Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cracking Ice: The 3 Apostles Traverse

North Apostle (13,840 ft.)

Ice Mountain (13,951 ft.)

West Apostle (13,568 ft.)

15 September, 2007: The last weekend of calendar summer, I got together with Kevin Baker (through to climb the hardest high peak in the Sawatch: Ice Mountain. In fact, we climbed the whole trio known as the “Three Apostles”: North Apostle, Ice, and West Apostle.
This trio of rugged thirteeners is accessed from the same trailhead as Huron Peak (which I climbed with the whole family on 21 August, 2005). The trailhead is located a couple of miles south of the ghost town of Winfield, which is at the west end of Chaffee County road 390. A rough 4WD road--perhaps the worst in the Sawatch--leads to the upper trailhead at 10,580 ft. This time, instead of heading east up the slopes of Huron, we went south, along the central (of three) branches of what is called “South Fork Clear Creek,” and gently up into the broad, meadowy basin north of the Apostles called, appropriately enough, Apostle Basin.
We started at 4:45 am MDT, an hour before dawn, to insure we would have enough time to climb all three peaks. Rain mixed with snow was falling when we set out, but we were hopeful that it would clear up as the day progressed. (Fortunately, it did.)
By the time we reached timberline, dawn had come and the sun was near rising. Thus, we had good light when we reached the point where the trail ended and we had to start finding our own way up the slopes on the eastern side of the basin. We headed first to the left (east), steeply up the slope, then back to the right (southwest) in order to get around a band of cliffs and into the broad, loose gully which leads to the saddle between North Apostle and Ice Mountain.
This gully is steep, and populated with plenty of large rocks and boulders. It also seems to go on forever. The climbing was not really technically difficult, but slow and wearying. I lost sight of Kevin, as he was climbing faster than I was, and I ended up veering too far to the right. This brought me up onto the ridge crest, not at the saddle between North Apostle and Ice Mountain, but one ridge bump up on the Ice side. When I got there, I finally saw Kevin making his way up the ridge to North Apostle. I was obliged to give up a little elevation (it wasn’t really difficult going) to get back down to the saddle before I, too, could start up toward the first summit of the day.
Like the gully, the climb up the ridge is steep, but not otherwise difficult. As I climbed it, the clouds were dissipating, and I was treated to nice, sunlit views of the fourteeners to the east: Huron (closest), Missouri, Belford, and Oxford (sporting a dusting of fresh snow), Harvard (I couldn’t pick out Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. A little less than four hours after setting out, I got to the summit.
That was when I discovered that my camera’s batteries were too cold to let the device work properly. That’s why the only pictures from this summit are those that Kevin took. But, on the positive side, there was a CMC register, which had been placed the summer before, and was in no danger of being filled up soon. So after I’d signed it, we started back down.
Beyond the saddle, which is at about 13,300 ft., the Ice Mtn. side of the ridge between the two peaks is steeper and more rugged, but also more solid. The scrambling was quite enjoyable and went surprisingly quickly for the first 400 or so vertical feet. Then came the crux of the climb.
Below the summit, the ridge steepens dramatically, and the most feasible route is to veer off to the climber’s right, onto ledges which quickly become quite thin, into the small, steep gully which ends at the notch just below and north of the summit. Other climbers have reported that a route can be found holding to the left (east) side of this gully which holds the difficulty level to Class 3. We sure didn’t see it.
The best route we could see near the top involved crossing over to the right side of the gully, and then executing four or five very exposed moves on tiny ledges to move very nearly vertically for the last 40 feet or so. It was definitely Class 4.
Needless to say, we slowed down considerably, testing foot placements and hand holds two or three times in some places before committing to the next step upward. I was much too busy to take any pictures in this section (although I had by then warmed up my batteries to where the camera was operational), but Kevin did get one good shot looking down at me as I negotiated one of the most difficult sections.
At the top of the crux gully, there remains only a short section of ledges, heading south on the northeast face, to reach the spectacular summit. Some of the ledge sections are very narrow, but the grade is gentle and, after the crux, it didn’t seem difficult or intimidating at all.
The sun continued to shine, and we got nice summit pictures. Still, we didn’t linger very long, because we could see rain falling just a few miles to the south. We left the summit and headed down a broad gully on the southwestern face of Ice, hoping either to beat the weather for our best chance at climbing West Apostle or, at the worst, reaching our only possible bail-out point before the weather got too bad. We certainly didn’t want to get caught on an exposed, rocky summit like this in an actual storm.
The bail-out point was the saddle between Ice Mtn. and West Apostle, at about 12,900 ft. The biggest problem was that this saddle is quite a bit farther from the summit of Ice than from the summit of W.A. What’s more, there’s no easy was to get there: the terrain in between is all rocky, rough, and convoluted. We didn’t even consider going right down the ridge crest (the most direct route), although this would have taken us over Ice Mtn’s. very craggy false summit, because it just seemed too spiky and difficult.
Instead, we dropped down several hundred feet, and then began traversing to our right, trying neither to gain nor lose much elevation on our way to the saddle. This entails going over numerous ribs of rock, and into and out of equally numerous gullies separating those ribs. Due to the overall curvature of the mountain, we could not see our destination (the saddle) until we were almost there. Indeed, we could rarely see farther ahead than the next rib. So we were largely just going on dead reckoning, trying to find the path of least resistance through the endless rocks. This section of the route, too, qualifies as at least Class 3, owing to the steepness of some of the rock faces we had to move across. We used our hands quite a lot.
Finally, we climbed over the last rib, and downclimbed some twenty or twenty-five feet to the little saddle at the top of the Apostle couloir. The views both up and down were vertiginous. Fortunately, the rain we had seen off to the south earlier had moved off to the east, totally bypassing us, and it looked like smooth sailing for the last, short climb to the summit of West Apostle.
It was. Once again, the grade was steep, and there was some looseness in places, and Kevin made it to the top before me, but by shortly before 1:30 we had out third summit of the day. Plus, with the weather no longer threatening, but looking to keep clearing, we had intermittent sunshine, and were able to relax and rest for a while. We probably spent twenty-five minutes on the summit altogether. While we were there, we saw our first other person since leaving the trailhead: one lone climber could be seen over on the summit of Ice Mtn.
Down below to the north, we could see Lake Ann (11,805 ft.), and the trail skirting its outflow, which was our way out. But first we had to get down to the level of the lake. Previous trip reports suggested that the way to do this was to head west, along West Apostle’s slowly descending west ridge, over several ridge points, before finally going down into a broad bowl above the lake on its southwestern side.
So we headed off to the west. After a while, though, we began to wonder just how far to the west it made sense to follow the ridge line. Going farther might enable us to find a place for a gentler descent to the vicinity of the lake, but it was also adding distance (and time) to our route. We finally decided to start descending as soon as we could find something not too steep. On balance, I think it was the right decision. We did indeed have to take on several hundred feet of descent through steep and somewhat loose rock, but it very quickly brought us to considerably more level ground, not far above and just southeast of the lake.
As we descended the drainage, it took a while to find the Lake Ann trail. In retrospect, I suspect that we were essentially paralleling it, somewhere not too far away on our left, for quite a distance before we finally intersected it. But once we did--well below timberline--it was smooth going from there.
I found that I still had a bit of spring in my step, and before too long came to the junction where the Lake Ann trail meets up with the Apostle Basin trail, finally re-joining our ascent route. There, I found Kevin waiting for me, still a bit faster than me. He assured me that he had only been waiting five or ten minutes, and we headed down the valley to the north on the last leg of the hike.
When we reached the open meadow area about halfway back to the trailhead, we both turned around to take some parting pictures of the Three Apostles, nicely visible from this vantage point. When we had been here on the way up, it was still dark, not to mention raining. We made it back to the car almost exactly twelve hours after we had started.
My pictures are at:

Kevin’s are at:

and Kevin’s commentary is at:

Long life and many peaks!

Post Script:
Not only is calendar summer over, the first dustings of snow have started to appear on the high peaks. That means that the summer/fall climbing season may well be over. (It was by this time last year.) Thus, perhaps a recap is in order.
All in all, this was a good and productive year for Trisha and me in terms of peaks climbed. While we didn’t achieve the numerical goals we laid out for ourselves back in the spring (9 new fourteeners for me, eleven for her), we came close, and we exceeded our figures for previous years.
I did climb nine fourteeners, but only six were new. Trish climbed eight, all new. Perhaps better, a good chunk of those were in the “difficult” (black diamond) category for both of us.
Trisha knocked off her unfinished business from last year with our climb of Mts. Harvard and Columbia.
I, unfortunately, fell flat in the unfinished business category, as we could never block out the time to get back to Chicago Basin to climb its three fabulous fourteeners. And we acquired a bit of new unfinished business in June, when we had to abandon the climb of the “unofficial” fourteener Conundrum Peak in conjunction with our climb of Castle. We also both agreed that, at some point, we should go back and climb Stewart Peak, which is just short of 14,000 ft. We simply didn’t have time to run over and bag it--as we had intended--on the day we climbed San Luis Peak.
Back on the plus side, we did finish the Crestones group with our climbs of Kit Carson Peak and Crestone Peak. We just sneaked that one in under the weather wire, but we made it. We also got a decent start on the challenging Elk Range with Castle and Snowmass Mountain.
Trisha set a new family record for adding to her fourteener total in a single season with eight.
We did our first night hike together, two of them in fact. What a blast that is!
Then there are the superlatives:
Most Fun: This goes to Castle, both for the new experience of climbing with crampons, and for the glissading down.
Longest Day: Harvard and Columbia at 15½ hours.
Easiest (shortest) Day: A tie between Kit Carson and San Luis at under 10 hours.
Hardest Peak: For the two of us, Snowmass, although Crestone Peak wasn’t far behind. For just me, this award has to go to Ice Mtn.
Niftiest Summit: Also Snowmass Mtn.
And that may be all until next year!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Crestone Peak (14,298 ft.)
"East Crestone" (14,264 ft.)

9 September, 2007: First, apologies for taking so long to get this entry up. It's been a busy week. That said...
With summer winding down, Trisha and I wanted at least one more nice fourteener for this season. We had just one day so, after weighing a few options, decided on the closest one we still needed: Crestone Peak.
Aside from Pikes Peak, it is indeed the closest. The South Colony Lakes Road trailhead, which is the obvious access point for all four peaks of the Crestone group, with the possible exception of Kit Carson Peak, is scarcely a hundred miles from our doorstep. Even the peaks of the central Sawatch require a longer drive. So we left Colorado Springs at 2:30 am MDT, and reached the “compromise” trailheadabout halfway up the lousy 4WD road which connects the low-clearance trailhead with the upper one right at the wilderness boundaryat 5 o’clock. Our starting elevation was 9,930 ft, and we were hiking with headlamps by 5:05.
It took us less than an hour and a half to reach the end of the road, at the upper trailhead. Even though it was a Sunday, there were only a few high-clearance cars there, and no one was stirring. Before sunrise, we signed into the Sangre de Cristo wilderness (I had to use the flash to get a picture of Trisha at the register kiosk), and we hit the real trail, heading the 700 feet or so up to Lower South Colony Lake.
Near the lake, where the trail south over Broken Hand Pass diverges from the trail continuing on west toward Humboldt Peak, we found a cluster of tents but, again, no one stirring. The sky was still largely cloudy, with wisps coming and going. It didn’t seem to be building into any real storminess, though, although we did hear one peal of thunder, so we pressed on, hoping the day’s warmth would eventually burn off the clouds. I had told Trisha that we did have to be prepared to turn back if the weather was bad enough. She readily agreed with this, although we both wanted to summit and complete the Crestone group, but the weather there can get truly nasty, and we were even more determined to come back in one piece each.
As we climbed the pass, we finally saw some other people. A group of three or four appeared below us; they might have been among the occupants of those tents we had passed. We hoped that, for once, they wouldn’t overtake us. Just a few minutes later, we saw two young men descending from the top. We asked them if they were super early starters who had already summitted, but they said that they had turned around at the pass, after seeing too much cloudiness for their comfort. We took what they said under advisement, but basically decided that they had given up too easily, too early in the day to tell anything. We crossed our fingers and pressed on.
This was my third time up this side of the pass, and Trisha’s second, so we knew what to expect. As a result, it went--or, at least, seemed to go--faster than on previous occasions. We got up the big step by the pinnacle that is the crux of the climb with relatively little trouble, and made it up to the top quickly. The improvements recently made by the CFI crews also helped to make picking our way to the top easier.
Then there was the 600-foot descent to Cottonwood Lake. The contours of the land are such that, even though the lake is only a short distance from the summit of the pass, it can’t be seen from there. One must descend a bit on the good trail, which leads first to the left (east) before switchbacking down, before the lake comes into view. It’s a fairly large alpine lake, and appears to be fairly deep in the middle. Under cloud light, it was hard to see very far down into its waters, but the water is clear and clean.
The trail goes right along the north and west shore of the lake before it begins to climb again, and we stopped there to eat some, and to re-arrange clothing. Strangely, we never saw a cut-off for the trail which is reputed to lead up the Cottonwood Creek drainage from the west. Numerous writers have reported that this trail is hard to follow in places.
Just before 9 am, we started our climb up the Red Couloir, the standard route up Crestone Peak’s south face. We were relieved to find cairns marking the route, as well as a clear trail for the first few hundred feet. That first section leads back and forth on grassy ledges. After that, though, it’s all rocks, and the real scrambling and climbing begins.
This is the main reason Crestone Peak is a harder climb than Crestone Needle: Nearly 1,500 feet of steep climbing (the horizontal distance is negligible) mixing bouldering, gullies (some bearing scree, some bare), slab walking, and ledges, in what can seem like an endless succession.
We found good cairns all the way up, although we also found that there is no pressing need to stick to the route they mark out: There are many options for getting through each section, all of about the same difficulty. The only real problem we encountered came just about 13,000 feet, where steep rocks on either side forced us into the center of the gully. There, a small amount of water was flowing down, dropping over a distinct lip in a waterfall eight of ten feet high, followed by a long section of slightly angled slabs which were mostly featureless and smooth. It was getting by the waterfall and over the lip that seemed to be the problem.
So we found a flat section of the slabs to walk across the stream, to where what seemed to be a short section of climber’s trail on the other side led to the base of the fall. From there, we hoped to be able to climb a short distance up the rock face to get above the lip. We found it was a no-go.
The section of rock wall we needed to climb was nearly vertical, and woefully short on handholds. So, we re-crossed the water and gave the steep ledges on the first side (climber’s left) a try. The exposure and the tilt of the rock faces here proved to be too much.
So, it was back across again to try what looked like the only remaining option: climbing part way up the fall right next to the water on the right side, spanning the water in one giant step to the left side, and clinging to the rounded surfaces beside the slab formation to get the rest of the way up.
It wasn’t easy or elegant, but we finally made it work. Fortunately, that was the only place we really had to stop to puzzle something out. From there on, the slope and the difficulty were unrelenting, but there was always at least one clear path up, and often several. I can only hope the pictures I got of Trisha climbing various parts of this couloir convey how impressive it really was. This is no place for the inexperienced.
Once into the rhythm of it, however, it was fun. So our paces picked up a bit as we worked into the climb. All the while, we experienced mostly cloudy skies, not far above our heads, with occasional partial clearings. I actually began to think that when we reached the summit, we might find ourselves above the cloud deck, but we didn’t. Finally, though, more than two hours after leaving the lake (1,900 feet below), we topped out onto the very small saddle at the top of the couloir. From there, we knew we only had to take a hard right turn and continue barely a hundred vertical feet to the summit.
Even here, we found good cairns marking a route that makes use of small ledges on the left (east) side of the ridge crest. There’s a little exposure in a few places, owing mainly to the narrowness of those ledges, but the climbing was actually quite easy. Just minutes later, we popped over the ridge crest, crossed the even smaller top of the northwest couloir, and clambered up onto the actual summit block, Colorado’s seventh highest. It was still 90% socked in.
The partial clearings were becoming more frequent, however, and photos started to show a little bit of background other than blank clouds. Just as we started back down the ledges to the saddle, a partial clearing allowed me to get the only decent shot of our second goal, East Crestone, that I got all day.
A brief note about East Crestone: This minor summit of Crestone Peak is well over 14,000 feet in elevation and, thanks to the vagaries of how political subdivisions were determined, is the high point of Custer County. When viewed from a distance, the mountain appears to have twin summits and, indeed, well into the twentieth century, no sufficiently accurate survey was available to determine conclusively which one was actually the true summit. During that time, determined peakbaggers had to climb both summits, to be sure that they had really climbed Crestone Peak!
Fortunately, bagging both summits is not hard. So, now that we know for sure that the western summit is the higher one, it’s still fun to make the short climb east of the saddle to claim the minor summit as well. After all, it is a county high point (the true summit is correspondingly the high point of Saguache County), so “highpointers” still need to climb it, and they can easily get two on a single climb.
When we got to East Crestone, we also finally got some real clearing in the clouds. That’s why the summit photos we took there look so much more interesting than the ones we took on the true summit. We finally got a decent look at Kit Carson Mountain to the west (see previous entry on this mountain), as well as a nice view of Crestone Peak itself. Sadly, we did not get enough of a break from the clouds to get a good photo of Crestone Needle to the east.
The downclimb of the Red Couloir went very well. We had gotten used to the sort of climbing required, and had no real problems with any of it, including that stream crossing section that had held us up on the way up. We found that we could, after all, simply friction-walk the slabs: the rock is that good and well-textured! We were back at the lake in less than two hours.
That might have been the end of the day’s excitement. It probably would have been on most days and, truth be told, I kind of wish it had been. Re-climbing Broken Hand Pass—the worst part of this route—really wasn’t bad. The south side is much gentler and less steep than the north side, and it’s only 600 feet, instead of 1,200.
But after we had climbed down through the difficult parts of the north side, Mother Nature had to have one last tantrum at us. It started to rain. Not only did it not stop after a brief shower, the rain soon was mixed with hail—small hailstones, but hard enough to sting exposed body parts. Hats or hoods became mandatory.
And this continued for most of an hour, after which the trail was largely a ribbon-shaped lake of cold water covered with floating hail. Fun, fun, fun. We were actually better off when we got back on that awful road, since its obnoxious rockiness precluded it being very muddy, or carrying much standing water. Still, the two miles or so back down the road to the car were a cold, bleak slog. We finally got back at about 6:30—a thirteen-and-a-half hour day on the trail. We were, to say the least tired. The warmth of the car’s heater never felt so good.
Still, no real complaints. It was a very rewarding day. We both continued to expand our climbing skills, not to mention our endurance. Trisha racked up fourteener number 30, and I got number 33. And, once again and quite against reasonable expectations, we had the summit all to ourselves—both of them!
Pictures are at: