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!


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