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Holy Cross or bust

Special to the Daily/Allen Best A group of hikers descend from Notch Mountain, considered the best spot from which to view the Mount of the Holy Cross.

EAGLE COUNTY – O.W. Randall, an Eagle-based dentist who owned a ranch at the base of Notch Mountain, is credited with organizing the first pilgrimage to Mount of the Holy Cross. In 1927, Randall led a group of 12 Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls including two local women who remain in Gypsum, Gussie Baker and Esther Stanley up Notch Mountain to see the cross. Randall and The Denver Post also helped pay for a road up Notch Mountain to Tigiwon Road.Not least, the federal government was interested in promoting Holy Cross, something that began with a survey by Ferdinand Hayden in 1873.A scientist and explorer, Hayden was also a skilled promoter. Words, he knew, were not enough. Before setting out to document the boiling mud and waters of Yellowstone in 1871, Hayden had enlisted both photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran. Then, he had individual photos prepared for each member of Congress. The result was the world’s first designation of a national park in 1872.In 1873, Jackson was in Colorado, and he vowed to document the mountain with the cross. As in the case of Yellowstone, seeing was believing. The image captured the nation’s imagination.When in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt used executive privilege to withdraw public domain lands, it was called – easily enough – the Holy Cross Forest Preserve. These were the lands basically from Minturn to Aspen. In turn, it became the Holy Cross National Forest. And in 1929, following this new flush of enthusiasm, President Herbert Hoover designated the mountain and immediate areas as a national monument.Leave before dawnInterest in the pilgrimages grew rapidly at first. In 1928, there were 218 pilgrims. By 1932, as the nation sank in to the Great Depression, the figure had swollen to 2,000.

Soon after, Civilian Conservation Corps crews built a lodge at Tigiwon and then chewed out a trail to Notch’s south summit, where they also erected a rock shelter.A radio evangelist from Denver got involved in the mid-1930s, baptizing pilgrims in the Bowl of Tears, the lake at the foot of the cross, and dipping handkerchiefs in the lake for those who hoped a little holy water would heal their ailments.Orion W. Daggett, editor of the Holy Cross Trail newspaper in Red Cliff and a Holy Cross fanatic, urged pilgrims to alight well before dawn to capture the first colors. “There is nothing like it on earth,” he wrote.”Arise before Aurora colors the eastern sky and hike to the shrine, in the early gray dawn when just the outline of the cross can be hallooed with a mirror of stars, and watch and watch until the first rays of sun tip the cross of snow and transmute it to a ‘cross of Gold.’ Then sing Hosanna to the Most High, the Saints and Sinners of the Christians and Heathens alike will bow their heads in reverence. This is the world’s supreme exhibition of the Great Maker’s handicraft.”Daggett’s interest in the mountain was clearly more than just business. A thin man entering middle age when he got to Red Cliff, he remained physically robust. Eleven times he climbed Holy Cross, four times ascending via the cross itself, a feat that today most people would suggest prudently involves ice axes and crampons. He was 65 years old when he did one of these up-the-cross climbs.Off the beaten pathDaggett’s idea for a highway from Denver to the Eagle River Valley – also called the Holy Cross Trail – did not happen quite as he’d envisioned. He raised $240,000 for construction, secured convict labor and even swung a pick himself. This resulted in a road across all but a couple of miles of Loveland Pass and, by 1931, a passable road across Shrine Pass.But as of recent summers a small pickup truck could still scrape bottom on Shrine Pass. It remains more trail than highway.

Charles D. Vail and other highway authorities saw better potential clearing the wilderness of what is now Vail Pass, something enabled by federal funds in projects completed in 1939 and 1941.Thereafter – having surrendered both the county courthouse and then its place on Colorado’s chief east-west highway – Red Cliff continued to skid for several decades. Only now – and ironically because it is off the beaten path – is the town seeing resurgence, at least in real estate values.The pilgrimages ended in 1938, and the 10th Mountain Division soldiers arrived soon after. Interest in the mountain was so thin after the war that the superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park recommended that Congress return Holy Cross to the Forest Service for administration. Congress so directed that in 1950.A dubious sign? Since then, Holy Cross has been a more quiet landmark. The cross has become more a curiosity than supernatural icon. There are still pilgrims, but they are greatly outnumbered by athletes, drawn to the mountain’s revised elevation of 14,005 feet, putting it among Colorado’s elite fourteeners.The pilgrimages began anew in 1976 when Red Cliff, wanting to celebrate Colorado’s centennial, recruited Don Simonton. A one-time Park Service ranger, Simonton also had an abiding interest in local history and also happened to be pastor of Vail’s Holy Cross Lutheran Church. He has since passed the duty to his equally devoted successor, the Rev. Carl Walker. The pilgrimages continue to attract 20 to 30 people every summer.Simonton acknowledges times have changed, and with them attitudes toward the mountain. “We’re a lot more secular now,” he observes. “That isn’t to say religion has been abandoned, but the religion has somehow changed.”That may be for the better. The religious fervor had its darkness, too. To at least some, the cross seemed to be a divine symbol, a guidepost of Manifest Destiny.

After all, they seemed to say, if God had not intended for the Christians to have these lands to exploit for their minerals, why had he bothered to put a cross on one of the mountains?That was the brazen argument from Samuel Bowles, a nationally prominent journalist from Massachusetts, who had seen Holy Cross from the summit of Gray’s Peak in 1868. The mountains were still the province of the Utes then, but like many, Bowles saw the Utes as children.With God on their side, it only seemed right for the decision-makers to invade the Ute reservation in 1879, precipitating what we generally recall as the Meeker massacre, but which, in Ute eyes, was an invasion by a foreign power.Shapes of thingsAll this kind of makes you wonder how history might have been different if, instead of a cross, the explorers had discovered a giant comma of snow? Would grammarians march up Notch Mountain, there pausing to ponder this mark that punctuates our prose?Or, what if, a swoosh? Would this mountain today have become a symbol of globalization and of capitalism, a place where Nike shareholders come each year to genuflect?Actually, Bill Bowerman, the track coach from Oregon whose waffle irons were instrumental in creating the prototype Nike shoes, was at nearby Camp Hale during World War II.But Bowerman and the boys of the 10th Mountain Division is another story. The story of the cross is interesting enough.Allen Best has climbed Notch Mountain six or seven times and Mount of the Holy Cross four times, and he circumnavigated both peaks once, and he once did the Halo Ridge that connects the two peaks. He has not, however, gone up the cross nor does he intend to.He relied heavily on Robert L Brown’s “Holy Cross: The Mountain and the City,” but also a stack of other books that he read in the last year.Allen Best is a freelance writer for the Vail Daily. Vail Colorado