Crucified on Mount of the Holy Cross

What a way to end the snow climbing season!  It was so hard that I was at once beaming with pride over the accomplishment and too exhausted to think I could do another 14er any time soon.  What a peak!

Brian and I decided the conditions were ideal for Mount of the Holy Cross.  In the evening of June 5, 1998, we drove up I-70, past Vail, and past the White River National Forest Ranger Station in Minturn to reach the Tigiwon (dirt) Road (Forest Service Road 707), which was supposed to take us to the Halfmoon trailhead 8+ miles up the road.  But 2.5 miles before the trailhead (at approx. 9,500′), the road was blocked by a snow drift at a creek crossing.

We tried to power over it, but only succeeded in getting stuck.  We spent the next 30 minutes digging out so we could at least go home after the climb.  Defeated by a snow drift, we decided we’d just add the 5 miles to the hiking round trip, and turned in for a night on the side of the road.

It was a cold night, and then we overslept.  Brian’s alarm was muffled by his sleeping bag and we didn’t hear the tiny beep, beep, beep offered by his watch as an alarm.  At 5:30am I heard Brian say “shit!”, and we were up.  We hit the road at 5:50am and followed it up and down and around the knoll ending at the trailhead at 10,300′ about 50 minutes later.

We logged in and continued up the trail, which was soft and muddy, reflecting the recent rain & snow but not the very cold temperatures of the night a few hours prior.

Our route up Mount of the Holy Cross

I could feel a growing nausea in my body; I pushed on hoping it would grow bored and leave me alone.

We crossed the Halfmoon pass (11,640′) and then started to traverse the side slope of Point 12,743.  The trail was cut into this slope and thus had an angle perpendicular to its direction.  Since it was also partially covered with alternating patches of soft and hard snow, anytime I managed to avoid post-holing, I was tearing my groin muscles as I did the splits whiles slipping and sliding off the side of the trail.

Once past the SW ridge of Point 12,743 Brian, I, and my remaining intact muscles could see the poor condition of the Cross Couloir before we descended to East Cross Creek at 10,670.  After hiking a short distance past the creek, we turned south to skirt around the peak to reach the SE corner; but not before stashing our snow flotation gear which was useless in the patchy snow.

Three hours in and we had only gained a net 900′. And that last 1000′ descent we’d have to reclimb on the way out.  I knew this was going to be a hard day.

“Where’s the trail?”…”this seems too close to the creek.”  After 10 minutes, we gave up and just started bushwhacking and boulder hopping (to avoid the soft snow).  The bushwhacking turned into scrambling, and at one point, into a technical free solo up an icy chimney.  “I don’t think this is the trail,” I offered. We eventually found our way to the talus field along the west ridge which we followed south toward the Cross Couloir.  We had already decided that the Cross Couloir looked too hard (too much exposed rock); so we were on our way to the Teardrop Couloir (actually the name “Teardrop” showed up some years after we did the climb using Dawson’s guidebook published in 1995 which said it was a “hidden cirque”).

After a while, I was thinking that the effort to hike past the Cross Couloir and the Lake of Tears to reach the Teardrop Couloir was the crux of day.  Our late start, the soft snow, and the missing trail conspired to threaten our summit.  Six hours in and we were still postholing by the Lake of Tear around the corner from the start of the couloir on the SE corner.  At least I knew how the lake received its name.

While I couldn’t imagine what new variable could be added to the soup to make it even harder, a short while later I’d find out that fear would do the trick.

We finally reached the base of the couloir around 1pm (7 hours after starting) where we stopped to put on crampons before starting up. My nausea had long since passed and Brian and I made good time up the couloir.  As we neared the top, the cornice started looking bigger and bigger; and, finally, it was undeniably huge.

The Teardrop Couloir (Brian's route in green)

Brian and I stopped to consider our options.  There were only two obvious paths:

  1. go through a cleft in the middle of the cornice , reached by traversing left over some steep snow directly underneath the bulk of the cornice, or
  2. traverse right toward some rocks and what appeared to be easier ground

Brian proclaimed that tunneling up through the cornice via the cleft would be fun; I announced I would head toward the easy ground.

My path actually did start off pretty easy, but soon became wickedly steep.  But I was able to get a solid grip on the snow with my axe and crampons, so I continued with the plan still feeling it was the best path.

Then the snow got hard, and I got scared.  I was on 60 degree rock-hard snow with nothing but the tips of my crampons on the snow and air below me for 1000 feet.

After a moment, I steeled myself to the task of surviving and found a rhythm of repeatedly kicking each foot to gain some friction on the hard snow to take a step and repeatedly pounding my axe into the snow every 2-3 steps.  This action was exhausting but successful in safely taking me to the Holy Cross Ridge line between the summits of Holy Cross and Point 13,831.  And, oh what a beautiful feeling it was to pull over the crest to safety.  It was like a rebirth.  Brian had waited until he saw I would make it, then he took off for the summit.

The wind was really blowing on the ridge, and almost immediately after my arrival, it started snowing.  The visibility was poor and I couldn’t see the summit.  I figured I had to be close.  But as I sat there finding my breath, I saw it:  still a quarter mile to go.  Shit.

I pushed as hard as I could and reached the summit at 2:30pm (8.5 hours after starting).  Brian and I enjoyed the view for a short time and then left to descend via the North Ridge.  But we couldn’t find it.  It is always amazing how easy it is to lose something so massive.  But we didn’t come up that way and the visibility was once again poor.

After studying the map a bit, we decided to head west and then north to find the proper ridge.  It worked. We found the North Ridge but also found it was covered in a powdery snow which concealed loose rocks beneath.  On separate occasions, I hyper-extended my left knee, over-extended my right Achilles tendon, and smashed my right knee cap after slipping on loose rocks.  I would have paid a lot of money to be able to glissade any part of the descent, but I couldn’t find a decent patch of snow to save my life (or my legs).

At the bottom of the ridge, we aimed ourselves north to try to intersect the lost trail as it angled toward Cross Creek.  It worked.

At 5pm, I was sitting on the ground and Brian was laying in the grass near Cross Creek; we rested and pondered our completion time. We were sorry to conclude that we had 2-3 hours of hiking left, and that would get us home by 11pm if we didn’t stop for dinner. It would be a hungry night.

Coming back up the other side of the canyon was as exhausting as anything I’ve done. We made good time (at one point, we ascended 500 feet in 30 minutes), but I felt like I was going to either puke or die, and I didn’t want to puke.

Somehow continuing to live with my stomach intact, the mountain threw a curve.  We had to recross the angled-snowfield-of-torn-muscles beneath Point 12,743, and now the snow was all very soft. I was quickly out of energy but had to continue to fight for every step. I needed snowshoes the size of pickup trucks to avoid postholing in that air that looked like snow.

By the time we reached the pass, I was spent. Panting heavily despite no apparent need, I looked like I’d been crucified.  Brian took pity on me and offered me a piece of candy.  In the past, I had always rejected such as junk food; but I was desperate.  So I took it, and that made all the difference.

Almost immediately I felt better and was able to haul ass back to the truck.  We reached the truck just before 8pm, leaving plenty of light to find our way back to Minturn.  But with a late night already locked in, we couldn’t stop for dinner before jumping on I-70 for the long drive home.

We had taken 14 hours to climb 6,500′ feet and hike 17 miles on our successful quest to bag Mount of the Holy Cross via the Teardrop Couloir, contributing only a few tears to the stash.

No more soft snow!

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3 Responses to “Crucified on Mount of the Holy Cross”

  1. The “Casual” Route? « PeakMind Says:

    […] Mt. of the Holy Cross; snowclimb  (6/98) […]

  2. Peter Says:

    I was considering a trip up Holy Cross at the end of May. However I was going to do this with my family (kids 8-13) and your account has given me pause. I thought we would hike in, camp on East Creek, and summit on the north ridge trail. That route is described as relatively easy hiking in the book I have but the patches of snow you describe are rather discouraging, if we can even get in. Has this winter been similar to the year from the account above?

  3. joelavelle Says:

    Hi Peter,

    May is still Spring conditions up high, so snow could be widespread, especially in the basin. If the temps at that time are well above freezing, then there could be difficulties. But I would say that such difficulties have been sporadic in my experience, and almost never ruined the mountain experience for me (although I was much older than 8-13, even if I didn’t always act like it).

    Keep an eye out for recent trip reports, road reports, and peak condition reports on 14ers.com. The high country had some big snow fall late in the season, but if the temps are high between now and then the snow could be minimal by end of May.

    Good luck and have fun.

    Joe

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