Skier leaves tracks on the Eagle County’s Holy Cross
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” I laid awake all night in fear that I would not have enough food, tried not to drink all my water and played a video game on my phone until the sun finally poked its head from the horizon. I stuck my head out of the tent and it was a perfect Colorado bluebird day.
We put on our hard plastic AT boots that came complete with walk mode. They were originally designed for the rental market, but still a pain to walk in compared to trail shoes. I was cool with it and looked forward to really testing them out, but then I looked over and noticed that Eric Warble was sleeping in his full-on alpine ski boots. I mean walking from the parking lot to the chair lift in ski boots kills most mortals. But Warble was going to walk the next several miles over scree fields, loose gravel, rock fall, descend cliffs, side-step ice and snow, deal with downed trees, scramble through bushes and over boulders in regular alpine ski boots with his skis on his back.
I had no one to complain to.
Our trek took us from the regular trail to what is known as the Halo Route. This is a renegade route that is not marked and, for most part, does not exist. The route circumnavigates the brim of the bowl on the west face of Notch Mountain and the east face of Holy Cross. We would have a perfect view of what we would be skiing while walking on the side of a mountain directly across from it.
The hike is one to be respected when accomplished in hiking boots or a good pair of trail shoes – and here we were in ski boots, and Warble in Alpine race boots – but it would place us at the base of the Cross Couloir where we could put crampons on and hike straight up the east face of Holy Cross on snow.
Halfway through this hike along the Halo Route, I considered turning back. I had hit a wall after several hours with no water and lack of the correct food. I was seriously concerned I would not have enough energy to make it off the mountain and back to the car at the end of the day – still a solid 10 hours away.
I was weakening quickly and embarrassed to tell the rest of the team I did not come prepared. I mentioned it under my breath to Carl and he passed it onto Davenport without my knowledge. I was still trying to figure out a way to bow out gracefully and head back to camp. The tide quickly changed when we came across a spring and I was able to fill my water bottle.
Dav gave me a pep talk, handed me a bag of Cliff Bar Shots and told me I was being a goof, and I would make it to the top of this mountain and back down. Within a half hour, I was replenished and moving quickly up the east face of Holy Cross itself with newfound energy.
The ascent begins from the “Bowl of Tears,” a glacier lake that sits about 2,000 feet beneath the summit. From there, we headed straight up on a snowfield just south of the Cross Couloir before we could actually drop into the couloir and ascend it.
Before stepping into couloir itself for the last 1,000-plus-feet of the ascent, the group reassembled on a spine separating the snowfield from the couloir. Dav was the first one to step out into the Cross Couloir. He wanted to take a picture back at us sitting on the spine prepping our gear. My focus was aimed on buckling my boots when he made this move. Everything was silent. The group was in good spirits and life was perfect. Then Carl yelled, “Dav! Watch Out!”
The shout caught Dav’s attention as well as the rest of us. The moment I looked up, a boulder larger than a beach ball was rocketing by Dav’s head, centimeters away from nailing him and knocking him off the mountain and eventually over a cliff at the bottom of the Cross Couloir. Camera in hand, Dav made a slight move on the 40-degree pitch and the boulder missed, barely.
This changed everything for a moment. Reality kicked back in and we started moving forward, this time more aware of what was above and not just around us. All of this excitement occurred at around 9 a.m. By 10 a.m., we had reached the summit, my neck sore from looking straight up the couloir to spot any more random rock fall.
The summit is 14,005 feet above sea level. The view from the summit is breathtaking in every direction. Because Holy Cross is centrally located in the state of Colorado, it is the optimum place to view most mountain ranges in the state when skies are clear. On this day, we could see numerous 14ers in the 360-degree view from the summit. It was an incredible morning.
I ate the last of my sandwich, and took photos with the group. I made a phone call to my dad and put on my gear. When I pushed over to look down the Cross Couloir it finally hit me. I was finally here. Looking over at the top of Vail, I reflected on how many times I had looked the opposite direction and dreamed about this. Now here I was and the famous descent made the adrenaline kick in. Plus I was a bit nervous.
The Cross Couloir is not as radical as it would appear from a distance. But it shouldn’t be taken lightly. The variable snow conditions and the runnels descending throughout the center of the couloir create a variety of obstacles that can take a skier or boarder right off their feet. A slide down the 35-degree slope would send one rolling off the cliff at the bottom of the couloir. Self-arresting is not an attempt; it is mandatory when skiing the couloir.
Skiing the Cross Couloir like you see guys ripping down an Alaskan peak in a ski movie is not a real option in these conditions. Skiing aggressively, but solidly, is the best rule for a successful descent. Should something go wrong, it would be a fairly large-scale rescue in an exposed environment. With all that said, skiing down the Cross Couloir was one of the most thrilling runs of my life. Interestingly enough, this was not because of the turns, but because of where I was and what I was surrounded by.
From here on out, when I’m standing atop Vail Mountain looking over at this incredible peak, I will know that, not only did I stand on top of her, but I left tracks behind. It was a sensation that will stay with me forever.
The trek out felt like it lasted forever. We did manage to get a few more turns off the north shoulder of Notch Mountain on our way back to the Half Moon Pass base camp.
We packed camp and descended to our bikes. Once again, I had the full junk show in motion. It was an easy descent back down Tigawon Road to our cars. By the time we made our way to the Minturn Saloon, it was dinnertime.
Strange thing was, I wasn’t hungry anymore.
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