Home > Ice Cubed: The Three Apostles

Ice Cubed Epic

July 6, 2013

Ice Cubed

North Apostle (13,860'), Ice Mountain (13,951'), West Apostle (13,568')
Round-trip: 13 miles+
Elevation gain: 4,500 feet+

Thunderstorms woke me up overnight. A few short hours later Dad and I were waking up again to begin what I told him would be his hardest day yet in the mountains of Colorado. That would be an understatement, but not for the reasons we expected. I had found out on Snowmass last year that he enjoys scrambling routes just as much as I do, so I invited him along for a set of mountains I had looked forward to climbing for a number of years: the Three Apostles in the Sawatch, rugged guardians of the Continental Divide.

Four months shy of his 70th birthday, age was not a problem: he was well prepared for the difficulties and the altitude. Our primary concern coming into today's outing was the weather: the forecast has been consistently bad leading up to the climb, with 60-70% chance of thunderstorms forecast for afternoon. At least by this morning the prediction for gusty winds had subsided.

By the time we reached the trailhead and began hiking, it was 4:45a.m. The overnight rain had moved through, and we found ourselves walking under clear skies. Actually, we found after we started walking that we weren't parked at the 4-wheel drive trailhead, but rather almost a mile short of it. We decided to just walk the extra mileage up the road anyway--a detail that would prove to change the course of the next 28 hours.

Ice Cubed: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle

Ice Cubed...
The climb of the 3 Apostles was, in a word, awesome.

After the easy trail-walking and creek-crossing on the log, we followed a nice climber's trail through the woods to around 11,400 feet, where we turned left and hiked steeply up through the forest of firs to timberline. The alpenglow on West Apostle and abundant wildflowers in this wild basin were already making it a day to remember:

The views continued to open up as we climbed the talus slopes above timberline, into the giant basin separating North Apostle and Ice Mountain. At 12,800 feet, we reached the snow slopes leading to the Refrigerator Couloir. We had brought our ice axes along, and climbing the snow slopes for a couple hundred feet was definitely preferable to the talus we had been dealing with. Exiting the snow as the couloir became steeper, we found ourselves scrambling up over slabs and ledges littered with loose rubble, which led us onto the upper talus slopes before the North-Ice saddle. I did not expect this amount of difficulty before reaching the saddle, but I was glad because it gave us some more practice on looser third class terrain before the main event.

From the saddle it was an easy hike up to the summit of North Apostle, where we arrived about 10:10 am. We returned to the saddle at 11 o'clock, gauged the weather--which had become neither better nor worse with mostly cloudy skies but no sign of rain--and set off for Ice Mountain.

Enjoying the summit of North Apostle, while previewing Ice.

Dad was admittedly somewhat intimidated by the terrain that lay ahead, and I had an unfair advantage because I had studied the route intently ahead of time, but as I assured him, it would be easier than it looked, and it would be best to just take one step at a time.

The Fun Stuff!

Turns out, the scramble up Ice Mountain was a blast for both of us. The terrain got steeper and tougher as we went, but it was a nice solid climb. After topping out from the crux chimney, it was a short jaunt to the true summit, where we arrived at 12:15. I knew we had a lot of tedious work ahead of us still, but it felt great to have made it to the hardest summit of the day. The air was completely calm, and neither of us were experiencing any ill effects from the altitude. We took our time and enjoyed this unique perch on the Divide, then we began to consider our future...

Ice Mountain Summit

We wanted to try the ridge down-climb to the Ice-West Apostle saddle, but by the time we made our way down to the gulley splitting the true and false summits of Ice, we did not feel like ascending back up to the ridge just to descend it again. Instead we opted to stay with the standard traverse route.

Every trip report I read spewed hatred toward this initial descent gulley--and I assure you, none of those reports were exaggerated. It is horrid. Not just because of the steep scree, which was annoying, but because of the smooth slanted slabs or miniature cliffs which constantly blocked easy downward passage. Much of the terrain was sketchy, and with every obstacle bypassed there was shortly another one to overcome. The going was slow for the duration of this descent, and some light rain and snow fell on us. But thankfully there was no lightning, and the shower quickly passed.

At 13,400 we found the first logical way out of the gulley, which Dad by now had dubbed "Crazy Gulch." With Crazy Gulch at last now behind us, we were confronted by the route-finding trickeries of getting around seven or eight steep ribs guarded by cliffs and deeply inset gullies: the wild country composing Ice Mountain's southwest slopes.

"Crazy Gulch":

This part of our day turned out all right. By following the most logical breaks in the terrain, we were able to find grassy ledges and mostly-solid rock to lead us around each rib, one at a time, without ever having to back track. We did have to do some scrambling up and down over ribs, and there were no cairns that we could see for the duration of the route-finding, but this kept it interesting.

Working our way across the Southwest Face of Ice Mountain

At last we made our way around to the actual ridge, and from there we were still required to down-climb some tedious ledges to the very last step onto the Ice-West saddle. Getting to this saddle, with the weather still holding at 3:15 pm, was a huge relief. We took a long break there.

West Apostle, and the West-Ice Saddle

Two mountain goats beat us up the slopes of West Apostle. We followed them and ended up doing some more scrambling before topping out at 5pm. The slopes leading to the summit were littered with wildflowers.

We had spent something like ten hours above 13,000 feet enjoying the wilderness, with not another soul to be found on these mountains--even on July 4th weekend. This captures the essence of what I enjoy about the "Centennials" in Colorado: the 14er experience without the crowds.

Looking back at West, North, Ice

Our descent from West Apostle consisted of an easy walk down the Continental Divide, followed by some steep scree skiing and glissading on some patches of snow down to an unnamed wilderness "finger" lake. From there we picked our way through talus around the base of a rock glacier, which led us ultimately onto a grassy shoulder of land overlooking Lake Ann. This was a beautiful camp setting, with abundant wildflowers, flowing water and small ponds, with a backdrop of the craggy unnamed peaks of the Continental Divide west of the Three Apostles.

After so many hours off trail, it was a great relief to finally arrive at the Continental Divide Trail. It was already 8pm, so Dad told me to go ahead of him and move the jeep up to the 4wd trailhead. Here's where those details became important.

Epic. Well... Long. Or just: "The Details"
Let me sidebar and say that I almost didn't want to write about the rest of this story; in retrospect the whole thing is kind of silly and, actually, embarrassing--but a lot of tiny details added up to make our plans go awry--details that anyone could easily point out in hindsight should have been obvious to us at the time. It would be easy to glaze over the rest and not get too wordy about it, but I feel it is worth preserving the awful feelings of that night. As always in my mistakes in the mountains, and shamefully I can't seem to stop making them, I want to list my lessons learned from this experience--and there were plenty of lessons to learn. But first, the details...

We both were tired but happy with the climb behind us, and we had just a couple easy miles of trail to finish out the long day. I had promised to make a call to my mother by 10pm, and--here's another one of those details--it turns out there was no cell phone reception whatsoever in this valley. That fact, combined with the fact that we had parked almost a mile shy of the upper trailhead, and that my Dad was going a little slower than usual due to a sprained toe incurred during the hike, made a good case for me to run ahead of him to get the jeep.

I assured him as we split up that this was the Continental Divide Trail (AKA Lake Ann Trail, AKA Colorado Trail) and that it would lead to the trailhead. However, neither of us had ever done this section of trail, and, as I stated earlier, I had studied the route much more thoroughly and was more familiar with what to expect. We had no two-way radios or methods of communication, but we just figured we would meet at the upper trailhead when I returned with the jeep. Unfortunately it turned out to be over 3 miles instead of 2, and I hoped this distance wouldn't cause him too much doubt as darkness set in.

It was not quite dark yet when I pulled up to the 4wd trailhead. There were plenty of campers out and about in this bustling July 4th weekend, but no sign of Dad, so I decided to start hiking back up the trail to meet him and finish up the day.

I did not begin to grow concerned until after I had gotten about half a mile above the Apostle Basin / Continental Divide Trail split. This was two miles into the woods, and there was still no sign of him. He should have easily been to this point by this time. Now 9:30, the forest was quickly growing dark, and I was faced with a difficult decision. After calling for Dad for about ten minutes as I continued up the trail, I decided to turn around. I told some backpackers at the trail split what was going on, then I ran back out to the jeep and drove down the rough road until I finally found cell phone reception at 10:30pm.


It was 2:15 a.m. I sat on the bare ground just above timberline, having retraced my steps back to where we had split up 6 hours earlier, with one of the lowest feelings I've ever experienced. Dad was nowhere to be found in the entire stretch of trail from the trailhead to where we had separated, so I could only figure he left the trail into the vast darkness for some unknown reason. My hope was that he had gotten off the trail, and with his headlamp failing, decided to hunker down for the night. I said a prayer, then dialed 911, but with no service the call was rejected. Knowing there was nothing more I could do at that point, I hiked the dark, quiet miles back to the trailhead. Hoping he would be there, but not surprised this time when he was not, I knew I had no choice but to drive back out the long dirt road to cell phone reception.

I remember thinking, "This is like a nightmare" - he had just vanished. It seems weird in hindsight, but it was easy to assume the worst, oddly because of his experience and the inexplicable nature of his disappearance. It was also a chilly night, in the 30s with some light rain and then clearing.

It was 3:30 a.m. by the time I was able to get a hold of Mom and my wife Holly again. Even then the reception was spotty, and all I could reliably do was text. She was able to coordinate rescue efforts, and in a matter of about two hours the first of the rescuers was meeting me along the dirt road. Bill and I drove to the trailhead, where Doug, another rescuer, shortly met up with us to begin the search. More of the team was being assembled behind us and would follow shortly.

Thankfully, this story had a happy, and abrupt, ending. At about 7:30 a.m., three-quarters of a mile into our hike back up the trail, we came across two hikers followed by a third--my perfectly healthy father. The word was spread by radio and then cell phone, and before we made it back to the trailhead everyone knew he was all right.

Dad had actually lost the trail shortly after I left him, when he encountered a place where several trees had come down across it right at a turn. He eventually located the trail farther down, but grew less and less confident it was the correct trail, especially as it continued going for so long. With darkness approaching and not knowing for sure that he was on the correct trail, he did a highly sensible thing and returned to Lake Ann--just above where we had initially split up--but where he knew people were camping.

Beautiful Lake Ann

Now after dark, he was just rousing the people from their tents and explaining his situation as two headlamps quickly approached from the Continental Divide. Their names were "Cash" (who was doing the Continental Divide Trail to finish up the Triple Crown!) and Brandon, and they were just finishing up the day's hiking along the Divide Trail. As we were talking the next morning, I heard Brandon say his name and then recognized him: we had together traversed the Evans-Bierstadt Sawtooth 8 years earlier! Small world! Anyway, they were so kind as to lend my dad a half-tent for the evening, and one of the other campers lent him a down jacket. He was still chilly and quite stiff in the morning, but he was able to have shelter and stay dry, which was a huge help.

Now with 32 sleepless hours behind us, it was time to leave the mountains and crash.

Lessons Learned:
* When it's already going to be a tough day, just drive the rest of the way to the trailhead--even just for convenience sake.
* Don't split up! (Duh)...
* Carry 2-way radios in situations where there might not be cell phone reception.
* Everyone in the party should have emergency kits: matches, space blanket, first aid kit, whistle, extra clothes, extra food--and batteries for the radios. (I had all of that ... in my pack only).
* Always have a car phone charger (my phone was almost dead by the end of the night).
* Always top off the tank before a climb (... and I was almost out of gas between the driving back and forth from cell phone reception to the trailhead).

I know a lot of this sounds like common sense, but when we were going for the "light and fast" mentality it was easy to shrug off a lot of these things. We were mentally focused and in the game for the climb, and then with the hard part behind us, everything quickly unraveled because of these details.

Until Next Time ...

A huge thanks to Chaffee County Rescue, Doug, Bill, Dave, Cash and Brandon, the "campers with the llamas at Lake Ann"--and to everyone with their concerns and prayers who helped us coordinate and get through that night.