COAST MOUNTAINS, ALASKA–For nearly 40 years since Bob Plumb and Dave Stuzman’s first ascent in 1977, the North Pillar (VI 5.9, 6,000′) of Devils Thumb (Taalkhunaxhk’u Shaa) hadn’t been repeated. This summer, Cole Taylor made the second ascent of the upper half of the route (“old school 5.8”) in impressive style: solo and entirely self-supported–after sailing his boat to the toe of the Baird Glacier–over nine days in early August.
Taylor set sail from Port Hadlock, Washington, in late June and arrived in Petersburg, Alaska, by late July. From there he navigated his boat (which doubles as his home) into Thomas Bay and started up the Baird Glacier during the first week of August.
“Four days later I reached ‘base camp,’ which, at 6,500 feet, is a bit of a misnomer, but it’s where the chopper drops people off,” he said in an email. “I got a late start the next morning, bivied on the route, and was back in base camp the following night. Three more days got me back to my dinghy waiting at the toe of the glacier, a nine-day round trip…. I was blessed with amazing weather. By the time I got on the glacier, I had missed three days of stellar weather, but unbelievably, the weather held for my entire trip, finally deteriorating once I was back on my boat.”
The original route started directly on the north face and then traversed to the Pillar. Plumb and Stuzman had intended to try climbing the headwall of the north face, but conditions enticed them to shift their line of ascent. They later recommended that future parties avoid the lower difficulties by accessing the pillar from the glacier higher up.
Taylor said he had spoken with Plumb before he left, and he had gathered all the information he could from Dieter Klose, a longtime climber and historian of the area who has authored several reports for the American Alpine Journal and been dubbed the “Stikine Icecap Manager.” Nonetheless, Taylor said it was still a significant challenge to access the route knowing everything he did.
“I used the South Icefall…so I basically circled all the way around the backside of the mountain,” Taylor said over the phone.
That 4,000-foot climb up the icefall deposited him where most people arrive via helicopter.
“The four days getting to base camp threw so many obstacles and objective hazards at me, the climb itself felt easy by comparison,” Taylor wrote in an email.
On the summit, he encountered a team of two other climbers who had come up the Direct East Ridge (V 5.8+, 3,000′). Taylor said this lucky coincidence spared him from descending alone with his one 7mm rope. According to Klose, this is the first time two parties have coincided on the summit of Devils Thumb.
“This is definitely the first time two parties were on top at same time,” Klose said. “Usually there’s only one party in the whole range at one time.”
In an email, Klose recounted:
I could say a lot about Cole’s audacity and total badass attitude on the trip. Each segment–[including] just getting onto the glacier via an iceberg- and slush-infested lake–is daunting in itself, let alone the brutality of the melted-out Witches Cauldron, a true hell of talus walking, through craters, lakes, and crevasses. Then the icefall. Then going around the mountain’s glacier at 6,000 feet with crevasses you could drive a semi-truck into. THEN, the climb! With no rest until reversing this all back to his rowboat and onward to his trusty sailboat, in just nine days!
I’ve been trying to place Cole’s super achievement in the context of the Thumb’s history. Most climbers just use a helicopter here anymore. Cole’s venture stands on its own. One may well compare it to [Jon] Krakauer’s audacious solo, [when he] pioneered the Baird Glacier approach, with an airdrop on the upper icecap. Little beta in those days! Bold indeed. Cole was heavily beta-laden, except he’s also the first to sail up here and do it all alone via the Cauldron from sea level, round-trip, and unsupported. The only thing he broke was all the layers of skin under his pack straps.
All who walk into the icecap these days suffer. I think Cole suffered more than most, and his badass, hardman determination had him pull off probably the purest, unsupported, bold and totally solo successful trip here, excepting meeting his lucky summit friends, and the great joy of luck with the weather. He could have flown out with their heli, but chose to persevere his way back to the sea.
Taylor–who is known to be quite frugal in his lifestyle–borrowed a tent and some vintage ice tools from Klose for the ascent.
“You should see his old, ratty pack!” Klose wrote. “…[He] borrowed my Mjollnir ice hammer (ca. 1975-76?), which is one of the first interchangeable pick tools (rusted in place for a few decades, though). Yes, it’s heavy. I recall it was my spare tool on the northwest face of Devils Thumb in 1982. The other tool was my not-so-old Black Diamond 50cm straight shaft, drooped-pick axe (ca. 1989-92?), [which was] a gift from my friend Peter Metcalf…. He also borrowed my lil’ old Bibler tent, and returned everything like ‘new.'”
Taylor summed up his trip in an email to his friend Kelly Cordes. The following was shared with Taylor’s permission:
During the initial, brutal days of the approach, I thought this trip would surely break me, and [that] I’d have no interest in the mountains for some time after. But on the contrary, I came away from the icecap more deeply inspired by the mountains than I can ever recall….
I really felt that the strong vibes from friends and family contributed significantly to the magic of the trip. Things just worked out, in spite of constant obstacles, and it all played out better than the best-laid plans. The weather was a significant example of divine opportunity; by the time I stepped onto the glacier, three days of sun had passed, and I would use four more making the approach. I couldn’t fathom that the weather would possibly hold for so long, but not until I sat down in the cockpit of my boat, unlacing my boots after a nine-day round trip, did the first raindrops fall.
Taylor told Alpinist: “I have not led a boring life, but nothing compares to the…days I spent on the Stikine Icecap.”
[Klose wrote a worthwhile report on the history of the unclimbed northwest face of Devils Thumb that can be found here. A 1995 report by Cameron McPherson Smith about the difficulties encountered on the Baird Glacier during a self-supported attempt can be found here. Krakauer famously recounted his solo experience on the mountain in his collection Eiger Dreams.–Ed.]