Pilgrimage to Holy Cross
From the top of the gondola in Vail, we’ve all seen Mount of the Holy Cross, a looming spike of rock scored with a cross of bright white snow. Who among us hasn’t wanted to look back down from the top?
“I’ve been wanting to climb this mountain for a long time now,” Don Krosky said from the summit. He drove from Greeley and camped before tackling the mountain. “This is my 10th 14er, and I think it’ll be my last. It’s a beautiful mountain.”At 14,005 feet above sea level, Mount of the Holy Cross is one of the shorter 14ers, but it remains the unquestionable mountain monarch of our area. The physical beauty of the surrounding Holy Cross Wilderness and the comparatively sharp and rugged slopes of the peak cement its local and national stature. And then there’s that mystical cross: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, pilgrims came to see what they believed was God’s imprint on the West. The mountain was even declared a National Monument until 1950.
But Mount of the Holy Cross is a shy peak, almost impossible to view at close range without hiking to the foot of it. Notch Mountain blocks the view from U.S. Highway 24, and other ridges in the Holy Cross Wilderness hide their namesake deep within. If one truly wants to see and experience this incredible 14er right on our doorstep, there’s only one thing left to do: climb it.
It’s possible to climb through the Cross Couloir, but this advanced snow climb requires expert skills with crampons, an ice ax and self arrest. For most people, the standard North Ridge route should provide challenge enough. The climbing-standard Yosemite Decimal System rates the North Ridge as a Class 2 climb, meaning mostly strenuous hiking with some scrambling. In the upper reaches of the trail above tree line, the trail dies completely, and hikers will have to pick their way through fields of sharp talus; on the final pitch you may even have to use your hands to clamber over tumbledown boulders. To get to the climb, turn right off Highway 24 onto Tigwon Road just past the outskirts of Minturn. Follow the dirt and gravel road for eight miles or so until its conclusion at the Halfmoon Campground. A sign at the far end of the parking lot clearly marks the beginning of the Mount of the Holy Cross trailhead.
The trail meanders calmly up Halfmoon Pass for about 2 miles, passing through deep-green forest. As you descend Halfmoon Pass, Holy Cross finally pops into view, showing off sheer cliff faces and steep snow chutes that tower over the valley below. Those seeking views of the cross should note that it is not very visible for the entirety of this route; to view the cross, we recommend an ascent of Notch Mountain. (Look for a report on climbing Notch Mountain in an upcoming issue of the Vail Trail).The inner valley below Holy Cross contains East Cross Creek and gorgeous forests speckled with other alpine spring-fed streams. Camping is allowed here, and many climbers choose to hike in, camp for the night and attempt the summit the following day. The entire climb is a grueling, 12-mile affair, so this method is advisable for those who may want to avoid an epic day.
From the East Cross Creek campground, the trail wanders upward through the forest until it breaks the tree line; here, climbers will find themselves on a rocky, adjoining shoulder to the rising prow of Mount of the Holy Cross. It gets a little tricky when the trail starts fading into the mess of broken rock; piled cairns roughly mark the way, but solid route-finding skills can help greatly in navigating through the stony maze.The final pitch steepens, and the boulders get bigger, and they require nimble feet and balance to negotiate. When we climbed, the August rain showers in the valley the night before left a fresh coat of snow that filled the cracks and clung to the rocks until noon. Beware that this can happen in any month, and the slick snow and ice can add an unexpected technicality to an already tough mountain. Climbers who persist up the final ridge will eventually be rewarded with sweeping views of the Gore Range, the Sawatch Range to the south and – if you squint hard – the back side of Vail Mountain. Standing at the top, pitted with rocks and craters like the surface of the moon, it’s hard not to be bowled over by a sense of accomplishment. That such a massive mountain exists so close is reason enough to visit, but the undeniable beauty of the wilderness and mystical aura of the peak itself will transport you a world away in your own backyard.