Huge snow begets huge run-off. Road wash-outs, stream crossings, trails that have become marshes, snow bridges that look like they could give way soon. Bring waders! And axe & crampons (not dull microspikes). Gorgeous area!
Not much that I do in the mountains comes with the word epic attached – unless you’re describing my lack of speed this year. But if any of my forays into the wilderness can be described as epic, this is it.
If I had to do it again, I might suck it up and do the 16 miles on Tigiwon Road - at least until water levels recede a bit.
The peaks in my future: Holy Cross Ridge (13,831ft), and Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005ft)
In my 14er quest, I had held Mt of the Holy Cross in reserve as I debated endlessly with myself about which route to take: North Ridge in a day to get it done? Halo Ridge to get the sunrise photo of the cross from the Notch Mountain shelter and to get the centennial that I also wanted? Do I do that clockwise/counterclockwise? Stay over night in (or just outside) the shelter? Snow climb via Angelica? It is a good year for it. I had heard about this crazy way to climb it from the south that is seen by only a few suckers, er uh, experienced alpinists. A punishing approach on a 4wd road followed by a long ridge hike where good weather was essential.
I may not be epic in the mountains, but some debates that I have with myself certainly can be. It seems that this one went on too long. With the Tigiwon Road closed to all but foot traffic (16 extra miles of road hiking – no thanks!), the decision was taken away from me. When I started to do some research, the southern route didn’t sound bad. In fact, it sounded like an exciting opportunity to do a route that few do - and with uncertain conditions. Between the Roachs’ 13ers book and Gerry’s 14ers book, they describe four variations for reaching Holy Cross Ridge from the south. From French Creek, it should work out to about 12.9 miles at the shortest and less than 5,000 ft of gain. Okay, those stats are reasonable. But what about conditions with this snow year? Anasarca76 had a report from late June, but the conditions are changing rapidly.
Given the importance that I placed on summiting this peak soon – and my stubborn, somewhat irrational desire to do these last three 14ers in a particular order – I wanted to make this trip count. So I finally settled on a plan that would have me:
1) Thurs: drive to French Creek (had to rent a 4wd to make sure I could get there after a failed attempt over the July 4th weekend)
2) hike over Fall Creek Pass to set up camp near the turn-off for Tuhare Lakes
3) Fri: climb the centennial and 14er via the Tuhare Lakes basin (I’d forgo the bicentennial Pt 13,768 ).
A camp would allow me the best chance of getting off the ridge early in the day – minimizing exposure to storms. And if for some reason I couldn’t make it on Friday, I’d have Saturday reserved for another try. Plus, I didn’t know what conditions would be like, so this would just build in some extra time – just in case.
Change of Plans
In the Roachs’ 13ers book, they say about the French Creek trailhead: “The road to this trailhead is passable for most passenger cars in dry conditions.” Hmm. Somehow I missed that “in dry conditions” part. On my first attempt, my Honda Fit had given it a good effort, but the watery road conditions made me turn around (turns out I had taken a wrong turn anyway - where the road switches back left and you see a sign on the right that says "Road damage ahead," follow the Road damage sign). So I thought: Ah, that’ll be no problem in a rented 4wd.
Well, a short “rough patch” that was dry 10 days before was now a small stream. Still no problem for the rental – for a while. But just at the end of this stretch I encountered the first major obstacle in my quest: a complete road wash-out!
This was a 2wd road 10 days ago! (Looking back down the road from the other side)
I started to back the truck down the road. It went okay for a while. Suddenly, the back passenger-side wheel hit water and lost traction (I was in 4-low). I slid a little and came to a stop. Gulp! Okay, take a breath. The road had given way a little further up – so who knows if it might give way here? I didn’t want to find out. I got out to survey the situation. A huge rock had been dislodged and was now poking up between the rear axle and the muffler (and some other important-looking stuff) – barely a couple of inches on either side. Not only that, but the back of the back passenger tire was chocked against another large rock that was nearly vertical and stood half-way up the tire. I needed clearance, but even if I could back up and get the tire over the chock stone, could I get enough clearance soon enough to avoid damage that the huge rock might do? Shoot! I am seriously hosed! Well, that’s the G-rated version of what I actually said. A tow seemed like the safe option.
I was less than a half mile from the popular Fancy Creek trailhead, so I quickly decided (no internal debate this time) to walk down the road, and flag down some help. As soon as I made the decision and before I’d even started, a couple of local guys (Dustin and Drew – thanks guys!) came driving up the road. I showed them my predicament. I stood there for a while in contemplation while they worked on convincing me that I should try backing over the chock stone with them as spotters. Okay, let’s do it! It actually worked! Not only that, but it nudged the huge rock into a position where I could back the front of the truck over it. Bonus!
Whew! Crisis averted, but how would this affect my trip? I had expected to start a leisurely hike from the French Creek TH at about 1:30pm. Instead, I started about 3:30pm from the Fancy Creek TH – adding an extra 1.8 miles to the approach hike (to which I added another 0.5 mile by making a wrong turn). In addition, I still had to get across a second road wash-out that shaunster_co had posted about. For that one, after investigating the options, I swapped my hiking boots for my Keen sandals and just waded ankle-deep water across on the upstream side.
Second major roadblock – this is 0.1 to 0.2 mile before the French Creek trailhead
Change of Plans, Part II
Summit day route
On the hike in, I had a chance encounter with Dave from Sante Fe – who had day-tripped to get the centennial only. He described it as slow going and discouraged me from trying to camp near Tuhare Lakes. He said the campsites were soggy, and the site at Hunky Dory Lake was awesome. Also, there would be significant snowfields and water to cross. Plus, there was the 800 or so feet to re-gain back to the pass when I came back out. Given my late start and his cautions, I decided to take his advice and use Hunky Dory as the basecamp. He certainly was right about the campsite at Hunky Dory Lake. Beautiful spot! And in good shape.
“No Snowmobiling” signs that mark the Hunky Dory “trailhead”
“Gate” at the start of the Hunky Dory “trailhead”
Hunky Dory Lake – I camped on the far side
The Longest Day
Even though my summit day was now going to be longer, I didn’t feel the need to get up super early. I couldn’t investigate my options for reaching the ridge in the dark – so I finally rolled out of camp at about 6:30am.
Prints in one of the snowfields. The closest match I could find in my tracks reference book is marmot. I guess I had never looked at a marmot’s feet
What can this be? Size and general shape suggest a ringtail, but the 4 toes on the lower two prints and 5 toes on the upper two don't make sense.
Dave from Sante Fe had reached the ridge between Pt 13,618 and Pt 13,768 by climbing steep snow. He said he had kinda wished he had two axes. As I approached the area, it looked like there would be a few options. I could make at least one of them work for me. I left the trail and walked on firm snow toward the highest of the Seven Sisters Lakes.
Hiking up through the Seven Sisters Lakes looking up at Pt 13,768
Looking back from higher up on sun-cupped but firm snow
When I got above the second to last one, I wasn’t sure if that would be my last chance to get water for a while, or if the highest one would be frozen. So I decided to double back to top off my water. Unfortunately, this involved a detour back down a couple hundred feet. That’s okay – who wants to be in a hurry in this place? So time passed, I wandered up to the highest lake and took in this view.
Highest of the Seven Sisters Lakes
Pt 13,768 and a cropped, gorgeous Seven Sisters Lake (my route in blue)
Seeing what looked to be steep snow and leftover cornices between Pt 13,618 and Pt 13,768, I decided to take a line of shallower snow to the right that led to a grassy, rocky ramp to the east ridge of Pt 13,768.
For some reason, this took me a long time. Part of it was that my microspikes weren’t doing a great job. The snow was firm (firm almost everywhere all day long), except that the sun had warmed the very top layer so that it was slick. So occasionally a foot would slide right off the top layer when I had not kicked a deep enough step. I’m still relatively new to snow climbing, so after a couple of these little Uh-oh moments, I took my time to be very careful about kicking steps. Once on the ridge, I took some time to try to get an email out to let friends know I was calling an audible on my route. I tried a few times and finally got one out near the summit of Pt 13,768. For whatever reason – and I’m still casting about for explanations – I didn’t reach the summit of Pt 13,768 until 11:50am. It took me 5.5 hours to go 2.9 miles and gain about 2,400 feet on wet trail, firm snow, and solid rock. I wasn’t worried, though. I think back on it now and wonder where the time went. But at the time, I didn’t give much thought to how long it was taking. The weather was awesome! The scenery was breath-taking! As Joseph Campbell would say (channeling James Joyce), I was held in aesthetic arrest.
Whitney Peak with Fall Creek Pass to the left
But just in case, I decided my next stop would be that certain 14er – I’d bypass Holy Cross Ridge initially and see how things were going. Once on the stable talus ridge, I started making pretty decent time again. Clouds were forming but not consolidating as I approached Holy Cross, and I thought about turning back just a few hundred feet from the top. These things can turn bad quickly sometimes. But this was it. I’d come too far and overcome too many obstacles already. I could bail a few different (very undesirable) ways if need be.
The North Ridge of Holy Cross
Notch Mountain with building clouds
I reached the summit of Holy Cross a bit before 2pm. In one respect my day was half over. I would still be going over Holy Cross Ridge, but I was headed back at least. I snapped a few pics, got out another email, ate a bit, and started back.
On the way over to Holy Cross Ridge, I contemplated going back past the centennial to exit the way I’d come up. In fact, maybe I could go further down along the ridge to the saddle before Pt 13,618 and glissade. But once you pass Holy Cross Ridge, you have committed to staying on the ridge at least to Pt 13,768. The clouds still weren’t too bad, but I thought it would be safer to just get off the ridge as soon as I could. So I decided to go back to my plan of getting down to the Tuhare Lakes. This proved to be a huge mistake!
Down into the Tuhare Lakes basin (above the lakes)
Getting off the ridge was pretty easy. The slope angle wasn’t as bad as it had originally appeared. I got down to the snow and was able to do two short glissades. Then the fun began. It took a long time to find a good way around the lakes. In particular, after the second lake, the terrain became quite steep. The area was caged in by cliffs on either side. On the left edge was some steep snow. I could see a trail along the side at the bottom of the snow. Unfortunately, a rushing stream to down-climber’s right veered over to be under the steep snow. It then dropped off into a waterfall. Bad runout! I didn’t want to take the chance of any kind of slip above that. I climbed back up and got down onto some rocks to the right of the stream – cliffed out! I could see snow to the right as well, but couldn’t get to it from there. Again, I thought I was seriously hosed. Except for climbing back up to the ridge with clouds all around me now, I was down to only one option. So I climbed back up a little ways again and moved to the right edge. Here, there was hope. I could get down onto the snow, the angle wasn’t bad, and was actually still firm! The run-out was rocky, but it would do. Once down this last stretch, I still had to find a way across a raging stream before I got onto trail for the first time in about 10 hours.
Now I could see for myself that the Tuhare Lakes/Fall Creek junction area was just as Dave from Sante Fe had described: soggy. I am definitely glad I didn’t camp here. The next task was to get up to Fall Creek Pass before it got dark. I thought if I could, I’d be able to see trail and cruise back to camp. Even though it was 7:30pm when I started up to the pass, I thought I had a chance to get back to camp, pack up, and head back to the car that night. I was also buoyed by the memory of the full moon that had lit up my campsite the night before. But the gentle rain that had started to fall made me realize that the moon probably wouldn’t help me much through the clouds.
Regardless, there was still work to do. The east side of the pass had a significant amount of snow – covering the trail and slowing progress. Fortunately, there was one set of footprints coming down the pass which I could follow most of the way up. But when I got to about 100 feet below the pass, the area flattened out, lost its snow, and had lots of standing water. As a consequence, the tracks pretty much disappeared, and I completely lost the trail. Having lost the trail, I started wading through water that was occasionally over the top of my boots. At this point, I didn’t even pay much attention.
Before heading up the pass, I had turned the GPS off because the batteries were getting low. (I was on a 2nd set by this time, but had another back-up set which I wanted to save for the headlamp). Now I would occasionally turn the GPS on to see where I was in relation to the trail and head in that direction. This method worked fairly well, but ate up more time as it had to find the satellites each time I turned it on. I also had to repeat this several times as I continued to lose the trail.
On the other side of the pass, there were streams to cross again and lakes to avoid. Water was rushing all around me, sometimes below me, and I didn’t know how firm these snowfields were going to be. I couldn't move too quickly -- had to be careful through here. But I was finally able to get back on the trail for good, cruise the last 1.5 miles, and fall down into my camp at about 11:30pm.
Quite an adventure! One that I don’t want to repeat anytime soon.
Music for the drive home: Five feet high and risin' by Johnny Cash
Total estimated distance traveled: just below 20 miles
Total distance via the shortest route from Fancy Creek: about 16.5 miles
(This would follow the Roach route 8.5 to Pt 13,768 and over Holy Cross Ridge – out and back, and avoiding my wrong turns on the approach)
Total estimated elevation gain: about 6,900 feet
I brought sandals for possible creek crossings (and for around camp) – used them twice and only on the approach.
I brought ice axe, gaiters, and microspikes. Microspikes were okay, but I wish I had brought my crampons. My microspikes are starting to get dull. And the snow was nicely firm for crampons. (That would’ve meant wearing heavier boots, though, too.)
There is still plenty of snow, but snowshoes were not needed. The snowfields that I had to cross were pretty firm all day. I postholed only a handful of times. Don't know how long that will last.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. 14ers.com and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless 14ers.com and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the 14ers.com Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.