I’ve always been fascinated by the crags. From my first trip over Cameron Pass on my way to Steamboat, I’ve had my breath taken away by the precarious pinnacles that seem to loom over Highway 14. The average person would deem them inaccessible, a place only for bighorn sheep. Even many climbers avoid the crags due to their reputation of nasty rotten rock. Family trips up to Agnes Lake inevitably ended with me clawing my way up the scree fields to explore the many gulleys and spires that riddle the west side. But still I longed to visit their lofty heights.
After several years of scrambling up nearly all of the 13ners in Rocky Mountain National Park, I felt more than prepared to attempt the crags; north summit, south summit, it didn’t matter. Besides, they couldn’t be that hard, could they?
Two failed attempts later I had a renewed respect for the Nokhu Crags. My first attempt was on the south summit with Tariq, a friend and co-worker. It was his first winter climb, and we were surprised by the amount of snow already on the ground by December. We turned around not far above Agnes Lake after spending over an hour wallowing through the snow, and bracing ourselves against the bitterly cold wind gusts.
My second attempt was about a month later, when I went for the north summit. Still not giving the mountain the respect it deserved, I took off on a morning that I had to be at work in Fort Collins by 4:00. Again, figuring on the short approach, and the relatively short stature, I hoped to climb the north ridge to the summit and be back in time for a shower before work. I started off from the trailhead at 7:00. The first part of the approach is on a dirt road that is unplowed in the winter. I decided to bushwack up to the Michigan Ditch just past the deserted Crags Campground. Wallowing through the snow with my snowshoes on, I swam my way up to the ditch. Here I found the ground windswept and nearly snow free. I followed the ditch northeast to the point where the north ridge intersects the ditch. I was pushing pretty hard, because I knew I was on such a time crunch. Not taking much time to rest, I climbed up to the dead end point of the ridge, where Roach’s book describes dropping down 300 feet. Trying to follow his directions to a “T” I used my altimeter to descend the west side, and then started looking for the appropriate gulley to move me back up toward the summit. That’s when I started to have serious doubts about my plan. First of all I had no idea which way to go. Each time I began to move up a gulley the snow would deepen up to my waist or higher. I was putting all of my energy in moving up a few feet in a direction that I wasn’t sure was correct. That’s when my quads seized up. When the cramps subsided, I’d try another direction, with the same results. The charlie horses got so bad that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to continue to move upward. That also meant that I’d be unable to return to the north ridge and my ascent route. Scanning below me, I decided to take my chances with a direct descent toward the trail below Agnes Lake. I’d been up here enough times to know the general lay of the land.
That’s when I got lucky. I peered into what seems to be the northern most gulley in the maze that comprises the crags. Other than a slight S curve in the middle, this gulley takes a straight shot down to the open scree slopes above the winter trail to Agnes Lake. I dubbed it “Get Out of Jail Free Gulley” salvaged my pride and drove home to work.
Successful Summit DayBy now my respect for the Crags had grown. But with it so had my desire to climb them. Visiting Agnes Lake again that summer with my wife and kids just fueled my summit fever. I could barely take my eyes off them while we explored the waterfalls on the southwest side of the lake. I vowed to return in the winter, and give myself all the time that I needed. The next time would not end in defeat.
I left my house in Fort Collins at 5:00 on November 26th. Not a terribly early alpine start I know, but I knew that would give me plenty of time since I had no other commitments that day. Jamming to my ipod in the car, I realized that I’d left my headphones at home. Now when I’m with other people I never take them along. But I admit to being addicted to my ipod during long summit trudges when I’m alone. I pulled over at the Conoco station at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon to see if they sold cheap headphones. No luck. I knew the wind and my gasping breath would be all that would keep me company today.
Initially I had planned to climb up via “Get Out of Jail Free Gulley,” but I changed my mind on the snowshoe in. The previous spring my computer crashed, taking with it all of the photos I had taken on my previous two trips. One of my favorite shots is of the serrated ridge and the summit block seen from the north ridge. But I really didn’t look forward to bushwacking through the trees. There is an avalanche chute that reaches the road to Agnes Lake. I figured that it was early enough in the season for it to be a safe approach. My only real difficulty lay in the loose talus that was above the snowy section. This area is so windblown, it rarely holds enough snow to cover the evilly loose scree. I was sure that someone dumped it all there just to make me go insane with constantly sliding back to my starting point. About that time, I came upon several groups of three or four bighorn sheep that mocked me with their easy dance across the talus. I cursed their grace even as I was digging out my camera to take their picture.
Once I reached the north ridge I again was taken away by the beauty of the crags east face and serrated knife edge. If the rock wasn’t so rotten here the Nohku Crags would be a famous pinnacle. I decided not to follow Roach’s advice and descend 300 feet. Instead I dropped down on the west side only as low as I had to and still scramble over the parallel ribs that delineated the gulley system. At one point I was able to peer over the edge into the white abyss that made up the eastern basin. However, I was still at a loss as to where the true summit was. I sat to rest and realized that the snow covered pile of rubble next to me was a rudimentary cairn. Not large, but clearly placed there by human hands. I was still not sure that this was the route, I’ve been deceived by false cairns before, but since that was my only clue I began ascending the closest, steepest gulley in line with the cairn and the direction I hoped the summit was.
At first the going was great. The snow was at mid-shin, and my crampons took purchase well. Then the gully began to narrow and steepen dramatically.
Heart racing, I sat in dejected silence. They had beat me again. I didn’t have what it took to crack the maze that was the Nohku Crags. I eased myself down into the next gulley, and began my descent in defeat. After descending around a hundred feet, I came across a huge unmistakable cairn. My spirits lifted. I had to be close to a gulley that would “go.” Turning back I retraced my steps, scanning the right side of the gulley I was in for breaks. I dismissed the first weakness I came to as being too steep and narrow. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to get up into it. But soon I came across a broken face that was less gulley than a maze of small ledges and large knobs.
Tracing my way through them, I moved faster and faster, knowing that the summit was near. I topped out to a scene that took my breath away. Peaks to the east were in the bright sun, along with the blindingly bright American Lakes Basin. Dark clouds hung over the peaks to the south, trailing wispy feelers to connect to the snowy earth. Snow was falling over South Park and the Rawahs. And with blue skies above me, I felt the sun on my face welcoming me to this place. So many look at the crags from below, but are too afraid to dream of actually being here. After taking my requisite 360 degree panorama of the view, I sat in silence, eating my lunch and relished the feeling of victory. Nothing else is so sweet.