TR: Mt. of the Holy Cross 3/5/2016
There's no doubt that Mt. of the Holy Cross is one of the most prominent and easily recognizable peaks in Colorado. Easily seen from most parts of the Front, Tenmile, Mosquito, and Gore ranges, Holy Cross has been a beacon for those exploring CO's mountains for well more than a century.
The iconic ski line on the peak is its namesake, the Cross Couloir. Nearly 150 years later, still nobody has matched William Henry Jackson's shot from 1873, which was the first photo taken of the mountain and the one that proved the existence of a cross-shaped snowfield to the world.
Sometime since then, however, part of the right side of the cross fell off, so the cross is not quite so pronounced now. Fortunately the main couloir still reliably fills in with snow, and has become a classic ski line.
Though the line itself is steep and committing, it is not a wildly difficult line in terms of pure skiing difficulty. However there are many logistical and physical challenges associated with skiing the cross.
The first is that the road to the summer trailhead is closed in the winter, 8 miles and 2,200ft below. For most suiters, this means either a really long slog, waiting until the road is melted enough to mountain bike up to the TH, or waiting until after June 21, when the forest service finally opens the road. But for those of us with snowmobiles, the road is groomed by a tour company in the area, so other than the usual hassles associated with sleds, the road approach becomes a non-issue.
The second challenge is that the summer TH is a drainage away from the peak. So you must first climb up and over Half Moon Pass, then descend down into East Cross Creek, climb and ski the peak, climb backup Half Moon Pass, and descend back down to the trailhead. Done correctly, this is about a 12 mile, 5,600ft vertical day.
After a late start because I wasn't feeling well (about 6am) , we made good time up the initial climb to the pass, where Rick and I discussed how well we color coordinated our outfits.
We found surprisingly good skiing down into East Cross Creek in faceted recycled powder, through some fun pillow features. At the bottom, we switched back over to skins as our destination came into view.
We headed for the north ridge, admiring this tasty looking chute along the way.
Trailbreaking up the W/NW aspects below treeline was difficult, as the faceted snowpack was sometimes supportive, sometimes not. Jess had some foot pain that nearly derailed the entire thing, but a break to remove boots and stretch solved the issue. It was midday before we broke out above treeline, where firmer, more supportive snow initially made things much quicker.
Unfortunately as the ridge became steeper, Rick and Jess were forced to switch to booting up through the talus, while I did some adventure skinning using ski crampons. Lesson learned - next time everyone brings ski crampons, as I was a good 30min faster to the saddle at 13,400 feet, and I am definitely not 30min more fit (if at all). At that point the snow ended, and I was forced to throw skis on my pack as well for the final 600ft talus hop to the summit.
We topped out around 4:30pm to incredible views of the northern Sawatch. Rick is stoked.
And so is Jess.
I took pictures of people, but Rick apparently likes his Whippet more than people, so he only took pictures of his Whippet.
Many people think the Sawatch is a boring range. These people are wrong. There are amazing parts of the Sawatch. They're just a bitch to get to. One such area is upper Cross Creek, where many beautiful peaks nobody has heard of them (and many of them unnamed) await those willing to make the long approach in.
This one does actually get climbed and skied with a bit more regularity than most of the range, as it shares the same access as Mt of the Holy Cross. Holy Cross Ridge is one of Colorado's centennials, or 100 highest peaks.
We didn't delay too long on the summit, as we knew we were running out of light. We had long ago resigned ourselves to exiting in the dark, but we at least wanted to get to the base of our re-ascent to Half Moon Pass in the daylight. Still, we didn't figure it would take too long to ski down and out, so despite not dropping in until 5pm, we figured we were still doing OK.
Jess contemplates her future as the golden hour nears.
And drops in.
I dropped in last, and the snow was, in a word, incredible. About 4" of settled powder on a nice, firm, smooth base. Even better, it was nicely bonded and sloughing was pretty minimal, allowing us to rip fast turns down the steepest section of the line to our first safe zone at the cross's arms.
Below that the snow was a bit more variable, as the slough we did have come down had scoured a few sections down to the firm bed surface. The line, however, was super aesthetic.
We still found plenty of good snow along the skier's right side however as we approached the exit point. Rick:
Unfortunately, the cross couloir doesn't go through cleanly to the valley floor. It ends in a cliff about 2/3 of the way down. Though the cliff has been rappelled to make a complete descent, the standard route is to exit skier's right onto a shelf, then ski lower angle slopes down to the Bowl of Tears lake. As long as you know you're looking for an exit, it's immediately obvious as you ski down - it's literally the only place where it's possible to exit out right. Looking back up the couloir from the exit.
We didn't take photos of the ski down to the bottom of the valley, as we were losing light and the snow was pretty much awful. Once down, we passed underneath the Cross Couloir, where you can see why it doesn't go cleanly.
From there, shit pretty much went south. First, we ran out of snow between the Bowl of Tears and Lake Patricia, so we had to click out and make a somewhat treacherous downclimb through loose scree and talus. The terrain from there to the end of Lake Patricia was quite flat, and Jess made slow going on her snowboard.
I realized two things at about the same time. One, we were losing daylight fast and it was going to get quite dark quite quickly. Two, none of us had researched the route to drop below Lake Patricia in any sort of detail, and I had noticed on the way up that there was some complex and cliffy terrain in there.
With these realizations, we decided that I would go ahead and try to scout and find a safe descent before it got dark, while Rick stayed with Jess as she worked her way across the flats. I skated and poled to the lake exit as quick as possible, clicked out of my skis, scrambled to a high point, couldn't see shit, picked a route and dropped towards the lake's outlet, and after a few short descents and a bunch of wandering/poking around, found that most of the terrain obviously cliffed out dramatically, except for one gully that only looked about 60% likely to cliff out.
By the time I heard Rick and Jess call out above me, the last bit of light was leaving the sky. I yelled up for them to not follow me; that we would need to put skins on and climb around a rock buttress and find a better route. I skinned back up to them and after consulting the topo map on my cell phone (which, of course, was trying to die), we headed west by headlamp towards what looked like a more gentle drainage.
The terrain just under Lake Patricia is heavily glaciated, with a number of undulating knobs. In the dark, these suck to navigate. Finally we found ourselves atop one, where we could see a much more promising looking gully. A bit more skinning and wandering and we finally were able to descend into it and were once again headed north, down East Cross Creek, towards the re-ascent of Half Moon Pass.
After a lot of downhill skinning in snow and terrain that probably would have been pretty fun to ski if we had been able to see it, we found a couple signs showing that we had reached the summer trail to Half Moon Pass. Hooray!
Only trouble was, we had not come down the summer trail. We had never found this spot that morning. We tried to, and despite traversing pretty hard from the pass to the south around Notch Mountain that morning, it turned out that we hadn't traversed hard enough. And we didn't want to try to navigate new, steep terrain in the dark.
So we headed down valley. We tried to hug the steep, eastern wall as much as possible, but that ended up being impossible. So between GPS, a general sense of direction, and attempting to follow the creek, we headed down through a dense, confusing forest, knowing we would cross our up-track eventually.
Finally, around 10 or 10:30pm, we found it. HUGE relief. I knew we would, but it's still stressful. Turned out we had dropped MUCH further down into East Cross Creek than needed, adding 400' of climbing each way. By 11pm, we were finally ready to begin climbing back to Half Moon Pass.
But the challenges didn't end there. We had descended some steep and pillowy terrain, and the faceted snowpack was by and large NOT supportive to skinning. It took us nearly 2 hours of wallowing through balls deep facets to ascend the initial 400' of steep terrain. There was plenty of cursing, near tears, snow and tree humping, and serious consideration given to bivying.
Thankfully the pitch above relented, and exhausted and dehydrated, we slowly plodded one foot after the other to Half Moon Pass. The ski down to the TH was super sketchy and Rick and I made heavy use of a power snowplow to avoid wrapping ourselves around any trees, while Jess falling-leafed like a boss. We reached finally reached my snowmobile, Molly, around 2am.
Molly has been having a weird cold/high altitude starting problem this year. It always starts, just sometimes takes 20 or 30 pulls. I wasn't sure I had 20 or 30 pulls of energy left in me at this point. So when Molly fired up on the 4th pull, I was ecstatic.
The two dudes camping nearby might not have shared my joy, however.
Jess and I towed Rick up to the road's highpoint, then drove slowly behind him, letting our headlights help light his way. The road has a couple flats and small uphills, where we pioneered the incredibly sketchy practice of towing a skier while he's right next to the sled, holding onto the bumper or ski rack.
We hit the car around 2:45am, nearly 21 hours after we started.
We promptly slammed a beer, passed out. We didn't get out of bed until almost 10am the next morning, where we slammed another beer and headed to Avon for a big-ass breakfast.
You'll always remember the epics...
I didn't have the battery power to continually run my GPS, but below is my best estimate of our route and detours. All told we added about 1.5 miles and 1,000' vert onto an already big day.
It was still worth it.