Climbers: Zambo & Benners
- Notch Mountain
- Unnamed 13,248
- Unnamed 13,373 (Unranked)
- Holy Cross Ridge (Centennial)
- Mt. of the Holy Cross
- Unnamed 13,768 (Bi-centennial)
Distance: 18 miles
Vert: 6,100 feet (ish)
Time: 16.5 hours
Winter is coming. As the last leaves have fallen and the days grow short, our thoughts collectively turn to colder temperatures, skiing, snowshoes, and that coveted little blue snowflake. Yes, the first traces of snow on the ground and the icy breeze signal the approach of a winter soon to follow.
But not quite yet.
I love climbing in the fall. I am not quite sure what it is about this it, but there is just something very refreshing about getting out in the last days of the season. Maybe it is the cooler weather, or the lack of crowds, or the hints of the winter soon to come. Whatever it is, there is just something very good about spending a fall day out in the mountains. Looking to enjoy that, and to have one last day of pleasant hiking before fully switching to “snow-mode”, Ben and I set our sights on a long day on Halo Ridge in the Holy Cross Wilderness.
We both had plenty of familiarity with the area, but never on this route. Given that it is such a Colorado classic, we were both pretty pumped to get out there and see what it had to offer. After our plans had to be delayed a weekend due to weather, our original crew of six got whittled down to just two. But no matter, most of the time my favorite days out are enjoyed in the company of just one other close friend. I have always thought there is something very rich in getting to spend that much time together.
Anyways, after the customary short night of sleep on Friday, we were up bright and early for a Denver departure that had us to the top of the Tigiwon Road by 6:30 on Saturday morning, passing dozens of eager hunters along the way.
BELOW: I know this is way overdone, but do these pictures ever really get old? Sunrise over the Sawatch. (Zambo)
Looking to make a bigger day out of this outing, our plan was ambitious. We decided to tackle Halo Ridge by adding in Notch Mountain along the way, purely to get the sustained views of the cross. Also, we figured that since we were out there, we might as well tack on the nearby bi-centennial 13er, Unnamed 13,768, as well. We knew all of that was going to be quite the haul, so we got a good jump up to Half Moon pass on the (mostly) clear and dry trail. At the pass, we took a turn south to ascend up and over Notch Mountain.
The route up Notch was still plenty clear and safe. Although, the blowing snow mixed in with the large boulders was a good foreshadowing of the long day to come. As we ascended up to 13,000ft from the pass, we found ourselves jumping from rock to rock at every possible opportunity to avoid the ankle breakers beneath the shallow snow. That trend would continue all day long.
BELOW: The higher up Notch mountain we climbed, the better and better the view of the Gores got. Love it! (Zambo)
BELOW: But the real treat awaited us near the top of Notch mountain. Rolling over the first major saddle, Holy Cross comes into view in all its glory. The views from across the valley are nothing short of stunning. (Zambo)
After a taking the appropriate amount of time to gape in awe at Holy Cross from the summit of Notch, it was time to move on. Much to our surprise, the next little section was not quite what we were anticipating at first. The route to the east looked about as treacherous as could be, especially with the fresh snow. The west didn’t look much better with cliffs aplenty. However, knowing the route should not exceed a soft class 3, we carefully moved out onto the west face. It turns out the climbing was not nearly as bad it appeared. More snowy boulder hopping ensued, but at least the fluffy stuff served the purpose of locking everything into place. This slope is not a place I would want to be on with too much more snow, however. Moving below the ridge crest, we shot the notch on Notch Mountain and were able to make it to the shelter in no time.
BELOW: Not quite what we were expecting. (Benners)
BELOW:The views from the shelter are just as advertised. Frankly, it’s slightly ridiculous how incredible this peak looks from here. (Zambo)
BELOW: I like history. Standing at the spot of one of Colorado's most famous photographs was pretty cool to me. (Zambo)
BELOW: From inside the shelter. (Benners)
BELOW: Ben models the full route. (Zambo)
The first part of the day's task complete, we enjoyed the solitude of the shelter as we ate an early lunch. We were having excellent luck with the weather and the conditions had played to our favor. Warm, calm, and crystal clear skies had our hopes up as we packed up and moved along onto the rest of Halo Ridge.
BELOW: The next two hurdles for the day en route to Holy Cross. (Zambo)
Rolling over Unnamed 13,248 & Unnamed 13,373 seemed to happen pretty quick. The climbing primarily consisted of carefully jumping from one snow-free boulder to the next, with the occasional slip that resulted in muttered curses at the shallow snow. While this made for slower times as we could only move so fast in these conditions, the positive was that it was hard to overly exhaust ourselves.
BELOW: Topping out on Unnamed 13,373, Tuhare Lakes comes into view off the south slopes. The position from is here is very cool - very un-Sawatch like as Halo Ridge puts you right in the middle of towering faces, tall peaks, and big drops. We were reminded of Rocky Mountain National Park throughout the day. (Zambo)
BELOW: Looking back towards the shelter from where we had just come. (Zambo)
BELOW: Turning the other direction, the final pitches to Halo Cross Ridge's Summit. (Zambo)
BELOW: The weather continued to be just about perfect. A light breeze kept things on the colder side, but the views were as clear as can be. I thought this was cool in particular - from the summit of Holy Cross Ridge, virtually every high peak in the Elks was visible. (Zambo)
BELOW: Looking back on the lakes. (Zambo)
Reaching the summit of Halo Cross Ridge was a bit more of a chore than the first few peaks. Our patience with the snowy boulders was starting to wear thin as the day wore on. But, we were certainly glad we had made it that far with relative ease. We were really enjoying the route and the hours it provided on this alpine ridge run. The next target was Holy Cross, so we tried to hussle over to the saddle where we could drop packs. Doing so, we were able to speed up a bit en route to the next summit.
BELOW: Onwards to the 14er, with ne're a gaper to be found on this day. (Zambo)
Standing completely alone on top of Holy Cross, the entire route comes into view. Tracing the ridge line all the way from Half Moon pass to Holy Cross ridge, you really get a sense of perspective on just how far we had come. Even though we had pretty much already agreed along the hike, from the summit we were both ready to 'officially' say this was the finest Sawatch peak and route we had ever done.
BELOW: Standing on summit #5/6 for the day, and the only 14er. (Benners)
BELOW: Looking west over to Holy Cross Ridge and the bi. (Zambo)
BELOW: Looking down the cross. I'm sure it will be plenty more filled in after this weekend's storm, aka 'Obamney' for all you Open Snow lovers out there. (Zambo)
Even after 5 peaks and hours and hours of hiking, there was still a long ways to go. The bi looked to be far, far away from the summit of Holy Cross. The daylight was quickly passing by and we were starting to finally feel the toll of the long effort. Yet at the same time, we knew that we would be hard pressed to want to come slog it out to get the bi again - it's a long, long way back there.
Only one thing to do in such situations: drink some water, wolf down some summer sausage, grab your nuts, and solider on!
As you might expect, the effort to get onto the bi took longer that expected. It is about the same distance and the HC - HCR saddle, but the terrain might be a bit steeper. Or we were just tired and ready to be heading home. Whatever the case, it did seem to drag on. Regardless, this peak is also pretty dang cool. The North Face has a mini-alpine wall and the connecting saddle to Halo Cross Ridge has some of the more unique alpine rock features I have seen. Reaching this summit of this beast definitely turned out to be worth the effort.
We hit this summit by about 4:00, and still had 7-8ish miles back to the car. Although the summit register was falling apart, it looked like we were the only folks who had signed in since mid-August. I'm sure it gets more frequent visits than that, but it was still a poignant reminder of just how far out there we were. Looking around, we realized just how far from any sort of civilization this peak is. I love that. One of the best parts about fall and winter are the isolated positions you find yourself in. You really have to earn it in these times, but the solitude and feeling of really being "in" the mountains is worth it to me.
BEWOW: Unnamed 13,768 from the connecting saddle to HCR. (Benners)
BELOW: I spied this photo opp on the ascent, and jogged ahead on the way down to catch Benners standing on the summit of Unnamed 13,768. (Zambo)
We had been discussing the descent off of the bi all day. Initially we thought we might be able to roll off the north face down to the Tuhare lakes area. However, looking at this face all day, it was very evident that route isn't really an option. We also considered dropping off the south face of the bi, which is indeed possible and might be worth it for anyone considering this route. However, we were a bit uncertain of the trail hook-ups lower down, and it also looked like that would add some distance to the day. The only remaining options were to either descent Halo Ridge, or go down into the Tuhare Lakes area off the summit of Holy Cross Rigde.
We opted for the latter. Tired of boulder hopping, with the sun waning, and the the line off of Halo Cross Ridge looking like it had some good scree, we made the decision to head back over the summit and then down the south face.
BELOW: Standing atop Halo Cross Ridge for the second time of the day. (Benners)
In retrospect, I am not 100% sure if this was the best descent option or not. We were able to skree-ski some of the south face of Halo Cross ridge, but not as much as we had hoped. The face was clear, but the lower and lower we got, the more and more we realized we would be having some big rocks to deal with in order to get around both Tuhare Lakes. However, in the immediacy of it, we were just thankful to get below 13,000 feet and on our way to a water refill spot. By our estimation, this route had us above 13,000 for just over 9 straight hours. That is obviously quite a long time to be that high in Colorado, so we were happy to give ourselves a break at the lakes, which in the alpenglow, were simply stunning.
BELOW: Finally getting somewhere below 13,000. (Zambo)
BELOW: The clouds timed their first appearance of the day perfectly, softly rolling over the bi and mixing into the alpenglow as Ben beautifully captured here. (Benners)
BELOW: My turn to try and show it. (Zambo)
BELOW: Down with the sun and up with the moon. (Zambo)
BELOW: Finally reaching the lakes as the last light of the day fades. We realized the car was a long, long way to go from here, but in retrospect the picture might be worth it. (Zambo)
So, there we were. Miles and miles from the car, with the sun all but gone, and looking at an unknown route home from deep in the wilderness. Up to this point, it had been a great day. Although long, we were making great time, in good shape, had zero route finding issues, and were relatively happy with our situation. That was all about to change. I think Ben summed it up perfectly in this little exchange.
Me: "Well man, it's been an awesome day. Hopefully not too much trouble to get out from here. All we have to do is make it to Lake Constantine and we're on a trail the whole way out!" (famous last words)
Ben: "I dunno dude, I feel like we're about to get screwed."
Me: "By what?"
Ben: "No idea....this is just that moment when all you want to do is be back and the car and heading home, and inevitably something is just going to screw us over real bad."
We had no idea how prophetic those words would be....
I hesitate to even re-live the buchwhack out, but suffice it to say, it was not fun. Essentially, the entire Tuhare Lakes Basin is one massive pile of huge boulders. They rise straight up off the water and offer no easy passage. Oh, and this is helped in no way, shape, or form by the fact that it was totally dark at this point. Getting past the first lake took a long, long time as we painfully picked our way across the field. I am pretty sure there is a (more or less) cairned route which probably helps, but we lost all site of this and just had to pick a line and go. Ugh.
Passing the first lake, we then made the discovery of all the headwalls separating the upper lake from the lower. Again not seeing a route, it took some time to find our way safely in the dark. It seemed to us that the best option was to start the headwalls at their south end, and then gradually move down and northeast. There are probably better options, but this at least kept us out of any dangerous climbing as we could skirt the major obstacles.
Finally, after all this we made it past the second lake and stumbled upon a climber's trail. Following this as best we could in the mixed snow, it was a semi-bushwhack to get back to Lake Constantine, at which point we collapsed and cursed the dark. But, the good news is that we were now indeed on a trail. It was something like 4.5ish miles from Lake Constantine to the car, and we were ready to get that over with as fast as humanly possible. Tapping into our pissed off attitude, we all but jogged the final stretch out. While it seemed like forever, I think we did this last stretch in something like 1 & 1/4 hours. As it always does, the cars eventually came, some 16.5 hours and 18 miles after we left it that morning.
So, while the drive home might have been soured by the descent, in retrospect I think we were both pretty damn happy about the day. This route is awesome. The positions in the wilderness it places a climber in are tough to beat in the Sawatch. As I reflect back on the stunning views of the cross coulior, the expanses seen along the ridge, and all of the beautiful summits, I'm glad we did it. The bi was an added treat as well as we ended up doing all we had set out to accomplish for the day.