| Chapter 2: My 1st 14er! (Halo Loop by Night w/ Peak Bivouac)
As previously posted in Chapter 1: Noob Backdooring Holy Cross? , I made my first ever 14er summit attempt in June choosing Mount of the Holy Cross via hiking in the long way via Homestake Road and Fall Creek Trail as Tigiwon Road to the Half Moon Trailhead was closed until June 20 for elk calving, but only to bonk by the Notch Mountain shelter and get cliffed out trying to traverse the notch the next morning.
A first 14er fail sat with me about as well as an unbalanced cairn.
Live, learn, refine, reload, and re-attack.
Instead of just making one long return trip for one summit, I've planned on doing a few broken up by doing trail work with CFI (Colorado Fourteeners Initiative). And so the adventure resumes...
Left late on the 24th and rode around 700 miles straight to get into Minturn, grab a gyro, buy some bottled water, and head down US-24 for Tigiwon Road, now open. I reorganize the stuff on my bike at the Half Moon Trailhead to make pack and head up-trail at 4:00 pm. The weather is great with scattered clouds.
My plan is to loop the ridge from Notch to Holy Cross, so at Half Moon Pass I break left by the pile or red rock for the trampled grass and the signs of trail uphill. (For those whose knees eschew pounding, this route is basically all gain with short drops all the way to HC’s summit so post-descent ascent pain is limited to the hike from the East Cross Creek back up to the pass.) There are no posted signs for the Notch Mountain Summit Trail so just remember those rocks, grass, and that if you start going downhill you’ve missed the turnoff.
Heading up to the pass.
Chipmunk action (click for video) at Half Moon Pass.
The trail becomes more apparent after a couple hundred yards, but it is clearly a younger, fresher trail: narrow, not rutted, ground vegetation mostly undisturbed, bushes either side of the trail converging above it. Above tree line, cairns guide you through the talus where narrow dirt paths do not.
As the trail (lower right) winds along the east side of the ridge, you can spot the notch (left of center) in the distance.
Eventually Mount of the Holy Cross "peaks" out.
Gaining the ridge (click for video).
Up the ridge (click for video).
Compared to the Notch Shelter Trail’s long and numerous switchbacks (over 40), the Notch Summit Trail is quite direct and fast. I stop every now and then with my camera and to catch my breath as my home elevation is around 1,000' so I'm getting a fraction of the oxygen I'm used to.
I summit Notch Mountain but find neither a summit marker nor register. From atop, I backtrack a bit north then east to route down to the notch in a gradual class 2 to 2+ fashion. Parts might be a 3.
Notch Mountain Summit and precipice (click for video).
Traversing the notch southbound is pretty straight forward. The trick is selecting a route to ascend to the southern ridge from inside the bowl facing HC. This can be anywhere from a class 3 to a 5 depending on your selection. As a safety bailout, it looks like one could continue to traverse across and into the upper bowl below the shelter then mosey up but it would add considerable time and distance.
Starting the traverse of the notch from the north. Nice view from the west in the setting sun, but best route down is on the east (click for video).
A bit farther down (click for video).
NOTE: Yes, I know none of the above will garner me a cinematographer award, but I wanted to share a bit of what it was like, even if that means winds blowing the wrist strap into the frame, hiking with one free hand (or switching the camera to the other hand), scouting a decent route, and the like. Point is I enjoyed it and hope it encourages others to give it a look too.
I ascend late popping out right near the large cairn (see below and Vision Test 3 and “Looking back.” photos in prior report) from which you can spot the shelter.
Apparently this random cairn indicates a good point to go west and drop into the bowl to traverse to the north to the bottom of the notch avoiding it's 75' cliff on the south end. (Photo from previous report.)
As dusk darkens the sky, intermittent bright blue light through the shelter door’s portal tells me it’s occupied. A lad steps out as I near and recognizes me as the guy with the motorcycle at the trail head. He and his girlfriend came up Fall Creek then the Notch Shelter trails. Had I foregone photos, exploring, and other non-hiking tasks, I likely would have reached there first. He tells me both that it’ll get down the 50s that night and the weather the day before was stormy. They’ve set up a tent inside and she’s already bedded for the night, but is surprised when he relays that I’m just there to fleece up (under leather pants, over long-sleeve go-lite shirt) to hike the Halo route through the night. I also tug my left sock as it felt like it had a fold in it earlier before re-booting (foreshadowing). It’s about 9:00pm when I depart.
There was half a moon for half the night. For back up, two identical Harbor Freight LED flashlights (the freebie ones) and a four-pack of AAA batteries are in pack with the rationale that if one goes dead, I’ll switch to the other’s light to reload the first with fresh AAAs should a third round be needed, but mostly I just let my eyes adjust and hike in the dark. Clouds are scattered making Ursa Major, Polaris, and the Milky Way easy to find. Having ridden as low as -10º F, I’m familiar with what gear it takes to keep warm at night if still (sitting, static) versus moving (hiking, dynamic), and my current set up will keep me above chilling but below perspiration.
Water and food are going per plan: one liter for Notch Mountain Summit, one for Halo Ridge, one for Holy Cross summit, descend in the cool night/dawn to East Cross Creek to filter and refill for the hike out to keep pack weight down. Granola or breakfast bar every hour or two and drinking a bit any time I start to get a little too warm or my mouth is the slightest bit parched to avoid hydration simply being “passed” due to “overfilling.”
With comfortable clothing and no sleep the prior night, it would have been easy to nap in the talus, but I know steady controlled progress is needed to make the most of hiking in the cool, UV-free night. I try to take a couple night shots, but forget the aperture and other settings I need to dial in besides the 16-second shutter speed. I still manage to get a moon shot (west) and look-back one (east). With little to no wind, Halo is the most tranquil part of the hike despite successive talus ascents.
Long exposure photo of moon over Holy Cross Ridge with stars while hiking Halo westward at night.
Long exposure photo looking back to the east while hiking Halo at night. Dotted lights are the strobe of an aircraft.
There are many narrow saddles joining the peaks of Halo. Often you will find it best to keep left toward the south to spot them early enough to know when traversing around will save you a needless ascent. One summit tease after another, like climbing over the teeth of a comb, hoping the next will one will lead up PT 13,831 (Holy Cross Ridge) where you turn the corner north. Sighting that I’m nearly as high as HC’s summit, I reach a nice plateau and search for a marker or register but find none. I click my light on and see yet another long, dark, faint stretch up of talus to the west. *sigh*
So another peak, for another down-climb, for another saddle, for another pea… Wait! There are no more peaks! Even at night I can make out Cross Creek’s valley. I’m finally atop PT 13,831, less than 200’ below the Holy Cross summit! Again, I can find neither marker nor register scrambling around all the high points. *argh!*
Now to find the saddle connecting to Mount Holy Cross. The LED highlights two different northbound ridges. Both look unfriendly and abruptly disappear into blackness. I hike down and out to each – cliff outs. My light is too weak to illuminate any of the saddle from HC back to me, and I can’t see nor find another northbound ridge as the talus seems to break away into black as well.
I consult my map (which has been known to lie, e.g. number of shelter trail switchbacks), but also remember reading about cliff bands on this side, folks who hike down what they can’t get back up, the wind hitting this face of the ridge directly, remoteness, and so on. I try to pull up a satellite image on my phone that I can zoom in on (three to five bars is not uncommon here) but the battery bottoms and it shuts down. Crap.
Quorum is present, so a vote is held. Motion to bivouac passes 1-to-0. I re-summit and find a north-south trough with a boulder on the south end to get out of the wind. The back pad of my mesh jacket insulates my butt from the gravel. Rain jacket for torso and trash bag for legs to break the wind. Desert-flapped hat over knit cap with sides drawn in. Scarf wrapped around my neck with a "bandito" bandana covering my face. Pack becomes a pillow against the boulder as I try to snuggle in to await dawn’s route-finding light in a few hours.
Waking to a shiver, the east horizon has a faint glow, a lighter shade of indigo, but all else is still dark. Cold with a slight headache, I decide to re-coal and top off my metabolic boiler, but the blueberry Nutri-grain collides with a bit of nausea. Oh joy. Headache, nausea, dead phone, route ahead not visible, route back too long, and I’m in a pine-box-sized granite relief. Not today, Chuck Darwin, not today.
Large muscle groups. Staying curled up, I make some rapid, mini running-like movements. Warms me a little. Good. Repeat. Sip, chew, sip, mini-run. Repeat. Nausea and headache fade. Check horizon. Repeat drill. Check horizon. Saddle features begin to form ever so slightly. Repeat drill standing. I know as soon as I start hiking, I’ll be back up to full operating temp.
Early dawn on the east side of PT 13,831 between a cliff wall edge and cliff-out peninsula with the saddle connecting to Holy Cross beginning to materialize to the eye but not the camera hundreds of feet down the still dark valley of Cross Creek.
Panorama (click for video) starting to the south, looking east up PT 13,831, north off various cliffs, and west into the shadowed Cross Creek and saddle. It gives some idea of what it'd be like to come up on the cliff-outs at night and how the slope down to the west is hidden.
Once I can follow a faint ridgeline from HC, I start hiking down, down, down, shoo-bee-doo, down-down. I hug to the right save for a safety buffer of a yard or two until I finally come to the saddle proper.
Some shots taken along the connecting saddle.
Halo Route from the saddle between PT 13,831 and MtHC. You can make out the cliff-outs I found just off summit heading north and how the slight rise prevented my light from showing anything further down slope other than darkness when trying to sight the connecting saddle the previous night.
Zooming in on the Notch Mountain Shelter.
The backside of Holy Cross is relatively straight forward and I occasionally find hints of a trail. I have one small slip that is inconsequential but for the fact that my left shin hits the edge of a neighboring rock like a bell being struck. I sit down, take some deep breaths to let the adrenaline subside, test range of motion, and things seem to be fine so I hike on. I had one other slip that dinged my left knee just under the patella which also seems fine after a brief rest.
Up and up as peripheral rock abates and the field begins to level off until I spot the summit of my first 14er.
Holy Cross summit sunrise.
I find no summit register so down pack for a snack break, mosey around the summit a bit, and then head down looking for the North Ridge Trail.
Obligatory boot shot.
Coming off the mountain, I spy a couple of guys coming off the ridge who are most likely the second and third to summit that day. The trail down is decently cairned, and for a bit it is even a nice dirt trail, but proceeded along the ridge it quickly becomes talus hopping and some scree. I spot the red or yellow "flies" used by CFI (Colorado Fourteeners Initiative) to indicate the center of the trail (red) and features (yellow) such as a step or a wall. Farther down I spot the crew and ask if this is what happens to people who cut switchbacks.
Holy Cross is known for people getting lost off the North Ridge by breaking to the NW early and getting down into the Cross Creek drainage (versus the East Cross Creek one draining from the Bowl of Tears). Several large cairns have already been erected, often several feet tall, and clearly visible from one to the next, so that few should get off track in the future lowering the number of SAR calls. CFI and volunteers have already made substantial progress on the north end of the ridge build a sustainable trail through the talus with dozens of stone steps.
Unfortunately for me, it's now getting warm and what was to be a nice cool hike down to the creek is becoming a long, hot slog. Even when back to treeline, the trail is often steep, rocky, eroded, and criss-crossed by tree roots. What I thought was a fold in my sock along notch ridge was clearly a blister that has ripened along Halo Ridge. I make East Cross Creek only to find my Sawyer squeeze filter has a different thread than all three of my water bottles making filtering a leaky affair. After drinking and filling another bottle for the hike out, I cross the stream and take a nap on a big flat rock on the other side.
Solar alarm clock -- shadows have moved so that my face is in the sun. I gear up and head up the 1,000' or so up to Half Moon Pass noting how nice the trail is on this side, almost as if to be as welcoming as possible until you are as committed as possible at the low point of the trail. I pass a trio hikers from Minnesota (similar home elevation) and share route, water, and weather info. They have large rigid-frame packs, room for a couple liters each, and one wants to summit then take Halo to descend into Tuhare Lakes. I point out some of the challenges they'll likely face in their first visit to Holy Cross Wilderness. A younger one is still bent on a Halo descent to Tuhare, while another doesn't like the sound of running out of water a long ways from a source or defined trail. Best choices are informed ones.
I make the pass and even have to pause to rest on the way down. Blister foot and dinged shin aren't digging this downhill stuff and I've been regularly passed by others heading back to the parking lot say every 45 minutes or so since getting to treeline coming off the north ridge.
Finally at the parking lot, I filter some more water from Fall Creek, rearrange gear on the bike, and ride off for a late lunch in Minturn. It's too late to ride to Lake City and make the last 4WD shuttle up from the 2WD road for Uncompahgre Peak, but I should still be able to get there Friday morning for the first day of work.
Little token to add to my bike's tank pannier as my first 14er. They're about the size of a quarter and available for $8 at the USFS station by exit 171 off I-70 for Minturn.
… continued on Chapter 3: Volunteering on Uncompahgre Peak (CFI & VOC Trail Restoration)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):