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Ever since I met Andy a year ago, he's been going on about the Nokhu Crags. And they are very cool-looking; Amy and I spied them once during a winter hike to Lake Agnes and were quite impressed. But it's a three-hour drive from Boulder to get there; up to Fort Collins and then up 60-odd miles of Poudre Canyon to Cameron Pass on narrow, exciting road. Nevertheless, Andy is a great sport and is always driving way down here to do stuff with his Boulder friends, so we figured it was time for us to head north for a change.
The name is as exotic as the mountain. Nokhu is a corruption of "Neaha-no-xhu", an Arapaho word meaning Eagle's Nest, and it is easy to see why this peak would attract the attention of such birds. It is the northernmost peak in the Never Summer Range ringing the north and west edges of Rocky Mountain National Park. Most of the Never Summers are fairly gentle rubble piles composed of loose, friable shale and snow. Nokhu breaks the mold being a series of soaring spires and tottering towers... also composed of famously rotten rock. Gerry Roach mentions that the peak should only be climbed in the dead of winter when ice holds the rock together to some degree.
Nokhu Crags from the Michigan Ditch on approach.
We prepare to leave the trail and start the mile of approach through the woods.
Fabio picked me up at a chilly 3 am and an hour later arrived at Chez Leach. The drive up the canyon was dark and uneventful and the sun was just rising as we left the car at 6:30. The first mile went very quickly with a level hike along the Michigan Ditch, blessedly cleared of snow. Soon, we rounded the corner of Cameron Pass and spied the impressive Nokhu Crags and the sheltered cirque below the northeast face. Our goal for the day was to enter the cirque and climb either the Nokhuloir or the adjacent Grand Central Couloir. Both are short and steep and lead to saddles a few hundred feet below one summit or the other. From there it would be a simple task to scramble up 4th-class terrain to the summit itself. No problemo!
At great length, we arrived between the two arms of the valley and left the snow-covered ditch trail to bushwhack up to the cirque. On the map, this is a half-mile of forest and then snowfields. In reality, this turned out to be a pleasant hike through open woods, followed by a very steep climb up a series of moraines. It was hard going, but the views just kept getting better and better. The sun was out in full force and the snow was getting a bit soft. We sweated profusely.
Andy and I at resting after the surprisingly difficult slog up the moraines (FS).
Andy snowshoes under the incredible north peak (FS).
Our efforts were well rewarded! All around us were stupendous towers of imposing dark rock cut with couloirs of all scales and descriptions. At the end of the valley was a tiny cirque presided over by Nokhu's monolithic north summit looking more like something from the Tetons than from gentle northern Colorado. The Nokhuloir was obvious as the largest and steepest of the many chutes emptying into the valley. It was very still and an echo carried remarkably well. Of all the places I've been, this was high on the list of most visually stunning.
The floor of the cirque was littered with avalanche debris from many of the different couloirs. This is not unusual for spring snow climbs nor a sign of definite danger and we weren't terribly concerned. What was of some concern was the fact that it was 9:20 and the sun had been shining fiercy for several hours already. We discussed it and decided to give it a try choosing to climb the more interesting and steeper Grand Central Couloir instead of the more interestingly named Nokhuloir. The going was tough and the snow alarmingly soft. Still, it was a fairly short climb and we made steady progress with either Andy and I alternating step-kicking duties.
In the cirque, we are presented with two choices: Nokhuloir on the left is not as steep as Grand Central on the right (FS).
Fabio and I climb the lower portions of Grand Central (AL).
After climbing a few hundred feet, we witnessed a small wet slide from far over to climber's left. It wasn't much of a slide, but in the still air we could clearly hear its sinister, reptilian hiss. My blood pressure rapidly jumped a few notches. We resumed the climb and reached a narrow snow ridge about half-way up separating the two couloirs; a welcome spot of relative safety. Conditions were definitely not looking great, but they weren't neccessarily beyond the pale either. Snow kicked out of our steps didn't "snowball" out of control and a large rock dropped a distance of 50 feet from the end of the ridge didn't do anything unusual. The handful of slides we'd witnessed so far seemed to be from much steeper terrain. After some debate, we decided to continue the climb, but to do it as expeditiously as possible before the sun warmed things further.
Sketched as I was, I took the lead for the upper half and made remarkably fast time despite the deep and slushy snow. A few more small, slow slides cut loose in adjacent couloirs though none anywhere near Grand Central. Many seemed to be started by rockfall from the overhanging cliffs. Looking upward at the variety of rotten cliffs at the top of the couloir, my blood pressure ratchetted up another notch. The last fifty feet of the climb were finally free of overhanging cliffs and danger of rockfall, but they were incredibly steep! Certainly it was steeper than the final pitch of Dragonstail last week and I estimated it at 60o. Were I not in such a hurry to be up and safe (for now), I would have waited for the others and deployed one of our ropes. As it was, I carefully but quickly kicked steps up the final pitch traversing slightly to give myself fresh snow for the boot track as I went.
The top came suddenly in the form of a level patch of snow perhaps 50' on a side. On two sides, the ground dropped away into the Grand Central and its equivalent couloir on the west side, now a nasty rubble slope. On the other two sides, the towers and gullies of the two summits loomed. Our original plan was to climb to the north summit from the top of the snow climb, but, up close, the rock looked even less appealing than the descriptions I'd read. In fact, given a choice between the Nokhu Crags above 12,000' and an equivalent stack of unmortared bricks, I'd probably choose the bricks!
Andy and Fabio climbing.
The way to the north summit (large point on the right) is guarded by towers and gullies of rotten rock!
Fabio and Andy arrived in the saddle and announced that they were very worried about conditions. Andy mentioned that things were exactly the same as they were on Mt. Toll last July when Nelson had been caught in a wet snow avalanche and swept down the mountain. (Fortunately, he survived relatively unharmed, but it was not a club I wished to join.) Our options were to either wait here for 12 hours until the snow firmed up, traverse over the south summit all the way to Static Peak and down its (relatively) gentle east ridge, try descending the rock-strewn west gully, or quickly and carefully retrace our steps. We didn't relish the idea of sticking around on this exposed peak with a forecast that called for thunderstorms, the south peak looked moderately easier than the north, but the traverse would be truly epic, and the western descent on loose rocks looked potentially worse than that to the east on loose snow. The decision to retrace our steps was quick and unanimous.
After snapping a few photos, we turned tail and fled. The top of the couloir was steep enough that we had to backstep it (very slow), but we turned and plunge stepped (much faster) after descending the steepest section. To say it was nerve-wracking would be an understatement! Facing outward the way we were, we could easily see how much snow lay below us and the evidence of all the old slides down below. We were all hyper-alert for signs of avalanches and jumped every time one or the other of us knocked loose small snowballs. The slide frequency picked up alarmingly as we descended, though, fortunately, none were in Grand Central and all were fairly small and slow.
Beautiful from afar, deadly from up close... Nokhu sits ominously as we retreat.
We'd been down perhaps 10 minutes when the real show began. First a big, wet slide released near the top of Grand Central that hissed slowly right down the middle. It must have kept moving for a minute at least and several pulses of faster snow overtook slower snow. It looked like a river and was, I must admit, utterly fascinating. Similar slides started to cut loose in other couloirs. Most were slow and wet, but one monster cut loose off the south peak and came roaring down Grand Central with shocking authority. Some featured foot-locker-sized blocks of snow tumbling out in the vanguard. If we'd thrown caution to the wind and tried to scramble up to either summit, or if we'd been any slower on the climb, we would be on top now looking down on this mayhem or worse, trapped and buried! It was impressive as hell and very sobering.
Grateful to be unscathed and to have witnessed such an incredible place, we started a leisurely retreat. The weather was sunny and hot and the snow was much softer than on the way in. Burned from the effort of the climb, we made slow and painful progress back through the trees to the ditch and thence back along level ground toward Cameron Pass. On the way out, I did a lot of thinking about risk and group dynamics and on how quickly conditions can change. We definitely took some risks on this climb. However, all of us were level-headed throughout and recognized when it was time to turn around.
Footsore, sunburned, and sleepy, we finally reached the plowed section of the road and took off our snowshoes. We stopped to rest in the shade of the snowplow itself, grateful for a chance to sit, loosen our boots, and relax for a while.
"We," said Andy, "are not good judges of Stupid."
Live and learn. Despite the danger, everything turned out for the best and we had a great time. The Northeast Cirque and the Nokhu Crags are both simply stunning and it was a real experience to be there.
The Wilderness Journal