Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Devils Thumb via the East Ridge

Only a handful of climbers have set eyes on the Devils Thumb. Even fewer have put their hands on this stone. The weather is notoriously bad there. Some climbers have flown up from the Lower 48, only to sit in Petersburg for 10 days, waiting on clear skies that never came.

Pointing Lulu north, we drove for 2.5 days from Seattle to Prince Rupert, BC where we got on a ferry to travel the rest of the way on the Alaska Marine Highway. At 3:00AM we arrived in Petersburg. The sunlight was already beginning to grow on the eastern horizon, and Devils Thumb was out. It was the start of a bluebird day. At 8:00AM we stopped by the Temsco hanger to see if we could fly that day. The lady in the office called the pilot, Wally, who told us he could go at 2:00PM!

Amped, we went into town for some breakfast and to get geared up. Taking over three spaces in the harbor’s parking lot, we spread out everything and stuffed it into two duffles, two packs and a couple other random bags. The climb would only take one long day. Regardless, we took food to be on the glacier for twelve, which would hopefully be enough to wait out the bad weather, complete the climb, and get out.

The heli flight is a really efficient way to blow 600 bucks in 29 minutes, but it is totally worth it. Like a nature viewing three-ring circus on crack, the varied landscapes flew by. Passing over an inlet, then deep forest, followed by glacier, these views fit the bill for what a Jack London Alaska should be.

After landing we pitched the tent, made dinner and went to bed at 7:00, hoping to get an alpine start the next morning. Around 10:00 that night I woke to sound of rain hitting the tent. Welcome to the Devils Thumb.

For the next three days it rained and snowed. The emotional swing one goes through by sitting still for that long is amazing. After sleeping for 12 hours, you cannot sleep anymore. Thankfully we had cards, an ipod, and books to pass the time. The rain came in waves. We would peek our heads out during the lulls, and getting out only when the call of nature became a scream.

On the fourth day the clouds began to break in the afternoon. Blue sky is so glorious after that long living in a milk jug. This far north the sun is up nearly all day, so we were able to take advantage of the sunshine to dry out everything. Ropes, clothes, sleeping bags, and climbing gear where spread out on top of the tent to let the sun work its magic.

I barely slept that night. In the last three days I had gotten about 30 hours of sleep, and now the stars were out over the Devils Thumb, I was just too excited.

At 1:30AM the alarm went off. An hour later we were walking across the glacier toward the start of the East Ridge. There was a breakable crust layer on the snow, which made for slow going, but I was amped and charged through it to the rock.

The first selection of rock was totally crap. The rock was loose, covered in frost, muddy and downright scary. I had to pick my way up very slowly as to not knock down any rocks on Janelle. When we gained the ridge, and the early morning sunlight hit our faces, things were better. Janelle was not having the best time though. Her pack was heavy, making it hard to climb. The fact that we kept our mountaineering boots on made it even harder. We pushed on, simal-climbing half way up the first tower. When the hand-holds got thin I decided to make an anchor and pitch it out. On top of the first tower we went back to simal-climbing.

The traverse into the base of the second tower is pretty spicy, knife-edged awesomeness. I had the GoPro rolling for the whole thing, so check out the video for a real “description” of that section.
At the base of the second tower we put on our rock shoes for the first time. That made the world of difference. Angling up and climbers left (south) I picked my way though what looked like the path of least resistance. 2.5 pitches got us back to easier terrain. At the gendarme there was rime ice choking the path on the ridge, so we wrapped down 200 feet to the south. This put us on extremely loose rock. To make matters worse the rime ice we were “avoiding” going this way was now directly above us. The hot sun caused several chucks to fall on us. That and we had to climb through a significant section of wet rock from this ice melt.

Once back on the ridge the terrain was straightforward. Back to simla-climbing, we progressed quickly. At this point Janelle was really shaken from everything. It had been harder than 5.6 climbing on loose wet cold mossy rock, with a heavy pack for the majority of the climb. Not a girl’s favorite thing. I was still going strong, but feeling Janelle’s fear more and more as we got higher. On the last pitch of the route, on the summit ridge, she broke down. “I’m done”, she said. She was ready to get off this thing.
I couldn’t believe it. We were literally within 5 minutes from the summit. The Canadian side of the summit ridge was totally covered in snow, more moss, and ice, making it slow going. We had climbed the route, but I wanted to touch the top. I’m a dude. I need that definitive end point where I can brag to everyone that I “did that.” Janelle did not need that. In her mind we were there, the clouds were moving in, and she had had enough.

I shouted down to her that she could stay where she was, and I would un-rope to scramble to the “tippy top” (as we called Columbia Crest on Mt. Rainier). With the response I got, you’d think I just said I was going to cut off her toes with a dull knife. “NOOOOO, please don’t leave me here alone, Mark!”
I had to make a decision. Touch the top by unroping, getting that “I did it” feeling and hurt my marriage, or turn there, join my wife and comfort her. I contemplated the decision for nearly 10 minutes.

Finally, I decided that my marriage is more important than standing on that little chuck of rock, just a little higher than where I was. I built an anchor and rappelled down to Janelle. Her hands were shaking from fear. This climb had really gotten under her skin. I felt bad. I knew she wouldn’t be talked into going higher, so we rigged the rappel and headed down into the cloud that fully blanketing the south side of the mountain.

Ten rappels later we were back on the glacier, and heading to our tent. It was too late for a heli flight out that night, so we cooked dinner and went to sleep. The following morning we woke to clear skies.  At 9:00AM Wally picked us up and at 9:30 we were back to Petersburg. Heli approaches are so cool. I want one for every climb I do.

Will we go back to touch the top of this mountain? Maybe. I'd like to at some point. Its one of the most beautiful places I've ever climbed, at least when it wasn't raining. I would go back to climb a different route, to explore something else I have not seen before.  There is so much untouched rock out there, and just looking out onto the horizon, seeing all the truly jagged mountains, how could you not want to go back.


  1. First let me say, I am extremely impressed by everything you two are doing. I love reading the blog and watching the movies. Being a relative novice to climbing, especially alpine climbing, how close do you have to be to the top to count it as a summit? You said you were five minutes from the top when you turned back, does this count as a completed classic climb, or do you have to reclimb it?

  2. Good question: I think to say you "summitted" you have to have stood on the summit. To say that you "completed the climb" can be a little more vague.
    Not all the routes in the book go to the summit of a mountain "Royal Arches" in Yosemite for example. In my mind we completed the route. But we did not summit. The large majority (99%) of the route was done, so we, personally, are counting it as a victory.
    Standing on the summit is much more definitive for sure, and desirable, but the lack of that does not undermined our accomplishment, in my mind.
    Thanks for asking, Happy Climbing!

  3. Congratulations on the right decision in the heat of the moment, sounds anguishing.

    You are living the dream for a bunch of us out here, thanks for sharing it!

  4. Cool adventure you two are on! If your marriage can survive that, then it will survive anything.

    Not to diminish what you are doing, but are you sure no one has completed the 50 classics? How can you be sure?

  5. haha you're the second person I have heard use the word 'spicy' to describe a move. Maybe it's more prominent than i thought..

  6. Janelle Smiley was the third woman to attempt climbing to the summit of Devils Thumb. Contrary to the above statement I apparently made, Nancy Hansen (Woman) and Doug Fulford reached the actual summit in July 2008.
    In 2002, Janelle Jakulewicz also climbed the east ridge, but sadly my records and memory don't recall if she summitted with her male partners. I think she did, but am not sure.
    I definately didn't say "they turned at exactly the same spot",about either of the two previous women, although other attempts by men have retreated from that spot.

    I hope this lends some clarity to the subject.
    Dieter Klose, Petersburg, Alaska

  7. Dieter, thanks for doing that extra research for me. Ill change the post now. According to Janelle Jakulewicz's trip report we found online, they turned around where we did.

    Congrats to Nancy, she is so strong!!! That is awesome.

    Also Dieter, I lost your phone number, and I wrote your email down incorrectly. Please shoot me an email when you get a chance. Thanks!

  8. Hi Mark and Janelle,

    Nancy Hansen here - we met at Indian Creek in the spring. Congratulations on all of your great climbs this summer - you've ticked some good ones!

    I dug a bit deeper into the Devils Thumb/female ascents question, and discovered that Janelle Jakulewicz definitely made the summit in 2002. I found this info at The group failed on their first attempt, but succeeded on their second try a few days later.

    Keep up the good work!

    Nancy Hansen
    Canmore, Alberta

  9. I guess I'm a little late, but I just came across this discussion. This is Mike Anderson writing, and I can assure you that my wife Janelle Anderson (Jakulewicz at the time) did indeed summit Devil's Thumb on a beautiful day. A photo of her near the summit is posted here as part of the trip report Nancy cited:

    We submitted a "note" to the American Alpine Journal to record Janelle's ascent, but we were told at the time their policy was to not report first female ascents...a policy that has since changed.

    As Nancy said, it did take us two tries. I can certainly sympathize with your apprehension at climbing on wet, snow-covered, mossy rock. We encountered similar conditions on our first attempt, but found bare rock on the second it goes with alpinism.

    Good luck with the rest of your climbs. I lost one of my best friends, Marc Springer on that mountain, and I can assure you that getting home safely is more important than a summit.

    Mike Anderson

    1. Hi Mike and Janelle,

      Thanks for writing your comment. Congrats to you both, our hats are off to your successful ascent of the mountain. The story we read of your ascent gave us the chills. Esp due to the common names. In no way did I intend to discredit your Janelle's accomplishment, you guys rock. I just got my facts a little mixed up, sorry about that.

      Its clear now that two women have stood on top of Devils Thumb, Nancy Hansen and Janelle Jakulewicz Anderson. Its a truly amazing accomplishment that I hope to share at some point.

      Mark Smiley