The plan was to head into the Three Apostles Basin and attempt Ice Mountain via the Refrigerator Couloir. According to a guidebook, this is one of the premier mountaineering routes in the Sawatch Range and is also considered fairly dangerous because of rockfall potential. We ascended the Refrigerator Couloir and descended the northeast ridge to complete the Tour de Ice on what was a difficult nine mile hike. Despite the moderate stats referenced above, we had an extremely difficult 14 hour day due to soft snow and post-holing.
We were all up around midnight after nominal sleep. Kevin did a great job getting us up the four-wheel-drive road towards the high trailhead, but we stopped about a mile short of the upper parking lot after getting stuck. The initial section of the hike went quickly on a relatively clear and flat trail to the Three Apostles Basin/Lake Ann Trail Junction. At this point, we lost any signs of a trail and began climbing southeast. It was immediately a post-holing extravaganza and we went from easy hiking to difficult post-holing in a matter of a few hundred feet. We were three hours into the approach when it took me about five minutes to gain only 20'. As Brian and Kevin finished the difficult section, I quickly said I was ready to call it a day and that it was simply too early in the season with too much rotten snow to continue.
The rhythm of the early 90s classic "Ice Ice Baby" was now fading from our minds. Brian and Kevin reluctantly agreed that none of us could maintain the difficult trail breaking required for as long as we needed to go. Our decision to retreat was actually made on the lower section of the northwest ridge of Point 13070. We decided to verify our location when we quickly discovered that some miscommunication at the trailhead left us with limited route descriptions and no map. Working off of memory and observation, we decided to head southwest down to the main creek coming out of Three Apostles Basin and follow it back to the trail. This worked fine until we got to the creek and discovered much improved snow conditions. Rather than a hard two inch layer of crust covering sugar, the snow held our weight making progress much easier.
Kevin thought we should hike up the creek and just check out the views since we were in the area and now had a lot of time on our hands. So we made our way up the creek to tree line around 11,800' where the basin opened up. We stopped to apply sunscreen and take a break when we started to discuss plans for the rest of the day. Kevin and I voted to continue up Ice Mountain since snow conditions were drastically better. Brian simply responded with, "all aboard the pain train." We continued to follow the creek towards Ice Mountain and then used a short Notch Couloir snow climb to access the upper basin. Once in the upper basin at a small unnamed lake, we climbed the easy snow slopes to the base of the Refrigerator Couloir.
The snow in the Refrigerator Couloir was not well consolidated. Kevin was climbing strongly and did an awesome job kicking steps up the couloir. I went third, and by the time I hit the steps, some of them were blowing out. There was a lot of soft sugar. Generally, the entire shaft of our axes would go easily into the snow. Brian and I climbed with a second tool which seemed to work well. The Refrigerator Couloir didn't live up to its reputation for being dangerous. We witnessed little to no rockfall on top of the snow didn't have anything come down on us either. We took a short break at the split of the couloir before finishing the crux and topping out. We all estimated that the steepest section before reaching the notch between the twin summits to be between 45 and 50 degrees.
The scramble to the summit was fun, but I bonked fairly hard and had low blood sugar. I dumped half my water when we decided to abort earlier in the day, so the three of us were climbing with limited water. We all refueled and took about 30 minutes on the summit before descending the northeast ridge. We didn't have any definitive information on the route, so we just stuck directly to the ridge on the descent and tried to keep away from the snow. There were a couple of short sections, including a 15' vertical chimney we descended, that I would rate class 4. The ridge wasn't as difficult as I expected and before we knew it, we were glissading down the basin and through the Notch Couloir back to the creek.
From the lower basin to the trail junction was pure misery. The three of us would walk gingerly as if on egg shells to avoid post-holing. Brian was particularly susceptive to sinking in thigh deep because he weighs a bit more than Kevin and I. We did our best to stay afloat, but it was a struggle. Further down the drainage I started traversing the south facing side of the creek on bare spots which worked fine and improved progress some. We finally found the mostly clear trail back to the vehicle and began the death march. We accomplished our intended goal, but certainly not in the most efficient manner.
There were a few memorable quotes from the day.