Getting to the Refrigerator
In July 2006 I made an attempt to climb the Refrigerator Couloir only to discover the middle section was bone dry and small rocks were ricocheting their way down the lower portion of the couloir. Before hightailing it out of there, I made my up the Apostle Couloir and across the disaster known as the Southwest Face to Ice’s summit. The descent isn’t my fondest memory; I walked out of Apostle Basin in one heckuva rainstorm. One can only imagine what that did to the already softening snow high on Ice. Most of my summits have felt like victories, this one did not. I enjoyed the experience and was pleased with the knowledge I gained from this climb, but was quite content to be strolling down the trail towards Winfield splashing through the puddles. I was glad to be out of there.
Fast forward to November 2007, Mike, Jamie and I decided to make an attempt on North Apostle. We packed in our harnesses, rope and some pro for a just-in-case attempt on Ice afterwards. Slow travel through unconsolidated fall snow led to the horrible choice of plowing forward through the snow-laced boulder field below North and Ice later in the day than expected. Super Mike used his incredible mountain speed to summit North Apostle while Jamie and I banged our shins on the numerous rocks hidden by the fresh snow cover only to call it a day ~13,100’. On our way out in the dark she looked over at me and mentioned she was glad to be out of there. I smiled, that sounds familiar.
September 2008 brought a similar storyline. I was hoping to get Mike and Jamie up Ice before grabbing my own new centennial on North Apostle, but an extremely late summer snowstorm had different plans for us. We decided an attempt on Ice was a bad idea after viewing conditions from low in the boulder field. We ended up picking our way to the summit of West Apostle via its West Ridge. It was a day we’ll never forget and by the time we made it back to camp it was clear that everyone was glad to be out of there.
So I’m certainly not dumb enough to venture back in there, right? Yes I am, that's a no brainer. Come on, Mike needs Ice to finish the Sawatch Centennials, I need North Apostle and the Refrigerator has been on both our lists for way too long. Milburn and his buddy Steve are in. Four people and the fourth time’s the charm. Oh, that’s not how it goes?
3:45am finds us flying down the trail from the 4wd trailhead. This pace is fairly ridiculous, I’m going to slow down a bit. Within 15 minutes the trail has become mud loaded with water running everywhere. Oh joy, hopefully that’s not a sign of things higher up. At the log crossing, I take two steps across before retreating upon noticing a porcupine chillin’ under the log. Our presence scares it off, slowly, and we return to business. Snowdrifts start soon after the crossing and we follow the hard packed steps to the willow basin above treeline.
North Apostle and Ice awaiting sunlight
Dawn greets us at the willow basin, and not a moment too soon. The trail into the willows is dry to begin with but the area quickly turns into one enormous bog. We take the path less traveled through muddy, open areas and minor willow whacking to keep our feet dry. Snowline at the lower boulder hill is a welcome sight!
A welcome sight indeed, and in more ways than one. Not only are we out of the willowy bog but the snowpack has negated the nightmarish slog across the horrid Apostle Basin boulders. As we make our way around the lower boulder hill, Mike and I fill Steve in on all the fun he’s missing from our past boulder hopping nightmares. We don’t miss it whatsoever! West Apostle stands impressively above us as we pass the bottom of the shortcut gully to the upper basin.
Our enjoyable, flat hike disappears as we begin the climb towards the upper basin. Mike jumps ahead and I try to stay in sight of him while keeping track of Milburn and Steve lower down.
The Sawatch Centennial Finisher
Mike disappears over the lip to the basin and I kick it up a notch since the other two have buddied up Mike is my buddy. Here goes nothing! Why’d I leave the rocket boosters at home? As I reach the entrance to the upper basin I find Mike lounging on a gigantic boulder enjoying a snack, sounds good to me. Within fifteen minutes, our group has reassembled.
We’re still in the early morning shade and it's getting a tad chilly sitting around. No one voices an objection to starting back up. The 100’ downhill in front of us is morally depressing but everyone is excited about getting to the entrance of the now visible Refrigerator. Mike starts plunge stepping with a glissading Milburn and Steve in tow. After fumbling around with my stuck pack zipper, I boot pack down behind them through an inch of lovely fresh snow.
They’ve engaged in an Ice Mountain photo shoot when I arrive at the base of the hill, and not feeling like stopping I start to kick steps towards the entrance to the Refrigerator. Mike quickly slips in behind me but the other guys seem to be losing pace everytime we look back. 200-300’ below the couloir the angle has steepened enough for Mike and I to want crampons. We decide to kick a shelf to gear up for the couloir and wait for the remainder of our team. When Milburn and Steve arrive we discuss the now increasing difference in the team’s paces. We come to the conclusion that Mike and I will wait at the top of the Refrigerator for Milburn and Steve in order to avoid kicking rocks down on them during their climb, then summit altogether. Radios go on.
Open the Frig
I start kicking steps into the old avalanche debris as we make our way towards the door of the Refrigerator. Unlike before, everytime I look up, the Refrigerator doesn’t seem to be drawing closer. Ugh! Fine, ignore that and focus on the steps. When we finally near the entrance the avalanche debris turns into the rock hard snow I’ve been expecting, and it’s hurting my toes. In an effort to relief my feet from the pain I angle the steps up and right towards unavalanched snow. Getting there provides momentary satisfaction before discovering that we’re sinking in further than necessary for crampons! Back to the avalanche debris we go. During this fiasco Mike and I have arrived at the entrance to the Refrigerator. Looking behind us we notice Steve and Milburn beginning to leave our lovely kicked shelf.
All the snow in the lower section of the couloir is really hard and we stay in the middle to minimize any possible consequences from rockfall. Pebbles scoot past here and there yet nothing major comes our way. As we near the “Y” split in the Frig, kicking steps has gone from 3 solid kicks to 5-6 for a decent step.
Mike, Lower Frig
Mike notices this along with my pace slowing and offers to take the lead. I accept and say that I’ll finish kicking to the split seeing that it’s ~100’ above us.
There's no "Y" in Frig!
As we reach the split, we reach the sun for the first time today. This lovely change in events softens the snow and I notify Mike that I’ll continue kicking steps.
This Way, Follow Me
He smiles, seemingly quite pleased to be taking the day off from braking trail. In whatever this sick mental state I’m in is, I’m loving the grunt work. Milburn and Steve have started their way up the Refrigerator. Mike and I are pleased to see them before we disappear out of view for awhile.
Mike High in the Frig
Rounding the bend in the couloir we see the two cruxes higher up. They seem distant at first but the interwoven patches of sun and shade now reaching the couloir distract us. We cook in the sun wishing we were in the shade and finally reach the next shady patch long enough to cool off before venturing back into the sun. This distraction works well.
Steepening North Apostle
Here we are, at the base of the first crux.
Well, well, well, what do we have here? I’m overjoyed to see a 12-foot wall at 60-65 degrees hovering above us. Some spice, that’s more like it! Mike and I swap cameras before I start up the wall.
First Crux Wall
The climbing is unadulterated yet short lived fun. Once we crawl out onto the shelf, we look back upon what we just climbed. This is definitely one of those privileged places.
A Privileged Place
Then, our focus is drawn directly towards the second crux and its cornice which blocks most of the exit. While it’s on the smaller end of the cornices we’ve seen, we have no intention of hanging around to see if it could become problematic. I kick some more steps up to the cornice, hook a sharp left in the moat and climb the second crux, a 7-foot nearly vertical wall. The second tool works wonders for leverage here and soon we’re lounging in the sun at the top of the Refrigerator a safe distance from the cornice. It’s 9:00am and we’re pleased with the pace we have been able to sustain. The summit of Ice Mountain is merely moments away.
Bypassing the Cornice
While we wait Mike points out some of the passes which run through the Sawatch. We also notice a minor bit of inversion hovering around Taylor Reservoir. Milburn and Steve are not yet in our view but we’re comforted to hear their voices. We attempt to gain contact but their words aren’t clear enough over the radio. We wait patiently and I pass the remaining time with an apple and beef jerky.
The next time we check the couloir for our other team members we notice Steve is climbing the first crux but at the top he stops to wait for Milburn.
The Arrival of Steve
Mike and I are well-rested at this point so I inform him I’m going down so Steve can head up here and rest. We relay our plan down to Steve and he starts up. After downclimbing a ways I cross paths with Milburn at the base of the lower crux. He states that his fitness level isn’t where he wants it to be yet but he’s enjoying the climb nonetheless.
Milburn's Smiling Face....No, Seriously....Come on Milburn, Work with me!
We wait for a moment to allow him to regain his breath before he scoots up the lower crux with me in tow. A second lap? Heck yeah, you never know when steep snow practice will come in handy.
Lap Two, like I can resist this
Moments later all four of us have regrouped with sights set on the summit.
It’s 10:30am when we top out. Mike and I agree on which spot is the true highpoint but wander over to the higher snowdrift just to be sure. My memory from my last climb to Ice Mountain’s summit escapes me. During congratulations a tired Milburn and Steve decide North Apostle is not for them this day. Mike and I are still hoping to get over there. Man, it looks far!
Escaping the Iceman
Turning our sights to the North Apostle traverse, we begin to pick our way down Ice’s Northeast Ridge. Nothing comes easy and we switchback across a couple ledges making minor progress to state it nicely.
Mike beginning the traverse to North Apostle
~100’ vertical off the summit we arrive at an area where things have become steeper. Mike mentions he believes this is the area of the crux for the standard route when conditions are dry. The gully doesn’t look pretty but rocks to our right don’t seem much better. Slowly I back down the gully kicking decent steps. My luck runs out sooner than expected. The snow is hiding rocks inches beneath the surface and I’m not happy with the situation. After taking a moment to calm my nerves I continue slowly down making sure have at least one solid handhold and foothold at all times while using whatever else that’s available to hold my other limbs in place. Needless to say I’m quite happy to give Mike the “all clear” after reaching the snowfield below the gully. He asks how it went and my reply is that we’ll calling this place Sphincter Tightening Gully from here on out.
Sphincter Tightening Gully
He begins to prod the rocks on the left for a weakness with minimal success before committing to the gully. He does better than I did. We believe we’re in the upper section of the Refrigerator’s left branch and after talking about it for a moment Mike decides to wait for Milburn and Steve to descend while I poke ahead to see if we have a viable descent option below us or not.
Down a little ways I encounter a short, icy rock step but have no issues getting through and from a fortunately placed perch discover we have smooth sailing ahead of us. Baseball-sized rocks and ice begin to fly down the gullies on either side of me so I elect to stay put in my safe zone instead of reclimbing to the guys. I grow restless not knowing what’s going on up there.
Fortunately Mike has decided to downclimb a little to avoid being pelted by Milburn and Steve. He makes it down the ugly step easily and scoots over to my ledge. Mike, we're not going to North Apostle today. He agrees.
Mike and the Rock Step, the Final One!
Since the guys stopped downclimbing to allow Mike to descend, I take advantage of the moment and cross the left gully to communicate with them. They’re not comfortable with the attempts they’ve made trying to downclimb Sphincter Tightening Gully and are going to re-summit and descend the Refrigerator. We arrange to meet at the crampon ledge below the Refrigerator. Once the radios are on, Mike and I start down the left branch. During our downclimb the bluebird day has turned mildly overcast keeping the snow firm. Unfortunately, it hasn’t seen much sun at all today and is rock hard, hurting my sore toes. Every so often I give them a short break by looking up to make sure Mike is still with me.
You Count Sheep, I Count Mikes
Eventually we make it to the main branch of the Frig and my toes are able to recover somewhat as most of the steps from earlier this morning are still there. I curse at the missing ones.
As we get lower, I begin glancing behind us way too frequently. The entrance to the couloir doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, and it’s frustrating! Above us no one’s visible yet and we don’t hear any voices. Mike and I decide to focus on our task at hand and get down as quickly as possible.
In the sun below the couloir things have softened considerably. There are sluffs off the warm North Face rock of Ice. As we descend, we’re forced to stop and knock the snowballs off our crampons repeatedly. Upon arriving at the crampon ledge we take note of the situation. The snow has warmed and there are small balls rolling down the snow to our left a couple hundred yards away. The snow is stable but if those balls get ANY bigger, we can’t afford to wait for the other guys here. Mike wanders over towards North Apostle to get a better view of the couloir. When he returns he says they’re almost out of the couloir. Moments later, we hear their voices getting closer quickly before they go glissading by. We hop in their tracks and quickly get out of there. Two glissades later and we’re back at the base of the shortcut gully.
Out of the way out, the willows periodically block our progress with boggy sections. They’re frustrating but are minor annoyances and soon we’re plodding our way through the trees.
Getting out of Dodge
Mike’s vehicle appears at 3:50pm, later than expected but we're still pleased with the day’s accomplishment. And yes, we are happy to be out of there.