Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2003-04-15
Submitted By: CAIC; Dale Atkins
Place: Devil's Thumb on the Alaska-BC Boarder
State: AK
Country: USA
Fatalities: 2
Summary: 2 climbers missing and presumed killed in avalanche

Climbers missing in Southeast

OVERDUE: Canadians were trying to be first up Devils Thumb face.


Anchorage Daily News

(Published: April 22, 2003)

Two Canadian climbers are missing on a distinctive mountain near Petersburg after a weekend of mostly bad

weather hampered search efforts, Alaska State Troopers said.

The search for Guy Edwards and John Millar of British Columbia was kept on hold most of Monday too as low

clouds kept a helicopter pilot from flying close to 9,077-foot Devils Thumb, troopers said. It resumed when the

clouds broke Monday evening.

The pilot indicated that avalanches had occurred in the area recently, said trooper Chris Umbs in Petersburg.

Devils Thumb rises from the Stikine Ice Cap about 30 miles northeast of Petersburg. A Utah climber fell and died

there in July.

Edwards, 30, and Millar, 24, were last seen on the north face by their climbing companion, 33-year-old Kai M.

Hirvornen of Vancouver, British Columbia, more than a week ago.

All three are seasoned mountaineers, the troopers said.

They apparently chartered a boat that took them and supplies to last four to six weeks to the base of Baird Glacier

about two weeks ago, Umbs said. They had planned to do a lot of climbing, he said.

For three days they skied about 20 miles up Baird and another glacier, Witches Cauldron, to the base of the


Hirvornen "just didn't feel like going up with them" when Edwards and Millar left camp April 13 with gear and

food for a four- to five-day climb up the face, Umbs said.

In the middle of the night, Hivornen saw the shine of their headlamps, his last glimpse of them.

The weather was poor for most of last week. Hivornen became concerned Friday when his partners had not


"He didn't know if they were hunkered down, and he wanted to get help," so he decided to come out, Umbs said.

Hivornen skied to the head of Thomas Bay, where he called for help with a hand-held radio, according to troopers.

A pilot for Temsco Helicopters in Petersburg picked him up Friday evening and brought him to town.

At 5 a.m. Saturday, the pilot flew off to search for the other two, taking Hirvornen along. Two fixed-wing pilots

with the Juneau Civil Air Patrol joined the search, troopers said.

By Saturday afternoon, worsening weather grounded the CAP planes, and by 7 p.m. the search was suspended for

the night.

The Temsco pilot made several trips to the area Sunday as the weather allowed, troopers said.

The first recorded climb of Devils Thumb was in 1946. It is an infrequent destination, said Colby Coombs, a

Talkeetna mountaineer and co-author of "Alaska: A Climbing Guide."

There's no easy way up; the area is remote, and the mountain is close enough to the sea that it collects plenty of bad

weather. The few people who try are almost all experienced climbers, Coombs said.


Its 6,000-foot north face, the route apparently taken by the missing climbers, is a prize yet unclaimed, said Joe

Reichert, a National Park Service ranger in Talkeetna who scaled Devils Thumb by a standard route 10 years ago.

"It's one of the most coveted unclimbed faces in North America," he said.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at or 257-4582.

Troopers call off search for Canadian climbers

DEVILS THUMB: Two men have been missing for nearly a week.

Daily News staff

(Published: April 23, 2003)

Alaska State Troopers have called off the search for two Canadian climbers who have been missing on the remote

Devils Thumb for almost a week, trooper Chris Umbs said Tuesday from Petersburg.

Intermittent searches since Saturday have turned up no sign of Guy Edwards and John Millar, Umbs said.

Troopers have not ruled out the possibility that Edwards, 30, and Millar, 24, are hunkered down for safety

somewhere. Their base camp about a mile from the mountain is largely intact and unoccupied, Umbs said.

A helicopter pilot indicated that avalanches have occurred in the area, he said.

Edwards and Millar were last seen by a third climber in their party about 2 a.m. on April 14 as they were ascending

the 9,077-foot peak on the Alaska-Canada border about 30 miles northeast of Petersburg.

They had taken about four to five days' food and gear on April 13 when they departed the team's base camp

intending to complete the first ascent of the north face.

The third member of their team, Kai M. Hirvornen of Vancouver, British Columbia, remained in camp. Weather

was poor in the days that followed, Umbs said. When the climbers did not return in time, Hirvornen skied out

alone about 20 miles to summon help on Friday.

Searchers were hampered over the weekend and Monday by continuing poor weather, but a helicopter pilot with

Hirvornen aboard managed to get through clouds occasionally to search the mountain.

They last searched for about four hours Monday evening, Umbs said. The search was indefinitely suspended at 10

a.m. Tuesday, he said.

Neither Hirvornen nor the pilot for Temsco helicopters, Stephen Obrocta, returned messages.

Edwards, Millar and Hirvornen are experienced climbers. Edwards has climbed successfully in major mountain

ranges around the world, according to the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. In the mid-1990s, he

skied 1,250 miles through the Coast Range from Vancouver to Skagway.

April 2003 Devils Thumb Report

from the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center

After participating in the search for missing climbers Guy Edwards and John Millar, both of British Columbia, on

Devil?s Thumb, we are listing them as probable avalanche deaths.

The climbers departed their base camp at 720m (2350?) on the north fork of the Witches Cauldron for their route

up the unclimbed Northwest Face of Devils Thumb at 9pm on Sunday, April 13, after skiing roughly 32km (20

miles) in up the Baird Glacier from a boat dropoff, according to fellow climber Kai Hirvornen, also of British

Columbia. Kai said he decided to remain in base camp rather than attempt the climb after seeing the level of

objective hazard the route presented, and reported hearing numerous avalanches on the 12th and 13th, before the


team?s departure, as well as during the time after they left. Kai was quoted as saying the climbers carried food and

supplies for four to five days. The climbing team moved up quickly at night during a weather window. They cached

their skis at the base of the steeper slopes, and Kai last saw their headlamps near some rock outcrops on the

climbers? right side of the route at about 1005m (3300?) at about 1:30am.

By morning, the weather was stormy, with snow and wind persisting through most of the next five days. On Friday

the 18th, Kai skied downglacier to the head of Thomas Bay and called for help with a handheld radio. He was

picked up that evening by a helicopter. Search efforts over the next two days were conducted as breaks in the

cloudy weather allowed, until substantial weather breaks on the evening on Monday the 21st allowed a thorough

low-level helicopter search. Searchers reported hearing numerous avalanches on the Northwest Face as they waited

for the weather to break.

Variations on the intended Northwest Face route have been attempted by several parties, with one previous fatality,

but the face has not yet been climbed. It is almost 1,975m (6,500?) high, and averages a 54? slope angle over that

distance. The gentler portions of the face are in the 40? plus range, and the steeper portions are well over 70? for

long distances. Three actively calving hanging glacier ice masses threaten the lower portion of the route. Previous

parties report an average calving frequency of about once every six hours from these ice cliffs.

The lower portion of the route the climbers were attempting funnels the runout of the ice avalanches and all snow

and rock that releases from the very large face above it. The usual climbers? strategy in such terrain is based

entirely on timing; finding the rare window when the snow portion of the route is solidly frozen, and then moving

as fast as possible through the ice avalanche areas to minimize exposure time.

The route has never been suitably frozen this year, and the snowpack has been weak. A mild, extremely low-snow

winter in Alaska resulted in a thin snowpack in the 1m (3?) range, with many ice crusts, in most of the mountains

of the region through early February. Then several periods of cold, clear weather turned that thin snowpack into

weak, sugary faceted grains. In many parts of the region, that cool weather also formed surface hoar which served

as another buried weak layer when the snows finally came in mid-February. Many large natural and humantriggered

slab avalanches resulted from these persistent weak layers in March and April.

The spring thaw had progressed up to about 1065m (3,500?) on the 21st, leaving the snowpack visibly rotted and

thawing below that level. Active glide cracks revealed the snowpack thickness of about 1m (3?) on the lower slopes

along the Witches Cauldron glacier. But the snowpack on the upper portion of the mountain was still in dry-snow

winter conditions, with no way for the persistent weak layers to have warmed enough to gain strength. Only below

rocky, sun-exposed areas were there a few sun balls to indicate the beginning of the spring thaw.

Immediately west of the climbers? route, on slightly gentler terrain in the 1220 - 1525m (4,000 - 5,000?) range, a

series of large, Canadian Class 3 to 4 size slab avalanches had recently released in stepped fractures ranging from

1.5 - 10? (0.5 - 3m) thick and up to 2,000? (610m) wide. These were several days to one week old.

These slides indicate that deep and persistent slab instability remained on the mountain on the 21st, and was there

when the climbers ascended. No slab avalanche fractures were found on or above their route. Nonetheless, it is

possible that they triggered or were hit by slab avalanches, as any slopes similar to the ones immediately West

would have been very likely to fail under load.

The entire lower portion of the route had been swept and scoured by numerous avalanches, and it is possible that

signs of slab activity had simply been erased. The starting zones above the lower route are extremely steep, fluted

faces that funnel any moving snow directly onto the route, and the size of the face is such that even a small point

release high on the mountain becomes a large avalanche by the time it reaches the bottom. From a practical

standpoint, slab, point release, or ice avalanches are all large enough to be life-threatening when they reach the

lower portion of the route.

There was no way to safely put ground searchers on the face or its runout. The ice avalanche hazard could not be

mitigated by any means, and explosive control for slab instability is not effective on so large and steep a face.

Conditions were steadily becoming worse as spring thaw progressed up the mountain. Dieter Klose, who has made

it higher on the Northwest Face than anyone, has written an article stating that the objective hazard of the face is so

severe that climbers should consider it best left unclimbed. Considering that this assessment is directed at the

world?s most-skilled climbers attempting to time their ascent for the most optimal conditions, the hazard to a search


party is obviously much greater.

Search was thorough, covering the intended route and all its variations and escape routes at very close distance

from a small and maneuverable helicopter. Given complete disappearance in an area where many avalanches have

been heard, large recent avalanches have scoured the route, and massive piles of fresh avalanche debris lie at the

bottom, it is likely that the climbers were hit by or triggered a large avalanche during the first period of stormy

weather, either while waiting for dawn in the shelter of some rock outcrops, or while descending in the morning.

The nature of the route is such that ice avalanches occur in any weather, and frequent large snow avalanches are the

norm in any storm. The consequences of avalanches in that terrain are likely to be fatal.



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Lost on Devil's Thumb

Two B.C. climbers have apparently died trying to scale what's called North America's 'biggest wall of steepness,'

writes Keith Fraser.

Keith Fraser

CanWest News Service

Thursday, April 24, 2003


experienced Vancouver

climbers are missing and

presumed dead in an

avalanche during a high-risk

ascent of a glacier peak on

the Alaska-B.C. border.

On April 13, Guy Edwards

and John Millar started a fast

ascent of the


northern face of the Devil's

Thumb, a remote 2,700-metre

peak about 50 kilometres

northeast of the Alaskan

fishing village of Petersburg.

A third member of their team,

Kai Hirvonen, 33, stayed at

the base camp and could see

their head lamps for several

hours before losing sight of

them early the following


When Mr. Edwards, 30, and

Mr. Millar, 24, did not appear

several days later as

expected, Mr. Hirvonen hiked

out of the icefields and went

for help.

On Saturday, after being

informed the pair was

missing, Alaska search and

rescue officials sent


"We believe they were

probably struck by an

avalanche and the odds of

surviving ... are almost zero,"

Lieut. Chuck Lamica, the

search and rescue

co-ordinator for the Alaska

state troopers said Tuesday.

"It's too dangerous to try to

put searchers on the ground

there to check any of these

avalanche debris piles to see

if they might be in there."

They suspended the search

on Tuesday.

Lieut. Lamica said the

avalanche activity in the area

was "very high" and Devil's

Thumb has attracted

mountaineers from around the


"At this time of year, it's just

basically one avalanche after

another up there. The area around the mountain is surrounded by glaciers

and icefields."

Dieter Klose, an area expert who says he's climbed higher up the extremely

steep face than anyone, said the family of one of the climbers has hired a

helicopter to continue the search.

"I feel the state troopers are justified in calling off the search at this point.

However, I told the mom that if it were my son up there, I'd keep looking.

Not that I think I'm going to find anything, but for peace of mind."

Mr. Klose says he communicated by e-mail with the climbers before their

ascent and says they were "well aware of the risks."

"I did not know these people, but we were kindred spirits," said Mr. Klose,

44, who climbed halfway up the face in 1982. "I have a close connection to

that face. All the climbers who come through town generally look me up. It's

very, very tragic."

Mr. Klose said he had spoken to Mr. Hirvonen after he got back from the

mountain and learned from him that the climbers had tried to climb "very,

very fast" in order to get beyond the dangerous fall line of the glacier.

"These guys were really good climbers from what I understand, just

top-notch guys, doing everything right," he said. "Nothing has been found of

them. We saw no evidence. I've flown the mountain a couple of times."

Mr. Klose called the face "maybe the biggest wall of that steepness" in all of

North America.

"The problem with that face ... is that it's very, very dangerous. There is a

hanging glacier on it and both sides of the face are also massive hanging

glaciers that could cut loose at any time of the night or day."

On a climbing Web site, Mr. Edwards described a previous trip he had made

to the Devil's Thumb.

"It's kinda like the North American Patagonia, bad weather and all. We had

two good days out of 21 and the forecast was calling for more bad weather,

so we bailed."

Copyright 2003?The Ottawa Citizen