Everest. K2. The moon, for godsakes. With ambition, skill, and high-tech wizardry, it seems humans will conquer every last corner of wild Earth, and beyond. Or will we?
Last spring, the latest attempt on the northwest face of the Devil's Thumb, in southeast Alaska, offered tragic proof that Mother Nature herself may have the final word on who goes where. Guy Edwards and John Millar, both experienced climbers from Vancouver, disappeared on the 6,500-foot face in mid-April, during a week of unsettled weather and frequent avalanches. Officials called off the search after repeated helicopter forays revealed no trace of the missing pair.
Since 1977, 13 unlucky expeditions have ventured into the shadow of the Devil's Thumb to attempt the coveted first ascent of the sheer northwest face. Less than half have so much as put a crampon on the slope. What makes it so daunting? A huge wall with bad weather, bad rock, bad ice, and bad avalanches. Not necessarily in that order. "It is a dangerous and difficult face that rarely, if ever, comes into condition," says Dieter Klose, who in 1982 made it halfway up the route, higher than anybody else alive. (For Klose's complete analysis, see the 2003 American Alpine Journal, 800-553-4453; www.mountaineersbooks.org; $35.)
Ultimately, the lesson of the Devil's Thumb isn't about a plum mountaineering prize dangling just out of reach. For anyone who treasures pure wilderness, there's something captivating, even inspiring, about a cliff humans may never scale. As Klose says, "It's a sanctuary where only the birds may alight, and then only so long as the avalanches deign."