Two mountaineers — Patrick Fowler, of Petersburg, and Alex Jahn, of Bellingham — can now add their names to a short list of people to reach the top of Devils Thumb, an iconic Southeast Alaska mountain. Over the course of eight days, Fowler and Jahn traversed glaciers, scaled ice falls, and climbed rock faces in pursuit of the nine thousand foot peak. KFSK’s Ari Snider has more.
On a clear day you can see Devils Thumb from downtown Petersburg, its toothlike peak punctuating the rugged mountains and expansive icefields of the Coast Range, marking the border with Canada. Few people get to see the striking mountain up close, and even fewer attempt to climb it. But for Patrick Fowler, admiring it from afar wasn’t enough.
“First saw the mountain in Sitka prior to moving to Petersburg,” Fowler said. “So from the highest point on Baranof Island, if you look toward the mainland on a clear day you can clearly see the fin of Devils Thumb. And then moving to Petersburg obviously living at the base of it looking up it every day, that seed was just planted and grew on me.”
So Fowler teamed up with Alex Jahn, of Bellingham, Washington, who used to work on fishing boats out of Petersburg. Both are experienced mountaineers and rock climbers. After some training expeditions in the Lower 48, they started formulating their plan of attack. Most climbers take a helicopter to the traditional basecamp located at about 6,500 feet above sea level. But Fowler and Jahn decide to hike in, meaning they have to spend days crossing glaciers and climbing ice falls just to reach the mountain. In an expedition of this complexity, every little detail needs to be worked out
“We went so far as to look at the caloric value of our food and compare it to other food and decide ‘Ok let’s bring the peanut butter because it has more calories per gram,'” Jahn said.
In 1946, legendary mountaineer Fred Becky led the first team to summit Devils Thumb. Since then, somewhere around 60 people have successfully reached the peak, though it’s difficult to get an exact tally. That’s according to local climbing expert Dieter Klose, who climbed the mountain twice in the 1980s.
After five days picking their way across glaciers and through icefalls, Fowler and Jahn set up a basecamp below Devils Thumb. They take a rest day and also receive an aerial food drop from friends in Petersburg, who toss boxes filled with potato chips, smoked salmon, and other goodies from an airplane.
“And the only thing we lost in the food drop was we had like a quart of whiskey for a celebration,” Fowler said. “And it blew up in the drop. But the good thing was it leaked out in the snow and as soon as we walked over we were like what is this brown stuff in the snow? Alex smelled it and was like ‘This is whiskey!’ So you know we still got a couple handfuls of whiskey snow.”
The following day, they set off up the wall, about two thousand vertical feet of rock rising above the Stikine Icecap. After a full day of climbing, they try to get some sleep just below the summit.
“So we were basically on a 45 degree slope, where we found a niche in the rock that was just barely big enough to kinda curl up in the fetal position,” Fowler said. “So we were still tied in to our harnesses you know with an anchor and rope but you know kinda just worked our way into our sleeping bag.”
The next day dawns sunny and clear. The two shimmy up the rest of the ridge to the summit and gaze out across the mountains, forests, glaciers, and waterways of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia.
“We waved at Petersburg when we made it to the summit, you know we high fived and it was a special moment for sure,” Jahn said. “But yeah the peak itself like the very tip top is narrower than a horse saddle, not much of a place to hangout, there’s not a whole lot of space up there.”
After descending, Fowler and Jahn catch a helicopter ride back to town, where they’ve since been making the rounds, sharing their story. And thanks to a string of sunny days, they’ve been able to look right back over Frederick Sound at Devils Thumb. Fowler says he’s seeing the familiar peak in a new light.
“Every little notch in the mountain you’re like oh I remember what that feels like and smells like and sounds like,” Fowler said.
He and Jahn are now part of a very small group of people who can say that.