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Grabbing High-Hanging Fruit on the Stikine Icecap

Devils Thumb group with West and East Witches Tit on the left. Frieh and Roskelley, making the fifth ascent of West Witches Tit, followed the far lefthand ridge just out of view to establish No Rest For the Wicked (IV+ AI6 M7). Bill Belcourt and Randy Rackliff summited the west peak for its first time in 1995. [Photo] Jess Roskelley

Devils Thumb Group, Stikine Icecap, Alaska/British Columbia

Over two days in May, John Frieh and Jess Roskelley traced the unclimbed northwest ridge of the West Witches Tit that Frieh and others who’d eyed the route mistakenly thought was low-hanging fruit. After making four rappels just to get to the base, they climbed rock, ice and snow for 1,500 feet, including Roskelley’s lead up bulging, grade-6 alpine ice inside a chimney with one broken crampon and two pieces of pro. Frieh, who’s now authored four new routes in his five trips to the Stikine Icecap, says it was the hardest alpine lead he’s ever seen.–Ed.

I’m never too surprised when I get an email or a picture of the weather in some obscure part of Alaska–or anywhere for that matter–from John Frieh. He has got to be one of the best in the country at finding a weather window and capitalizing on it. In our partnership, my job is to be a safe, upbeat rope-mate, and take as many leads as I can.

I had never been to the Devils Thumb area of the Stikine Icecap, but I knew from the flight into the glacier late last month that this was a climbing paradise. We landed at our base camp close to Fred Beckey’s original route on the Devils Thumb and unloaded our gear. It was about 4 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon.

Roskelley at a socked-in base camp on the Stikine Icecap. The clouds rolled in shortly after he and Frieh where dropped off on May 27. [Photo] John Frieh

We walked down the glacier in showshoes to preview our approach before we’d travel it in the dark the next morning. We walked back, ate dinner and re-packed for the next 24 to 48 hours of climbing.

By 3 a.m. we were weaving our way over the glacier and close to the ridge that leads to the middle of the West Witches Tit. An hour into our approach, I noticed I had lost my crampon point from my new crampons. It was my error for failing to tighten the bolt on the right foot front point when I had replaced the worn one.

(Top) Roskelley leads an approach pitch of dry rock on their way to the col at the base of the northwest ridge. “In hind sight we should have stayed on the glacier longer and likely could have avoided this part,” Frieh wrote to Alpinist. | (Bottom) The southwest side of the Devils Thumb group: Witches Tits, Cats Ears and Devils Thumb. In 2004, Andre Ike and Jon Walsh climbed a link-up of the five summits, descending to camp with a core-shot rope before returning to finish the enchainment on the summit of Devils Thumb. [Photos] John Frieh

Higher up, several rappels and a few hundred feet of mixed climbing brought us to the col below our intended route up the northwest ridge. Below and to our left, big chunks of ice periodically broke off a serac and rattled the ground and my nerves.

John and I examined the ridge above us for the first time. I didn’t think it looked doable, and I don’t think he did either. This wouldn’t be the last time on this ridge doubt would raise its ugly head.

Roskelley follows Frieh’s line out of the col on one of the only moderate pitches of the route. [Photo] John Frieh

I climbed some M6 ground and waded through deep 80-degree snow to gain a small ledge system. John and I swapped leads until we got to a wide offwidth with some brittle ice far inside the cleft. I took my pack off and went to work. For me, this was the hardest pitch. I was sideways with one tool and one crampon in the ice; the walls on either side of me were featureless; and the only thing that really held me into the crack was puffing my chest out with a deep breath. The top of the offwidth ended at the bottom of a long overhang that was one of the hardest things I have ever climbed in the mountains.

(Top) Roskelley in the midst of the crux pitch: a 15-inch offwidth with overhanging alpine ice in the back of it. “I couldn’t completely face the back when I followed even though the ice in the very back of it was the only way to climb it,” Frieh wrote. “I had to drag the bag below me (attached to my harness) making a super hard offwidth downright miserable. I really don’t know how Jess managed to lead the thing. Pulling out of the offwidth, he had to lieback this giant flake and swing into poor snow. The gear was good but damn it was hard.” Roskelley insists that he wouldn’t have been able to lead that pitch without Frieh as a partner. [Photo] John Frieh | (Bottom) Roskelley’s crampons with one missing frontpoint. [Photo] Jess Roskelley

Near the summit, we found rappel anchors from an earlier ascent of a different route, which made me feel better about our retreat options. We kept on going and reached the summit close to midnight, completing our new route, No Rest For the Wicked (IV+ AI6 M7).

By this time, we were chilled and anxious to eat. We committed ourselves to going to the summit, not only to finish off the route, but also to make it easier on ourselves to get down using fixed rappel anchors. Once on top, though, we weren’t sure where to descend.

Rather than waste our entire rack on a questionable descent route, we decided to use the rappel anchors we had found a few pitches below the summit. The clouds were rising off the valley floor, and we needed to get down quickly. Our rappels were set all the way to the glacier for us and, as we were tired, it could have been a mess if the anchors had not been there.

Roskelley on the summit of West Witches Tit around midnight on May 28 under a twilit sky, twenty-two hours after leaving their base camp. Burkett Needle and Mt. Burkett are visible to the right of Roskelley. In 2012, Frieh made an unusual autumn ascent of Mt. Burkett to establish Can’t Knock the Hustle (IV 5.8 M4 AI4) with Doug Shepherd. [Photo] John Frieh

On Thursday morning, we reached the glacier and a fixed line we had left to get us up and over a ridge. At the beginning of the climb, it had seemed like a safe way out, but now it looked like a disaster in the making. Neither of us wanted to ascend the 165 feet of 7mm cord that was hanging over the roof above us. After a 10-minute nap, we descended in search of another option and found a 70-degree snow couloir that took us over the ridge and under a car-sized chockstone. A final rappel off the other side took us to steep snow a short distance from camp.

We had told the helicopter service we would be at camp at noon. We were late, and could hear the helicopter searching for us in vain through the fog. When we were still 45 minutes from camp, the helicopter returned to Petersburg.

The helicopter returns to pick up Frieh and Roskelley. By that time, a storm was rolling in, and they had little food left. “It almost turned into ‘sit and starve’ instead of ‘smash and grab,'” Frieh told Alpinist. [Photo] Jess Roskelley

The pilot returned with a second person to assist in the possible rescue and spotted us through a hole in the mist. They descended, and we piled in with our crampons still on and ice tools in hand. It was then they told us a system was coming in and that would be our only chance to get out.

We flew out, leaving our camp behind. With only two meals, half a canister of fuel and no snacks left, we were glad to get out before the storm.

John and I had executed another one of his characteristic “Smash and Grab” climbs, or as a snarky friend put it in this case, “smash and leave.” Our camp was picked up by the helicopter transport once the weather cleared.

For more John Frieh adventures on the Stikine, browse the stories below:

October 29, 2012 NewsWire: Frieh Finds Two Late-Season Ascents in AK

October 11, 2011 NewsWire: Burkett Needle East Arete

Video: “Smash and Grab”