Devil's Thumb, The Diablo Traverse
Mikey Schaefer (mikeylikesrocks.com) and I have just come back to Seattle from a quick, fantastic trip to the Stikine Icecap region, on the BC-Alaska border, near Petersburg, Alaska. I have been planning to visit Devil's Thumb for years, but until now never made it to this beautiful mountain range. 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 Ermanno Salvaterra, this traverse is originally the dream of Dieter Klose, the Stikine's 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. In 2006 Jed Brown and I applied for a Fellowship Fund Grant to try the traverse. The rejection of our grant application was actually a blessing in disguise, because we switched plans to a less expensive trip, and ended up climbing The Entropy Wall on Mt. Moffit, still one of my best climbs ever.
Inspired by our friends Dave Burdick and John Frieh's execution of such a plan last summer on Burkett Needle, Mikey and I planned our trip in the "smash and grab" style: Rather than sit on a glacier in the rain for weeks, watch the weather forecast from Seattle, and when it looks good buy a last-minute ticket to Petersburg, "smash" into the range (with the assistance of a helicopter), and "grab" a summit (or five) before the weather gods realize they've let you slip by...
So, on the evening of Tuesday, August 10th, we bought tickets for Petersburg departing Seattle the following morning, August 11th. We spent the remainder of Wednesday organizing ourselves in Petersburg with the generous help of Dieter Klose, and buying food and fuel (be warned: isobutane canisters in Petersburg cost twelve dollars apiece!) On Thursday we flew with Temsco Helicopters from Petersburg to a little basecamp below Devil's Thumb's southeast face.
On Friday morning (August 13) we departed our basecamp at the leisurely hour of 8am, 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 Walsh-Ike "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 route looks amazing, as does the unrepeated Belcourt-Rackliffe route. We left our packs in the notch between the Tits, and quickly tagged the summit of the West Witches Tit. We then picked our packs back up, climbed up to the summit of the East Witches Tit for it's 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 had to leave with the weight of 8 liters of water in our packs.
On Saturday morning we again left our bivy at a leisurely hour, and made one rappel to the north side of the ridge, to gain the Elias-McMullen route on the Cat's Ears. We climbed the Elias-McMullen route to the Cat's Brow (the notch between the ears), and then tagged each of the spectacular Cat's Ears summits in single pitches from the Cat's Brow. We knew that Walsh and Ike had rappelled to the south from the Cat's Brow, and chopped their rope regaining the ridgecrest in the extremely-chossy Ears-Thumb gully. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, we decided to instead rappel the east face of the East Cat's Ear, directly into the Ears-Thumb notch. Our plan worked to avoid 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 Thumb's West Buttress to a five-star bivy ledge.
On Sunday we finally got an earlier 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 climbing, in the 5.6-5.9 range, on fantastic rock. I think it 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 10:30pm.
It was a fantastic climb, in a beautiful area. It was higher in quality than difficulty, and is certainly a traverse that I'd recommend to others. We're calling it the "Diablo Traverse," and the grade we climbed it at is I think 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.
The Fitz Roy of North America: Devil's Thumb from Dieter's house.
Getting closer to Devil's Thumb on the helicopter ride in. To the left is Mt. Burkett and Burkett Needle.
Mikey on the approach to the Witches Tits.
Colin on the lower buttress of the Edwards-Millar route, on the West Witches Tit.
Mikey on a fantastic pitch of "Witches Cleavage," the Walsh-Ike variation to the Edwards-Millar route.
Mikey on the East Witches Tit.
Colin climbing to the summit of the East Witches Tit.
Mikey climbing the Elias-McMullen route on the north face of Cat's Ears Spires.
Mikey higher on the Elias-McMullen route, dealing with some slightly chossy rock.
Mikey on the north face of Cat's Ears Spires.
Colin coming up to the Cat's Brow on the Elias-McMullen route.
View to the west from the summit of the West Cat's Ear. Forest fires in BC made for some smoky skies.
Mikey on the last few meters of the West Cat's Ear.
Mikey on the East Cat's Ear, with the West Ear behind.
Mikey on the East Cat's Ear.
Mikey rappelling the very steep east face of the East Cat's Ear, with the West Buttress of Devil's Thumb sunlit above.
Mikey working up the crux roof on the West Buttress of Devil's Thumb.
Colin jugging the roof.
Mikey enjoying fantastic climbing on the West Buttress of The Thumb.
Colin high up on the West Buttress.
Colin on the summit ridge of Devil's Thumb, with Mt. Burkett and Burkett Needle behind.
We generally divided the lead blocks to our relative strengths - Mikey leading the steep, clean rock pitches, and Colin leading the more fucked-up "alpine stuff." Leading the raps through the large bergschrund on the Beckey Route was Colin's turf.
Back at our camp below the southeast face.
Mikey waiting for the helicopter ride out, as the high pressure began to slowly break down.
The west-to-east line of The Diablo Traverse.