Devil's Thumb, Diablo Traverse
Alaska, Coast Mountains
On August 12, Mikey Schaefer and I flew with Temsco Helicopters from Petersburg, Alaska, to a camp below the southeast face of Devil’s Thumb. Our objective was a complete traverse of the Devil’s Thumb massif, climbing over the summits of the Witches’ Tits, Cat’s Ears Spires, and, finally, Devil’s Thumb itself. Like the Torres Traverse to Andrea Sarchi, this traverse is originally the dream of Dieter Klose, the Stikine Icecaps most dedicated disciple. The traverse was attempted in 2004 by Jon Walsh and Andre Ike, who became the first to traverse all four spires of the Witches’ Tits and Cat’s Ears (making the first ascent of the East Witches’ Tit in the process), but were stopped at the base of the Thumb by a chopped rope.
On the morning of August 13, we departed our base camp and made a descending, traversing approach to the base of the Witches’ Tits. We climbed to the notch between the two Witches’ Tits by the Edwards-Millar route, with the Ike-Walsh Witches’ Cleavage variation. The climbing on the upper headwall was absolutely outstanding, and certainly some of the highest- quality alpine rock I’ve ever touched. The unrepeated Edwards-Millar and Belcourt-Rackliff routes look amazing. We left our packs in the notch between the Tits and quickly tagged the summit of the West Witches’ Tit. We then picked up our packs, climbed up to the summit of the East Witches’ Tit for its second ascent, and rappelled the east ridge of the East Tit to a tight bivy in the Tits-Ears col. This col had the last snow or ice we encountered before the summit of Devil’s Thumb, so we filled our packs with eight liters of water.
On the morning of the 14th, we made one rappel to the north side of the ridge to gain the Elias-McMullen route on the Cat’s Ears. We climbed that route to the Cat’s Brow (the notch between the ears), then tagged each of the spectacular Cat’s Ears summits in single pitches. We knew that Walsh and Ike had rappelled to the south from the Brow, and chopped their rope regaining the ridgecrest in the extremely chossy Ears-Thumb gully. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, we instead rappelled the east face of the East Cat’s Ear directly into the Ears-Thumb notch. Our plan avoided the chossy gully, although it was very intimidating to rappel the dead-vertical-to-slightly-overhanging east face of the East Ear. From the Ears-Thumb notch we climbed two pitches up Devil’s Thumbs West Buttress to a five-star bivy ledge.
On the 15th we got an early start and continued up the West Buttress of the Thumb. There was one tricky roof that Mikey surmounted with a mix of free and aid climbing, but the majority of the West Buttress was moderate, in the 5.6–5.9 range, on fantastic rock. This is a route worthy of classic status. The West Buttress had been almost climbed in 1990 by Jim Haberl, Mike Down, and Alastair Foreman, who retreated one pitch below the summit ridge in a storm. We found their rappel anchors all the way up, and their last anchor indeed looked like it had been made in haste: a sketchy looking block backed up with a friend.
We continued up the summit ridge, tagged the summit, and kept traversing to the descent of the southeast face. The descent, down a variation of the Beckey Route, was long and tedious (particularly because it was so melted out and there were lots and lots of loose blocks), but we eventually made it into our camp at 10:30 p.m.
This was a fantastic climb in a beautiful area. It is higher in quality than difficulty, and is certainly a traverse that Id recommend to others. We called it the Diablo Traverse (5.10 A2). Thanks to Jon Walsh and Andre Ike for laying the groundwork, and thanks a ton to Dieter Klose for the original inspiration and logistical help in Petersburg.
Colin Haley, AAC