Nooksack Tower

September 28, 2002

Matt Alford, Eric Murphy

** Matt's not exactly a guest to this site, but this is a section I hope will expand in the future - selected trips undertaken by friends that did not involve me.  Matt re-tells this story of an epic night out on an exposed ledge in a snowstorm in his own writing style.  Please enjoy. ~DS

Nooksack Tower in more favorable conditions.  Matt has another picture for this slot, but it's too big. (picture stolen from someone else's worthless site)

I had just finished up a 8 mile run with the cross country team that I had been assistant coaching in the fall; drenched with sweat from the unseasonable warm late September temperatures, I hopped in the front seat of the my truck.  As peered North from the parking lot at Squalicum High School to unknown peeks in the Chillawack, my excitement grew for the upcoming weekend.

My longtime climbing partner Darren had scored a 5-Day permit into the Enchanments and we were planning on, along with Dave the unemployed (by-choice) chemist, and Matt “soon to be Dr” Smitherman, to make a run in and climb the West Ridge of Prussik Peak.  I was pumped to get out and likely bag my last alpine rock climb of the season.

I picked up my cell phone and noticed a call from another friend and climbing partner Eric Murphy.  Nine out ten times Eric called me in midweek would result in a tough, committing alpine ascent somewhere in the Cascades.  This phone call would prove no different.  Eric’s message said he was looking for a partner to do something “difficult”  this weekend, “possibly” an attempt on Nooksack Tower.  Thoughts of warm rock in Eastern Washington began to fade into visions of steep rock and ice in the midst of the chaotic landscape of the Nooksack cirque.

I phoned Eric for conformation and let him know that I was game but had to clear my other plans before I could commit.  A few phone calls later revealed Darren to be swamped with homework and studying civil service exams all weekend.  This freed me up and left Dave and Matt as a team to go use the Enchantment permit.  I gave Eric a ring on Thursday and confirmed the trip and we agreed to meet Friday afternoon and camp at the trailhead.

Eric pulled up to my house in Bellingham at about quarter to six on Friday, I threw some finishing touches on my pack, we loaded up my truck and were ready to roll.  A quick feed at Case Que Pasa and 8 pm found us speeding down the Mount Baker Highway to towards the Nooksack River Road.  At 10 pm the lights were out in the mattressesed bed of my Nissan with scheduled 4:00 am wake-up.

Fred Beckey well describes the character of the Nooksack Tower on page 75 of Cascade Alpine Guide III.

The mammoth rock tower is one of the most difficult and imposing summits in the Cascade Range; this fact, together with the commitment of time, lengthy decent, and varying snow conditions, makes this a serious objective at any time.

Local legend and North Cascade guru Jim Nelson adds,

This is a remote and strenuous climb in a setting of wild, rugged grandeur.  Since its first ascent in 1946, Nooksack Tower has proven to be a much-sought-after objective; views from the summit include Jagged Ridge of Mount Shuksan and intimate looks at the spectacular broken East Nooksack and Price glaciers.  The climb is characterized by a troublesome and complicated approach and, once you get there, by medium- to poor-quality rock with high potential for rockfall.  For that reason the route is potentially dangerous.


 In any case, Eric and I were soon to learn that Nooksack’s tough reputation is well deserved.

We awoke at 4am to a starlit sky and had morning brew of fine french press coffee and a peanut butter and honey sandwich.  We departed from the truck shortly before 5 am dropping down to cross a small creek where the road had been washed out several years before.  Not ten minutes into our trek, my tofu burrito and fresh hot salsa of the night before were screaming at me.  I quickly diverged and dropped into the bushes to relieve myself of the pains and what must have been 20 lbs of deadweight.  Soon again moving, Eric and I found ourselves tramping down the old logging road heading SE towards the Nooksack Cirque.  Although Eric had been on the approach to Price Lake a couple times before, navigating by headlamp proved a bit difficult and we overran the climbers path leading to the Nooksack River and Price Creek drainage.  20 minutes of backtracking and a 20 minute bushwhack found us at the edge of the Nooksack River.  Although there is an infamous log crossing available, the late season low level of the River allowed a foot crossing without much incident.  We quickly picked up the climber’s path that led steeply up the eastern edge of Price Creek to Price Lake.  A couple hours of slogging found us high on the moraine overlooking Price Lake with the Nooksack Tower, North Face of Shuksan, and the Price Glacier towering above.  We followed to moraine around the lake until cliff bands impeded futher progress.  At this point we climbed several hundred feet of brush to the wooded ridge to the east and picked up a faint climbers past leading in the direction of the Price Glacier.  After making a descending traverse across heathered shelves, we arrived at the polished granite slabs of the lower glacier.  Wasting no time, Eric and I slipped on our crampons and traded our trekking poles for ice axes.  The late season condition of the glacier presented us with “what you see is what you get” policy and we felt safe traveling unroped on the Glacier.  We quickly traversed the lower Price Glacier and located a relatively flat platform that we thought we be our bivy when we returned from the climb that evening.  Wanting to move fast we stripped our packs of all but the essentials we would needed for the climb, leaving our sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and most of our food behind.  I glanced down at my watch and noticed that it was creeping up on 10:30 in the morning.  Our route finding in the morning had cost us a little time in addition to the fact that we figured the approach could have been done a little faster. 

Not wanting to waste any more daylight, we quickly departed and began a rising southwest traverse of the Price towards the ice couloir at the northern base of the Tower.  25 minutes and 3 or 4 intimidating crevasse jumps later and Eric and I stood at the base of a huge bergschrund at 6600 ft..   The late season conditions of the glacier exposed a 100-foot wall of dirty black glacial ice in front of us.  Both Eric and I had elected to bring one ultra-light ice ax and one ice tool for the climb-not exactly the ideal set-up for steep rock-hard glacial ice.  Eric grabbed the rack of three screws and set an anchor with one of them.  Eric, being much more competent on steep ice then myself, volunteered for the first pitch.  Eric cruised up the wall with minimal bitching about the quality of ice, setting a screw at about 100 ft.  Up above me Eric called down that the ice eased off to about 60 degrees of beautiful glacial nev´e after the initial shit; he quickly ran out the length of the rope.  I followed the lead, happy to be on top rope, and passed Eric as I took the lead on the much more moderate 45-55 degree ice.  Both of feeling very comfortable on the terrain we elected to simul-climb to move faster, keeping one piece of gear between us at all times.  While not a true belay, this running belay type of system does provide some protecting on this type of terrain. 

Matt on steep ice.


Matt leads the final section of steep ice to the base of the tower.

I stayed in the lead as we climbed 800 ft up the narrowing couloir to towards the base of the rock.  Upon reaching the top, our progress was brought to an abrupt halt by a huge schrund that spanned the entire distance across the couloir.  This presented us with the problem of not being able to access the normal entry to the standard Beckey-Schmidtke Route.  Although this was a bit of a pain in the ass, it looked as if we could access the route several hundred feet down the couloir and then traverse into what we determined to be the standard route.

We selected a line and I chopped out a belay stance in the ice as Eric geared up for the first pitch.  Sizing the rock from below, I would have guessed in to bee most 4th and low fifth class climbing, not to difficult in either Eric or my standards.  The Beckey-Schmidtke line is purportedly 5.4 if on route, and being so, both of us had elected to climb in boots.

We anchored all of our ice gear on to a picket, figuring we wouldn’t need it from here on out, and we could retrieve it on the descent.  I clipped into the anchor and put Eric on belay.  As soon as Eric set our on lead, I knew we may had underestimated the difficultly of the pitch.  I could tell by the grunts, occasional documentary (“this rock is a fucking pile shit”) and constant shower of loose pebbles and medium sized rocks that Eric wasn’t enjoying the pitch all that much.  After what seemed like an eternity (in actuality 45 min-hour) the long awaited “off-belay” echoed down the couloir.  I had been standing on my tiny ice platform leaning into the glacier for an hour and I was freezing cold.  I was happy to finally be climbing, but felt pretty stiff and uncoordinated as I made my first couple moves on the rock.  I quickly understood why Eric had struggled so much with the pitch.  The rock was loose everywhere, and anything somewhat solid was down-sloping or featureless.  I continued upward pulling gear and paying mind to where I set my hands and feet.  At about 100 feet the rope traversed right around a blind corner over some sketchy ground.  I began the traverse, checking holds before I weighted them to make another step.  I realized my methodology wasn’t adequate when I moved on a hold and felt an ice chest-size flake pull away from the wall with me attached to it.  A “FALLING” yell and a ten foot ride later found me dangling from the end of the rope unscathed but definitely alert.   I climbed up 10 feet and freed the rope that had become lodged in a crack and called for Eric to take up the slack.  I finished the traverse around the corner to Eric’s belay and we swapped the rack and I led out.  I glanced down at my watch and noticed it was 2:00 in the afternoon.  The thought crossed my mind that it was pretty late in the day to commit to this climb, especially with unfavorable weather forecasted for the ensuing night and following day.  Despite, I figured we could get up in another two hours, spend 5 on the descent and locate our bivy by 9:00pm that night.  A long day, but not unreasonable by any means . 

My confidence grew as I led our over easy 3rd and forth class terrain and we passed several rap slings, letting us know we were somewhat on route.  We ascend 500 or 600 feet until encountering terrain that looked and felt very 5th class again.  I set an anchor and belayed Eric in.  Another look at the watch reveled it was now 5:00 in the afternoon, time to start descending if we wanted to get back to the bivy at a reasonable hour.  We looked above and figured it couldn’t be more that 1-2 more pitches to the summit.  Feeling committed to the climb we continued on with Eric in the lead.  I strung out 50 meters of rope and then followed Eric up on some low 5th terrain.  Eric handed over the rack, and I led out on what I figured would be the last pitch to the summit above.  I’m not exactly sure how far off route we were, but I defiantly got into to some legitimate sustained 5.6-5.7 climbing for the several hundred feet.  While no expert, I am fairly competent rock climber and must say that was the most difficult pitch I had ever led in mountaineering boots.  I popped up the crest and was quickly disappointed to find that we were still at least pitch below the summit.  I built an anchor on marginal rock and belayed in Eric who found the pitch more difficult than I did and was equally disappointed that we were still below the summit.

Matt pauses for a wave as he finds easier ground.

At this point our senses kicked in as we realized that we were both feeling pretty wasted, it was getting dark, and it was quite obvious that we were not going to get down that night.  We climbed up another 50 feet to a small, semi-protected shelf in the rock and decided to call it home for the night.  Eric had been the veteran of a couple of forced bivouacs, but I was on my virgin run.  In truth though, I wasn’t to upset about the prospect, and other than being a little cold, we were in good shape with food and water and the forecasted foul weather looked like it was going to hold off.  We made the plan to sit down until light, go up and tag the summit just a rope length above us, descend and walk out the next day.  I had brought a down jacket and Eric had brought a synthetic, which we both slipped on and had a bite to eat.  We moved a few rocks around and threw down our packs to sit on and covered ourselves with a foil survival blanket and a tarp.  I curled up and tried to catch a bit of body heat from Eric and dozed off for an hour or two.   Little did I know that our epic had only really just begun!

I awoke an hour or two later to sound of freezing rain patterning off the space blanket.  I looked up to the sky that was illuminated with stars just a few hour earlier and now could see scarcely 20 feet in any direction.  I zipped my shell over my down jacket and pulled my hood over my head and tried to slip further beneath our makeshift shelter.  I gave up the tarp to Eric and tried to wrap myself with the space blanket, which was quickly being reduced to shreds.  We progressively became wetter and wetter as the weather seemed hell-bent on making us pay for our less-than-stellar decision-making.  Although we were both borderline hypothermic, our bodies were warm enough to continually melt the snow that fell down upon us making a nice pool of ice water to sit in.   For the next thirteen hours Eric and I sat and froze, fully exposed in full winter conditions during one of the one most unpleasant nights of my life.

View down onto the glacier from exposed bivy ledge.

At first light we got up and slipped on our frozen harnesses and ate a forced breakfast of our remaining bars and gorp.  The mountain was completely socked in and our visibility was limited to 50ft at most.  Eric complained of having to take a shit, but the prospect of pulling off his harness and rooting through his pack to find some toilet paper with half-frozen hands convinced him to wait until we got down. 

After a quick and unsuccessful search for a safe rap anchor, Eric slammed a blade in the rock and I set off on rappel.  We elected to run single rope rappels for the first several hundred feet and reassess the situation as we went.  I descended 100 feet on the route that we had climbed the day before, although now it was completely covered with 5-6 inches of loose snow and ice.  Not only did this make route finding extremely difficult, but also locating acceptable anchors became an epic within itself.  I had to uncover what appeared to be something solid, test it from every angle, string and tie a runner, and anchor in before Eric could follow me down on rap.  To add to my misery, my Windstopper gloves were soaked and the fingers on both the right and left hands were torn out.  In my infinite wisdom I had left my shell gloves at camp, not thinking that I would need them.  I really began to regret that decision as the tips of several of my fingers ceased to hurt and turned a pasty white color; early sign of frostbite.     Three single and four double rope rappels got us back to steep headwall that we had climbed directly out of the ice couloir the day before.  It was now absolutely imperative that we rappel directly back to our crampons and ice tools as we would be unable to climb back up or down to them if we missed the rap.  With the fog so thick that we couldn’t get a clear picture of where our gear was, I set off over lip and began the rappel into the couloir.  I got down on a dead vertical rappel about 100 feet and could see the ice below me.  We had missed-judged the line and I could see that our crampons and tools were several hundred feet above the rappel.  It would be suicide to continue the rappel and try to ascend the ice couloir back to our gear without crampons or a tool.  Such being the case I began to prussic up the lines so we could redirect the rappel.   Both of the lines were wet and semi-frozen, this combined with fact the rap was overhung made for an exhausting task.  It took me nearly 40 minutes to ascend the ropes back the anchor where Eric waited with a “I’m really fucking cold” look on his face.  I was wasted and handed over the rack to Eric and told him that he was going to have to take over leading the rappels as I was afraid that I was going to fuck up and hurt myself or both of us.  After sitting still on the anchor for the better half of an hour exposed to the wind and snow, Eric was keen to move and happy to take over the lead. 

I handed over the rack and Eric led out on rappel, redirecting from my erroneous line and traversing from our anchor on a toward where I told him that our gear lay below us.  A half hour later I heard Eric call that he was off rappel and I tied in and began to follow the ropes down.  As I cleared the lip of the cliff, I couldn’t believe what I saw.  Eric had led a rappel that descended 200 vertically and traversed 100 feet horizontally.  I could see that Eric had actually set gear as he went.  As I follow the rap clinging to ice covered rock with one hand and managing the rope with the other I became extremely thankful for Eric’s strength in the situation.  A fall here would have resulted in a horrific pendulum swing back into the rock and left him far below the target of our ice gear.

I finished out the rap and anchored in to an ice screw and carefully strapped on my crampons.  Eric cut a bollard in the ice as I pulled the rope and strung it around our ice anchor.  Eric led out and I follow down quickly after and arrived at a schrund where

Eric was chopping another bollard.  I pulled the rope and we repeated the process descending another 300 feet down the ice couloir.  Eric set a V-thread and we pulled the rope through and descended another 300 feet.  I arrived at the anchor and Eric was cutting another bollard and I began to pull the rope.  In my lessened mental condition and like a true dumbass I neglected to untie the safety knots in the end of the rope, which I didn’t realize until it became solidly jammed in the runner at the V-thread.  Eric looked at me silently with the “I can’t fucking believe you just did that!” expression as I silently cursed myself.  I glanced down at my watch and saw it was nearing 5:00 pm, knowing that another night exposed on the mountain would likely kill us both I decided to free climb the ice back up to the anchor, free the rope, and rappel back down.  While not the safest option in the situation, taking the time to belay and protect the entire pitch would have taken over an hour and forced us into the extremely dangerous situation of descending in the dark. 

I grabbed my tools and began climbing the 55-degree ice back up to the stuck rope.  I kept repeating the mantra “each placement is a self-belay”.  Although the ice was solid not overly steep, a fall at this point would have proven fatal as there would be no chance of self-arrest.  I made my way to the jammed rope and made my second colossal fuck-up in a 15-minute period of time.  In my brain dead state I un-jammed the rope before tying it off to myself, which I only realized as I watched the rope skid down the ice and come to a rest near Eric 60 meters below me.  This time I didn’t curse or even hesitate, I had no choice but to down climb the ice un-roped back to Eric and the next rappel.  It is strange, but I had gotten to the point where I almost expected this type of shit to continue happening.  I felt as if the mountain was handing out a punishment for the lack of respect we had given in our estimation of the route and decision making the day before.  Without emotion or fear I set out and soloed the ice back down to Eric.

Another rappel on the ice found us at the top of the huge bergschrund at the base of the ice couloir that had had been the beginning of our pitched climbing the day before.  We had assessed how we might descend the schrund on our way up and decided that the huge exposed slab of vertical rock would be the safest line to take back down to the moderately angled glacier that led back to our bivy gear. 

I untied my cordelette from my harness and tied it around a huge ice-covered boulder at the top of the schrund.  Eric set off on rap and descended quickly at first.  I let myself begin to think we were going to get out of this situation relatively unscathed as all that stood between us and our sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and hot cup of soup was a rappel and a 20 minute walk on the glacier.

The motion on the roped ceased and I counted the minutes pass…5…10…15… “For the fucking love of God, what the hell could have possibly gone wrong now?” I thought to myself.  Finally Eric called up that I could descend down.  I cleared the lip of the slab and could see Eric had not made it down to the glacier.  He was anchored off about half-way down the smooth slab standing on a small outcrop just big enough for him.  As I descended Eric yelled up that the ropes didn’t reach and that we were going to have to string yet another rappel.  As I got closer Eric told me to stop a few feet above him and examine the rock for any cracks that might take a blade well.  I stopped a few feet above Eric and rapped the rope around my thigh to brake the rapell.  Eric handed me up the hammer and a piton.  I lined it up in a crack and slammed it in.  The increased pitch of the ring the piton made as I hammered it in told me that it was a money placement even though it only went about ½ in.  I anchored off to the piton, pulled the rope and restrung it for a final rappel.  While I didn’t fully trust my half-sunk knife blade, my options were very limited and I set off on the final 100 feet back down to the glacier.  Eric followed and we quickly coiled the ropes, again forgoing the cautionary measure of roping on the glacier.  I was now 7:00, rapidly become dark and beginning to snow again. 

We negotiated the glacier by memory as sun went down weaving and jumping several crevasses and reached our gear stash just darkness took the night.  I didn’t want to spend the night exposed on the glacier and was keen to move and find a suitable bivy somewhere near the woods.  Eric agreed but steadfastly refused to move until he tended to the shit that had started knocking at the door 13 hours earlier.  I am not in the habit of checking out my climbing partners feces, but I shit you not (no pun intended) when I say that we would have needed six blue bags to pack that sucker out.  In any case, It was unlikely that any trace of Eric’s newborn would remain by morning as the snow was beginning to fall a steady pace as we strapped on our headlamps and made our way off the glacier.

Two hours later, unable to negotiate further in the dark and snow, we set down on a patch of snow covered alpine grass and heather.  We enjoyed a hot dinner of cashew chicken, and although I am a vegetarian, I must say that was the best darn chicken that I have ever had.  After a couple of brews of hot drinks we settled into our sacks and covered ourselves with the tarp again.

Eric enjoying a cold, but happy morning, because he is off the tower.


The snow-covered Nooksack Tower is visible to the left of Matt.

We awoke in the morning to a full view of morning clouds lifting off the snow-covered cirque.  I was hard to believe that just two days before we had approached in summer conditions, and it had literally turned winter overnight.  I must admit thought that even feeling beat and broken by the mountain, I stood in awe of the wildness and rugged massive of what stood before us.  I think one would find it difficult to find a place in the United States that equals the magnificence, grandeur, and beauty of the Nooksack Cirque.  We snapped a couple of photos and headed out tracing the moraine around Price Lake and descending steeply into the forest.  Upon reaching the Nooksack River, we didn’t even bother to look for a log crossing.  Without hesitation, both of us simply waded through the ice-cold, hip-deep water and up the other side of the bank.  Two miles later found us crossing the washout just minutes from my truck.  Along with the theme of the entire trip and in a somewhat comical, if not appropriate end to the saga, with no more than five minutes left to walk, the clouds unleashed with a furious downpour upon us.  We reached the truck and I grabbed my dry cloths and retreated to a nearby tree for shelter while I pulled off my waterlogged boots and garmets.  Eric was unpleasantly surprised to find that water had leaked though an open window in my canopy and drenched his dry change of cloths.  We hopped in my truck and cranked the heater on full blast and inhaled bagels with bulk CO-OP peanut butter and honey. 

I placed my fingers in front of the heater ducts and bit my lower lip as the warmth began to thaw my cold-blistered fingers.  I like to think that I have a fairly high tolerance for pain, but the hurt associated with circulation returning to my fingers honestly made me want to cry like a twelve year old girl.  The tips of several of my fingers had already discolored into a black purple and lacked full sensation; I knew that they had been severely frost-nipped and hoped that I would have no permanent damage. 

We cruised into Glacier and stopped at Milano’s for a feed.  For some reason Eric thought a beer would be a good idea and I thought that I needed a coffee.  I’m sure we were quite a sight, two mangy characters, Eric melting into the chair with a shit-eating grin at his first sips Ale, and me nearly pissing my pants and forgetting my name as the caffeine took effect in my dehydrated and battered body. 

A month later Eric and I are back out on the attempting a November accent of the Coleman Headwall on Mount Baker.  My fingers had quit peeling as of a week ago and my toes had recovered nearly 100% or their feeling.  Again we were planning a car-summit-bivy-car speed accent.  Our progress was not moving along like we planned as we are turned back three times trying to cross the crevasse riddled Coleman Glacier.  After our third line fails, I begin to think that we might run out of enough daylight to climb the route and descend before dark.  I ask Eric what time it is; one o’clock and we still have at least one and a half hours to the base of the route.  Eric asks me what I think… “Fuck It!!!”, my response reveals how motivated I am by the thought of an exposed bivy on the Coleman Headwall.  Eric and I concede defeat on our attempt, and spend the remainder of the day ice bouldering and lounging in the November sun.  We return to camp about dark and cook up a feed and enjoy the alpine enhanced sunset.  We sit under the starlit sky and discuss how fortunate we are to be sleeping out on such a beautiful night.  I settle into my down bag as the temperature drops into the low 20’s and close my eyes for a 12-hour mountain slumber. 

In retrospect, I am little glad that the route didn’t go and we were unable to climb.  As an alpinist, so often I am caught up in climbing a route as quickly as possible, getting on and off safely, and staying focused on the climb.  Once in a while it is important to stop and look at what is around you in the mountains-not every climb has to be a ball-busting epic.    I was originally attracted to the mountains for their majesty and grandeur beauty, not to climb hard lines.  Although I have evolved into a alpine junky, and embrace the physical and mental challenges that the climbing mountains may offer, I must never forget the reasons that I was first drawn to the alpine world and that it is not always about getting to the top.   

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