Nooksack Tower – Beckey/Schmidtke – July 3, 2009
Having failed 2 weeks ago on this mountain due to rain, Don Beavon and I returned once again with diehard motivation to summit.
We left town on July 2 with a bomber forecast.. three days of sun with pulsating golden globes (a now prerequisite of mine to visit the Mt. Shuksan area). We loaded our heavy packs into Don's little Honda and proceeded Northward, to the North Fork Nooksack River Road. Unlike on our previous attempt, the road would be closed this time due to construction on the Hannegan Pass avalanche. This would add 4.4 miles RT to our approach.
We got a permit at the Glacier Ranger Station before unloading at the “Trailhead”. There was construction activity on FS32, prior to the turnoff to Hannegan Pass. The gate is locked at night until August, and no vehicle traffic is allowed, although we did see quite a few pedestrians and even a guy on a bike with skis on his pack.
We walked the 2.2 miles of road with great views to Mt Shuksan and Price Glacier Cirque. FS32 ends at Ruth Creek, where the road was washed out long ago. From the end of FS32, it is another 3 miles of nice trail to get to the climber’s path that heads down to the river crossing. The river crossing is quite precarious, and consists of a 12” diameter log 10’ above the river (sans bark). We elected to shimmy across with our heavy packs. Others might be more adventurous.
After an uneventful log crossing, we tanked up for the steep 1000’ of gain to Price Lake. We found a wooden cross etched with “Rimas Gylys 1958-1984”. We didn’t see this cross the last time, and we were curious to find out the story behind it. It is smack dab in the middle of nowhere, just off the unofficial trail (when I got home I Googled the name, and sure enough, he died attempting to climb Nooksack Tower).
Price Lake had melted out quite a bit in the past two weeks, and only a few ice remnants remained. From Price Lake, the bootpath ascends the moraine towards Price Glacier Cirque. From the end of the moraine, we peeled left up to the ridge where we found a nice goatpath that took us almost all the way to camp at 5900’. What a magnificent place! These are some of the most rugged views in the North Cascades.
We got to camp around 3PM, so we had plenty of time to scout around and spy our route. We gained a highpoint above camp, with great views to the surrounding peaks, and checked out our route. The Tower is so steep, it is hard to really see the route from afar.
We got to bed early, and set our alarms for 3AM.
The next morning we awoke to clear skies and balmy temperatures. I’d guess the temps were in the upper-50s (T-Shirt weather). We dropped down to the Glacier and began a rising traverse towards the steep snow couloir that guards Nooksack Tower. I belayed Don over the hollow schrund, and he nearly punched through. We decided to swing wide and go around to the left before ascending the couloir, so as to miss the schrund entirely. The couloir starts out around 50 degrees, steepening to 60 at the top (with one 70 degree step at the transition to rock). We climbed unroped since we were both comfortable with steep snow, and we didn’t want to waste time placing deadmen (which would be the only thing that would hold a fall – maybe). Don, who made a recent trip to K2, was entirely comfortable climbing with one axe, while I used two.
At the transition to rock, the route gets tricky. The Tower is obviously steep, and it has many rock ribs guarding the terrain that lies beyond. We pushed up the central gulley to try to gain one of these ribs, but we encountered impossible (for us), overhanging rock with an abundance of lichen. After giving it a try, I backed off and decided to find another way. We worked down and to the right, eventually crossing a minor rib, where we encountered a class 3-4 gulley. From here, we generally trended up and left, through several gullies, most of which was reasonably solid for Cascade standards. There were some tense moments on an airy, loose class 4 traverse, where every block we touched moved. We decided to rope up here, as we were about 3-4 pitches from the summit, and the terrain was getting steeper. From the loose traverse pitch to the summit was class 4-5 for the most part, with a dramatic drop to the glacier below. The views to the surrounding peaks were incredible.
We tagged the summit around 2:30 after ~10 hours on the go. The Tower gets climbed about once per season on average, and it has a brass Mountaineers register on top. After taking some photos and remarking about the stellar views, we started the descent. The first rappel was seemingly off a stack of rocks from the summit block, and I was a little apprehensive. If you fell here, you’d wind up in Price Lake. Overall we did about ten 60m raps to the glacier below, including a rap off a deadman picket in the upper couloir. We downclimbed the rest of the couloir in the dark, and proceeded to navigate our way back to camp, returning 21 hours after we left. Definitely not the fastest time on Nooksack, but we sure did enjoy ourselves. And what better peak to spend so much time on?