Posted by: joshrduncan | August 26, 2010

2010-08-08 Mount of the Holy Cross


Revelations 21:10 – And the angel carried me away by the Spirit to a very large and high mountain…

  • ROUTE: North Ridge
  • DAY: Sunday, August 8th, 2010
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 5,600 feet
  • ROUNDTRIP LENGTH: 11.50 miles
  • ROUNDTRIP TIME: 9 hours, 10 minutes
  • CLIMBING PARTNER(S): Jon and Charlie

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Mount of the Holy Cross is one of the most photographed, well known fourteeners in Colorado.  It is a beautiful peak that acquires its name from the impressive snow formation of a cross on its northeast face in the shape of a cross.  Enthusiasm filled my mind as I began to invision climbing Mount of the Holy Cross.  The enthusiam began weeks earlier after my successful summit of Mount Antero and realizing Mount of the Holy Cross was the only peak remaining in the Sawatch Range.  This journey is all about steps, both literally and figuratively.  There was something about finishing a range that makes excites me even more.  It is a tangible milestone.  This was a step towards a marker, a cairn so to speak, along my trail leading me to my ultimate summit of completing all 58 fourteeners. I wanted to finish the Sawatch Range, which consists of the most and highest fourteeners of any range in Colorado.  After today, I would summit Mount of the Holy Cross and be successful in finishing the Sawatch Range.  Although successful, there was substantial doubt on my end heading into this hike.

My decision to hike Mount of the Holy Cross didn’t develop until a couple days before.  Courtney and I just returned from my annual trip to visit one of my best friends, Eric, in California the weekend before.  Courtney extended her trip for work and all week I kept envisioning and hoping to hike Mount of the Holy Cross.  This is a problem she will have… leave  me along for too long and all I think about is heading to the high country.  After discussing it with my beautiful, supportive fiancée (yep, that is right…I like the sound of that much more than girlfriend), she was agreeable to heading up to the mountains.  I recruited my climbing friends Jon and Charlie for this hike and the planning began.  Because of our personal commitments, Sunday was our only option to hike.

I spend a lot of time planning for a climb.  The planning starts days, if not weeks, in advance.  I read about different routes in order to understand the complexity of the hike.  I study a topographic map to familiarize myself with the terrain.  I look at hundreds of photographs to piece the topography and route descriptions together.  I examine trip reports written by people whom have previously climb the mountain to ascertain their feelings, potential consequences, and observations made along their journey. Finally, I check the weather.  Basically, I spend hours preparing for a hike before I even pack up my backpack or set a foot on the trail.

I developed serious doubts about having a successful ascent up Mount of the Holy Cross as soon as the planning started.  Colorado had been encircled by a monsoon weather pattern that has wrecked havoc on the mountains and Front Range this summer.  The monsoon weather has brought malicious thunderstorms with cruel lightning.  I love the rain every afternoon here in Parker but severe weather above treeline is a scary proposition.  With my recent experience on Culebra Peak still vivid in my mind, I am mindful of the weather now more than ever.  The forecast called for an 80% chance of precipitation, with rain and snow developing before noon and thunderstorms likely emerging.  Not my ideal forecast whatsoever. 

With the anticipated weather forecasted, I knew an early start was critical and the most direct route provided our greatest chance of success.  This would only increase our limited likelihood of reaching the top safely.  I proposed to Jon and Charlie that we start hiking around 4:00 am and both were in agreement given the circumstances.  We all seem to consistently agree that an earlier start is ideal.  Although we planned for an early start time, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I was still very doubtful given the forcast. 

Our planned hike would start at Half Moon – Tigiwon Trailhead.  The trailhead sits at 10,320 feet and the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross lies at 14,005 feet; just over that magical number of 14,000 feet. From the trailhead we would ascend approximately 5,600 vertical feet and would cover approximately 11.5 miles roundtrip.  It was a lot of vertical elevation to gain in a day (or pre-dawn) hike.  One might think my math is a little funny since 14,005 feet minus 10,320 feet = 5,600 feet.  I’m an engineer and I design things.  Do you want to know what I have designed?  Actually, this hike comprises of an approximate 1,000 foot drop down into East Cross Creek.  Therefore, the hike comprises of this greater elevation gain because one has to retake the 1,000 vertical feet on the way back to the trailhead, what is typically called the descent. J

My good friend and old neighbor once again made his townhome available to us in Dillon.  We stayed Saturday night and ate incredible barbeque ribs.  At 1:45, my alarm so nicely woke me up.  The three of us left the townhome and headed towards the trailhead by 2:00 am.  It was already raining along I-70 on our way to the trailhead.  Things were not looking good already.  The only thing I was elated about was that it at least was not snowing.  The forecast predicted snow and I was hopeful that it would be wrong about some of its other predictions.

Once through Minturn, we reached Tigimon Road, which was the path leading to the trailhead.  This eight mile jaunt towards the trailhead was achievable in Charlie’s Mazda but it the most pleasant on the vehicle.  He was careful to miss the normal ruts present on the dirt road.  I would recommend a 2WD vehicle with some additional clearance at a minimum.

During our drive up, I would have to say that Charlie made a rookie mistake.  Not to say Charlie is a “rookie” at climbing 14ers as he has approximately 20 peaks completed including more difficult mountains than me.  However, Charlie was excited about the donuts he and Jon had purchased the night before.  So excited, he ate four of them.  Yep, that is right; four decadent fat pills.  He would regret this decision the entire day…such a rookie mistake.

We began our hike at 3:50 am.  It was raining, dark and a mild temperature of 46 degrees.  The moon was covered by the dense clouds surrounding us.  It was an eerie feeling hiking in the dark.  This was the earliest I had ever started hiking.  I was just thankful I had friends accompanying me into the dark abyss.

Charlie forgot his headlamp so he would have to make do with hiking between Jon and I, which would hopefully provide him adequate light between the two of us and prevent twisting an ankle or tripping on an obstacle.  Hiking in front of Charlie can sometimes be a challenge (in a good way) because Nina, Charlie’s awesome dog.  She loved to walk right next to my feet.  She acts likes she wants to pass you but she really doesn’t.  I have to maneuver my trekking poles around her and every now and then she passes between my pole and me like a skier hitting a flag on the downhill speed event.  Add the darkness and trying to look down constantly so Charlie can get some light and it made for an interesting hike at 4:00 in the morning.

We were moving at a quick pace.  I feel like I say that often but I feel like we push hard when we hike.  I love it.  I love pushing myself in ways that I don’t think are possible.  I feel motivated to move.  I began to sweat and heat up quickly.  My rain coat prevented moisture from making me wet; however, my rain coat also prevented moisture from leaving.  I know it sounds disgusting; you are right, it is.  I was heating up at 4:15 in the morning and quickly shed layers to just my wick dry T-shirt and rain coat.   

Charlie and I would gradually hike ahead of Jon, whom hiked at a constant steady pace.  With Jon’s headlamp not providing the small but yet critical marginal light to aid in Charlie’s ascent, Charlie’s ability to see diminished as we advanced in front of Jon.  My headlamp could not provide enough light Charlie was basically a blind man walking without the aid of our lights.  I recommended that Charlie take over the lead position and I would trail him so my headlamp would illuminate the obstacles in front of both of us.  It was the best of an unfortunate situation. 

After passing a group of six crazy enough to start earlier than us we approached Half Moon Pass, which was approximately 1.5 miles into our hike.  During this segment, Charlie remembered that he lowered the rear window of his car as we drove up for Nina but didn’t remember rolling it back up before we started hiking.  I was hoping his memory was incorrect since I put my money clip on the rear seat.  If someone wanted my credit card, license, health insurance card, or Qdoba card, they were available for the taking.  Of all things, I was hoping my Qdoba card was still there because I was close to my 10th burrito, which meant it was FREE!  I worked hard to get that free burrito! We were too far into the hike to make it truly worthwhile to return to the trailhead so we pressed on…but I would track down my Qdoba Card if it came to that!

After topping Half Moon Pass, we began the descent towards East Cross Creek.  The descent was gradual for the next 0.5 mile until we approached the East Cross Creek watershed.  From the ridge it steepens quickly for the next 0.75 miles towards East Cross Creek.  This portion comprises of numerous switchbacks.  Hiking this piece in the pitch black was eerie.  Our headlamps only illuminated so far and we could tell there was some substantial cliffs we were hiking along.  The feeling of not knowing what our surroundings were left me constantly on the edge both physically and mentally.  I thought of the time I first went scuba diving.  I was in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands and completing a shore dive at Cane Bay.  People who completed the dive typically stated they “dove off the wall”.  About a ¼ mile from shore the sea bottom went from 60 feet to over 3000 feet in depth.  A true and literal corral wall that went from beauty into the deep blue abyss of the unseen.  I could hundred of feet in front of me on this dive but I knew there was a vast unknown far beyond me.  Hiking in the dark, especially through this portion, reminded me of this similar experience. 

At the base of the downclimb was East Cross Creek, which crossed the trail at approximately 10,700 feet.  Typically, this is a location where hikers tend to camp and break up the ascent of Mount of the Holy Cross into two days.  It was still raining and completely dark.  We had to cross the stream along down timbers and boulders.  It was fairly easy although the rain made the rocks even more slippery.  After the stream crossing, we began our true ascent.  From this point forward we would be ascending until we reached the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

The beginning segment after East Cross Creek was still within treeline.  Light was beginning to reveal dark clouds blanketing us and the valley.  The clouds delayed the rising light and kept everything ominous.  Photography was going to be difficult today but I was also excited for the challenge.  However, I thought about my standard pictures such as  the mountain and my panoramic shot from the summit.  I knew these were going to be difficult to capture if it was dark and cloudy.  However, I also realized photography is so much more than a picture.  A photograph reminds me of the experience.  It produces a feeling and exudes an emotion.  Although the pictures may be dark and overcast, my hope was to capture the essence of the hike so one (being myself) could relive the feeling.

As we appoached treeline, I conveyed to the guys knowledge I had gained during my research on the route and reading of trip reports.  Mount of the Holy Cross is well known for people getting lost on the descent and Search and Rescue (SAR) being called into assist.  This happens because people  descend too quickly to the north and ultimately descend into a completely different watershed without really knowing it. I told them about the importance of identifying where we exit treeline for our return during the descent and the potential consequences.  Earlier in the year two climbers descended north two early and SAR had to rescue them.  Worst case, a woman made the mistake and it became ill-fated and they never found her.  We were on a defined path and I am visually observant but I figured we should be safe.  Besides making my climbing partners aware, I took photographs and added a way-point into my GPS unit.  Since visibility was already an issue and could potentially become worse, I figured adding a GPS way-point was added safety (it does not replace the ability to utilize my compass and map).

Once we exited treeline, we were now hiking along the north ridge of Mount of the Holy Cross.  The surface changed from a beaten path to talus.  It was a consistent Class II hike from here to the summit.  At this point we began to experience gaps in the clouds that were blanketing us.  The timing was perfect since we just escaped the trees.  Although there were breaks, they were short-lived as we would quickly be engulfed by more.  Overall, the clouds really masked the extent of the hike but the breaks provided us brief glimpses of our path.  Up to this point we relied on the defined trail, a topographic map, an elevation profile, intuition, and my GPS unit for knowing where we were.  We had yet to actually see the summit of the mountain.

The higher we ascended, the thicker the clouds.   The thicker the clouds, the less visibility.    

Ahead of us was a group of four individuals hiking up the mountain.  They had camped along East Cross Creek the night before.  I could faintly see one of their headlights on the other side of the valley occasionally through breaks in the dense clouds as we descended into the East Cross Creek watershed.  They were spread out as we approached them since one had moved ahead of the other three.  Because visibility was reduced to one a couple hundred feet they were hollering as a way to communicate with one another.  The holler was nothing more than a yell, but it provided the ability to know they were okay as they hiked.  It was a little annoying to me as we hiked.  To hear a yell about every minute was became obnoxious in such a quiet, strange environment.  I began to ask myself, why not just hike together. 

As we passed the group of three, I could faintly see what I thought was the summit ahead of us.  The clouds not only masked the extent of the hike, they made the mountain quiet deceiving.  I thought what I was looking at was the summit but I became disappointed when I topped out and it was a false summit.  Very rarely have I been deceived on a mountain due to a false summit.  The planning and research previously prevented this.  However, with this one, I knew that was summit.  I pushed hard to get there.  That last minute excitement built up and motivated me.  It was a letdown to realize it was a false summit and I experienced a feeling for the first time on the mountain that so many people have expressed to me previously.  That feeling of disappointment was short lived because I knew I had to press on into the unknown.

From the cloudy false summit, we made the final push to the top and arrived at the top of Mount of the Holy Cross at 8:15.  It was cloudy, visibility was reduced to maybe 100 feet, and chilly.  It was awesome and a completely new way for me to experience the top of a 14er.  I had to imagine the precious landscape around, the awe-inspiring views, the climatic look down upon everything else.  My imagination didn’t fail me.  It was beautiful.

The three of us celebrated this summit with the other group of four.  I was quite elated about this summit since I was 80% sure the weather was going to prevent us from making it.  I got a great feeling (Black Eye Peas song just started playing in my head.  Crap!  It is a hard one to stop once it’s started) from reaching a goal that I didn’t fully anticipate to achieve.  I realized that the only thing that would have stopped me today was my mind.  The weather cooperated and was kind (although not it wasn’t a bed of roses).  I didn’t hear a crack of thunder or see the dreadful flash of lightning the entire way.  I was vigilantly looking too.  As I previously said in my write-up of Culebra, that mountain changed me and made me very cautious when it comes to Mother Nature.  I knew I was been a little over-protective and worrisome going into this hike given the forecast but I now think it is better to be safe than sorry.  I don’t want to go into a hike assuming that I will reach the summit…which reminds me about a topic I will talk about at the end.

We did the normal summit celebrations and I drank my Fat Tire.  Another Fat Tire before 9:00 in the morning…my parents must be so proud.  We didn’t stay long on the summit because the weather still wasn’t ideal and we figured it was best to begin the trek back.   Charlie and Jon began their descent but I paused to pray and take a personal video on top of the summit.  I have really started to enjoy my personal videos on top of the mountain.  It is another great way for me to document my adventure and I enjoy looking back on them.

When I left the summit at 8:40, I was about 10 minutes behind Charlie and Jon.  I couldn’t see them because of the clouds. The feeling of being isolated troubled me.  I down- climbed the talus fairly quickly but after a near fall I decided it was more important to get down to them safely.  The rock was really slick due to the rain and moisture.  I ended up catching up to them at the false summit.

The weather was very impressive as we descended the North Ridge.  From my experience with hiking, I am familiar with weather going from great to awful.  As we descended, the weather slowly and steadily cleared.  It went from unpleasant to absolutely beautiful.  The clouds dissipated revealing more and more of the splendor surrounding us.  The unveiling of the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross was magnificent and slow.  My anticipation to see the summit increased as we descended.  What first began as exposing the snakelike ridgeline, slowly proceeded to reveal the summit of the Mount of the Holy Cross. As more of the cloud dissipated, a fixated fog developed on the northeast side of the mountain.  Soon, the sky was clear and all that remained was a single cloud on the northeast side of the mountain.  The mountain created its own cloud.  It was amazing to see this unveiling as we descended along the North Ridge.  This presentation was perfect.

We descended the talus and safely managed to exit into timberline at the correct location.  Keeping a careful eye and understanding your surroundings was important here but there was a fairly defined trail the entire way.  Because we ascended through this portion, I found it easy to find the right course.  However, I could see how one may become lost if you ascended the Halo Ridge (a different route) and your first experience to this portion was on the downclimb. 

We decided to take a descent break along East Cross Creek after descending approximately 3,300 vertical feet.  We all agreed that resting our knees would be beneficial and we wanted to regain some energy for the 1,000 ascent out of the drainageway.  As we headed out, Charlie said he was excited for the ascent and the change of direction.  I agreed with him.  Within 30 seconds, we both had changed our minds. The 1,000 foot ascent was arduous and tough.  When we reached this point we had hiked almost 9 miles, achieved almost 4,600 vertical feet of elevation and my knees were tired from the descent.  This was the most grueling part of the hike because of everything completed beforehand.

As we crested out of the valley, our view of Mount of the Holy Cross was incredible.  It is an absolutely beautiful peak.  A waterfall adorned the base of the mountain.  I can see why so many people consider this one of the best hikes in Colorado.  I was also thankful that we didn’t see this view this morning.  It was hidden then by both darkness and clouds and now it was clear.  From our vantage point, you could see the entire route to the summit and it was intimidating.  I was also appreciative of what we overcame.  It was truly a blessing to have the mountain revealed to us so we could walk away with an unforgettable image of Mount of the Holy Cross.

We arrived back at the trailhead at 1:00 pm and completed the hike in 9 hours and 10 minutes.  This was one tough, long hike.  It is important to note that Charlie’s recollection was correct and that he forgot to close the rear window before hiking.  Luckily, my money clip was still sitting on the seat next to the window.  Qdoba, here I come.  I also want to note that I looked under Charlie’s seat in his car and found his headlamp….you’re killing me smalls!

I wanted to briefly talk about one item before I finish (as noted above).  I have yet to fail in reaching a summit that I have set forth to attain.  This is a great feeling but pressure comes with the success.  I truly believed going into this hike I was going to be turned back.  A big part of me prepared for it in my mind.  I was okay with it.  Although it didn’t happen, a part of me wants it to.  I have been lucky thus far to reach every summit I sought.  Thank you God for that blessing.  I don’t mind failing though.  I don’t want the summit to become an expectation.  I think realizing that I may get turned back as I approach each climb, it prevents me from believing it is expected and I prepare myself for the day when I won’t make the summit.  I need to say for myself and to keep me safe because I am okay with failing on one of these peaks.  I have not said that often in my life, but failing will bring some peace.

All Photographs property of Josh Duncan
copyright 2009-2010
All Rights Reserved
The unauthorized reproduction and usage of any image is strictly prohibited.


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