Nooksack Tower, Elevation 8,268ft
South Face: Grade V, 5.10-
July 23-25, 2001
Jens Klubberud, Ben
The South Face of Nooksack Tower. Our climb is in green (approximate). Our descent was the standard North Face route.
Photographer: John Roper (taken from Jagged Ridge, August 2, 1979)
Fred Beckey says it's the most difficult summit to reach in the Cascades. At least that is what Jens told me after we climbed it. It's a good thing he told me this after our climb because I was full of intimidation before hand. I hadn't climbed in over 2 years but I figured my newfangled kayaking muscles could make up for that. Besides, time off is good for the tendons.
Jens called me a week before to inform me of his plan. This is unusual for both of us because we are used to planning and packing the night before or morning of our trips. We had been in and out of touch for over a month but it looked like we were going to finally meet. I figured that I could wait another week. Well, not exactly. I managed to squeeze in two trips before our scheduled rendezvous. The first was a two-day hiking trip. I caught three fish at Circle Lake and climbed all three Mount Daniel summits the next day. A day of rest was followed by another two-day hiking trip. I caught no fish at Spectacle Lake and swatted misquotes both days. Nearly 50 miles of hiking over 5 days not to mention the driving.
Jens called the night before and gave the details of what to bring and where to meet. We planned for a two-day trip. No tent, no stove. A 9mm rope for the glacier and descent and we would split the rack. Crampons and ice axe. Boots, rockshoes, headlamp, HELMET. We planned to meet at a Park and Ride off I-5 at 6am. Oh yea, mountain bike for the approach.
Jens was there when I arrived. I'm usually a little early but this time I made several checks through my place to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. I can pack for a ski trip in my sleep but packing for this trip took a little extra thought.
After a quick greeting we loaded everything into the Mazda. I agreed to drive and Jens offered to buy breakfast. We stopped at Denny's a few miles up the road. Jens brought in a map and some photos to fill me in while we were waiting. The waiter came with an omelet for Jens and a Grand Slam for myself. Jens reminded him that I ordered two and second came just as I finished the first. What a way to start the day.
We continued north to HW542 just outside of Bellingham where we stopped for groceries and gas. I had enough food for two days but picked up a little extra just in case. A sausage, a few caramels and some beer. Turns out I would need every bit.
We arrived at the trailhead in less than an hour. As expected, there were no cars. Jens stashed a couple beers in the river while I finished packing. It was around 10am when we left. We started out in sandals because there is a short ford where the road washed out. We switched to tennis shoes and mounted our bikes on the other side. The ride up was good for the most part. The overgrown road wasn't too steep and our packs weren't terribly heavy unlike my recent experience on Mowich Lake. We ditched our bikes at just under 3 miles where the trail enters heavy timber. This is where the schwack begins.
A climbers path leads down to the Nooksack River where we found what looked like a suitable log crossing. The log was solid (1-2ft in diameter with bark still in tack) but it was quite high (over 10ft) and the water below looked menacing. We both stood our way across ok. The old log must have washed out because getting to the path required a couple hundred foot backtrack. We didn't know this at the time so we beat our way through the brush until we intersected it near Price Creek. The path was easy to follow from there. We missed a turn about halfway up and ended up climbing through a boulder field. We should have stayed right. The views of Price Creek kept me entertained. I explained the river rating system to Jens. This creek was definitely unrunable. It's strange how I analyze rivers and creeks now that I'm familiar with what can be done. If nothing else, it kept my mind off the steep hill and bugs that we faced.
We reached the moraine above Price Lake around noon. The views were spectacular. This was Jens' high point from a previous attempt. I could see his reason for returning.
Jens entering the moraine above Price Lake. Nooksack Tower and the North Face of Shuksan can be seen amongst the clouds.
We took a short break about halfway up the moraine. My pack took a tumble while I wasn't paying attention. I recovered my keys and a few other items that fell out of the unzipped top. It was around 1pm as I recalled checking my watch sometime during this break.
The atmosphere was encouraging. We could see our camp on the ridge and the path became easier to follow. The weather was perfect. My attention was focused on the North Face of Shuksan because I had been meaning to ski it for several years. I was surprised that it looked doable this late in the season. I took a photo to remind myself.
Nooksack Tower, Price Glacier and the North Face of Shuksan.
We continued up the moraine until we spotted a large carne. The path sort of disappeared here so we decided to head left to the ridge. The climb involved a steep mix of trees and brush. We spotted the path again once we reached the ridge. We took it easy from here. There was plenty of daylight and we wanted to enjoy every bit of scenery. We stopped several times to drink from the natural fountains. Snowmelt was abundant.
We climbed some steep snow on the south side of the ridge that provided some exposure, especially with tennis shoes. A bit of mixed climbing led to the upper ridge where we spotted some tracks in the snow. Jens managed to find the remnants of a sunken picket. This was puzzling because the slope was less than 30 degrees. We thought they might have climbed the tower. Regardless, they had some serious learning to do.
Myself doing a little mixed climbing on the upper ridge.
Jens nearing our bivy.
We passed some excellent camps on the upper ridge that tempted us to settle down. Some were large enough to pitch a tent. However, the snowy ridge invited us to go further. We came across some flat granite at around 6,500ft that we couldn't resist. We set our packs down and continued in search of water.
We downclimbed some 4th class to reach a slab where the polished granite turned to weathered choas. There were several drips that we milked until our bellies and bottles were full. We had no stove to melt snow so this became our slab of life.
Jens in search of water.
Jens on the slab of life.
We slowly unpacked at camp in-between eating and drinking. I went to check the time but I couldn't seem to find my watch. I knew it was in the top of my pack. Then I remembered the tumble and soon realized that it must have fallen out. This was bad for two reasons. First, we were counting on my watch for an alarm to wake us up. Second, Jens' analog watch got wound in the brush so we didn't know what time it was. I rested in disbelief for several hours (estimated) before Jens was reminded of his cell phone. He pulled it out, checked the time and gave his wife a call. He reset his watch and placed it between us so we could wake up whenever possible to check the time.
I had a difficult time going to bed because the views were so compelling. Jens led me on a little bouldering adventure to rekindle myself. This allowed me to test out my new Boreal Ace -- a longtime favorite of mine. I spent the rest of the evening wandering around in search of photos. I took two of the same but I wish that I had taken more. We chatted for a bit before the sun went down and the clouds moved in. Jens didn't have a bivy sack but the forecast called for clearing so we didn't think much of the clouds. I went to bed around 9pm.
Jens and I at our bivy.
Jens at our bivy.
It started to drizzle around midnight. The drizzle turned to steady rain and by our wake up time of 2am, things were wet. We laid in our bags for another 30 minutes and it finally let up. I was concerned at this point and Jens looked to be a little disappointed. We decided to continue the approach, hoping that it might clear. We had a quick breakfast, finished packing and left camp around 3am.
I thought that we could access the West Nooksack Glacier via a short scramble but we ended up having to rappel. Our headlamps gave us limited visibility in the dark amongst the clouds. My double boots felt glunky on the slippery rock and downclimbing 5th class rock with a pack is awkward at best. We reached the snow after a single rope rappel off a stopper and some runner. Now I was comfortable.
We put our crampons on and roped up with less than 50ft of rope between us. The glacier was shallow at first so we figured shorter separation might prevent us from bottoming out. I followed Jens through the mist. We downclimbed some 50+ and climbed some 60+ but the majority was under 30 degrees. The rain picked up as we traversed from the West Nooksack to the East Nooksack Glacier. We found a shallow crevasse to hide in and spent a good hour questioning ourselves. I finished all my caramels and a half a quart of water. This left me with a bagel, some lemon drops and a quart of water. I didn't want to say it but I had pretty much given up. Jens was thinking the same thing but we agreed to continue. Our secondary goal was to climb Shuksan.
The Glacier provided plenty of excitement. At one point we ran into a full blown icefall that we had to backtrack to get around. There were plenty of large crevasses that could have turned us around at any point. One spanned the entire Glacier -- 50ft wide and as deep as the eye could see. Fortunately, there was always a snowbridge that allowed us to continue. The clouds started to break around 6am. We could see the steep snow face leading to the Crystal Glacier which leads to the Sulifide which leads to the Summit Pyramid. We climbed to within an hour of the Crystal before looking back and seeing the South Face of Nooksack Tower.