Road trip! A crazy weekend on Mount of the Holy Cross

Mount of the Holy Cross as seen from 13,000 feet on the north ridge.

This is a story of a dude who decided to do something stupid in honor of a friend who did something cool. I would admonish you to imitate the latter and not the former.

First, some background. I have a friend named Bill Wood who has been on a tear in the mountains over the last couple of years, claiming the summits of some of the toughest 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. Before last weekend, he’d bagged 57 of them, with one just one left to do – Mount of the Holy Cross.

His plan was to finish the Colorado 14ers on that peak and invite a bunch of his friends to join in the party. We’d talked about it for a year or so, but my participation was going to be a last-minute decision.

With no time off from work, this was going to be a stretch: Drive from home to the campsite in western Colorado, climb the peak, break camp and drive home in the span of a weekend. No acclimatization. Very little sleep. And a complete lack of common sense. Here’s how it went down…

4:30 a.m. Friday

The alarm woke me up exactly four hours after I got off work. There was time enough to hop in the shower (my last until I got home two days later), eat something and head out. I had a deadline to meet: I was meeting people to carpool at a park-and-ride lot west of Denver, so I couldn’t just leisurely go about my way. Fifteen hours of driving lie ahead of me on just three hours of sleep, more or less.

I knew pretty early that the fundamentals of this solo road trip were pretty bad. The distances I’d be traveling and the type of task that I’d be doing are usually beyond the scale of what can be done in a weekend. But there are times where you just have to chuck those concerns into the wind and go. And it’s not like the plan was without its merits.

My car would be my home. With the back seats down, there was plenty of room to sleep. Seeing that I wasn’t flying or backpacking, I could pack as much stuff as I wanted to take, which would make my brief stay that much more comfortable. I was heading out dirtbag style, and I can tell you that dirtbagging has its charms.

The first few hours were in darkness and fog, but I didn’t feel fatigue until some point north of Wichita. I pulled into a fast-food drive-in place, parked it and napped for about a half hour before buying a breakfast burrito (dirtbag meal of choice) and heading off again.

The CD player in the car is busted, so I was at the mercy of whatever radio I could pick up. Sometimes that was limited to AM talk radio. In the heart of Red State Country, you know what that means: a steady diet of “Republicans good! Democrats bad!” As long as it kept me alert and my eyes on the road, it would have to do.

I blasted through Kansas and eastern Colorado, fought Denver rush-hour traffic and met my friends at the park-and-ride.

This was actually a cool part of the trip because it was sneaky. Bill wasn’t the only finisher on this trip; a friend of his named David Jones was also completing the 14ers with us, and his wife Zolo was going to surprise him by showing up at camp and going up Mount of the Holy Cross with him. She’d hitched a ride with Bill’s sister, Beth, and they met me at the lot and rode with me.

Having company for the last couple of hours made the time fly, and before long we’d made it to camp. The trip took me from 800 feet above sea level to about 10,300 feet at the Half Moon Creek campsite south of Minturn, Colo.

When David arrived, he was pretty pumped to see Zolo and excited about her giving the peak a go the next morning. A bunch of us gathered around the campfire; I knew very few of them, but most of them knew each other. In our midst were the following: a public relations specialist, an air traffic controller, a guy in the solar business, a college student, an architect and a dude who grew pot for a medical marijuana clinic (it’s legal in Colorado). There were others there whose livelihoods escape me, but you get the gist – it was an eclectic collection of altitude seekers.

I was struck by how much of a newbie I was with this group. Back at home, my mountain thing is somewhat unique. Not a lot of people can say they’ve been up a 14er. To these folks, there wasn’t any story I could tell that would be new to them. They’d all been there, done that, and many times over. I mostly just listened.

Bill passed around some high-quality Scotch – he has developed a sophisticated taste for it, and takes a celebratory swig after each successful summit – which segued into the second surprise of the night. Beth had planned, without his knowledge, a theme for the weekend based on her brother’s favorite cocktail. He was presented with a Scottish kilt, which he would, of course, wear during the ascent. Along with a whole bunch of others who had also procured this traditional Highlander garb for the occasion.

In the back of my mind, however, were other, more negative things. Why the hell am I here? I thought. Wouldn’t it be more enjoyable to get eight hours of sleep in your own bed than sleeping in the back of your car and eating crappy camp food? Do you really think that you’ll have a chance at this peak with no time to acclimate? My intentions were good, but this little plan of mine was deeply flawed, and that might manifest itself mightily on the mountain.

Thoughts of my folly rattled around in my head as I bunked down for the night. I’d get maybe four hours of sleep before it was time to get up, gear up and hit the trail. My doubts would have to wait until then.

6:30 a.m.  Saturday

My phone’s alarm went off, giving me time to dress, eat and go. There was a load of us, all hiking up the slopes with headlamps on, bobbing slowly up and down during the march up Half Moon Pass. About half of the group was attired in kilts, and all of us were carrying the blue-and-white Scottish flags in honor of the occasion. There were a couple dozen of us, quickly splitting up into faster and slower groups. I hung back, naturally. No way my flatlander lungs and legs would be able to hang with the faster, better-conditioned Coloradoans up ahead. I’d get there (hopefully), but I’d have to do it at my pace.

Sunrise views going up Half Moon Pass. Mount of the Holy Cross is not yet in view.

This is a good time to point out what makes Mount of the Holy Cross different from many other 14ers. Most peaks in Colorado start simply enough: The trailhead is at the base of the mountain, and you gain elevation until you can go no higher. Then you go downhill until you’re back where you started.

Not so for HC. It’s tucked away a little more, hidden from plain view by surrounding peaks and ridges. There are two main ways to go up: via the north ridge (the standard route) or Halo Ridge.

To access the north ridge, however, you have to ascend nearly 1,000 feet up Half Moon Pass, then go back down the same elevation until you reach East Cross Creek. Then you go up from about 10,300 feet to the Holy Cross’ 14,005-foot summit. With Halo Ridge, the elevation gain/loss/gain is a little different, as you have to tackle it higher by following the ridge up to the summit of Notch Mountain (a bit over 13,000 feet), then lose that elevation back to the ridge before climbing the final 2,000 feet to the top of Holy Cross.

Still going up Half Moon Pass, you get this view of nearby peaks.

Either option is tough, but it is easier to do the gain/loss/gain thing lower than higher. Either way, you’re looking at about 12 miles of hiking (some of it quite steep and bouldery) with a total elevation gain, round trip, of somewhere around 5,600 feet. The rest of the Sawatch 14ers all boast long, arduous ascents with big elevation gain, but Holy Cross takes the cake. It won’t test you with technical skill, but it will test your endurance.

The hike up the pass took us through mixed pine and aspen forests.  The aspens had mostly lost their fiery fall plumage, which now carpeted the trail and the forest floor. It was still a great scene, though – those stark white trunks shooting up from the ground amidst the deep hues of the evergreens. There’s nothing quite like the look, smells and sounds of a North American alpine forest. Sometime after dawn, maybe a few minutes after cresting the pass, we got our first sight of Mount of the Holy Cross.

Now over the pass, you get this sunrise view of Mount of the Holy Cross. (Bill Wood photo)

All I can say is I was stunned. Early fall snows had already graced the peak, filling in the deep grooves that crisscross the peak’s rugged north face. HC is a striking peak at any time of year, but the contrast of the bright snow with the darkness of the rock made it the most beautiful alpine scene I’d ever laid eyes on in Colorado. Or anywhere, for that matter.

It also let me know how much further we had to go. We had to descend from the pass, then scale that ridge. And do it all over again on the way back.

One member of our group was struggling with stomach issues. Another, foot pain. And another, knee soreness. I was still feeling good, but I knew that could go sideways any minute. No sleep, no acclimatizing, inadequate food. Hmmm…

Once we reached the creek, it was time to go up for real. By this time, it was just three of us – Beth, a fella named Gray and myself. We were all hitting it about the same speed. None of us were quite right, but up we went.

Views higher up on the north ridge. Snow is now a part of the route.

Once we got over treeline I had my own decision to make: Stay with the group or forge ahead on my own. I was afraid if I went too slow, I might run out of gas sooner than if I found my own pace up. Once we got higher on the ridge, I went on ahead, making sure I could see my buds behind me.

By now, there was plenty of snow on the route. This was actually a good thing, as it made each footfall a little softer. It wasn’t deep enough or icy enough to where you’d need crampons or an ice axe, but microspikes would have been nice, particularly on the descent.

It was here that I had to fight the climb mentally. More than usual, I felt taxed. Seventy, maybe 50 steps forward, and I’d have to stop. Each break lasted a little longer than the one before. My pulse pounded in my temples. There was some light-headedness. It seemed like the bonk was on its way.

Times like this, while alone and struggling, make you think hard about life. I prayed some, asking God to forgive me for being so dumb. And I talked to myself.

“Come on, Bob. Fight back. Keep going.”

Still climbing higher, this crag comes into view. The summit is in the background.

Each segment of steps got me noticeably closer to the top. The ridge got steeper, the snow a little thicker.

“Almost there. Just keep fighting.”

Maybe a couple hundred feet from the top, I heard a big cheer come up. Bill and David must have just summited. They were greeted by the 14ers.com Gurlz Hike folks, who had planned their secret location and ascent to be at the top to greet the finishers when they arrived. I wish I had been there for the party, but hearing the cheer go up meant I was close.

Almost there.

1 p.m. Saturday

Picking my way through the boulders and snow, I’d finally gone up to where I could go no higher. Much of the crowd that had been there before had already started down, but Bill, David and a few of the others were still lingering at the summit. I know Bill wanted to be there when his sister arrived, and a few minutes after me, she topped out as well.

One of the things that struck me was the views. Someone on their way down had told me, “It’s the best view in the Sawatch.” Yeah, right, dude. Summit views from Huron, with the Three Apostles nearby? Shouldn’t that ring a bell?

The high point of Holy Cross Ridge, a ranked 13er, as seen from Holy Cross’ summit.

Well, it turns out he was right. Recent snows gave nearby Holy Cross Ridge an icy, foreboding appearance. It was gorgeous. Looking around, you can see the giants of the Elk Range: Snowmass, the Maroon Bells, Capitol, and Pyramid. The rugged wildness of the Gore Range loomed to the north. It was an amazing panorama of peaks I’d yet to explore.

We were fortunate with the weather. There had been a forecast that called for a chance of rain and snow, but instead we got mostly clear skies and no wind. As Beth would say, a pretty balmy day (40s) on the summit.

Not long after we got there, a family strolled up. Father, mother, and two boys, one about 8, another who was 5. With Holy Cross, the younger boy had climbed five 14ers. His older brother had already done them all. And the parents had done them all multiple times. That was one inspiring family. They would pass me down the trail, energetic and laughing as if they’d just gone for a walk through the mall. The thought that went through my head was how far ahead those two boys are from their peers: They’d tackled physical and mental challenges that other children hadn’t even sniffed and had learned quite a bit about how tough they could really be. That has to be a lesson that will translate into something positive for them later in life. Well done, mountain parents. Your kids are gonna rock.

The crowd that met Bill and David at the summit. (Bill Wood photo)

There were certain sights on the summit that I missed because of my tardiness. Like a bunch of pink-clad ladies awaiting Bill and David at the top. And one gal who stripped down to a silver bra and spent more than a half hour posing for pictures.

So, just to do a quick summit inventory: Kilt clad climbers. Scottish flags. Ladies in pink. And a silver bra. Yep, you get all types on the peaks, and it was a heck of a visual for Bill and David on their finisher.

By the time I got there I was beat. No sleep, little food and no acclimatizing had caught up with me. I was cold, shivering at times while others appeared to be fine. And I was actually sleepy. I sat down on a rock, propped my head up in my hands and actually dozed off for a few minutes.

Summit shot with, from left, Gray, me, Beth, Bill and David. As you can tell, I’m the one who just looks tired. (Bill Wood photo)

I got a sense that people were ready to head down, so I roused myself, grabbed my pack and got ready to go. We had a choice: Go back down the north ridge route or complete the loop via Halo Ridge. I was pretty sure that ascending Notch Mountain (a ranked 13er on Halo Ridge) wasn’t in the cards for me, and the rest of the group that was left felt the same way.

It was here that I wished I had some microspikes. Going up snow is one thing, but going down in snow is another. It’s not like slipping and falling would send me careening down the mountain, but falling on your butt (I did that a few times) is at least annoying and, at worst, a bad way to get injured. Being hurt in this wilderness would make for a really bad day.

As I’ve noted before, I’m notoriously slow when going downhill. I was glad to have a couple of people around me who were similarly pokey. Holy Cross has a reputation of getting people lost on the downhill side of things; having others around you in places like that is a great thing.

Eventually we got a little spread out on the trail, so it ended up with me and  Gray picking our way down the trail, eventually finding a good place to stop and rest at East Cross Creek. Gray had run out of water, but had packed a water filter. I was running a little low as well, so I took advantage of the filter, filled a bottle and mixed some Gatorade.

Gray filters some water at East Cross Creek. We still had yet to go back over the pass, so there was plenty of work ahead.

“Oh man. I think I’m gonna have a private moment with my drink,” I said, savoring those cold, liquid calories as they trickled down. He mentioned having the same feelings for his PBJ. Don’t judge.

Speaking of calories on the trail, I’ve got to say this: Pack Snickers Minis. It’s not easy to choke down food at altitude, but these things are perfect little calorie bombs, easy to digest and just what you need to keep a flow of energy in your body on days when you’re burning calories by the thousands. Buy them, pack them, and eat them alongside your other trail foods.

Having reached East Cross Creek, we’d dropped nearly 4,000 feet. Now we’d have to go up the pass again, gaining about 1,000 feet before going back down to the trailhead. Only now, we’d have to do it having burned ourselves out going over the pass once already and summiting the peak.

A shot of the trail and surrounding forest.

Refueling at the creek was crucial. As we started up, the sun was beginning to approach the horizon. Fatigue was setting in pretty good, though I found myself surprised that going up the pass wasn’t as brutal as I thought it would be.

Not so much for Gray. A recent knee injury had plagued him all day, and his back was firing up as well.

I’ve been in that spot before. Recently. About a year ago, when my buddy Johnny and I hit Huron Peak, my back was killing me, and my conditioning wasn’t up to snuff. My knees are pretty tender as it is.

“You know, I thought going up the pass would be a lot worse than this,” I said, trying to be cheery.

“It’s just as bad as I thought it would be” Gray said.

Point taken. When your knees are in pain, every step is taken with care. And when your back is wonky, every misstep, trip or unexpected jolt just plain sucks.

Near the crest of the pass, he said what I’d felt many times before.

“Man, I’m starting to hate this f—–g trail.”

I hear ya, bro.

Gray going up the pass through an aspen grove. It’s easy to miss the beauty of the surroundings when you’re so dog tired and just want to get back to camp, but this was one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been.

We started the downhill as the sun disappeared behind the nearby ridges. In time, I got my headlamp out, but the rising moon provided just the tiniest bit of light to make it to where we weren’t hiking in total darkness. It went on like this for what seemed like hours. But then appeared a trailhead sign. We’d finally made it back.

8:30 p.m. Saturday

When it was all said and done, this had been an incredibly long day. More than 13 hours on the trail and on the rocks and snow. It was the second-longest hike I’d ever done, and the one with the most elevation gain. A 1 p.m. summit was the second-latest I’d ever arrived. But the task was completed.

Stripping off my pack, I joined the rest of the gang around the campfire. Food was cooking. Drinks were being passed around. Lots of stories were being told.

I was struck by something Bill had said when he was asked how it felt to finish the 14ers.

“I don’t know, I guess I don’t feel any different than before,” he said. I joked he’ll feel differently when I said something stupid on the 14ers.com forum, and when he compared his peak list to mine, he’ll rightly say, “Shut up, Bob.”

But in all seriousness, I can see why he felt that way. There are plenty of 14,000-foot peaks that anyone with a degree of physical fitness can do. But there are many more that are simply beyond most people.

Don’t get me wrong, Holy Cross is a big day. But it’s not as big as climbing Capitol Peak and traversing its fall-here-and-you-die ridge. It’s not as difficult as ascending Longs Peak via the Loft route. It’s certainly not as big of a day as doing the Little Bear-to-Blanca traverse, a huge undertaking that takes the better part of a day and includes numerous exposed, semi-technical climbing sections, all well above treeline. These are some of the accomplishments achieved during Bill Wood’s march to finish the 14ers, and those particular climbs – and many others – probably make the Holy Cross ascent look pretty pedestrian.

A lot of us had agreed that we’d underestimated Mount of the Holy Cross, but I could see how it was just another day in the mountains for the two guys who had already climbed 57 other 14ers.

It will probably hit him later on, after some time to reflect on how far he’s come since he hiked his first 14er with his sister Beth years ago.

Deep thoughts around the campfire were infrequent that night, and appropriately so. This was more about good times. Bratwursts, fajitas and other foods were cooking over the fire pit, and a couple who had brought some White Castle burgers decided they didn’t look appetizing to them anymore. I gratefully relieved them of their unwanted munchies. I brought food and a stove, but found myself too lazy to cook. So I unwrapped the burgerlings, put them in some foil and warmed them up over the fire. Food this bad never tasted so good.

Beer and Scotch were passed around. A friend I’d met on Kelso Ridge, Noel, brought her famous cookies. Those also made the rounds. You can take your clubs, bars, fancy restaurants or other urban/suburban haunts. This place – more rustic, colder, darker and elemental – is way cooler than all of that.

In the back of my mind, however, the clock was ticking. Already 9:30, I needed to get a little sleep and steel myself for the brutal drive ahead.

10:45 p.m. Saturday

I figured I’d sleep until about midnight, then take off for home. But as I did the math in my mind, I knew that wouldn’t work. I needed to be home before 4 p.m., when my shift started. I knew there was no way I could drive straight through. I’d need to pull over on occasion to sleep. Solo road trips are great, but when you’re the only one driving, that means you’ll go only as far and as long as your body will allow.

After pulling out of camp, I wrangled Tigiwon Road’s dirt path to the highway, headed north, then pointed the car east on Interstate 70, the road I’d be on for the next eight hours.

I had no idea how tough this would be.

Somewhere west of Georgetown, I stopped for gas and sleep. Then, at the park-and-ride west of Denver, I stopped to sleep again.

I made it across the Denver metro area to Strasburg. Again, I needed to sleep. But there was no way I’d get home in time by stopping every 40 to 50 miles to snooze. I snagged a 5-Hour Energy drink and a Diet Dr Pepper and headed east again.

Boy, that stuff woke me up. My eyes were clear, I was singing to the radio and I felt energized. I might actually be able to pull this off!

But the road had other surprises. Almost as soon as I crossed the Kansas state line, the fog was back. Mind-numbing, sight-impairing, sleep-inducing fog. And it was endless.

Suddenly my body was at war with itself. Partly jacked up on stimulants, partly overwhelmed by the need for slumber. The stops to rest, even for 15 minutes, resumed.

It was well past 7 a.m. somewhere near Hays and still dark. Man, when did the friggin sun rise in this state, anyhow? Needing some gas and food, I pulled over and found a station and a McDonald’s. While waiting in line for breakfast, this old coot was smiling and asked me the weirdest question.

“Got any good jokes?”

“No, man. I’m just trying to get home.”

“Where’s home?”

“Tulsa.”

“Whew!”

He then stopped to think. And then the weirdness continued.

“Do you know what pallbearers in Oklahoma do?” he asked.

“Uh, I guess they carry caskets?”

“They carry-Okie.”

I admit, I laughed at the pun. Well played, old coot. Well played.

Eventually, the fog broke and the sun was out. I still had to stop a few times. I grabbed another 5-Hour Energy. Big mistake. Though five hours had already passed since I downed the first one, I don’t think I’d passed all the chemicals that had woken me up hours before. I brought a Diet Mountain Dew as a chaser, but one sip of that and I was tweaking. Bad.

Now I was in for a new experience. Sleepy, yet tweaking. Wired, yet wilting. I don’t recommend this. Sleep deprivation and 5 Hour Energy drinks are an unpleasant, funky mix.

Fighting this for five more hours and I got sight of home: the skyscrapers of downtown Tulsa. I’d made it.

2:30 p.m. Sunday

When I finally parked, I had 90 minutes to clean up, rest and get to work. It had been more than two days since I’d showered, and I was ripe. And feeling a little slimy. The car was a pit. I was exhausted. But I’d done it. Somehow, some way, I managed to get to the Rockies and back with another 14er under my belt in the span of just a weekend.

Fun fact! It took 15 hours to get from Tulsa to the Half Moon Creek campsite; 13 hours for me to hike 12 miles to Holy Cross’ summit and back; and 14 hours to fly from Chicago to Shanghai. All are grueling, but the flight is the easiest of the three.

In closing, I have to offer my thanks to Bill for inviting me to his finisher. It was a big honor.

It also gave me an excuse to not only pull off one more 14er for the year, it also gave me a chance to do something dumb, something fit for a college kid, something that can only be described as an outrageous expression of mid-life crisis in action.

Don’t try this at home, kids. But if you do and don’t manage to wrap your car around a telephone pole, it may end up being the coolest thing you do this year. Or next.

IF YOU GO

Take Interstate 70 west from Denver and past Vail until you get to the U.S. 24 exit. Turn south here toward Minturn. South of Minturn, turn west (right) in Tigiwon Road. The road is a dirt road, but is in excellent shape. Two-wheel-drive passenger cars can easily travel this road. The Half Moon Creek trailhead and campsites are at the end of the road.

ABOUT THE ROUTE

Via Half Moon Pass, hike generally south on an excellent trail up the pass. You will gain about 1,000 feet in elevation until the reach to the top of the pass. As you start down and go south, Mount of the Holy Cross will finally come into view. Continue hiking down to East Cross Creek. There are lots of campsites here, but some have been closed off recently for restoration purposes. Cross the creek, then start up a steeper but excellent trail up the north ridge.

Once above treeline, the route becomes rockier, but a system of tall cairns will direct your path. At this point, the trail becomes Class 2. Climb up to the shoulder of the ridge to where it levels off just before you hit the summit ridge. You’ll head east up a boulder-strewn slope, and it this point, you’ll be picking your own way up to the summit.

Round trip route length is about 12 miles, with a total elevation gain of 5,600 feet.

EXTRA CREDIT

Take Halo Ridge, which includes an ascent of Notch Mountain, a ranked 13er. You avoid Half Moon Pass, but you’ll get the same elevation gain and loss, as you must summit Notch Mountain to complete the route.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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7 thoughts on “Road trip! A crazy weekend on Mount of the Holy Cross

    • You should have! It was a really good day to be up there. Weather was good, and I think the snow was just enough to be helpful on the upper route and not enough to be a nuisance.

      As for how well I did, well, I could have used more acclimatizing time as well as improved fitness. But I’m getting there.

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