Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I'm no Angel

Mount of the Holy Cross

September 8th – 9th, 2012
I may not be an angel, but I did earn my halo this trip! I have heard more than once that the Holy Cross Wilderness area is Colorado’s Bermuda Triangle. Several people have gone in for a hike or to climb its peaks never to reappear. Just a spring the body of a man from Chicago was found after going missing in 2010.

With this knowledge I was a little worried about heading up to tackle Holy Cross. My fears were somewhat alleviated by the fact that Doug would be joining me, on this my last plan 14er of the year. Our plan was to do the Halo Ridge Orbital route which goes up to Notch Mountain, across Halo Ridge to the summit, then back to the car via the standard Northridge route.   The highlight of this route was going to be able to spend the night at the Notch Mountain shelter at 13,000’.
When he arrived at the trailhead most of the parking spaces were filled. Doug had to wedge the 4Runner into small pull off just before the entrance to the campground. We tried to pack in as light as possible since we would have to carry everything with us up and over the summit. The shelter eliminated the need for tents or bivies and the stop at Subway in Vail took care of the need for cooking gear.
We headed up the Fall Creek Trail light on water with plans to fill up in about 3 miles. With only about 5 miles to cover to reach a shelter we set an easy pace towards the shelter. With plenty daylight left there was no need to rush; better to save our legs for the long day tomorrow.   The trail was well-defined and easy-to-follow. The elevation gain never too steep for too long.
After two and half miles we left the Fall Creek Trail and headed up to North  Mountain Trail. Just before  leaving tree line we found a small tickle of a stream and filled up on water. This was our last chance to get water until after we had descendent of the summit and reached East Cross Creek tomorrow.  I could feel the extra 6 pounds of water on my back as we took off  again and climbed through  the many switchbacks leading to Notch Mountain Ridge.  There has been much made about these switchbacks (30 plus in all) on all the trip reports.  Many of these reports have made the switchbacks seem like a trudge.  I found them to be pretty good and made the climb up to the ridge much less strenuous. Than a direct attack.
Once we reached the ridge I was surprised that the hut was only a short 200- 300 hundred yards to the south. I thought we're going to have to traverse on the ridge little ways longer before we would reach it. As we investigated the shelter we found we had the place to ourselves which surprised us.  We both thought the place might be crowded with other climbers. The inside of the shelter was very clean; only a few candles stubs remained as signs of previous visitors. I would have liked to see the shelter have a register, but none was to be found.  Perhaps I will have to come back up here sometime bring one.

As the sun began to fall below the horizon behind Holy Cross Mountain, an incredible, soft, warm light fell over the ridge and the hut. On a rock, a little ways in front of the shelter, was a plaque honoring William H. Jackson, who took the first picture of Mount of the Holy Cross in 1873.  This single iconic image served as the inspiration for all the pilgrims who would follow and travel here to gaze upon it.  In fact, it was for these pilgrims that the shelter was built.
The last rays of light found Doug and I tucked into our bags inside the shelter . Just After Dark we heard voices approaching the shelter I called out and invited them to join us.  (in the mountains there is always room at the inn). They were a couple from Denver and I was amazed by the weight the guy carried in: 6 L of water and 2 - 40 ounce BOTTLES(???) of Budweiser for starters. I think they were expecting a bit of a party attitude at the shelter; instead they found us two old guys.
Throughout the night I found myself waking and breathing deeply. I'm not sure what the actual cause was of this was: the fact that we were sleeping at 13,000” (my highest night sleep ever) or just the thought that I was sleeping up high that had me gasping for breath.  Either reason I ended up having a restless night’s sleep.

The morning light was as beautiful and gentle as the previous night's.  We actually slept in a little later than most 14ers as we did not want to start traversing Halo Ridge in the dark.  From the shelter the Halo Ridge route stretched 2 miles, and summated three 13ers on the way to Holy Cross’s summit. Most reports I read said it takes 3 - 4 hours to complete.  We were hoping for less, but I was mentally prepared longer.
The ridge is a beautiful line; knife-edge looking when viewed from the north, with long, steep, vertical drop-offs.   The south side of the ridge reveals it's gentler, but  talus covered side. We summited the first 13er quickly without much effort, shortly after leaving the shelter. To reach the base of the second 13er, the crux of the route, we  had to continue the traversing past two cock cliff bands, or gendarmes as they are  called. The first was passed to the south, below the top of the ridge line.  The second I took much closer to the ridge, which is a little more adventuresome with the steep drop off just a few step to my right.
Doug and I each chose our own path up the second 13er as we each picked our  way through the blocky talus.  Having to stop frequently and choose the way through the next section provided a nice break to my lungs and made the climb not overly strenuous. We made summit number two in about 40 minutes. From here we had a great view of where we had come from and where were going. A short section below the summit brought us to the 6 foot bottlenecked on the ridge. 
The north side of the bottleneck fell away sharply to the basin far below; the south side not so much.  Once past the bottleneck the ridge flattened out for little over a quarter-mile before reaching the base of third 13er.  As I followed the ridgeline towards the summit, I had to work past three false summits before finally reaching the true summit. I think you could actually bypass the first two false summits by continuing to traverse further west on the lower flat section of the ridge, then ascended steeper gully, which looked to lead directly up to the third false summit.  The third summit was a heartbreaker. I would've sworn, as I approached it that it was the real deal; nice and blocky almost turret like.  However the true summit was only another 50 yards or so away.
Approaching the true summit the ridge makes a sharp 90° turn to the below you just disappears beneath your feet. To the west the views open wide to the ranges further in the back of beyond.  The descent off Point13,831' was slow.  Once again we had to pick our way down, through and over more blocky talus.  So far we had not seen any sign of the dreaded mountain spiders that are told to inhabit this area.
This traverse over to the final climb up to Holy Cross’s summit crossed over the head of several couloirs that look like they would be great snow climbs.  Maybe someday!  The final 500 feet of elevation gain was once again on the now familiar blocky talus that we had been encountering all morning.
We reach the summit of just after 11 a.m., four hours and 15 minutes after setting off the shelter this morning. There were three other parties on the summit when we arrived, and three more quickly joined us All of the other groups had come up the standard route.  After 20 so minutes on the summit we began the descent off the Northridge with two other parties. The Northridge was slow going and much longer than I had envisioned. The trail was in good shape and had signs of still being in the process of being worked on.  Based on the current trail conditions I do not see how anyone could get lost.  I think it would've been a real endurance struggle to make it up this ridge originally.
Our pace quicken once we're back on the dirt trail below tree line. We continued to moving until we reached East Cross Creek where we rested and filtered another liter of water, for the rest of the hike out. We talk to you guys had taken our same route but had started at the trailhead at 6 a.m. Damn they are moving fast!
From the creek we had a 1000 foot climb back up to Half Moon Pass. Many complaints have been made of this ascent, but once again I did not find it to be too bad. The steepest section was over within 20 minutes. The descent off the pass to t he trailhead was the quickest of  the day.  We passed several parties heading up during the last 3/4 mile from the trailhead.

The Sawatch Range is finished and I completed my 14ers goals for the year. This was the best trip the year by far, and probably of all my 14ers. It was a great route with fun challenges and immeasurable rewards. What a way to end the season! At least as far as I have planned anyways. See you next season.

Check outt he complete trip photos HERE