This route was begun as a direct up the North Face. After about ten pitches of climbing, the melting central face caused a change of plan. A traverse was made over to the safer northeast rib and that was followed to the top. This grade VI, 5.10, has probably not had a second ascent.
The Northeast Rib might be a lot better than some past AAJ and magazine articles have suggested. Stories about loose rock and rotten rock may have come from the first climber to talk to Bob and Dave, afterward in Petersburg. I have wondered for decades if a misunderstanding possibly occurred.
Back home in Wenatchee, I was one of the first climbers to see the team's slides and remember a more positive impression of the northeast rib. Bob and I worked together in the orchards of Wenatchee. The late Dave Stutzman and I met on the Gold Wall in Yosemite, two years earlier. September, 1977, right after their slides were developed, I lucked out getting invited to the first showing.
Included in the tale were pictures of two training climbs; an early, or first, hammerless ascent of Slesse's Northeast Buttress, and the second ascent of the Lowe-Abalakov grade VI on Bonanza. For more than three decades the one detail that remains strong in my mind is that Bob and Dave thought the Northeast Rib of the North Face was the best of the three. APPROACH
There are some photos of old maps posted in the photo gallery with the approach marked. To hike in, like the first ascent team did, means taking a risk with the normally bad weather. Nowadays, getting from boat to glacier is looking difficult on peakfinder. Today, most parties are flying in with Temsco Helicopters. ROUTE DESCRIPTION
Can't really say a lot with certainty about a route that has not seen a second ascent. I'm not posting this route to suggest doing the direct start, too many proven risks to be attractive to most climbers. My hope is that the upper half of Plumb and Stutzman's route will turn out to be a quality climb.
The convexity of the Plumb-Stutzman's northeast buttress seems a lot safer than the concave southeast face of Beckey's route, which has both rockfall and snow-slide problems. The East Ridge Direct seems safe too, but descending the direct route is not usually done. My idea for the best way to climb the Thumb is to fly in during a nice dry spell, climb the 2,000 foot northeast rib to the summit in rock shoes, and rappel the route back to the stashed glacier boots.
I'm pretty sure the 5.10 on Plumb-Stutzman was up on the northeast rib. The direct start on the north face was too wet to rate, 5.9 waterfalls while carrying huge packs is what I remember Bob and Dave's slides showed. No cams around in those days. Maybe the northeast buttress will feel easier with modern gear.
After warming up in the North Cascades, the team rode up on the inside passage ferry to Petersburg. Then a fisherman was found who gave them a ride to the Baird Glacier estuary. He also loaned them a radio to call for pickup. On the approach map, I'm only 50% sure of where the boat got them to shore in Thomas Bay.
A brief summary of the teams schedule during ten days of the best weather anyone in Petersburg could remember; five days up the Baird to basecamp in the Witch's Cauldron, three days on the route, two days back to camp and on to Thomas Bay. WEATHER AND TRANSPORTATION
To see Alaska's current weather use the FAA aviation cameras
. Getting to know the dozens of webcam sites throughout Alaska can help decide when to book a flight for "smash and grab" mountaineering. Temsco Helicopters
has a long history of flying climbers in from Petersburg.
The nearest Canadian aviation service I could find is Prism Helicopters
, with an office in Stewart, BC.
In the early 1970's, the team that made the first ascent of the Cat's Ears used a float plane to get to the Witch's Cauldron. After a wild ride into the 'Cauldron, dropping boxes of gear onto the glacier from fifty feet up, with occasional down-drafts shaking the plane, they were dropped off at Scenery Lake. Steep brushfighting led to a col, traverse, and descent into the Witches Cauldron. Same exit.