Vail Valley Voices: Holy Cross hike is true backcountry
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado — It seems, in recent years, the Colorado 14ers have enjoyed a surge in popularity for several reasons. Some of these reasons are Internet sites such as 14ers. com and 14erworld. com, guide-books and photography books that make the accessibility of information more prevalent. Pro-fessional and restorational organiza-tions such as the Colorado Fourteen-ers Initiative and the Colorado Moun-tain Club create opportunities for groups to explore these popular peaks and to set in motion junctures for stewardship. However, a darker side has emerged by way of accidents and deaths that garner even the attention of nonclimbers.
Of Colorado’s 14ers, of which there are 54 officially recognized peaks and four more that don’t fit certain criteria to be “officially” included on that list, a few will undoubtedly stand out and be recognizable by name. Moun-tains such as Long’s Peak, Pikes Peak, Mount of the Holy Cross, the Maroon Bells and Mount Elbert are among the most popular or, at least, well known.
Add to that certain nuances, both good and bad, and stories about conquest and tragedy, and each peak’s own folklore and, eventually, each mountain develop their own character and identity.
Having climbed the 14ers already, many more than twice, and currently working on climbing them in a calendar winter, there’s been one peak out of the 58 that has slowly usurped my curiosi-ty and piqued my sense of intrigue. Due to a recent search-and-rescue mission to find two “middle-aged” folk from Michigan who went missing back in August (and the resulting rescue of two other injured hikers), Mount of the Holy Cross, Eagle County’s only 14er, is starting to develop a reputation for mystery and lost people. At 14,005 feet, Mount of the Holy Cross is the third-lowest of the 14ers. It is the northernmost 14er in the Sawatch Mountain Range, which occupies most of central Colorado. It has no stan-dard technical route (requiring rope and protec-tion) to the summit, and it carries an impressive 2,100 feet of prominence. The Cross Couloir, the namesake of the mountain, was first skied in 1977 by two Vail locals, Tom and Mike Carr, and the first winter ascent of the peak was accom-plished in 1943 by Russell Keene and Howard Freeman, both 10th Mountain Division soldiers stationed at Camp Hale.
Mount of the Holy Cross cannot be seen from town, from Interstate 70 or even from Battle Mountain. One must take the gondola up to Eagle’s Nest or higher to be able to see over Notch Mountain, which normally veils it from sight. Holy Cross is surrounded by some very rugged wilderness and the Bowl of Tears basin, located at the bottom of the Cross Couloir, which also sep-arates it from Notch Mountain and is among the least visited areas in Col-orado. Indeed, just hiking back into the Bowl of Tears (an alpine lake) requires some good route-finding skills and ability to read the terrain. On a recent trip to the Cross Couloir, it took my friends and myself four hours of hiking to reach the bottom of the couloir from the trail-head!
So what is it about this mountain that consis-tently tends to get people lost, disoriented and, in Michelle Vanek’s case, permanently missing?
The standard trail, which follows the North Ridge as it leaves the trailhead, located at the end of Tigiwon Road, is very easy to follow for the first few miles as it ascends toward Half Moon Pass. Even past this, the trail is very clearly defined as it starts to drop down the other side into the East Cross Creek drainage.
At the bottom, things slowly begin to change. The trail becomes more scant, and vegetation is lush and overgrown. Once treeline is reached, the trail becomes arbitrary, and linking cairns (intentional piles of rocks used to guide climbers and hikers) is the only way to the summit and back down.
And therein lies the problem.
First, as mentioned, the Holy Cross Wilderness is a rugged place. Some of the hardest-to-reach peaks in the state (outside of the Weminuche) are located in this wilderness area. Thick patches of dense forest overlay the area like a giant amoeba. Intersperse this with occasional cliff bands, stream cross-ings, no roads, rock outcroppings, groves of aspens and plentiful dead-fall ( timber), and you have a recipe for a true backcountry experience in all its glorious randomness.
Second, the world above treeline is a stoically uniform place. The trail above 12,300 feet becomes arbitrary and hard to follow because the rec-ommended route isn’t always clear cut and doesn’t always lead in the direction one might think.
Again, cairns only mark a recom-mended path of least resistance. Pre-vious visitors to the alpine who think they know better ( and sometimes do) sometimes also will erect cairns of their own, thereby adding to the confusion of the rocky terrain where cairns aren’t always easily visible to begin with. This sets the stage for multiple footpaths to develop, and before you know it, a regular spider-web of climber’s paths is set.
Unless one is well versed in back-country navigation (easier said than practiced) or is familiar with the ter-rain or mountain, novices, tourists or ” weekend warriors” can and have become lost for days on end, some-times with disastrous results.
It all comes down to someone not being prepared sufficiently. Whether that means not having proper gear and attire for that altitude, not read-ing the guidebooks or route descrip-tions closely enough or “setting the mind in neutral” because of the remarkable views, thus not recogniz-ing features on the descent, people do not take the mountain seriously. I’ve known people who’ve had to be rescued off Pikes Peak!
I believe that part, if not most, of the thrill of heading into the back-country to climb or hike is being someplace that’s potentially danger-ous and walking out the better for it. Personally, this routine has become my weekly dose of physical and philosophical catnip.
I honestly believe a sign should be erected on the North Ridge of Holy Cross somewhere in the vicinity of where the Angelica Couloir exits because this seems to be the spot where most people go missing.
At any rate, Mount of the Holy Cross is a beautiful mountain that can reward people with a great adventure and remarkable views, and it makes me glad that this ” Bermuda Triangle” reputation of the 14ers doesn’t seem to deter peo-ple. We have a great mountain here in Eagle County.
Kiefer Thomas is a Vail resident and mountain climber.