to the col between the Tits and then up the east ridge to the summit of the West Tit. We then rappelled to the col between the Tits, and climbed the west ridge of the East Tit in three long pitches of 5.8 to its virgin summit. Rappelling and downclimbing its razor east ridge brought us to a tight bivouac in the notch between the Tits and the Cat’s Ears. The next day started with a 45m rappel down the wildly exposed north side to a crack system we believed had been climbed in 1996 by Chad McMullen and Simon Elias. We freed their route at 5.10 (previously 5.10a Al) in five pitches and found ourselves at the Cat’s Brow (the notch between the Ears). Each Ear then yielded incredible 5.9 climbing on steep, knobby stone full of cracks and chicken heads that kept us grinning ear to ear. It was the second ascent of the lower Ear and the third ascent of the higher, which Guy had claimed to be the sharpest spire in the Coast Range. From these summits we could clearly see our final objective glowing in the afternoon sun: the almost finished and not quite free West Buttress of the Thumb. A few steep rappels and traversing landed us in the chossy gully between the Ears and the Thumb. However, while crossing the gully, we generated rock-fall, and our rope took a core shot at its midpoint, leaving us with no choice but to descend. Eight raps, some downclimbing, and a five-star bivy later, we awoke to see the spires cloaked in an eerie mist. A few more rappels, more downclimbing, and we were back at ABC. At 2 p.m. the heavens parted, and 36 hours of nonstop rain began. Our rope chopping was a blessing in disguise, as continuing or retreating from high on the West Buttress would have been epic. A couple of days later, the rain stopped and we awoke predawn to clear skies and the finest aurora we had ever seen. Despite a poor and worsening weather forecast, we grabbed our packs and charged up and down the complete East Ridge of the Thumb in 12.5-hours roundtrip, making us the first climbers to tick the Thumb and all its satellites. During the descent we called our pilot on VHF radio so he could pick us up before the fast-approaching storm socked us in for another week. He showed up right on time and whisked us back to civilization, just an hour before the slashing rain of another west coast storm engulfed the range. Significant accomplishments: FA Witches’ Cleavage 5.1la 800m to summit of West Witches’ Tit (3rd ascent of spire). FA of East Witches’ Tit via Witches’ Cleavage and West Ridge 5.1la 800m. FFA of North Face (Elias-McMullen) of Cat’s Ears Spires, 5.10 300m from Ears/Tits col. Enchainment of the Witches’ Tits and Cat’s Ears. Second and Third ascents of the lower and higher Cat’s Ears spires, respectively. First to climb the Thumb and all its satellites.
We thank Dieter Klose for his hospitality and those who contribute to the John Lauchlan award for making the trip possible: Mountain Equipment Coop, Integral Designs, Rocky Mountain Books, Explore magazine, and Arcteryx.
jon Walsh, Golden, British Columbia