The weekend's trip had merely enticed us. We had bailed from midway up the Price Glacier, left with tantalizing firsthand knowledge of the Price's audacity. Extensive cliff bands, massive icefalls, steep faces, and never-ending bergschrunds all stood in the way of would-be skiers. I think we were all a bit remorseful about what could have been.
Price Is Right: Our descent follows a sliver of sun from Nooksack Ridge.
Mt Shuksan taken from Ruth Mountain during the Nooksack Traverse
I've been accused of camera tilt.
Ben works his way to the icy runnel.
Ben makes a jump turn.
Ben with the Price Glacier below him
As we were getting ready to descend the glacier from just below the icefall that stopped us Sunday, I said something to Ben about trying the climb by the Beckey route in a day, with a ridiculously early start. Monday, Ben mentioned the possibility of skiing the Price on Friday in an e-mail. I noticed that the forecast was better for Friday than Saturday or Sunday, so I needed no further advisement. There were a few other considerations along the way, but the net result was that I would meet Ben in Bellingham Thursday night, at ten in the evening.
A Subaru Justy is a ski-alpinist's ride if ever there was one; the narrow, brushy road to the Nooksack Cirque Trailhead provided no problems. The first stream crossing had a slightly higher flow than the weekend before, which made me glad to be wearing shorts. The three-mile hike to where the bushwhack begins went quickly in the dark. Turning off the trail, Ben suggested that we bushwhack directly to the river instead of slightly upstream toward the log-crossing. The flow was noticeably higher than before; wading across required some focus. It's not so bad after your feet get numb.
There climber's trail to Price Lake is faint after the bushwhack begins: What's there is plenty for daylight, but our approach was at night. We consulted my compass and topo before completing any circles. We found the faint trail, but I lost it while hurrying to maintain Ben's ferocious pace. The result was a scramble through some big rocks, but when I yelled to locate Ben, the rumble through the jungle was already over. It was just a short traverse to the flat, rocky spot where we would change to boots.
We switched to skins after reaching the area where the ridge flattens above Price Lake. There was still enough snow to ski all the way to where we changed into boots. Stars were shining overhead, but the North Face and Price Glacier were obscured by a cloud. The cloud made me anxious. We paused briefly near our weekend campsite; it was a quarter to four. The time seemed good considering our navigational difficulties.
I scoped the cliffs above us for an exceptionally bad spot to boot to the ridge. It seemed like a good time to get warm for the struggle, right. Ben skinned ahead of me along the ridge. He always gets a jump on me going from skis to boots and back, what with those handy bindings of his. I caught him where we would have to drop below some cliffs to continue our traverse. I went ahead and kicked steps down the slope, while Ben attended to other business. When I regained the ridge on the far side of the cliffs, I was greeted by a beautiful sunrise and a nice view of the cliffs of Nooksack Cirque. I stopped to snap a few pictures while Ben skinned by me.
Soon the traverse turned into a steepening, avalanche debris-ridden slope. Ben has Ultimate Tele Bindings (UTBs), which are built so that there is a crampon device for the boot as part of the binding. They also give him step-in tele convenience. He doesn't have to remove and refasten crampons when he changes gear. Ben stowed his skis and jumped back to task, stinking UTBs. I followed his steps after changing to crampons and securing my skis. The slope had become more precipitous; we were climbing with our hands on the snow when we reached the base of Nooksack Tower. Ben asked me if I could take a picture. I had the day's first fun experience juggling my pack on a steep slope, while snapping a few shots of Ben traversing into the steep chute just west of Nooksack Tower. The clouds were thickening for a snow shower; I scrambled to catch Ben as he faded into the obscurity above me.
With an ice tool in one hand and a ski pole with an arrest grip in the other, we rocketed up the fifty-degree chute for what seemed like forever. Ben finally emerged from his step-kicking trance to realize that we were above the bergschrund and needed to drop some. As he got prepared for the descending traverse he asked me, "How are you planning to get down?" Well, I figured the warmth of the day might help; it had to go one way or another, but what we had just climbed definitely wasn't pretty. "Why, what do you think?" I asked to close my reply. "I'm not skiing that." With that, Ben had me fasten a buckle on his pack and was ready to disappear into the mist, friggin' UTBs!
When I was finally ready with my skis, I traversed over the rib. Ben was sinking the shaft of his ax to self-belay his sidesteps. I wanted to move, but waited until he wasn't below me. He finally pointed his skis and skied to the traverse when he was just above the bergschrund. We traversed the glacier until we reached our decision point. I stopped and removed my pack for a drink, while Ben left his gear and wandered away to apprise himself of the situation. When he returned, his summary was dire:
"These slopes above us look too steep and unconsolidated. I don't think we can climb them. Our best bet may be that face over there." Ben was considering a line farther west, which would require a traverse through a glacial gauntlet away.
"I don't know Ben, are you sure about this stuff above us?" I was (foolishly) set to examine the route above us. Ben told me to go take a look, then let him know what I thought. I think our initial climb had stifled some of Ben's mojo. I front-pointed up an ice bulge to avoid a suspicious snow bridge; above it there were a few chutes that might take us all the way to the ridge. "I think this'll go Ben, why don't you come up here?" The snow wasn't bad, six inches of fresh atop a hard base.
After watching me plod along for awhile, Ben must have been reassured (or sick of waiting), as he regained his zeal and took the lead. Now all that impeded our progress was a couple of bergschrunds and a heinous cornice.
The first bergschrund narrowed to the left. We poked at it and I got a perspective from the side. After ample speculation, Ben gingerly took one step over, tested it, then high-stepped over it and continued to the next 'schrund. The next one was bigger.
We contemplated using the rope. Ben probed a bridge, but its stability remained uncertain. I thought the steep slope on the left might be hopeful, since it showed no sign of being a bridge. It did not take long for a foray of pole-probing to correct my misconception. Ooh, wow, that hole's pretty big. Ben finally decided to use his skis to glide over the bridge he had been considering.
It took him no time, being able to step right back into his stupid UTBs without removing crampons or anything.
By the time I traversed over the bergschrund on skis retrieved my crampons, Ben had made a great deal of progress up the slope. I had liked the look of the chute on the left, but Ben made a beeline up the climber's right side. I think Ben didn't care one way or another so long as he escaped the shadow of the monstrous cornice above us. An icy runnel helped the way up the couloir, but the top was a desperate, unconsolidated windloaded snow at sixty degrees. I marvelled at Ben's speed up it, as I made great effort to follow his steps. Near the top he told me to take my time so he could snap a photo.
Up and over: How do you like that? We're on a flat, high point above a gentle plateau. I felt like the level ground would make me dizzy.
It was noon. There were no thoughts of the summit pyramid. We couldn't see it because of the clouds, it would have required a long traverse to get there, and I think we both already had enough questions below us that we wanted to answer. We ate and drank, then we relaxed to wait for some visibility. We would not ski the top of what we had just climbed. The other side, to skier's left, looked much better. There was a big bergschrund somewhere down there, though, and we did not want to get in a bad position and need to climb again.
I left the decision to Ben. He finally settled on a chute, on the right side of a saddle below us to the north. The first few turns were nice, moderate powder; 'twas a joyful way to start the descent. Then we were at the saddle and Ben was going to take pictures. He prepared to take some shots looking down at me, with the vertiginous views all the way to Price Lake as a backdrop. The turns at the top of the chute were really nice: a thin coat of powder above a solid base, certainly steeper than fifty degrees. Further down, the chute kept getting narrower and icier. I skied until I was above the narrowest section, then moved to the side to let Ben ski. I had a great time with the camera-pack juggling act and took some pictures of Ben.
After some sidestepping, Ben found a place to get over the rib on the right to exit the chute. We were back on the steep face above the bergshrunds. The snow was nice, and at forty five degrees and less the slope felt relatively flat. I shot some photos with the cornice. It took no time to return to our traverse. We considered a different way down, but decided to go with the known evil.
I traversed and sideslipped toward Nooksack Tower. The ice cliffs below us didn't look like a better option. I aimed just below a rock outcropping, finding that the icy snow held my edges well enough. There was some harder ice just below the rocks.
Now I was on the steep slope below the chute: runnel time. There was a deep debris gully that we needed to cross; it was too deep and narrow to ski. I didn't like the feel of the icy conditions in the gully for kicking the naked toe of my boot into place, so I opted for crampons. I got distracted while the debris from Ben's sidestep rained on me, dropping one of my crampons into the gully. It tumbled a few times, then stopped. Whew.
Ben retrieved my crampon. He didn't have to go through my awkward gyrations because of those silly UTB things he has. I crossed the gully in one crampon and one naked boot. On skis again, the other side featured one more steep traverse to finally escape the interminable exposure. The snow was soft enough for me to enjoy a few frivolous jump turns. After negotiating a large crevasse, I was able to take some speed and traverse to the flats. I stopped, dropped my pack, and took a bite of cheddar cheese.
The sun broke throuh the clouds, and we could see our tracks from the ridge. We speculated about what some hypothetical weekend climbers would say upon inspection and enjoyed the view. Then we traversed toward the lower ridge between the two sets of cliff bands. I skied lower, almost getting myself into trouble. When I returned into his view, I was glad Ben had waited for me. He hadn't moved; as he started, he cut roaring wet slab avalanches that slid over the cliffs. Thanks for thinking about that, Ben.
On the hike to the car I was too far gone to care about the bushwhack or the backpack. I made a pathetic effort throwing my shoes across the river. One fell short and floated for the sea. Oops, gotta hike in the boots. Endorphins helped with the three-mile hike - I couldn't have cared less about the boots or anything else. This trip was worth more than an old, worn-out shoe. I would call it priceless, but that just wouldn't be right. How about invaluable?
One year later, I returned with another intrepid Italian telemarker to ski the chute.