A skier’s Holy Cross
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” She appears to stand alone when observed from a distance. Like a lighthouse guiding a ship in the night, she has been my beacon in the Vail Valley from the first day I called Vail my home.
She is surrounded by a supporting cast of ridges and valleys with an entire ecosystem dependent on her presence. She is easily identified by her significant markings and height. She is powerful enough to create her own weather systems. Unmistakable from hundreds of miles away, her name is The Mountain of The Holy Cross. She has been the center of much intrigue throughout most of Colorado’s history. She has a story, a following and a spirit like no other mountain in the Rockies. Why do I refer to Holy Cross as a female? I’m not sure, other than because of her beauty and the draw she has for my attention.
At certain times of the year she looks taller than others. Then there are the days when she disappears among the clouds completely, only to reappear hours later, looking more beautiful than before. Her attraction, in addition to being one of Colorado’s 14ers, is the “Cross Couloir,” which makes up a significant portion of the mountain’s northeast face. The Cross Couloir splits her down the middle and calls to those who are spiritually driven as well as backcountry skiers and boarders who come and admire her.
I have felt her call every time I’ve been on top of Vail Mountain, looking over at her since I was a kid. Of course, dreaming and doing are two entirely different matters when it comes to skiing such a descent. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned she had actually been skied by a handful of people of all ages. This amazed me. From the top of Vail Mountain she looks pretty intimidating, and I couldn’t imagine many people devoting the time and effort. But I live in Colorado, and we have some pretty amazing, unassuming and hard-core people here.
It was not exactly the descent I was questioning. Reaching Mount of the Holy Cross is almost more of a challenge than skiing it. The 14,005-foot mountain is protected by the Holy Cross Wilderness area. Open space that has been left free of human impact for most of its history. It is not one of the more conveniently placed mountains like other climbs around the state. There are a few options to approach the mountain as well as few routes to summit her. Most of them begin where the Holy Cross trailhead originates ” at the end Tigiwon road.
Tigiwon is a well-maintained dirt road just outside the town of Minturn. It is 9 miles long and starts at an elevation of 7,900 feet and meeting the Holy Cross trailhead a couple thousand feet higher. After June 20, one can easily navigate this road in a two-wheel-drive vehicle. However, prior to June 20 (the optimum time to ski the “Cross Couloir”), this road is closed to all motorized vehicles due to snow blockage and elk mitigation laws. This is where my story begins.
At the end of May, I finally had the opportunity to meet up with my beauty while she was still covered in snow. Chris Davenport, or “Dav” – as part of his quest to ski the state’s fifty-four 14ers – was about to embark on a mission to ski the Holy Cross (Holy Cross was his 45th since January; for more details on his adventure visit http://www.skithe14ers.com).
As it was prior to June 20, we needed a way to travel Tigiwon Road without a motorized vehicle. Dav decided we could accomplish this by attaching bike carriages to our mountain bikes and peddling ourselves and our gear up to the trailhead. While this seemed like a viable option, I took it upon myself to try and find an alternate means of transportation right up until the last possible minute: I was looking at everything from llamas to horses.
The expedition was going to be enough of an effort and adding a steep nine-mile mountain bike ride with an extra 100 pounds of gear did not seem appealing. This was magnified by the fact that I had not been on my bike since the previous fall and had just returned from a vacation in Mexico after a long winter of beating myself up at a variety of ski destinations. Yes, I was whining.
I was hoping to find the easiest way to put in a minimal amount of effort. I was just plain tired from the long season. Quite frankly, this is a very stupid way to look at any mountain trek, whether an hour’s hike or a multi-day excursion.
I preach to my clients at camps that I host around the world that it is important to be prepared. I talk about being ready for the worse-case scenario and working backwards from there. Then you might be able to take on just about anything that comes your way.
Regardless of my preaching, I proceeded to break my own rules and did not take this trek as seriously as I should have. Truthfully, I had hopes that we might get weathered out, and I could go home and sleep a few more days … or a month. But the weather was perfect and, on May 30, I showed up at the base of Tigiwon Road as Chris Davenport, Eric Warble, as well as two-time veteran of this ski descent and Vail local Carl Cocchiarella, were preparing to head out with their bikes and carriages fully packed.
I had three bottles of water, two 7-Eleven sandwiches, brand new AT boots from Salomon (tags still on them), a tent, a borrowed sleeping bag without a proper stuff sack, too-small a backpack and several pairs of skis thrown in my Jeep. (I had packed in about three seconds when I finally decided I was going to do this rested or not.)
It was a complete junk show, but I threw everything into the carriage with one pair of skis sort of tied down and headed up the road, a good half-hour behind the group. I figured I would catch them at the trailhead, where we would camp for the night.
I had organized my gear with that plan in mind. I thought we would be camping near our carriages so I was packed like I was on a mini-car camping excursion – in other words, not very efficiently.
Halfway up the nine-mile climb, I started to get very hungry. Then it occurred to me that I had only two sandwiches and this was a two-day trek. I found an old Power Bar in one of my coat pockets and ate it, still thinking that we might be weathered out, and I would be able to return to base, head to the store, shop for more supplies, get some sleep and return better prepared at a later date. This was still in the back of my mind, as The Weather Channel had called for rain.
There I was, spinning my granny gear chasing after Davenport who was as well-conditioned as a world-class cyclist at this point in his mission, and I’m just off my non-aerobic winter routine. He was a lean, mean hiking machine!
I arrived at the Holy Cross trailhead after a couple hours. Rolled off my bike, crotch hurting, back sore and ready to kick back for the night. But Dav had made an executive decision: we should pack up gear for the night and hike for another couple hours and try to get to Half Moon Pass before sundown. I realized I had dropped the ball again by only bringing a pack to carry my ski gear and camping gear. I mean, I was prepared for mini-car camping, remember?
Not the case, I proceeded to rig as much as I could on my small pack, carried a few things in my hands and starting hiking. I looked like a hobo combined with the rig from The Beverly Hillbillies. Halfway in, I realized that, in my haste, I had only brought one bottle of water and one sandwich. Stupid is as stupid does, I recited to myself.
We arrived at Half Moon Pass at sunset, approximately four hours since leaving the car. It was beautiful. We set up our camp on a ridge just above the tree line with a magnificent view of the Mount of the Holy Cross as she disappeared into the darkness.
The location, air, view and company made the evening surreal. There was no wind, the temperature was perfect, even though it was quickly dropping, and the sky was clear. In the distance, you could see the lights of Denver illuminating the night sky.
Over Colorado Springs, a lightning storm was under way. That is where the rain was. Above us, satellites crisscrossed the clear sky. Everything was perfect, except that I was starving with only a half bottle of water and one stupid sandwich to my name.
For part 2, check http://www.vaildaily.com Friday and see Saturday’s Vail Daily