| The Refrigerator Couloir
Ice Mountain (13,951) via the Refrigerator Couloir
North Apostle (13,860)
From S. Winfield TH: 10.7 mi, 3850 ft
This was day two of our long anticipated weekend of classic Sawatch couloirs. After climbing Grizzly Peak's North Couloir on Saturday, it seemed only natural to investigate Ice Mountain's Refrigerator Couloir the following day. Well, now that I think about it, the 2:30 wakeup time it would require didn't jive so well with the fact that we'd just hiked for over thirteen hours and were looking at five hours of sleep at best, but never mind that. Roach reports 7 miles and 3400 feet round trip, piece of cake right?
We drove to within 1/3 of a mile of the South Winfield 4WD trailhead where snow and debris from a large avalanche covered the road and camped there for the night. Due to the horrendous rock fall reputation the Refrigerator Couloir has, we wanted to get up and out of this thing as early as possible before the sun started warming the rock above. Our 3am start was a little rough though.
The Lake Anne Trail started off in cruisable condition and deteriorated to an exercise of dodging various sized puddles of muck and water. The turnoff for Apostle Basin came quickly though and we managed to follow it for a whole 1/4 mile or so. I'd hiked up this trail several years ago, but unfortunately between then and now I'd forgotten one crucial bit of information – Roach draws the trail on the east side of the creek while in fact it is on the west side as shown on my Trails Illustrated map. Deciding that Roach was more reliable than the map, we mistakenly continued along the east side. This is when all hell broke loose. Huge splotches of slushy snow and a large amount of deadfall made our lives miserable as we stomped around in desperation looking for signs of the trail by headlamp. We never found it, but did encounter a lone set of recent tracks in the snow from some poor soul that had made the same mistake. We resorted to walking as close to the steep creek bank as convenient since there was the least amount of snow there. It seemed we were in a time warp and dawn came long before we wanted it to.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I could finally see the light of Apostle Basin through the thinning trees. We made our way across the swampy meadow and got our first look at the Three Apostles. The basin is still very much filled with snow and the slopes leading up to the small lake northwest of Ice Mountain were quite hard so we donned our crampons early on. We did an ascending traverse above the lake and made our way to the obvious entrance of the Refrigerator. I think the mountain gods felt a little sorry for us after our nightmarish approach because a few clouds were hanging out, keeping the couloir and surrounding rock shaded. It was later than we'd hoped, but conditions seemed optimal so up we went.
The Refrigerator did not disappoint. It had an interesting feel and was consistently steeper than the Grizzly Couloir, averaging about 45 degrees. It also had a much more serious feel to it, probably due to a combination of the steeper slope and its narrowness. We couldn't have asked for more perfect conditions – the snow hadn't started to soften at all yet. Our calves were screaming more than on any other snow climb I can remember, but it was a blast. As we neared the top the slope steepened considerably and reached 55-60 degrees. Dominic put in some impressive work kicking absolutely luxurious steps here. We topped out around 9am and never saw so much as a pebble bounce down the couloir. A short but steep 3rd class scramble on loose rock deposited us on the summit of Ice Mountain and we settled in for a short but well deserved break.
I'd climbed Ice's northeast ridge before and knew it probably wouldn't be all that trivial to descend with the remaining snow, so I was anxious to be underway. I could already see that the route I'd previously taken just below the summit was buried under a very steep snow slope overlooking an abyss. Fortunately we were able to find a more attractive, dry line just a tad to the west. The crux of the downclimb was a 4th class step not too far below the summit. Although it was a little more exposed than the crux I'd encountered on my first trip, the difficulty was very similar. Surprisingly, there were only a few very short, low angle snowfields to negotiate. The descent became fairly easy below 13,700 ft or so but the loose nature of the rock kept us on our toes. The descent from the summit to the Ice – North Apostle saddle took about 45 minutes.
It was only 10:15 and making a quick trip up North Apostle was a no brainer. The ascent was rather monotonous but the views were just compensation. The weather had been strange all morning with a variety of clouds coming and going and it wasn't clear whether rain was in the cards or not. The basin was like an oven when the sun was out and this was one of those rare instances where a big, dark cloud overhead was actually a welcome sight.
The descent back to the small lake was mostly on snow. Sometimes the slope was steep and hard enough that we felt more comfortable in crampons, but we had to take them off lower down where the snow was considerably softer. From the lake, we found the lightly cairned route that does a descending traverse through a seemingly impassable cliff band to reach the meadow below – something I hadn't located on my previous trip.
The dreaded return along the creek weighed heavily on our minds. We knew we'd made a huge mistake on the way in, but rather than waste more time guessing where the trail might be, we just resigned to follow the same route back. As expected, it was rather maddening, and we had to take a break midway to refuel both mentally and physically. Fortunately it seemed to go ten times faster than it had on the way up and we were back at the car shortly after 2:00.
It was a harder day than anticipated, but well worth our efforts. We both agreed that the Refrigerator was probably our favorite snow climb so far this season. The scrambling increased the fun factor of the route considerably. Dominic loved Ice Mountain in general, and I was very glad to have made the return trip!