Larry Rasmussen, Eric Sandbo and I had been climbing together for the last several years. We would plan trips around our different schedules and occasionally pull off interesting climbs. Roper & Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs and Fred Beckey’s third Cascade Alpine Guide both came out around the same time and we were intrigued by the route description and dramatic photos of the Price Glacier route on Mt Shuksan. We all decided that we wanted to climb the route, and Larry appointed the phrase “Be there or be square” for our adventure, but we determined that we should undertake several practice climbs to prepare us for the route. Our prior ascent of the Coleman Headwall, the previous fall, was a good steep snow climb but we wanted to see the Price Glacier route up-close and perhaps try another summit in the process. Nooksack Tower seemed to meet all our needs.
The ice gully on Nooksack Tower is shorter and contains fewer challenges than the Price Glacier route. According to the available guidebooks the rock portion of the route is only around 800’ long, of which 300’ are class 3. The additional fact that the first ascent was made back in 1946 helped persuade us that we could pull off the climb. We decided to attempt the peak on the solstice weekend in order to have as much available daylight as possible for climbing.
Our preparation was thorough (as always) we would wait until the Friday before our climb and then jam everything into our pack, ready to go. All of our friends and families were notified of our plans and our return time, Sunday evening. We left Mount Vernon, early Saturday morning, and then drove North on Hwy 9 to the Glacier Ranger Station. While Eric was signing us out on the climbing register for the climb Barb, our ranger friend, told us that every climbing group that went into the Nooksack or Price Glacier Cirques had taken at least three days for the round trip. Confident in our abilities we decided to press on, besides, what could Barb know that we didn’t?
We arrived at the end of the useable road just before 10:00am and shouldering our packs we headed up the trail alongside of the Nooksack River for several miles looking for the steep and narrow gorge of Price Creek. Price Creek enters the Nooksack near a bend of the latter’s channel. The undercut bank near the bend along with the high water looked uncomfortably deep to ford. We searched upstream for a ¼ mile and after not finding a shallow spot decided to cross West of Price Creek at a less intimidating spot. We didn’t bring worn-out running shoes for the crossing but instead took off our boots and barefooted across. The cold water and the rolling rocks of the ford were gentle to our feet. After the crossing we donned our boots and hiked back up the Nooksack looking for an entrance into the timber alongside of Price Creek.
The guidebook instructs you to stay East of Price Creek, and within earshot of it, ascending a minor wooded ridge, which turns into the moraine above Price Lake. Price Creek flows through a narrow gorge and we were on the wrong side of the creek. We found a fine log to cross the creek, above a waterfall, and then continued up steep timber until we were above Price Lake.
When we reached the moraine we got our first view of Nooksack Tower. Fighting the willow brush we went down to the lake to get water and have lunch. The water was foul, being full of glacial flour, and the shore too rocky for comfort so we climbed back up the moraine to the ridge and continued hiking to a more agreeable location.
All three of us had emptied our water bottles and had become dehydrated on the hike in, having gained 2500’ of elevation since our last water crossing, so we filled up from snowmelt and had lunch at a pleasant spot on the ridge, elevation 5000’. The only evidence we found of previous parties (on the ridge) was while sitting on a flat rock, eating lunch, we found an ancient pocket-knife someone had left behind. Eric and I faked exhaustion so Larry wouldn’t feel shame for his lethargy. After a break we continued up the circling ridge another mile or so to camp. Looking back towards the lake, from near camp, you can see the ridge and moraine we hiked in on. With several hours of daylight left we had too much time to contemplate our route, our mortality and to eat. The views from camp were tolerable.
To say that the view of our proposed climb was awe inspiring and intimidating would be an understatement. Trying to lighten our mood I related an article I had recently read about falls while climbing. The essence of the article was that the individual, while falling, is so focused on trying to arrest his fall that he never notices the ground rising up to meet him thereby missing the moment of impact. Sharing this information didn’t elicit the positive responses I expected from my buddies. To further try and buoy our flagging spirits I suggested that the route looked steeper than it actually was because of foreshortening. At mention of this Larry quipped; “Foreshortened is forewarned.” Not one of us knew how prophetic that would be.
During the evening and night clouds formed and fog enveloped the glacier and our route across it. Rising early we packed by the light of our headlights. We missed our planned departure time from camp by 10 minutes as we began climbing across the glacier at 4:10am. By using our headlights and the reflected glow of the early morning sun off the couloir, we were guided to the base of the route we had chosen. Looking back you can see our camp above the left-hand notch in the ridge-crest. Larry found a crossing over the largest moat we had ever encountered. The moat looked to be over twenty-foot across in spots and perhaps fifty-foot deep. Above the moat easy rock-climbing in rigid boots led to the base of the couloir. Across the couloir and slightly below our elevation is the notch in the North Ridge of Nooksack Tower, this is where you access the Price Glacier route.
The hard snow compacted well with each kicked step and allowed an inch or two of toe purchase, not wearing our crampons we felt adequately secure. The angle of the slope, along the edge of the couloir where we were climbing, was steeper than in the middle. As we made our ascent we looked for protection in the adjacent rock walls and wished for a few pickets. If one of us had fallen, the other two hoped to jump in the moat alongside our climbing route and arrest the team’s fall. We stopped at a small schrund, where the gully narrows, and belayed across and onto the rock to the right.
When we reached the rock we dropped our ice gear and boots in an alcove and then changed into our rock-shoes. We felt a sense of relief after leaving the steep snow but also a sense of excitement for the rock, which lay above us. Time was becoming an issue; we had planned on starting our hike out in the afternoon, yet here we were just beginning the rock portion of our climb. It was mid to late morning and we had a discussion about the proper turn-around time. We 3rd classed the next 300’, up the increasingly steep North Ridge, on easy but debris-covered ledges. The view into Nooksack Cirque, from our location, was fantastic. The higher we went the steeper the rock became so we finally started to belay the 4th and easy 5th class climbing we encountered.
Near the top of the ridge we could see the summit of Shuksan rising over Nooksack Ridge. At 3:00pm we had reached the last vertical step we needed to overcome in order to reach the summit, and once again we had a conversation about our turn-around time. I wasn’t looking forward to down-climbing the steep snow gully in the dark nor was I happy about the prospect of not making the car before Monday. Eric and Larry listened to my reasoning yet wanted to continue on since we were so close. After being out-voted we headed up the last pitch. Reaching the summit ridge we gathered together and then surveyed from our position. The descent was going to prove problematic so instead of scrambling to the very summit we decided to begin rappelling.
Climbing the last pitch and rappelling back down the route took an inordinate amount of time. One of the main problems we encountered on the descent was the portable rappel anchors we kept finding. We found dubious anchors at the end of each rappel we made, but after searching around for something better and finding nothing, we backed up the existing anchor and down we went again. Each of us, in turn, would be in charge of the anchor and therefore be the first down that rappel. There have been very few times since that I’ve rappelled on such marginal anchors and never have I applied my weight to the ropes so gently as to almost levitate down the route. Many times when we pulled the ropes down, after rappel, they would hang up on rocks or in cracks and needed to be deliberately dislodged by climbing back up solo. During this time the sun kept its inexorable path towards setting while the clouds kept thickening around the neighboring peaks.
We reached our climbing gear, cached near the top of the couloir, and quickly donned our boots and crampons. Rappelling down the rock into the couloir with crampons, exactly at sunset, was a unique experience. Eric led down the gully center, followed by me and then Larry; we opted for the slightly shallower angle of the ice chute. The ice chute turned into an open-faced ice chimney, which we double-tooled down. Having neither pickets nor ice screws we relied on each other in the event of a fall. I heard Larry begin to fall above me and I had enough time to fully stem across the chimney and plant both my axe and hammer in the ice above me, readying for the shock I fully expected. Fortunately Larry was able to arrest his fall about 12’ above my position. Looking down between my legs I could see the ice chute open up to the lower Price Glacier below. Eric complained about our knocking too much snow down on top of him.
I decided to not down climb any further in this direction and Larry and I both insisted to Eric that he climb back up to us. We calculated that our position was lower than the spot where we had left the rock and entered the couloir on our ascent. Larry led off diagonally and reached the far side of the couloir just at full darkness, he then belayed Eric and I across to him. We were relieved to be back on rock especially since it was fully dark and had begun to rain. While we were gathered together at one of the upper rappel anchors, we could see lightning flashes across the valley on the surrounding peaks. Here, lower down on the route, we felt less like targets.
When we had climbed this lower section of rock we had made an oblique up and rightward ascent from our moat crossing. In order to return to the glacier and not rappel into the moat we needed to find the collapsed snow-bridge below us in the dark. We had climbed three easy rock pitches on the ascent but it took us five rappels in the dark and increasing rain to find our way back to the glacier. Eric set the most memorable anchor I remember. It consisted of a #2 unwired hex, crosswise in a shallow, flaring crack with one end of the hex supported by a crystal nubbin. When Eric set off on this rappel (because it was his anchor), he brought out his prusik slings in case he rappelled into the moat instead of onto our looked-for snow bridge. After an interminable time waiting in the rain, Larry and I dozing, we could hear Eric’s jubilant yell when he landed on the snow bridge dead center and not into the moat. Larry and I rappelled down singly and then happily reunited with Eric on the glacier by 2:00am.
Visibility was poor, the rain had slowed down appreciably but the fog had increased dramatically. The heavy overcast prevented any natural light from penetrating and illuminating our way. Our Lithium powered headlights, having been on for over 6 hours, still pierced through the gloom. Instead of trying to retrace our vanished tracks across the shrouded glacier we elected to climb up near the rim of the cirque and use it’s contour, in the dark, to take us back to camp. This worked out perfectly and also avoided the crevasse fields we had encountered on our approach to the climb. We reached camp just before dawn, 23 hours and 50 minutes since we had left the day before. I was eager to pack up and quickly head down to the car. I knew my wife had probably spent a sleepless night, I also knew our climbing friends must be forming a Search & Rescue party for us and would soon be on their way to find us. Eric insisted on getting some rest before continuing down so we all climbed into our bivy bags and instantly fell asleep.
After one hour it began to rain and we all woke up. Packing our gear we began the slog down the ridge in the fog and rain. Our addled minds were able to keep our feet moving one after the other, but we were not paying close enough attention to the direction we were heading. We could hear waterfalls below us. We realized that we had taken the wrong ridge down, heading too far to the Northeast, towards Nooksack Cirque. We climbed back up the ridge until we found the proper route down and to the left towards the timbered moraine.
Wasted from lack of sleep we take a break on the ridge, near where we enter the timber, and worry whether we might pass our friends on their way in to find us. Continuing down we finally arrived back at the car to find a note from Barb, our ranger friend. Her note advised us to use all do-speed and return to the Ranger Station before a rescue party was dispatched.
Glad that no one had yet arrived to search for our bones we tiredly climbed in the car and began the arduous task of staying awake and operating an automobile at the same time. It was only a few miles of logging and then paved roads to the Ranger Station but it seemed that the trip took forever to make. When we finally arrived at the RS, the Rangers were just initiating the Search (by radio) and were able to call it off, while our friends were still on I-5. We took turns driving the car at the terrifying speed of 25mph. Driving with our head out the window we knew when it was time to change drivers when we could no longer press on the gas pedal and the car would slow almost to a stop.
No one area of the climb was ever above our abilities yet because of the continuous nature of the route we considered it our limit at that time. We learned important lessons on this trip, which we would later incorporate into most of our future climbs. Speed, climbing efficiency and fitness equal safety. A strong 2-man climbing team is much faster than a strong 3-man team and two 2-man climbing teams provide additional security without sacrificing much speed.