Celebrated climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell summited Devil’s Thumb last month. But they couldn’t pull it off without the counsel of a local climber who’s had a decades-long love affair with the mountain that sits across from Petersburg in Southeast Alaska.
Standing outside his little cabin on the edge of the rainforest, Dieter Klose gazes out at the ocean. He built this place in the shadow of this giant rock. On this day, a wall of fog blocks his view. But Klose knows exactly what’s behind those clouds.
“It looks just like a German beer stein that’s a little wider at the bottom, so it doesn’t tip over when you’re drunk,” said Klose. “There’s only room for one person at the top, and you can just barely stand — if you have the courage.”
Klose stood there himself, twice. He can’t even count how many unsuccessful climbs it took — his best guess is a dozen. He’s the only person to make it halfway up the unclimbed Northwest face — and come back alive. Klose has been climbing since he was a kid. He moved to Petersburg in 1982. At first, he lived behind a cemetery in a borrowed tent.
“It got torn up by a bear,” said Klose. “A friend of mine told me, ‘Hey, there’s a boat for sale for 200 bucks.’ And I thought, ‘Great! Then I can look at Devil’s Thumb.’”
Klose said it wasn’t love at first sight — or first summit. His enchantment with the mountain grew over the course of his life.
“It had everything I wanted, everything that satisfied me by climbing,” said Klose. “It’s difficult by any side, and it’s not super high altitude, which is great. We’re totally alone. And it’s a wild looking thing.”
Klose is a home builder by trade. He hurt his back at work a few years ago. The injury all but ended his climbing career — but he’s still known to climbers in the region as the godfather of the Stikine Ice Caps.
“I mean, Dieter is key to anybody who comes here to climb,” said world-class climber Tommy Caldwell.
Caldwell came up north recently to climb Devil’s Thumb and shoot a documentary about it. Klose advised him and his climbing partner, Alex Honnold.
“There’s just nobody else that knows nearly as much about Devil’s Thumb,” said Honnold. “He’s like, the local custodian — just, like, managing the mountain.”
Klose also helped draft their route. It tags every peak up and down the whole massif; over the twin summits of the Witch’s Towers, the slender Cat’s Ears Spires — and then the looming cathedral of Devil’s Thumb itself. Caldwell said those features were as wicked as the sound of their names.
“All of the summits are like incredibly pointy,” said Caldwell. “You climb up it and you’re sitting on the summit, and there’s like thousands and thousands of feet drop on either side of you. It’s one of the more exposed-feeling summits I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Hours before they left Alaska, both climbers came by to write in a book that Klose keeps about the mountain. It contains the names of everybody to ever summit in living history. Alex and Tommy sketched out a map of their route that took up two whole pages.
Back in front of his house, Klose gazed across the sound. He said the view is actually better from down here.
“You’re not necessarily enjoying yourself on difficult climbs — you’re getting tired and thirsty, hungry, all of that,” said Klose. “It’s not until you get back into the valley and look up at that mountain, and then you get some real joy out of it.”
Climbing Devil’s Thumb today would be difficult for him. But Klose still dreams about one last summit.