Nokhu Crags - Grand Central Couloir
Fabio and Charles swung by and picked me up at about 4:30am - a little behind schedule due to a traffic stop by the police in Boulder. Luckily they got out of it without a ticket - I doubt the officer often gets an answer like "We're going to climb Nokhu Crags" when he asks a driver "Where are you headed?" at three o'clock in the morning!
I had been dreaming of climbing Grand Central Couloir that splits the twin summits of Nokhu Crags since first laying eyes on it during a 2004 ascent of Iron Mountain. It looked like a fun climb in a really beautiful area. Charles had visited the Lake Agnes side of Nokhu Crags a couple of winters before but Fabio had never been to the northern Never Summers. I hoped they would both be suitable impressed, making their visit to "my stomping ground" worthwhile.
By the time we'd finished the drive up to the trailhead at Cameron Pass and got ourselves geared up it was 6:30am. We set off down the maintenance road that runs along Michigan Ditch and made rapid progress down the plowed portion. About two miles down the road we found the plow parked on the side of the road and in another hundred yards we found the end of the plowed section. Beyond, the snow was very firm and well trodden however, so we made good progress down the snowy road as it curved around and crossed paths with the American Lakes Trail (I was surprised to learn that snowmobiles are allowed on American Lakes Trail). A little ways past this we began to posthole to our knees so we switched to snowshoes.
Soon we reached our turnoff from the road up into the basin encircled by Nokhu Crags' northeast and east ridges. I wasn't sure how arduous this part of the approach would be but it turned out to be a nice gentle slope with scattered trees and firm snow. We made swift progress through the trees and meadows until we reached a large moraine. It looked like the two best options were to circle all the way around to north around the moraine on gentle snow slopes or proceed up a couple of steep snow ramps directly over the moraine. We decided on the latter because we were impatient to reach our objective and we hoped that bearing slightly to the south would finally give us a view of our chosen route which had so far remained hidden behind Nokhu Crag's hulking northern summit.
We huffed and puffed our way up the moraine. Once we reached the top we were treated to beautiful views of softly undulating snowy slopes below the impressive bulk of Nokhu Crags with its two rugged ridges stretching out around us. We still couldn't see Grand Central Couloir but we could see its neighbor - Nokhuloir. It looked straightforward and without a cornice - a good descent option. Eventually we reached a flat spot directly below and the south summit and could finally see both Nokhuloir and Grand Central Couloir. Grand Central Couloir was also without a cornice and looked straightforward too. We found some nice big chunks of ice to sit on while we geared up for the climb - switching snowshoes for crampons and donning harnesses and helmets.
By the time we had finished gearing up and snacking and were ready for the climb it was already 9:30am. The approach had taken a lot longer than I planned and we all agreed that continuing south from the southern summit of Nokhu Crags to Static Peak was out of the question - that would be just way too long and arduous of a day for us. Instead we settled on the plan of ascending Grand Central Couloir, scrambling up to Nokhu Crags' southern summit, and then descending Nokhuloir. With that goal in mind we set off.
Immediately after setting off up into the couloir we were surprised to find how soft the snow was - we were sinking up to our knees with almost every step. This made the going difficult and soon we were all huffing and puffing and sweating buckets in the hot sun.
We traded off trail breaking duties and by the time I was done with my turn we were about a third of the way up the couloir. I curved over a little to climbers left where there was a bit of a rock outcropping where we could take a break on nearly level ground. When I had just about reached it we heard the menacing hiss of a wet slide letting loose. We looked around for it and finally found the small slide coming off a steep slope above Nokhuloir. We had a quick conference and decided that the slope that had slid was much steeper than Grand Central Couloir and Nokhuloir and that we should be okay. We decided to continue.
At this point Charles resumed trail breaking duties up into the couloir. As we ascended the slope got a little steeper and the snow softer. It seemed that when Charles kicked his steps he was sinking up to his knees, when I followed in his steps I sunk up to my thighs! Charles and I weigh almost the exact same amount and I couldn't figure out how he was doing it! Fabio and I wallowed in his wake as Charles blasted up the couloir. It was amazing that we couldn't keep pace even following in his steps! (He later told me his secret was trying to minimize the weight on his feet by shifting as much forward as possible onto his hands - I'll have to give this a try next time.)
Towards the top of the couloir the snow got quite a bit steeper, possibly reaching a maximum slope of 60 degrees. As I floundered up the final bit to the saddle between the southern summit and the northern summit I kept thinking to myself how similar the conditions felt to the conditions on the near-disastrous day on Mount Toll. I wasn't sure what the others were thinking but I decide that once we reached the saddle I would lobby hard for turning around and getting the heck off the mountain as soon as possible.
When I finally hauled myself up onto the saddle I made my thoughts known. Luckily Fabio and Charles were thinking the same exact thing so it was very easy to reach the unanimous decision of retreating as quickly as possible. We snapped some quick photos of both the northern and southern summits (which were even more rotten then I thought possible), had a quick bite to eat, and made some clothing adjustments (clouds had begun to form above us) before beginning the descent.
Downclimbing the first section was a bit spicy due the steep, soft snow but after the first 50 meters or so we could plunge-step down the slope fairly rapidly. We moved quickly down Grand Central Couloir and soon reached the outcropping where we'd paused for a rest during the ascent. At this point Charles spotted a small fracture in the snow a little below us in Grand Central Couloir. We weren't sure if this had been there on the way up so we decided it might be safer to drop down into Nokhuloir which was probably not as steep as Grand Central Couloir and didn't appear to have any fractures in it. Soon we had made it off the steeper slopes and out of harm's way. We relaxed at the spot we had geared up before the climb an hour after leaving it.
We slowly began to put our gear away as we discussed our decision to turn around without tagging the summit and the poor snow conditions. We were naturally disappointed to have missed out on the summit but were unanimous in our satisfaction with the decision to turn around. Conversation wandered from speculation on the snow conditions of other snow climbs we hoped to do, to other future plans, to climbing rope testing/rating, and so on as we snacked and enjoyed the spectacular setting. As we chatted we suddenly heard that distinctive hiss of a wet slide. We turned to spot a small slide coming down Nokhuloir. As we watched another small one came down Grand Central Couloir... then another... and another. Both Nokhuloir and Grand Central Couloir seemed to spontaneously erupt in wet slides - Fabio described it as an "upside-down firework display!" We watched the rapid succession of small and medium sized slides (the biggest about the same size that swept Nelson away on Mount Toll) in stunned awe for what seemed like ten minutes. The finale to the show was a much larger slide that began high up on the southern summit of Nokhu Crags and slammed down Grand Central Couloir in huge waves of crashing snow. Had we been in the couloir at the time it is doubtful that any of us would have walked away.
Sobered, we finished the job of packing up. After a long, silent spell conversation resumed with thoughts of "what if..." We didn't want to consider the outcome if we had been in the middle of one of the couloirs when the slides began. However, if we had stuck with the plan of summitting and then descending Nokhuloir it was entirely possible we would have been on the summit or at the top of Nokhuloir when the slopes erupted in avalanche. What would we have done after witnessing the slide activity below us? Both Roach and Ormes said that it was not feasible to attain Nokhu Crags' northeast ridge from the southern summit. After some conversation it was clear that there were only two "good" options: spend the night on the summit and descend early the following morning, or attempt to traverse over to Static Peak and then descend its east ridge (the plan we had ruled out because we were too late and it would take too much effort). None of these were attractive solutions and we were glad we didn't have to decide.
While we hiked back to the car we continued to discuss the decisions we had made during the climb. Had our judgment been spot-on and we turned around at exactly the right time, or were we really stupid and just got lucky? Charles came up with a possible witty title for the trip report: "No clue on Nokhu." Sometimes it's hard to tell I suppose. After all - we did complete the route and get down alive to tell the tale. Maybe there is a fine line between genius and idiocy. We concluded that perhaps we're not the best judge of "stupid." Regardless, Fabio characterized the decision to head down as "one of the wisest decisions of [his] climbing career." I have to concur that it was one of my smartest moves too.
We made it back to the car at Cameron Pass at 3:00pm. Two hours later we were at The Rio sipping margaritas and planning our next climb. One thing was sure - we wouldn't be attempting any more south or east facing snow routes this season unless there was a dramatic change in the weather!