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Diablo Traverse: Devil’s Thumb Massif Finally Linked

The Diablo Traverse (5.10 A2), as viewed from the south aspect of the Devil’s Thumb massif, Alaska. Colin Haley and Mikey Schaefer made the first ascent of the traverse from west to east over three days, August 13-15. Haley said the climb was “higher in quality than difficulty, and is certainly a traverse that I’d recommend to others.” [Photo] Colin Haley

Mikey Schaefer and I have just come back to Seattle from a quick, fantastic trip to the Stikine Icecap region, on the BC-Alaska border, near Petersburg, Alaska. I had been planning to visit Devil’s Thumb for years, but until now never made it to this beautiful mountain range. Our objective was a complete traverse of the Devil’s Thumb massif, climbing over the summits of the Witches Tits, Cat’s Ears Spires, and finally Devil’s Thumb itself. Like the Torres Traverse to Ermanno Salvaterra, this traverse originally was dreamt by Dieter Klose, the Stikine’s most dedicated disciple.

The traverse was attempted in 2004 by Jon Walsh and Andre Ike, who became the first to traverse all four spires of the Witches Tits and Cat’s Ears (making the first ascent of the East Witches Tit in the process), but were stopped at the base of The Thumb by a chopped rope. In 2006, Jed Brown and I applied for a Fellowship Fund Grant to try the traverse. The rejection of our grant application was actually a blessing in disguise, because we switched plans to a less expensive trip, and ended up climbing The Entropy Wall on Mt. Moffit, still one of my best climbs ever.

Inspired by our friends Dave Burdick and John Frieh’s execution of such a plan last summer on Burkett Needle, Mikey and I planned our trip in the “smash and grab” style: Rather than sit on a glacier in the rain for weeks, we would watch the weather forecast from Seattle. When it looked good, we’d buy a last-minute ticket to Petersburg, “smash” into the range (with the assistance of a helicopter), and “grab” a summit (or five) before the weather gods even realized they let us slip by…

So, on the evening of Tuesday, August 10, we bought tickets for Petersburg departing Seattle the following morning. We spent the remainder of Wednesday organizing ourselves in Petersburg with the generous help of Dieter Klose, and buying food and fuel (be warned: isobutane canisters in Petersburg cost 12 dollars apiece). On the 12th we flew with Temsco Helicopters from Petersburg to a little basecamp below Devil’s Thumb’s southeast face.

On Friday morning (August 13) we departed our basecamp at the leisurely hour of 8 a.m., and made a descending, traversing approach to the base of the Witches Tits. We climbed to the notch between the two Witches Tits by the Edwards-Millar route, with the Walsh-Ike “Witches Cleavage” variation. The climbing on the upper headwall was absolutely outstanding, and certainly some of the highest-quality alpine rock I’ve ever touched. The unrepeated Edwards-Millar route looks amazing, as does the unrepeated Belcourt-Rackliffe route. We left our packs in the notch between the Tits, and quickly tagged the summit of the West Witches Tit. We then picked our packs back up, climbed up to the summit of the East Witches Tit for its second ascent, and rappelled the east ridge of the East Tit to a tight bivy in the Tits-Ears col. This col had the last snow or ice we encountered before the summit of Devil’s Thumb, so we had to leave with the weight of 8 liters of water in our packs.

Schaefer leading up Witches Cleavage, the Walsh-Ike variation to the Edwards-Millar route. [Photo] Colin Haley

On Saturday morning we again left our bivy at a leisurely hour, and made one rappel to the north side of the ridge, to gain the Elias-McMullen route on the Cat’s Ears. We climbed the Elias-McMullen route to the Cat’s Brow (the notch between the ears), and then tagged each of the spectacular Cat’s Ears summits in single pitches from the Cat’s Brow. We knew that Walsh and Ike had rappelled to the south from the Cat’s Brow, and chopped their rope regaining the ridgecrest in the extremely chossy Ears-Thumb gully. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, we decided to instead rappel the east face of the East Cat’s Ear, directly into the Ears-Thumb notch. Our plan worked to avoid the chossy gully, although it was very intimidating to rappel the dead-vertical to slightly overhanging east face of the East Ear. From the Ears-Thumb notch, we climbed two pitches up Devil’s Thumb’s West Buttress to a five-star bivy ledge.

On Sunday we finally got an earlier start, and continued up the West Buttress of The Thumb. There was one tricky roof that Mikey surmounted with a mix of free and aid climbing, but the majority of the West Buttress was moderate climbing, in the 5.6-5.9 range, on fantastic rock. I think it is a route worthy of classic status. The West Buttress had been almost climbed in 1990 by Jim Haberl, Mike Down, and Alastair Foreman, who retreated one pitch below the summit ridge in a storm. We found their rappel anchors all the way up, and their last anchor indeed looked like it had been made in haste: a sketchy-looking block, backed up with a friend.

We continued up the summit ridge, tagged the summit, and kept traversing to the descent of the southeast face. The descent, down a variation of the Beckey Route, was long and tedious (particularly because it was so melted out, and there were lots and lots of loose blocks), but we eventually made it into our camp at 10:30 p.m.

It was a fantastic climb, in a beautiful area. It was higher in quality than difficulty, and is certainly a traverse that I’d recommend to others. We’re calling it the Diablo Traverse, and the grade we climbed it at is I think 5.10 A2. Thanks to Jon Walsh and Andre Ike for laying the groundwork, and thanks a ton to Dieter Klose for the original inspiration and logistical help in Petersburg.

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Schaefer on the East Cat’s Ear, with the West Ear behind, during his August 13-15 traverse of the Devil’s Thumb massif with Colin Haley. [Photo] Colin Haley