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The Devil and Nooksak Tower

The Devil and Nooksak Tower

Alex Bertulis

“DER Teufel ist gefallen!” * wrote “Friedrich” Beckey on the first page of a small notebook, stuffed it into a tin can and placed it under some rocks on the summit. He and Clifford Schmitcke had just succeeded in the first ascent of Nooksak Tower— a peak that had thwarted numerous previous attempts. The year was 1946.

Some 25 years later, the devil was alive and well and back on Nooksak Tower.

Our objective was the unclimbed north face. It was May 1970. Jim Schack and I camped at about 6000 feet on a small but heathered shoulder. To the west, the Price Glacier flowed into a lake 2000 feet below. To the east the precipitous Nooksak Cirque echoed with frequent thunderings of ice and snow avalanches. The sunset was partially obscured by the dark outline of Nooksak Tower rising sharply 2000 feet above us. The north face was an unknown quantity. The usual questions preoccupied our minds.

Early the next morning we traversed the upper Price Glacier to the vertical start of the rock. Jim took the first lead—a rather strenuous jam-crack and chimney. The second and third rope-lengths traversed under the first of several overhanging headwalls. There was occasional verglas, typical to north faces that see little or no sun all day. The climbing was just hard enough to be enjoyable. There were lots of cracks and horns for protection and our climbing gained tempo. The exposure was terrific.

Jim completed a long lead and secured a good belay, standing on a three-inch ledge running across a vertical wall. I proceeded over a small overhang about 25 feet directly above him. Not seeing any good anchor cracks and having mentally registered a major ledge ready to intercept me (should I fall), I decided to backtrack a few feet to the last crack I saw. I reached a cumbersome stance and delicately, positioned a piton into the crack. Then I fell.

I do not fall very often but when I do, I am always prepared, mentally and geographically. This time was different. The distance to the ledge below the belay anchor was certainly closer than my point above it! Shock and panic penetrated me instantly. A desparate lunge for handholds peeled most of the skin off the palms of my hands. I glanced off Jim on my way down and was certain he too was knocked off. Tumbling head over heels through the air I saw the ledge coming. This was it … I felt sick. I did not expect the rope to tighten around my waist as it had done so many times before, but it did—inches before my head reached the ledge!

I had taken a forty-foot fall. Hanging there upsidedown, I asked to be lowered. My body was raking with pain. My knickers were ripped, revealing severely cut muscles above the knee and profuse bleeding. I was beginning to faint but a drink of water revived me. Jim, seeing all the flesh and blood, also began to faint; he took a drink also.

Jim had saved my life by pulling in a few feet of rope while I was airborne. He stayed put during our collision since he was clipped in snugly at the waist to a piton a few inches away. He took off his Tee-shirt and improvised a tourniquet to slow down the bleeding and support the loose muscles. Several vertical rappels brought us to the 50° snow slopes on the west side of the Tower. It was a very long way back down the mountain. I was incapacitated for the rest of the summer. It was a repeat of the previous year, when I broke my leg at the beginning of the climbing season.

Early the following summer, Jim and I made another attempt to climb the north face of Nooksak Tower. We climbed directly up a 2000-foot spur leading to Price Lake, which was still iced over. A bivouac was established on a snow slope above the lake. Our objective towered ominously above us. Jim was apprehensive and expressed that he was getting “bad vibes” from up there. The climb was becoming very important to me; I was not going to get psyched out now.

The next 2000 feet up the Price Glacier involved steep soft snow and some easy rock climbing on a rib that was the lower extension of the Tower massif. We reached the first fifth-class pitch late in the morning. There was considerably more snow and ice on the rock. The climbing was slow and precarious. About six or seven leads up, we encountered incredible snow and ice conditions. Small wonder, the past winter recorded a world record snowfall. At this rate, we figured, it would take us two more bivouacs to reach the summit. We abandoned the attempt without reaching our previous high point.

The following year we avoided Nooksak Tower altogether.

This year I went back in September. Jim had moved to California, so I talked Scott Davis into joining me. The first day we climbed the 4000 feet up from the valley in one push. On the way up, the Price Glacier icefall provided some interesting ice climbing. We bivouacked on a rocky ledge at the base of the Tower.

Two leads up steep snow brought us to the bergschrund. I could not recognize the start of the route I had climbed twice before! There was so much less snow this year that it exposed 200 more feet of vertical rock. Scott took the first lead—a difficult open-book. My lead brought us back on familiar terrain. Conditions were perfect. Soon we surpassed the previous high point and were climbing the final vertical headwall. To avoid aid climbing, Scott traversed up and around to the west side. After a strenuous layback crack and some delicate face climbing he reached a small belay ledge. A short but difficult traverse followed. I made a lunging reach for a handhold at the end of the traverse but the rock nubbin I grabbed started to give way under my weight and I yelled “falling.” Without real hope, I grasped blindly with my free hand and it landed a hidden hold! Both Scott and I were equally astonished since we could not see what I was holding onto.

That was the 14th lead. The 15th took us to the crest of the face. The 16th put us on the summit. It was an extremely gratifying climb. Of the sixteen 140-foot leads on the Tower, we rated six leads as hard. However, even the “easy” leads were delicate and demanding. The fact that all leads went without aid, but barely, gave us particular pleasure.

The sun was approaching the horizon. A few rappels and a little climbing (down) brought us to the notch at the top of the Great Ice Couloir—1500 feet of 50° ice. Our second bivouac was spent crouched on a minimal ledge hacked in the icy couloir a few hundred feet below the notch. It was a cold and uncomfortable night (sitting on a hardhat) but we had no complaints. The devil had fallen again!

Summary of Statistics:

Area: North Cascade Range, Washington.

First Ascent: North Face of Nooksak Tower, 8,200 feet, September 1 to 3, 1973 (Scott Davis, Alex Bertulis). NCCS V, F9.

* German for “The devil is dead” or “The devil has fallen.”