Siren's Song of Devils Thumb

Climbers entranced by dangerous and infamous mountain

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Canadian climber once was quoted saying of Devils Thumb, "Let's climb it so no one else has to."

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The climber, Guy Edwards, and his friend, died while attempting to scale the Petersburg mountain's near-vertical, 6,000-foot face in 2003.

A rock spire sticking out of the Stikine Ice Cap, the 9,500-foot Devils Thumb has daunted alpinists since the first successful ascent in the 1940s.

Last week, a highly experienced Petersburg climber Zac Hoyt was rescued from an ice fall below the mountain after falling into a crevasse. The Coast Guard helicopter rescue was fraught with danger. Winds gusted up to 60 knots, with blowing snow and freezing temperatures.

Due to its isolation and often-nasty weather, only a little over a dozen people have bagged the Thumb. There have been roughly 40 expeditions, total.

"You need to be pretty serious to even go there," said Stefan Ricci, a Juneau climber.

The mountain does resemble a thumb - a beautiful but punishing digit of hard rock and thin ice.

It was here that famous Everest climber-writer Jon Krakauer later wrote of learning "what mountains can and can't do, about the limits of dreams."

Krakauer spent his youth fascinated by the Thumb. He was sucked into its mystique by a daunting photograph of the rock in an early edition of a popular rock-climbing text, "Mountaineering: Spirit of the Hills."

"It made my skin crawl," Krakauer wrote in his book, Eiger Dreams, a collection of mountaineering essays.

Devils Thumb is a draw to climbers in part due to its aesthetic appeal. "It's a strikingly beautiful place," Ricci said.

More important, the Thumb contains one of the last major unconquered rock faces in North America. Krakauer, and several others, including Edwards, have tried to scale the northwest face of the mountain and they all have failed.

The weather can turn bad quickly. Also, the ice conditions below and near the top can be dangerous. Many climbers have been repelled due to lack of ice near the summit.

Petersburg climber Dieter Klose, the man most familiar with the Thumb, also made some failed attempts on the northwest face. Klose has also posited in climbing journals that the wall may well be unattainable.

After being denied in the mid-1970s, Krakauer found a much easier route to the summit of Devils Thumb. His was the first solo ascent of the mountain.

Hoyt attempted a winter solo following the Krakauer route. Though he successfully reached the top, the trip nearly ended in tragedy.

The young biologist who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was picking his way down to the Burkett Glacier through an ice fall when he fell 100 feet into a crevasse.

Hoyt told the Petersurg Pilot, while in a clinic last week, that the accident happened because he was "too complacent. I was through the most difficult ground and just wasn't probing like I should have been and fell through (a) snow bridge ... in 10 more minutes of travel I would have been out of danger."

Fellow Stikine Ice Cap adventurer Kevin O'Malley has skied several times up to the base of Devils Thumb. He said of Hoyt's accident this week, "One of the things that happens is climbers get so jazzed up that sometimes they are a little skewed when they come down. You might not be thinking like you normally would," O'Malley said.

While most who are attempting to climb the mountain charter a helicopter, there are a few like O'Malley who chose to simply enjoy the Devils Thumb from a safer distance.

O'Malley treks to the base of the Thumb from sea level.

"I've done it three times now and its a mission. You have to get in a boat in Petersburg and sail over to Thomas Bay. Just docking the boat for a week ... that is a mission. Then you have to take a kayak and cross a river with all of your gear," O'Malley said.

The trek - considered moderate for a skilled mountaineer - involves a 10-mile hike up the Baird Glacier, using climbing skins or crampons, ascending about 2200 feet to a scenic spot called Witches Cauldron.

The spot has "brilliant views of Devils Thumb and the northwest face," O'Malley said Thursday. "Your position on the planet seems very small ... you are nothing compared to this huge face," he said.

A possible side trip runs around to the other side of the mountain.

"It's a full view of what Southeast Alaska is. It's a phenomenal 360 degrees of what is really going on in this region. You are looking into the interior, where it is drier, the dramatic peaks in the Coastal Range, the ocean... I wish more people had access," O'Malley said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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