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Why one man has spent much of his life trying to climb a near-impossible summit

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rock climbers know a 9,000-foot mountain called the Devils Thumb in Alaska. They know it 'cause not many have climbed it. Only about 50 people have made it to the summit. Shelby Herbert of KFSK proflies a man who's had a love affair with this mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

SHELBY HERBERT, BYLINE: 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 the giant rock. On this day, a wall of fog blocks his view. But Klose knows exactly what's behind those clouds.

DIETER KLOSE: It looks just like a German beer stein. It's a little wider at the bottom so it doesn't tip over when you're drunk. There's only room for one person at the top, and you can just barely stand if you have the courage.

HERBERT: 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.

KLOSE: It got torn up by a bear. And a friend of mine told me, hey, there's a boat for sale for 200 bucks. And I thought, great, and I'll get to look at Devils Thumb.

HERBERT: Klose says it wasn't love at first sight, or first summit. His enchantment with the mountain grew over the course of his life.

KLOSE: It had everything I wanted from mountains, everything that satisfied me by climbing. It's difficult by any side. And it's not super-high altitude, which is great. You're totally alone, and it's a wild-looking thing.

HERBERT: Klose is a homebuilder 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 Icecaps.

TOMMY CALDWELL: I mean, Dieter is key to anybody who comes here to climb.

HERBERT: That's world-class climber Tommy Caldwell. He came up north recently to climb Devils Thumb and shoot a documentary about it. Dieter advised him and his climbing partner, Alex Honnold.

ALEX HONNOLD: I mean, there's just nobody else that knows nearly as much about the Devils Thumb.

CALDWELL: Yeah.

HONNOLD: Like the local custodian. He's, like, managing the mountain.

HERBERT: Klose helped draft their route. It tags every peak up and down the whole massif - over the twin summits of the Witches Towers, the slender Cat's Ear Spires, and then Devils Thumb itself. Caldwell says those features were as wicked as the sound of their names.

CALDWELL: All of the summits are, like, incredibly pointy. Yeah. 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, like, exposed-feeling summits I've ever seen in my life.

HERBERT: Hours before they left Alaska, both climbers came by to write in the book that Dieter Klose keeps about the mountain. They sketched out a map of their route that took up two whole pages.

Back in front of his cabin, Klose gazes across the sound. He says the view is actually better from down here.

KLOSE: You're not necessarily enjoying yourself on difficult climbs. You're getting tired and thirsty, hungry, all of that. And 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.

HERBERT: Climbing Devils Thumb today would be difficult for him, but Dieter Klose says he still dreams about one last summit.

For NPR News, I'm Shelby Herbert in Petersburg, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Shelby Herbert