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. John is one of the best, if not the best, at finding a window and capitalizing on it. I trust his windows and I just go along for the ride. My job is to be a safe partner, stay positive and take as many leads as I can. For the 24 to 48 hours we are out climbing, he is my best friend and I’m sure I’m his. It’s a joy to climb with Frieh. He is an outstanding person.

I had never been to the Devil's Thumb. I knew flying in that it was going to be amazing. I packed all my gear carefully in the heli hanger, stressing out that I forgot something. We landed at our base camp near Fred Beckey’s route on the Devil's Thumb and unloaded our gear. It was about 4 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon.

We quickly put our snow shoes on and walked down the glacier to get a look at where our approach was so we didn’t have to guess in the dark.  We walked back, ate dinner and packed our things for the long day or day and a half ahead.

One of the first technical pitches.

One of the first technical pitches.

We woke at 2 AM on Wednesday morning, ate breakfast and made coffee. We were on our way by 3 AM. We weaved through the glacier and were close to the ridge that leads to the middle of the Witches Tits, when I noticed I had lost my crampon point from my new crampons. I had replaced the points and not tightened the bolt on the right foot. It was my error but hell with it! Lucky for me, CAMP puts two fixed points on the sides of the mono point that I lost.  It turns out I can climb hard mixed with or without the mono point.  John and I had brought a thick rope and a tag line. Upon getting on top of the ridge that splits the Witches Tits, we had an overhanging rappel to get down the other side. We kind of pondered a bit and decided to leave the tag line in case of retreat or if we came back the same way.  We rapped our legs twice for more friction and cut the rest of the tag line off at the bottom for extra TAT for anchors.

A brutal off width!

A brutal off width!

We did a bunch of mixed climbing and another rappel and finally reached the col on the west ridge. Next to us was the NW face that has killed several people trying it. The ground rattling serac falling every 5 minutes made me wonder why that face was ever an option. The sounds of that serac came from below us under the clouds and low on the face. It was a bit nerve racking to say the least and I was glad I was not near it.  John and I looked at the ridge ahead and to be honest, I didn’t think it looked good and I don’t think he did either. I sort of thought we were done and I felt this way many times up the ridge, but at the col we had a lot of time so we brewed up, ate and went to check it out. I made my way up on some M6 ground and deep 80 degree snow to gain a small col. John and I swapped leads until we got to a wide off width with some old brittle ice in the back. 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 in was puffing my chest out with a deep breath. As I reached the top of the chimney it turned into a big overhang that was one of the hardest things I have pulled over in the mountains. We swapped leads a few more times and had a pitch, which included a grade to M7. Near the top we ran into some rappel anchors, which made me feel better. We kept on going to the top and it was about midnight. We were cold, hungry and we only had one rope. We committed ourselves to going to the top, not only to summit but to make it easier on ourselves to get back down. Once on top, though, I think the idea of not knowing where we were and exactly where the decent was made us uneasy. Instead of missing the decent and wasting our whole rack getting down, we decided to head back to the decent we knew was there. That way we would only waste some of our gear, assuming those guys had 70 meter rappels. The clouds were raising off the valley floor and we wanted out. We started down the decent and were lucky to find out that whoever made those anchors must have had one rope, and our rappels were set all the way to the glacier for us. We added some webbing to beef them up and replaced a few nuts, but it was simple just the same. We were tired and it could have been a mess quickly if the anchors were not there.

John coming up after the off width.

John coming up after the off width.

Once down the glacier, we reached our tag line hanging free off an over hang. It was now about 8 AM Thursday morning, and what seemed like our safe life line back over the ridge looked like a tiny cord on a large overhang. Both of us looked at it and after a 10 minute nap descended down the glacier in search of another option. We found one - a 70-degree snow couloir that took us over the ridge and under a car-sized chock stone. We rappelled off the other side to the steep snow where I dropped my rappel device. Luckily I didn’t need it any more. We had told the heli service we would be at camp at noon. We were late. I had been updating my parents the whole trip on my satellite device. I had told them to delay the heli service, but although my messages had said they went through, they had in fact never sent. It didn’t really matter though because the visibility where we were was low and we heard the helicopter searching in vain for us through the fog. We were about 45 minutes from camp when the helicopter returned back to Petersburg. After landing at our tent and finding that we were not there, the heli service got nervous, refueled and came back right away. Most of the time it's bad news when climbers are not where they are supposed to be at their designated pickup time. After grabbing another guy, they came back and spotted us through a hole in the fog. They flew in real close and John and I gave them the "OK" symbol. Then we realized they were planning to pick us up damn near in mid air right on the rocks we were at. We could see that they couldn’t pick us up at our camp because of the clouds, so we piled in, crampons on and ice tools in hand. It was then that they told us a system was coming in and that was our only chance to get out. We flew out leaving our camp behind. Luckily, for a small fee the service will go back and pick it up for us when the weather turns. We were glad we weren’t stuck in there. We only had 2 meals, half a canister of fuel and no snacks left. We would have been hungry.

All in all, it was an amazing trip and a pleasure to be with John on another “smash and grab," or should I say “smash and leave,” as one of our other climber buddies described it :)

The quick pick up.

The quick pick up.

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