Devils Thumb Aurora

 
 Aurora borealis over Devils Thumb in the Alaska Range, near Black Rapids.

Aurora borealis over Devils Thumb in the Alaska Range, near Black Rapids.

Devils Thumb is a prominent rock feature that juts out from the north side of the ridge between Trims Creek and Castner Glacier in the Alaska Range. (Not to be confused with the mountain of the same name in Southeast Alaska which contains some of the craziest rock faces on the planet.) After looking at the thumb from afar for a couple years I realized it would make an interesting foreground subject in an aurora image—even more so if I could find someone to climb it. Grant, my friend who accompanied me on my recent traverse from Black Rapids to Healy, thought the idea sounded cool and brought his rock climbing buddy Matt along for the adventure. We weren’t sure if the rock quality would support safe climbing, but there was only one way to find out.

We started hiking late in the day and reached Devils Thumb well after sunset. My companions’ eyes widened when they saw the rock up close for the first time—it was a lot bigger than they expected from the pictures I had sent them from a previous scouting trip. We scrambled down a short section of snow-covered rock and walked along the narrow spur leading to the thumb’s base where we dropped our heavy packs. Grant and Matt immediately began preparing their climbing gear as the moon crept over the mountains to the east. The rock readily crumbled away as they inspected it, but Grant tried climbing it, anyway. There were holds everywhere but Grant struggled to find any that were stable, and he couldn’t find any cracks to place protection. I snapped a few photos of him climbing in the dark with his (too) bright headlamp while keeping my eye on the faint band of aurora developing over the northeast horizon.

 Grant climbing Devils Thumb in the dark with Matt belaying. The rising moon is casting a warm glow on the mountains.

Grant climbing Devils Thumb in the dark with Matt belaying. The rising moon is casting a warm glow on the mountains.

 Grant and Matt light up Devils Thumb with their headlamps as the aurora rises.

Grant and Matt light up Devils Thumb with their headlamps as the aurora rises.

After testing another route Grant finally found a crack and pounded in a piton, then continued up with Matt belaying from below. By this time I was busy looking at aurora data on my phone, so I was startled when I heard one or perhaps both of them shout. I looked up and saw Grant falling, watching as his headlamp flashed around the base of the rock. He landed on the scree slope next to Matt and slid a short way down before coming to a stop. His piton ripped out during the fall, but luckily the landing wasn’t bad and he survived mostly unscathed. Grant tried scrambling up one more time but slipped on loose rock and half-fell, half-ran back down the thumb without incident.

It was clear my companions weren’t going to find a safe route up Devils Thumb in the cold and dark, so we set up the winter tent we brought and waited for the aurora to brighten. The aurora remained dull and low on the horizon for a short time until an arc suddenly rose over the thumb and stretched across the mountains to the northeast. Even though the arc wasn’t that bright or impressive, I quickly took several different compositions just in case this was the best I was going to get.

However, the aurora soon brightened and treated us to an unexpectedly brilliant show that lasted two hours. Streaks of vivid pink flashed fleetingly across the sky while green arcs twisted into wild shapes and oscillated in brightness. During its peak intensity the aurora spread into the southern sky, doing battle with the mostly full moon over the peaks of the eastern Alaska Range. There’s no better place to view the aurora than a mountain on a moonlit night; you can easily forget your attachment to civilization while you stand overwhelmed by the scale of everything surrounding you—the landscape, the aurora, the stars in space…

Grant hiked farther up the ridge to take photographs with the lens I loaned him while Matt watched the aurora near the tent until he succumbed to sleep some time after midnight. I photographed from the narrow confines of the spur and had to be careful not to let my gear roll down the steep slopes on either side of me.

 Matt watches the aurora next to Devils Thumb and our tent.

Matt watches the aurora next to Devils Thumb and our tent.

 An intensely bright and fast-moving aurora display over Item Peak and Trims Glacier. The aurora details came out blurry even though this was a relatively short 2-second exposure.

An intensely bright and fast-moving aurora display over Item Peak and Trims Glacier. The aurora details came out blurry even though this was a relatively short 2-second exposure.

 Aurora and the moon in the sky with our tracks on the spur in the foreground. Grant is visible as a small black dot on the rightmost false summit.

Aurora and the moon in the sky with our tracks on the spur in the foreground. Grant is visible as a small black dot on the rightmost false summit.

After the aurora began to fade I went to find Grant. I spotted his headlamp on top of the nearest false summit along the ridge and caught him walking back about half-way in between. The aurora flared up one last time while we watched from the ridge, but it grew quiet after that and I gladly crawled into the warm tent where I stole a few hours of sleep.

We packed up our gear in the morning and began descending the ridge back to the highway. Several caribou were grazing in the morning sunshine off to our left as we quickly dropped elevation. Once we reached the brush we perplexingly spent more time bushwhacking than we did on the way up. We reached the highway before noon, then stopped at JB’s Thai in Delta Junction for lunch before the boys left for Fairbanks.

I think Grant and Matt want another attempt on Devils Thumb but I’m guessing they’ll wait until next summer. The cold temperatures and short daylight hours of winter are quickly approaching so shots like these will become significantly harder to undertake. Shooting the aurora from the backcountry requires significant physical effort, outdoor skills and extra gear, but it also requires the right conditions to nail a shot, including weather, moon phase, auroral activity, time of year, etc., which vastly limits the number of opportunities I have to attempt shots like these.

 Hiking and glissading back to the highway. Devils Thumb is peeking over the ridge between Grant (left) and Matt (right).

Hiking and glissading back to the highway. Devils Thumb is peeking over the ridge between Grant (left) and Matt (right).

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