Broken Halo

Mt. Holy Cross, everyone!

It goes without saying in Colorado that mountains are only interesting once they reach 14,000′ in elevation. If you take a boring old 13,999-foot-tall pile of rocks and stack on a few more, well, just watch what happens! Boom! The clouds part, out come the trumpet-wielding cherubim, and you’ve achieved mountaineering nirvana. It’s all about the altitude! I’ve climbed a fair number of 14ers and a fairer number of 13ers, 12ers, 11ers, and (shhhh!) even a few 10ers (not even above tree line! How shameful!) and found that some of them are really nice too. And some of those vaunted 14ers? They’re really pretty dumb and a waste of time (I’m looking at you, Mt. Bross!)

No, but seriously, Coloradans worship their 14ers and, by and large, completely ignore anything not on “the list“. For contrarian mountaineers like myself, this has certain advantages. It means that, if I want solitude, I climb a 13er. But if you want good access, well-marked trails, and thoroughly-documented logistics (as well as a social summit), pick one of the 54-ish mountains from the list and go.

I was in no mood for logistical hassles, but at the same time I wanted to see something new. At the same time, I’ve climbed all the local 14ers. The closest one I haven’t explored yet was Mt. Holy Cross, so named because of the huge snowy cross shape that appears on the eastern face during certain times of year. Even though Holy Cross is third-to-last on the list (at 14,005′, it barely makes the list and is thus suspicious and maybe even probationary), it has a great reputation for being pointy, remote, and even has its very own wilderness area! Perfect!

I was not prepared for this first view of Holy Cross.

Even though it’s a 14er, Holy Cross isn’t TOO easy to access. I still drove 2.5 hours out to Vail, turned left to Minturn, and then drove eight rattly, dark miles up Tigiwon Road to the Half Moon Trailhead. After a surprisingly good half-night under the stars, I started packing up as the last of the trailhead parking spots filled up.

What Holy Cross lacks in stature amongst its 14er bretheren, it makes up for in attitude. First you climb up 1300′ of Bonus Elevation to Half Moon Pass before dropping back 1000′ to East Cross Creek. Holy Cross is also shy; you can’t see the mountain from the trailhead or many other places in the state, but half-way down from Half Moon Pass you come around the shoulder of Notch Mountain and get your first, knock-your-socks-off view. Boom! Suitably inspired and with the warm-up now over, you get to do the blazing 3300′ climb in something like 2 miles. The trail is good the whole way, so it’s basically a big stairway, but the air is thin and the climb unrelenting.

The view east from the summit at the top of the Cross Couloir.

I lounged on the summit (shared with four others, naturally) and admired the view. The great thing about Sawatch peaks is that there are mountains on display for a hundred miles in all directions. Talking with my fellow summiteers, we identified all of the Elk Range 14ers, most of the Front Range 14ers, and about half of the others in the Sawatch Range. “Ooh, I wonder what those are?” I exclaimed, pointing out a rough cirque ringed by dark, jagged peaks in the middle distance. “Oh, that’s nothing,” said one of the other folks, dismissively. Well sure, I realize they’re not on the damned list, but they look amazingly cool. (They turn out to be a bunch of high-12ers which compose the Lime Creek Cirque.)

The sea of peaks visible to the west. Some of them are not 14ers and thus not worthy of your attention. Move along!

On top of my usual aversion to returning the same way I came in, the idea of that extra 1000′ climb back to Half Moon Pass didn’t really appeal to me. Fortunately, the same ridge which guards Holy Cross from prying eyes at the trailhead also provides an appealing bit of high-altitude ridge running with a few bonus summits, and new territory to explore (plus a view of the famous cross). This route is called Halo Ridge and it is harder than it looks. I set off over the massive tallus to the south and made quick work down to a saddle and up to the 13,831′ summit of Holy Cross Ridge (highest summit on the long ridge of the same name). Spectacular!  There were great views to the south and in particular the beautiful Tuhare Lakes below the unnamed Peak 13,768 and the remainder of the Ridge.

Holy Cross from Holy Cross Ridge.

The weather wasn’t as glorious as before, but there didn’t look like there was much climbing yet (and that’s the slow part).  I figured I could make it to the top of Notch Mountain (on the far side of the Halo) in an hour or so and then get out of lightning danger territory. An hour and a half later, I’d made it over a series of smaller humps along the ridge and was officially tired of picking my way up and down steep tallus slopes. There was one more big climb and descent along the ridge with the same level of tallus fun and… I just couldn’t do it. Time to bail out! The slope to the right dropped nicely down to Lake Constantine a few thousand feet below and there was a nice trail out from Constantine back to the car. I bailed.

The lovely Tuhare Lake and Pt13876.

Thoroughly scratched from a bit of willow bashing down above the lake, I finally made it to the trail. So far, I’d barely managed 10 miles of “running” in about 5 hours and I was totally wasted from 5000′ of vertical. So my planned, glorious cruise down the Fall Creek Trail back to the car turned into a massively bonky shuffle up and down the interminable rolling terrain with occasional bits of running when I thought someone might be looking.

There was still no thunder. I could have stayed on the ridgeline and it probably would have been easier than that last bit of descent to the lake. In fact, it only started hailing just as I’d gratefully gotten my shoes off at car. Oh well. I regret nothing.

13.1 miles and 5600′ in 7 hours. Harder than it sounded.  This was my 16th 14er (first in four years!) and third in the Sawatch Range.

Much like the last 14er I climbed (four years ago!), Holy Cross was a nice reminder of how fun mountains can be.If I were to make a list of awesome peaks that you should by all means climb, Holy Cross would definitely be on it (unlike probably half of the 14ers I’ve climbed).  Even though 14ers aren’t automatically better or harder or prettier than other mountains, they are unambiguously taller and taller comes with thinner air and sometimes more vertical to contend with.  This was also a sobering reminder that the difference between class 1 (trail) and class 2 (no trail) routes is a significant one in terms of speed.  That trail-less talus on Halo Ridge was brutal!

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