Devil's Thumb, East Ridge
By: Mark Anderson | Climbers: Mark Anderson, Michael Anderson, Marc Springer, Janelle Jakulewicz |Trip Dates: July 18-29, 2002
Photo: Michael Anderson
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I arrived at the belay in a state of confusion. The clouds were so thick I could only see clearly 20 to 30 feet in any direction. I could make out rough shapes as far as 100 feet, but all else was a damp fog. Midway through the pitch, I was able to make out the blurry silhouette of a steep ramp extending upwards into the haze, presumably to the summit. But at the moment all I could see was the distant outline of a massive gendarme, overhanging steeply to the south, snow-plastered to the north, blocking all progress.
Or was the gendarme merely a tiny block, only several feet ahead? It was utterly impossible to determine scale in these conditions. Depth perception led simply to deception. The swirling mist obscured all detail, and made the few visible objects unidentifiable.
As I joined my companions, a debate ensued. Was the large gendarme in front of us the summit, or was it merely the next obstacle in a seemingly unending roller coaster ride of ups and downs, steep buttresses and knife-edge ridges, gendarmes and pinnacles, tension traverses and rappels?
My altimeter measured 8,950-just 122 feet shy of the summit-and we had climbed two long pitches since passing a prominent notch, with numerous slings, that was surely the "rappel notch." The only evidence we had to refute the claim that the summit was within reach was a dreamlike image of a stairway to heaven that we had all seen from lower on the pitch. From our current vantage point the mirage was completely obscured by the ambiguous gendarme to the west. As the discussion continued it became impossible to know for sure if I had seen the murky stairway at all.
Every concrete piece of evidence seemed to indicate that we were just below the summit, but we were unable to shake the image from our collective consciousness. Somehow we knew. We all knew; the mountain had trained us. Every time we thought the way was getting easier, the mountain threw another obstacle in out path, each more difficult and improbable than the last. Although we could hardly see the ridge, we knew the remaining climb, no matter how long or how short, would not be easy, and would undoubtedly require far more time than we anticipated.
It was 6pm. The weather had been steadily worsening all day, and it appeared as though the trend would continue. Although we were unable to agree as to our exact location along the ridge, we came to a consensus that if we didn't retreat immediately we would be spending the night on the mountain.
The four of us met in Seattle on the evening of July 16th. After a brief stroll along the waterfront and a meal of crab legs, oysters, and other assorted sea creatures, we headed for bed, anxious for the next day's activities. In the morning we departed for the North. Quick layovers in Ketchikan and Wrangell brought us to the sleepy fishing community of Petersburg, Alaska. The TEMSCO Helicopter hanger was only a few hundred feet from the Alaska Airlines terminal, so we drug our enormous bags over and awaited the return of our pilot. Wally arrived via helicopter shortly after. He had been on a contract job for the local Forest Service office, which, in addition to work for the city, state, various timber operations, ATT, and the summer cruise line tourists, is how TEMSCO typically pays the bills. Wally brought out a map and filled us in on a little history. Generally speaking, it rains all the time in Petersburg and the surrounding mountains. It's not unusual for climbers to sit in Petersburg for many days, in one particular case 10 days, waiting for sufficiently good weather for the 20-minute helicopter flight to the Thumb. Likewise, it's not unusual to wait for days or weeks for a trip back, once the climbing has been finished. Wally was quite adamant that we have a firm plan for how we would hike out to the Baird Glacier, should that become necessary.
It was apparent by mid afternoon that we would not be flying in that day. Wally called around and got us a room at a Bed 'n' Breakfast in town, and we headed out to take in the sights and do some last minute shopping.
Like most mornings in Petersburg, Thursday dawned damp and dreary. We packed our things and headed towards the hanger to check in with Wally. Two guests who shared the BnB drove us to a grocery store near the edge of town, only a short walk from the airfield. Unfortunately the store lacked the one item on our list, white gas, so we all walked back into town. We found the gas at a local variety store on "main" street. Once we had dropped our supplies at the hanger, we headed back into town for some lunch.
The Northern Lights bar and grill had caught our attention the previous day, so we headed there. It is surprisingly difficult to get good seafood in Petersburg. Apparently everyone is a fisherman, so they don't go out to restaurants to get seafood. If they want seafood, they get in their boat and go get some straight from the source. Midway through my pineapple burger Mike got a call on his cell phone from Linda, the TEMSCO secretary. In typical style, Mike hung up when the conversation was over and sat quietly, waiting for the rest of us to burst with anticipation. Amid threats of bodily harm, Mike finally informed us that the weather was clear up by the Thumb, and Wally would be available to fly us up in 30 minutes.
Marc and I dropped our burgers in mid bite and burst out of the restaurant, literally running to the hanger. We were at least a 20-minute walk from the hanger, and we still had to get dressed. Its bad form to leave your bush pilot waiting.
I made a slight detour on our way to the hanger to drop several postcards in the mail. We arrived at the hanger early, and dripping with sweat. Marc and I stripped to our shorts, hoping to cool off a little before we dawned our arctic outfits. For some reason, perhaps the constant rain, mosquitoes and other carnivorous bugs are scarce around town. Marc and I readied ourselves as much as possible without actually getting dressed, and waited anxiously for Wally's arrival. Just then Mike and Janelle casually strolled in, having finished their lunch, paid the bill, and leisurely walked towards the airfield, even stopping along the way to purchase our perishable groceries.
Wally arrived and gave us a quick briefing on the aircraft, entry and exit procedures and safety equipment. The Hughes 500 will comfortably carry up to 550 lbs of payload, including passengers and equipment, and still have enough power to land at 6,000 feet. Since there were four of us, and we had enough equipment to siege El Cap, Denali, or the Grand Central Couloir, Wally would have to make two trips. Marc and I would go first, Janelle and Mike second.
The flight to the Thumb was breathtaking, and in some ways, the highlight of the trip. We certainly saw more scenery during the 20 minutes on the helicopter than during the entire time spent on the ice cap. Wally flew us directly towards the Thumb, which was not visible from town. We headed up the Patterson Glacier and over a high, serrated ridge. Beyond the ridge the landscape dipped 4000 feet into the notorious Witches Cauldron. Devil's Thumb juts out 7,000 vertical feet from this basin. There are no photos that illustrate the immensity of the Thumb, and the tremendous vertical relief is difficult to comprehend. The first 4000 feet from the glacier consist of very steep granite slabs, followed by a brief interlude of jumbled ice and snow, before the upper Devil's Thumb massif, with its sheer south face, flanked by the Fox Head and Cat's Ears spire elegantly piercing the sky.
Wally's helicopter climbed quickly up the massive 4000-foot icefall that marks the terminus of the southeast fork of the Witches Cauldron. As we glided around the SE slopes, the Thumb revealed Mt Burkett and the astonishing Burkett Needle to the northeast. To the Southeast cloud cover obscured the highest peak in the Stikine Ice Cap region, 10,000-foot Kate's Needle.
Wally swung his helicopter around, searching for some contrast in the enormous blanket of snow below. Landing a helicopter on an ice field is a delicate art. Everything is white, making it extremely difficult to judge distance, and impossible to determine terrain gradients. Wally located a small snow hump, whose shadow betrayed its size and shape. He slowly lowered toward the plateau, eyeing the aircraft's shadow as it became larger. Wally lightly tapped the surface, then slid slowly across the hump to make a short track for his return trip. Once he had settled on a spot, he bounced slightly on the snow, to ensure the mound would not collapse into a gaping crevasse.
Marc and I jumped out of the helicopter, removed our gear, and ran MASH-style away from the bird. Once we had reached a safe distance we dropped to one knee and waved as Wally headed back to civilization for the others. On the ground the landscape takes on a completely different appearance. Scale cannot be judged at all from the air. Mountains always seem tiny and routes appear much easier than expected through the window of an aircraft. The ice field grew to several times its original size as our minds adjusted to this new perspective.
Marc and I made a quick survey of the area, hoping to pick out a possible site for our base camp. The serious task of locating shelter soon took a backseat to the less serious but more enjoyable task of getting a good look at the Thumb and our intended route before the clouds moved in. We roped up quickly and headed west toward a small rock fall protruding south from the lower slopes of the East Ridge. Two hundred yards of easy walking brought us to the top of the rock fall, which was also the bottom of a quarter-mile-long spur ridge branching south from the lower East Ridge. From this point we were able to see the entire Southeast face of the peak, and the Direct East Ridge was evident in profile. Having spent many an expedition day stranded in vast seas of endless snow and ice fields, I proposed that this spot, nestled against a gently rising granite ridge, with tiny streams of water trickling off nearby rocks, would make an excellent base camp.
As the notion was gaining ground, Marc heard the high pitch whine of Wally's helicopter. Much to our astonishment, Wally had already returned with Mike and Janelle. Our intention was to be at the landing zone when Wally returned, so we ran back towards the site, snowshoes flapping wildly, as they zoomed past. Wally was able to land much quicker this time, using our equipment and his previous tracks to judge his location. He dropped Mike and Janelle, stepped out briefly to snap a photo of the Thumb, then headed back for another job.
I quickly convinced Mike that I had discovered the ideal base camp, and we began the process of shuttling our excessive bags toward the ridgeline. After reveling briefly in our unparalleled wisdom we commenced the arduous process of constructing an expedition style base camp. Previous accounts of multi-day blizzards and gale force winds inspired the group to build the walls thick and high. By 7:00pm the camp was complete, and dinner was on the way.
The most significant difference between flying into Kahiltna Base Camp in a Cessna then dragging all your gear 15 miles to Genet Basin, versus taking a helicopter directly to a base camp at the base of the Devil's Thumb is the quality of the meals. For 20 days on Denali I ate nothing but reconstituted mush and power bars (also known as un-reconstituted mush). For the first night on the Thumb, we enjoyed salmon steaks, mashed potatoes, and pie.
The four of us settled into bed around 10pm, just as the light was beginning to fade in Southeast Alaska. The plan for the morrow was to rise at 4:00 am, and be on the glacier by 5am. I felt in some way that this was an awfully late start, but the route didn't look that hard, and we are all pretty fast climbers.
We didn't actually start until 6:10am. Marc set out in the lead to break trail as usual. He was our secret weapon in a number of ways. Most expeditions were monotonous and boring, with much time spent snow slogging, or sitting in camp, waiting for weather. With Marc along, we could be sure that no matter how little we climbed, the trip would never be boring. It was impossible to be in a bad mood when he was around, and the more miserable conditions got, the more cheerful Marc became. Once the summer solstice passed, Marc began counting the days toward winter. Whenever Marc donned his ice climbing regalia a distinct transformation took place. He became superman; he was unstoppable.
And Marc was an inspired hiker. His steps were twice as long, twice as fast, and twice as strong as any person I've ever met. Like all great naturals, Marc never trained per se, but once on the trail, he could not be deterred. You didn't have to ask Marc to break trail. Regardless of who set out in front, Marc would end up in the lead sooner or later whether you wanted him there or not. Having Marc start in the lead merely simplified logistical matters. I roped up to Marc, just to make sure he never got too far ahead. Of course, this tactic did not slow Marc down. He just pulled me up to match his superhuman pace.
Our plan was to climb in two teams, Marc and I in the first team, Mike and Janelle in the second. Marc would break trail to the base of the Direct East Ridge, at which point I would take over the lead as he and I simul-climbed the ridge. The snow on the glacier was very soft, and we had to do quite a bit of zig-zagging to avoid cracks. The bergschrund was as much as 40 feet across in places, but we were able to find a suitable snow bridge near the far east edge of the glacier. Some steep snow climbing above the 'schrund brought us to a fairly flat shoulder at the base of the ridge at 7:45am.
Fred Beckey and companions first climbed the original East Ridge route in 1946. The route climbs directly up the west end of the glacier to the Hog's Back, then traverses diagonally up and right to join the East Ridge midway toward the summit. This route is dependent on significant steep snow climbing, and the second ascent part, British Columbia Mountaineering Clubbers led by Dick Culbert in 1970, felt snow conditions were too dangerous to follow the same route. In order to avoid the treacherous Hog's Back, Culbert's party gained the East Ridge at its base, and followed steep rock along the ridge all the way to the summit over 40 hours (including bivouac). This "Direct East Ridge" added quite a bit of technical rock climbing to the original route, which was primarily a snow climb (though the original route still required 10+ pitches of very difficult rock, ice, mixed and aid climbing). This direct start, which is in fact quite a bit less direct than the original, incorporated two massive rock buttresses. The direct start rejoins the original route after a short rappel off the summit of the second buttress.
The first and second buttresses are separated at their base by a beautiful open book crack. The first buttress could be bypassed altogether by walking 50 feet to the left and following the crack for 1-2 pitches to the notch that separates the two buttresses. Marc was not the sort of person who got bogged down in ticking routes off a list, and he immediately raised the obvious question of why anyone in their right mind would climb the first buttress, when it could so easily be avoided. I had no good answer. However, I did have an answer. The "Direct" East Ridge was the route in the book, and therefore the route we had to climb. Such a stark exhibition of my shallow goals bothered me deeply.
At the base of the First Buttress we stopped to apply sunscreen and change into our climbing shoes. From the moment we left camp we had been climbing through light fog. But once we gained the shoulder at the base of the ridge we popped out above the clouds. We could see the sun, and many of the higher summits peeked out from the blanket of fog that engulfed the ice cap. I headed straight up the steep buttress with little guidance other than to 'stay as close as possible to the ridge crest.' The granite was excellent, though heavily fractured. Individual blocks were of the highest quality, but many of these blocks were held in place only by the grace of God. I warned the others below, and trained myself to test each hold carefully before weighting it. Gear placements were plentiful, but the climbing was so easy I felt silly stopping. I made a point to leave at least two pieces per rope length, and soon the angle eased to as we neared the apex of the first buttress. A short jaunt across the summit, followed by a short down climb, brought me to the base of the second buttress.
This obstacle appeared far more menacing than the last. The arête itself was nearly vertical, and several small roofs could be clearly seen above. This was surely not 5.8 simul-climbing territory. As I mulled over a strategy, Mike appeared atop the first buttress. I asked if he could see a possible bypass around the corner to my left (south). Mike could see a series of terraced ledges high up to the left, but I would have to traverse a steep section to reach them. I headed out to the left, unsure if I was on the right track. Less than 20 feet out from the belay I came upon an ancient, rusted fixed pin, which was very reassuring. I continued up and to the left, where I soon reached a large mossy ledge and the end of the difficult climbing. I stopped to belay Marc, who quickly dispatched the pitch. From this point I headed more or less straight up in an effort to regain the ridge. Steep but easy simul-climbing brought us back to the ridge crest, and we were soon at the summit of the Second Buttress. The far west end of the summit ridge ended in a vertical drop. I was unable to locate any rappel anchor, but the terrain looked far too steep to down climb. Marc and I tied a length of webbing around a firm block and began rigging the rappel as Mike and Janelle summitted the second buttress.
I rappelled to a small vertical rock band adjacent to the snowfield below the buttress. A short, stocky, twin-summitted tower blocked the ridge directly above. Beyond this tower was yet another notch. From my position I could see that this short tower could be quickly bypassed via snow and rock on the left. It was also evident that the original route joins the East Ridge at one of these two notches, though which one I could not be certain. The others quickly rapped to my belay. We changed back into our boots and headed out across the steep snowfield, this time with Mike and Janelle in the lead.
Once around the tower, Mike climbed a long, wide slab that brought as back atop the ridge. At some point along this ridge Marc and I simul-climbed past Janelle and then Mike, who were belaying each pitch. After several hundred feet of interesting rock and snow climbing I came to a short, steep step in the ridge. This step was actually the upper section of an enormous pillar that extended down nearly 50 feet to the snow below. This pillar is the most prominent gendarme along the East Ridge, and can be seen clearly in many photos.
I gained the base of the step. The step itself was maybe six feet high. The southeast façade was dead vertical, with a solitary finger sized crack near its right edge. To the right of the step was a 50-degree, moss-covered slab that headed toward the north face. The move would be to mantle onto this slab, then follow it to the top of the pinnacle. I contemplated the situation for several minutes before Mike arrived. By this time the clouds had moved back in and it was constantly misting. Everything was wet, and a small snow patch fed drip water onto the mossy slab. I offered the lead to Mike and climbed back down to the belay. Mike gained my highpoint, and pondered the move as well. I was relieved when Mike stated that there was no way he would attempt the slimy move in his La Sportiva Makalus.
At this point the first thoughts of retreat entered our minds. The thought of retreat is like a cancerous seed that, once planted, will grow and grow until it prevails. The weather had seriously deteriorated, and it was after 2:00pm. I searched my memory banks to reconcile our current predicament with Beckey's account of the aid moves required to overcome the crux gendarme. There was an old rappel sling at the base of the gendarme, and I was convinced that we were in the same spot. Mike was less sure. If the rock was dry, and the move was done in climbing shoes, it would not be very difficult. According to the 1991 American Alpine Journal, the entire ridge had been climbed free at 5.9, by staying directly on the crest. Unsure if this was indeed the proper strategy, we backed up the solitary rappel sling and prepared to rappel around the base of the gendarme. We agreed that whether we retreated or continued, the next step was to rappel from our current spot. We would defer a decision until the rappel had been completed.
Mike rapped first and tried to pendulum over to a large, corniced snow ledge that sat poised at the base of the pinnacle. Unable to gain the ledge, Mike climbed back up to the anchor. This time Mike placed several pieces of gear as he descended, and was able to gain the insecure ledge. The rest of us rappelled to Mike's precarious stance. The ledge was very large, but appeared unstable. The snowfield below was at least 70 degrees in steepness, and the edge of the ledge was a shallow cornice of melting snow. Mike proceeded to the left and located a potential route back up to the ridge. The pitch was very steep, and would certainly be the most difficult of the climb. However, there was an encouraging sling around a block halfway up the pitch. Several blocks overhung the pitch, and melting snowfields atop these blocks fed a steady shower of cold water down the right side.
Mike led first. Though the climbing appeared difficult, he soon disappeared across the horizon and shouted down that he was off belay. Janelle followed, and I led up on my rope close on her heels. The climbing most mostly secure, on positive holds, though very steep. The crux required a rock-over move on very slopey holds, followed by an awkward mantle, with poor pro (of course). The top of the pitch entered a wide chimney that offered solid hand jams and some good stems. The pitch ended back on the ridge, 15 feet west of the obstinate gendarme. Marc joined my belay quickly, and once again I set out into the mist. The pitch required easy though insecure slab climbing over wet, mossy rock. The lead terminated below a short, steep headwall, adorned by a short length of fixed rope, a #11 hex and half a snow picket. Mike immediately identified the picket as the missing half of a picket we found the previous day cached near our camp, along with a five-gallon tub of miscellaneous equipment.
The headwall sported the typical ice-water cascade that was becoming standard on the route. Mike surmounted the obstacle by traversing underneath the overhang to the right (north), turning an exposed corner, then leading up a shallow ramp to a short step. Above the step, a short snowfield brought us to a long plateau on the ridge crest. From the plateau, the silhouette of a large gendarme was visible ahead, but little else. Once we had all reached the belay we finally agreed to throw in the towel-at least for today. If we turned back now, we reasoned, we would be able to make it back to camp without a bivy. We snapped a few photos of our highpoint--just in case-and rigged the first rappel. Five rappels later we decided to down climb for a while. The rappels were very slow with four climbers, and down climbing would allow us to move simultaneously and keep a little warmer. Our strategy was to link several large, disconnected snowfields back towards the broad shoulder at the base of the Direct East Ridge. From this point, we could easily retrace our footsteps back to camp. Our team persevered as the sunlight faded, placing gear as we climbed to protect the steep, warm snow. As we descended, visibility worsened. We strained to identify the few landmarks we could see, hoping to link the route before the light faded completely. Just before 1:00am Mike led out across a large, horizontal snow-patch. Fifty feet out from his last piece of gear, he triggered a small snow slide. Previous experience on Mt Timpanogos reminded Mike that cataclysmic, alpinist-swallowing avalanches are often preceded by smaller warning slides. He gingerly retraced his steps back to the relative safety of a large rock rib. We decided to bivy on the rib for the night.
I was stunned by the decision. Sure, it seemed like the most pleasant thing to do at the time, but I had learned over the years that the most pleasant option is usually the least desirable from a survival standpoint. We had one VBL sleeping bag liner between the four of us. All of our clothing, hats, gloves and boots included, were soaked from the wet snow and mist. I had switched to my dry "backup" pair of gloves several hours earlier, and they were now soaked as well. My feet were already numb, even when we were moving. We were still over 8,000 feet, on the side of a steep, exposed slope, with no bivy gear whatsoever, in an area notorious for inhospitable weather. Surrendering to exhaustion at this point seemed like suicide. On the other hand, traversing the snowfield was out of the question at the moment. The only other option was to rappel into the void, over the horizon of the steep rock rib on which we conferred. We had no idea where the rock rib led, or if we would be able to cross the bergschrund at its base. Despite the uncertainties of the route below, I felt we had to keep moving. However, my protests fell on deaf ears. As I extolled the virtues of my plan, Marc, Janelle, and Mike dug out bivy platforms in the rock. As the others settled in, I acquiesced; crouching down literally in the spot I was standing. At the very least, I reassured myself, this would be the very worst bivy of my life.
At some point during the intervening four hours, I managed to secure approximately seven minutes of sleep. Having by far the most unpleasant stance, I arose first, making my intention to continue at once clear to the others. My legs and feet were completely numb from the knees down, but aside from that, I actually felt quite a bit worse than I had when I bedded down. Fortunately the snow had consolidated slightly during the night, and as soon as I turned my gaze to the east I was shocked to discover the snow shoulder, our objective during the last night's descent, was only a few hundred yards distant. Marc set out first, and we quickly regained our approach trail, which we followed all the way to base camp in a little under two hours. By the time we arrived in camp, circulation had returned, and spirits soared as we dug into our foodstuffs and dove into sleeping bags.
The next three days were a blur of sleep, food, and fog. Whenever the mist stopped we would all flee from the tents for a brief reprieve before it returned. The time was passed reading novels, cooking elaborate meals, playing hearts, listening to the transistor radio for weather reports and philosophizing about our next attempt on the Thumb. Obviously we would start climbing before 6 am. We would also skirt the lower ridge, retracing our descent path back to our high point. This would require that we re-climb the last three pitches, incidentally the three most difficult pitches, but it would save a great deal of time and give us a better shot at the summit.
We were very confident, sitting in the tents, that we could summit at any time. We had learned during the previous attempt that we didn't need perfect weather to succeed. In fact, we didn't need fair weather. We could climb, and probably summit, in poor conditions. Thus assured of the summit, we only had to wait for a nice day as long as our sanity would allow. Once the moment arrived when we could take no more, we would pack our bags and set out the very next morning, rain or shine. It turns out our aptitude for boredom is very low indeed. Monday evening, after only two full days in camp, we agreed we had had enough. We would climb on Tuesday regardless of conditions.
We rolled out of our tents shortly after 3am. Marc led us out, this time with all four of us on the same rope. We followed our descent path from the previous attempt towards the prominent notch we had rappelled through. Marc led brilliantly; connecting snow patches and rock bands up the Southeast Face. At 6am we passed our bivy site, and at 9am we stood one pitch below the East Ridge. This pitch, Friday's crux lead, was the first of three pitches we would have to re-climb to gain our high point. Once again Mike led out first, but this time Janelle trailed the second rope while she followed Mike's lead. Janelle would belay Marc and me up in order to save me the trouble of re-leading the dreaded pitch.
It was a relief to avoid the lead, but I noted to the others as I reached the belay that the pitch wasn't any easier to follow. Now on separate ropes, the four of us ascended quickly towards our high point in glorious sunshine. The forecast for the day was for continued dismal weather. But the higher we climbed, the more it cleared, and by the time we gained the East Ridge we were aloft on a vast blanket of clouds that hovered peacefully over the Stikine Ice Cap. As the day progressed, the cloud bank receded towards the Pacific, offering brilliant views down the North Face, into the Witches Cauldron, and out to the remote peaks of the Coast Range.
Just before 11am we gathered once again at our high point. The debate was finally settled. The haunting apparition that foiled our earlier ascent stood stark and unveiled to the west. Not the summit, but a massive, menacing thrust of white granite. Overhanging steeply to the south, it curved up sharply to the north like a mammoth dorsal fin. Beyond the fin, barely peeking out on the right side, a long, snow capped ridge rose gradually in the distance, gently cresting, then descending towards the South Pillar. This was clearly the summit.
With the end in sight, our spirits soared. Mike led out first, descending slightly to gain a small notch below the giant gendarme. This was the rappel notch referred to in various accounts, not the notch we had ascended on Friday. From the notch the route climbed straight up over a difficult section of vertical rock that was aided by Beckey's party. The granite wall is split by a beautiful finger crack, which requires only one strenuous move before gaining easier holds. After 30 feet of near-vertical climbing, Mike stepped right onto a steep, mossy slab that flowed steeply down the North Face.
The route traversed the slab below the gendarme, requiring a good deal of balance and concentration to avoid slipping down the damp moss. Beyond the gendarme the climbing eased considerably, and, if not for the 6,000-foot drop on either side of the ridge, would not have required a rope. Marc and I hopped, skipped, and jumped our way along the sidewalk in the sky, eager to catch Mike and Janelle who were climbing coolly ahead. Mike led one more difficult pitch, an overhanging hand traverse on the south side, just below the ridge, to avoid questionable snow to the north. When the rope ran out, he was on the summit. Janelle joined Mike next, and I arrived soon after. I straddled the steep summit block for a moment before bringing Marc up. Marc stopped just 15 feet below the summit, and declared that he was close enough. I would have none of that, and the three of us eventually coaxed him to climb the last bit to the top.
On the summit we found two registers under a small cairn. The first was a rusty tin can, which contained Fred Beckey's original note. In addition to the can was a small cylindrical tube left by the British Columbia Mountaineering Club. We read through the short list of names, and took several photographs before heading down. Wally told us to look for something on the Summit that was left by Dieter Klose on a previous climb. Wally and Dieter would be able to determine if we had in fact climbed the mountain based on whether or not we found the secret item. As hard as we looked, we couldn't find it, though Wally later revealed what the item was. I assured Wally that the secret prize was no longer on the summit. Wally was disappointed, but our photos of the summit registers satisfied him that we had made the summit.
After several minutes spent gazing at our magnificent surroundings, we began the long trek for home. We down climbed the last three or so pitches to the prominent rappel notch. Four rappels brought us to the upper east end of the Hog's Back. The four of us down-climbed the soft snow on a single rope, sans pro for most of the climb. We worked our way across the steep snowfield, towards the west. Near the bottom of the Hog's Back we placed an anchor for one final rappel across the bergschrund. The 'schrund was roughly 30 feet wide at this point, but the snowfield above was so steep that the gap could easily be rappelled.
The snow on the glacier below the bergschrund was very soft, so we devised a method to stay roped up as each of us rappelled onto the glacier. Marc landed softly on the glacier and pulled the rope as dusk settled over the basin. We began the short journey back across the glacier to camp, as a fiery harvest moon rose over Kate's Needle.
On July 26, three days after summiting Devil's Thumb, Marc Charles Springer was tragically killed in a rockslide on the southeast flank of the Thumb. Marc was an extraordinary man, and a brilliant climber. His relentless enthusiasm for life continues to inspire all who knew him.
Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.