| Holy Cross and Halo Ridge
Mt. of the Holy Cross:
William Henry Jackson's First Photo of The Holy Cross
The Cross of Snow
In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face--the face of one long dead--
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died, and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Although Mt. of the Holy Cross is only a 14er by 5 feet, it is still notorious for being one of the more difficult 14ers in the state. The standard route is up the North Ridge, and is 11.5 miles round trip. Not only is this longer than the average 14er, but it also has 1,000' of elevation gain on the way back to the trailhead on the descent from Holy Cross's Summit. The Halo Ridge is a different route to the summit of Mt. of the Holy Cross, but starts from the same trailhead as the North Ridge. The Halo Ridge route is 15 miles roundtrip, but only has 5,210' of elevation gain because it doesn't drop into the Cross Creek drainage like the North Ridge does. In short, there is no easy way to do this 14er. In fact, there's no easy way to do any 14er. There is just no such thing. I digress..
I had only seen pictures of Holy Cross for most of my life and didn't hear too much about it until I read Mark Scott-Nash's Colorado 14ers Disasters. Scott-Nash gives an overview of the mountain and mentions that missing hikers on Holy Cross trigger the greatest number of large operations than any other mountain. He gives short reports about past stories of large search operations on The Cross, but focuses mainly on the story of Michelle Vanek. Michelle was a 35 year old mother of four, who was known for being quite athletic. She had run several marathons in her lifetime. Eric Sawyer, the husband of one of Michelle's good friends, had climbed 37 14ers, and wanted to take Michelle on her first 14er. She decided on Holy Cross because it was an easy one
Michelle and Eric made it to the Halfmoon Creek Trailhead on a crisp Autumn morning in 2005. They planned on going up the standard North Ridge, but accidentally went down the longer and much more difficult Halo Ridge trail. Michelle was new to 14ers, and struggled throughout the day. You can be extremely fit at sea level or even a mile high in Denver, but being at 13,000' for any amount of time will drain you if you are new to high altitude hiking like Michelle was.
Exhausted, Michelle and Eric finally made it to the final ridge to the summit of Holy Cross. Eric was set on getting his next summit, but Michelle had other plans. She was extremely tired at this point and was not going to make it to the summit. They came up with the plan of splitting up; Eric would summit Holy Cross and return to the standard North Ridge to descend, and Michelle would just "contour" along the West side of Holy Cross, and meet Eric along the North Ridge.
Eric made the summit and went to the North Ridge to meet up with Michelle. But she wasn't there. She wasn't anywhere. At 4PM Eric called Eagle County Sheriff. Rescue teams used dogs, hundreds of volunteer searchers, and even infrared cameras on helicopters that can detect heat sources. But they never found her. After weeks of searching and years of people climbing that mountain, nothing ever led to her discovery. A few clues, but nothing that helped find her or find out what happened to her. It's almost as if she just fell off the face of the Earth. An eerie thought I kept in my mind throughout my journey of Holy Cross
I had been planning on doing Holy Cross for a few weeks, but it just kept getting delayed and postponed for random and ridiculous reasons. So when I woke up at 4:30 on Saturday Morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see that both my hiking partners, Jake and Ben, were awake as well and still planning on going.
We cruised down I-70 in the dark, which is essentially an American version of the German Autobahns. Jake had been on the Tigiwon Road the weekend earlier and said he wasn't able to get to the trailhead because the road was too icy. This time however, we didn't have any road condition issues on the way up to the trailhead. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a traffic jam on our way up. Two oversized trucks being driven by gentleman suited in neon orange suits were traveling at a "conservative" pace to say the least. It took us about 30 minutes to go the 8 Miles along Tigiwon. Luckily it gave us time to get a nice view of the sunrise. It was 25 degrees outside the car, so we gladly welcomed the sun
Our caravan of 5 or 6 cars behind the hunters in the big trucks arrived at the trailhead at about 7:45. I wanted to make sure we left on the correct trailhead for Halfmoon Creek and not Halo Ridge. That 14er Disaster Book has made me pretty paranoid lately. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Being more cautious on this hike because of the stories I've heard couldn't do any harm.
Jake Marching By the Trailhead
Jake filled out a hikers tag at the trailhead where we met a solo hiker who was in our caravan earlier. He arrived at the same time as us. We all thought it would be a good idea to travel together to the summit. It's always nice having more people on the hikes that you aren't familiar with. Our new hiking partner's name was Matt and he's currently going to school at CU Anschutz in Denver for Orthodontics. He said he had climbed around 28 14ers so far, and was trying to finish them all by the time he's done with school.
We quickly made our way up the trail through the forest in no time. There were patches of snow along the trail, but they were easily avoidable. We began our descent towards East Cross Creek and finally got our first glance of Holy Cross. It was kinda weird seeing it for the first time. I had seen hundreds of pictures here on 14ers.com and on the internet, so it was kind of like seeing a celebrity.
Our First Glance of The North Ridge and Holy Cross
Mt. of the Holy Cross(left center) and Mt. Jackson (right center)
Crossing the Creek wasn't an issue at all and a group of 3 or 4 people had gone ahead of us and plowed most of the snow along the trail through the forest. Our group was making good time and we were on pace to be on the summit by noon. Then we started going uphill again, and things started getting a bit shaky
Ben needed a "potty" break. We'll leave it at that. 15 minutes later, Ben says he can't find his sunglasses. He searches his backpack and can't find them anywhere. Matt jokingly asks Ben if he accidentally dropped it into/around his potty break area. Ben hesitates with his answer, but is fairly certain that didn't happen. He assumed he just dropped them along the trail. So Ben goes back to try and find his sunglasses. And of course being Holy Cross, we make sure not to continue on without Ben to make sure no one gets lost. We waited for Ben for about 30 minutes while standing in snow and being covered by the forests shadow. It got cold pretty quickly.
Ben finally comes back with no luck in finding his sunglasses. He opted to wear Jakes ski goggles instead of going throughout the day without eye protection.
Matt, Jake, and I make our way up along the spine of the North Ridge and continue to push on up through the talus fields. Ben was hanging back and taking his time. He eventually fell 20 or 30 minutes behind us, but we could still see him because we were above tree line.
It hadn't snowed up on Holy Cross in a week, but there was still untouched snow along most of the trail to the summit. Matt, Jake, and I strapped on our gaiters because some patches of snow were 2 or 3 feet deep still. The snow is avoidable completely, but that requires a lot of boulder hopping. The trail should be packed down now since 8 or 9 people did the North Ridge up and down that day
Matt and Jake along the North Ridge
Jake in front of Mt. Jackson
Our View of the Sawatch and Elk Ranges
Looking down the North Ridge
The North Ridge crest at 13,300' was a break from the steep trail and was well marked with large cairns. Matt, Jake, and I waited here for Ben before our final push to the summit. We waited for about 20 minutes with no sign of Ben, but knew he was coming up the ridge. Jake went back and talked to him to find out Ben had some meatless meatballs the night before and wasn't feeling too well. He didn't think he could summit, but Jake, Matt, and I were so close to the summit that we knew we had to get it.
After talking about it for 15 or 20 minutes, we came up with the plan to have Ben stay along the North Ridge trail while Jake, Matt, and I go to the summit. Jake would then go back down the North Ridge and pickup Ben where they would hike back together. Matt and I were really interested in doing the Halo route, so we decided to do that instead of the North Ridge. I knew the Halo Ridge was a longer route back to the car, but it didn't have the 1000' of elevation like the Halfmoon Creek Trail. I "assumed" it would take Jake and Ben the same time to get back to the car from Halfmoon as it would take Matt and I to do the Halo Ridge. And by assuming, I definitely made an ass out of you and me
We finally reached the summit at 1PM. Most of my 14er hikes are done by this time, so climbing a 14er that late in the day was a new experience
The Ridge Crest with View of the Final Summit Push
View from the Summit
It's always nice to share a summit with others
Jake enjoying the windless summit
Standing in some of the deeper snow on the summit with Jake
Matt and I started making our way down Holy Cross and back up towards Holy Cross Ridge along the Halo Route. We could only find the trail in certain areas along the ridge, but were essentially just scrambling along the boulders and avoiding the snow
View from Holy Cross Ridge of Holy Cross
After reaching the summit of Holy Cross Ridge, we traversed our way along the ridge towards Unnamed 13,248. Matt and I had been slipping and sliding all over the loose talus along this ridge and were getting pretty tired. Not only was the sun quickly setting on us, but as we approached the summit of Unnamed 13,248, we saw just how much elevation we lost and had to make back up to get to the Shelter along the Notch Mountain Trail. It was a lot
Just an endless field of talus
Making Our Way Up Unnamed 13,248
Last look at the Bowl of Tears before being engulfed by the shadow of Holy Cross
Coming down Unnamed 13,248's East Face was definitely the low point of this adventure. It was in complete shadow and this is where we found some of the most snow throughout the whole day. It was slick from the snow, the rocks were unstable, and we were starting to really get tired. I was trying to balance on a rock at one point and it came out from under me with my weight on my front foot, so I started falling down the slope face first. I tumbled for 10 or 15 feet down the boulder field, but luckily didn't injure anything. Matt and I were starting think Halo Ridge is a bit more miserable than fun at this point
After another hour of crossing the ridge through the wind, Matt and I finally made it to the Notch Mountain Shelter at 5PM. This is waaaaaay too late to be on the mountain. But the Halo Ridge was just tough, slow going. I compared it to the Harvard and Columbia Traverse, except that it's all talus.
Past Unnamed 13,248, I had full service for my cell phone, and Jake had just called me to see where Matt and were at. Jake said he made it back to the car with Ben already, so they were waiting on us. I told him that we just got to the shelter, and that we would be headed down shortly.
While I was on the phone, Matt found out that we still had 5.5 miles back to the parking lot from the Shelter. I had noooo idea it was nearly that long back to the trailhead. I try and do my research on every peak, but once again, I just didn't do enough. This means that it would take us about 3 hours to get back to the car if we continued at the same pace we had been going at. It would definitely be dark by the time we got back to the car.
Matt proposed the options of staying the night in the shelter and not risk hiking down through the forest during the night, or to try and get down to the car as fast as we can that night. Matt said he had a meeting the next morning to go to, and had a wife and kids waiting for him at home. As I was thinking about what would be a better idea, I heard the wind whipping against the windows of the shelter and could see the thick vapor of my breath in the chilly air. At this point, I realized I do not want to stay in this ice box for the night. I'm gettin off this mountain!
So I took a quick and overexposed picture of Holy Cross as we left the shelter and started to make our way down the Notch Mountain Trail. Matt and I threw on our gaiters and went into beast mode as we descended back towards the trailhead. We plowed through the snow in the dark forest and continued hiking while the sun was setting. I had a headlamp and flashlight, but the snow on the trail was so bright that we didn't need them.
Last, rushed picture of the day
We cruised down the trail and finally made it back to the car in just under 2 hours. Keeping a 2.5MPH pace definitely kept Matt and I warm on the way down. Our day started at 8AM and ended at 7PM. Definitely one of the longest days for a 14er I've ever had. We were greeted by Ben and Jake, and loaded up the cars. We said our goodbyes to Matt, and made our way back to Golden. Another successful adventure in the Sawatch Mountains
It was a pleasure being able to hike with Matt, who is very knowledgeable and talented climber. I have a new respect for anyone that has done the Halo Ridge. Hopefully we can do some more peaks together in the future
Up Next:The weather is probably going to start turning into the usual Colorado Winter pretty soon, so the 14er climbing window is slowly closing. I would love to finish the season off in the Elk Range. I haven't done any of those peaks, and if I could do Castle and Conundrum, then that would end my season with 29 total 14ers. The halfway point of this crazy journey 14er journey. We'll see what happens!
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