Mount of the Holy Cross features different terrain, challenges than Capitol Peak | VailDaily.com

Mount of the Holy Cross features different terrain, challenges than Capitol Peak

EAGLE COUNTY — Five people have died this summer on Capitol Peak in Pitkin County, a situation Sheriff Joe DiSalvo has described as "unprecedented."

Capitol Peak is not one of the state's most popular 14ers, but it is one of the most difficult to climb. Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates placed the peak in the 1,000 to 3,000 hiker user days category in 2016, as compared to the 25,000 to 30,000 user days estimated for Mount Elbert and 20,000 to 25,000 user days estimated at Grays Peak, Torreys Peak and Mount Bierstadt — the state's most popular 14ers.

Here in Eagle County, there is only one 14er: Mount of the Holy Cross, located in the Holy Cross Wilderness area.

Since 2007, there have been 15 fatalities on Capitol Peak. According to news reports, there have been no fatalities on Mount of the Holy Cross since Michelle Vanek separated from her hiking partner on Sept. 24, 2005, and was never seen again.

Mount of the Holy Cross sees relatively low climbing traffic compared to other 14ers — estimated in the 5,000 to 7,000 total hiker days annually. It's difficulty rating is Class 2, one class up from what 14ers.com describes as "easy hiking on a good trail." A Class 2 hike is described as "more difficult hiking that may be off trail." In comparison, Capitol Peak is a Class 4, or difficult, climb. The Class 4 rating describes "Climbing. Rope is often used on Class 4 routes because falls can be fatal. The terrain is often steep and dangerous. Some routes can be done without rope because the terrain is stable."

Dan Smith, of Vail Mountain Rescue, said those two descriptions accurately characterize the difference between mountaineering in Eagle County and in other areas of the state.

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"We are not really a climbing county; we are more of a hiking county," Smith said. "We see different problems than other counties."

That doesn't mean there are fewer dangers, however. It means the dangers are different. Mount of the Holy Cross is a great example.

Hiking, not climbing

Smith estimates Vail Mountain Rescue crews respond from six to 12 calls at Mount of the Holy Cross each year.

The Mount of the Holy Cross trail covers 12.5 miles, with a vertical gain of 5,600 feet.

"Holy Cross is not a technical climb, it is a hike," Smith said. He said the biggest challenges on the route involve starting the hike early enough in the day and staying on the trail.

"To do Holy Cross in a day, you need to start early in the morning," Smith said.

People starting too late in the day and then finding themselves engulfed in darkness when they attempt to return to the trailhead characterize a common rescue call in the area, Smith said.

Another challenge on Mount of the Holy Cross is finding and staying on the trail. As a publication from Vail Mountain Rescue notes, "The trail to the summit of the Mount of the Holy Cross is not an easy one, primarily because the marked trail stops at the tree line, about 3,000 feet short of the top."

After reaching the summit, hikers sometimes miss the trail coming down and find themselves a long way from the trailhead with daylight dwindling and their energy level depleted.

That's what happened to hiker Jacob Gately, of Missouri, back in October 2007. He was hiking with his brother when the two were separated during their Mount of the Holy Cross descent. After slipping on a rock and falling about 10 feet into a river, Gately decided to camp beneath a spruce tree and make a fire with a lighter he had been carrying. Wearing the clothing and sneakers he had dried by the fire, Gately set off toward Half Moon Pass the next morning, not realizing until noon that he was heading in the wrong direction. He changed course and kept hiking until dark, when he made camp again — but this time, his lighter was out of fluid and his pants were wet. After two sleepless nights, with his feet turning green inside the wet sneakers he was wearing, he finally found the trail and the rescue team that was searching for him.

Smith said there is single directional sign along the route which includes the word "trail" and an arrow pointing in the right direction to assist hikers. When making the ascent of Mount of the Holy Cross, he said hikers need to follow the main ridge lines, keeping either Lake Patricia or the Bowl of Tears on their left. On the descent, they need to see the same landmarks off their right shoulders.

Bad planning or Bad luck

Smith said Eagle County doesn't really have a specifically treacherous climb such as Capitol Peak. But he noted any hike can turn hazardous because of bad planning or bad luck.

The former has constituted about 75 percent of this year's rescue calls, Smith said. These are situations where people take off without having a clear idea of where they are going and without bringing along the equipment and supplies they need.

"The problems come if we don't know about them until the next morning," Smith said.

It's often repeated advice, but Smith stressed hikers need to tell someone where they are headed and when they plan to return. They also need to bring proper gear in case an emergency strikes and they have to wait for rescue.

Smith also noted that if a hiker calls for help, he or she should make the 911 call personally. That way, the signal can be tracked and rescuers have a better idea of where to go.

"We can help you, but we need to know that you are out there," he said.

As for people with bad luck, Smith said the past week provided a great example. A well-equipped and prepared Highlands Ranch family of five had to be rescued by helicopter from the Lake Constantine area in the Holy Cross Wilderness when the mom was hit with a stomach bug. She became dangerously dehydrated, and in her condition, she couldn't hike out of the wilderness area. The whole family had to be evacuated by helicopter.

"An emergency can happen on the simplest of trails," Smith said.

The bare necessities

This is a list of basic gear for a one-day hike. In addition to what’s in your pack, make sure your base layer is wicking, not cotton. Consider fleece gloves, fleece hat and extra socks. Hiking poles can take a lot of pressure off your knees.

• Flashlight or headlamp

• Whistle

• Space blanket

• Three large trash bags

• Sun glasses and sunscreen

• Large brimmed hat

• Matches, lighter or fire starter in waterproof container

• Water enough for more than your hike: 1 liter per hour of the hike

• Food enough for more than your hike

• Rain gear in summer; adding a fleece in winter

• Map of the area you are hiking (don’t rely on a GPS)

• Compass (even if you use a GPS)

• Toilet paper and plastic bag to pack it out

• First aid kit in a zip-top bag, including blister care (mole skin or second skin), duct tape, Band-Aids, 4-inch dressings, tape, safety pins, personal medication, ace bandage

Source: Vail Mountain Rescue