Mt. of the Holy Cross
14,005 Feet (Ranked 51st in CO)
North Ridge Route from Halfmoon Trailhead (10,323 Feet)
August 4th, 2009
12 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: 5,625 Feet
Mt. of the Holy Cross viewed from the north – the cross is only visible from the east
The elusive Mt. of the Holy Cross was reportedly first viewed by Spanish priests and named “Santa Cruz” for the nearly-perfect cross of snow that persisted in its signature gullies long after the surrounding snow had melted. Early miners and travelers reported seeing the cross from the summits of distant mountains, but they were unable to locate the mountain because the cross on the east face disappeared behind adjacent Notch Mountain as they got closer. Renowned geologist F. V. Hayden set out to map the exact location of the Mt. of the Holy Cross in 1873, and recorded the first known ascent in August of that year. A Thomas Moran painting of the mountain attracted a great deal of attention back east, and it became a popular tourist attraction shortly afterwards. The Mt. of the Holy Cross no longer ranks as a religious shrine, but it is still popular with fourteener hikers.
Many people choose to do this lengthy hike as a backpacking trip, but time limitations dictated that I had to do it as a day trip. This involved rolling out of the rack at 2:00 a.m. and hitting the road by 2:30. I was at the trailhead shortly after 5:00, and was ready to hit the trail by 5:15. GreenhouseSpouse had put dead batteries back in a new battery package, so I had no power for my GPS unit on a trail that has a reputation for losing hikers. I had a map and compass for backup, but the route turned out to be so well marked that I didn’t require any navigational help.
Solo hiking in the dark in a wilderness area makes one painfully aware of their solitude. However, I was relishing having this fantastic trail all to myself.
The half-light of the rising sun allowed me to stow my headlamp. Watching the sunrise over the Gore Range was one of the highlights of the hike.
The alpenglühen made the rocks on Half Moon Pass glow an eerie red. As I approached the top of the pass, a hiker jogged towards me from the opposite side. He appeared somewhat rattled, and asked me if I had any water to spare. He had spent the night lost in the Cross Creek drainage, and had run out of water. I gave him a couple hits of Camelbak Elixir, and let him know that he was only about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. He appeared to have been quite well enough to make it back without further assistance.
On the far side of the pass, thirteener Mt. Jackson dominated the view. It was named for famed photographer W. H. Jackson, who accompanied F. V. Hayden on his survey of the Mt. of the Holy Cross in 1873.
The wildflowers along most of the route were excellent, though perhaps a week past their prime. Columbines and Indian Paintbrush were some of the most colorful flowers.
Dropping down into the East Cross Creek drainage took longer than I had imagined. The 970-foot descent was on a good trail with many switchbacks.
I was at the end of one of the switchbacks when I looked up and noticed that the Mt. of the Holy Cross had come into view. The sheer mass of the snow-encrusted rock gave it a commanding presence.
The East Cross Creek drainage is known to harbor a healthy population of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. For some reason, they did not bother me. I passed a dilapidated miner’s cabin, and noticed several campsites along the way. Most of the campers were still in their tents at that early hour. Smoke filled my nostrils, and the haze from many campfires floated among the trees. The makeshift rock/log bridge across East Cross Creek was only slightly better than no bridge at all.
Crossing the creek marked the end of the first part of the journey for me. From here onward, it was all uphill to the summit. There was still plenty of altitude to be gained – somewhere in the vicinity of 4,320 feet, including the elevation that I had to re-gain on Half Moon Pass on the return trip. The terrain seemed to get rockier as I headed towards treeline.
As I neared treeline at about 11,725 feet, I stopped to chat with a pair of hikers taking a break on a large boulder. About 1.5 miles of hiking remained between me and the summit. Not much of the route was visible from below the north ridge.
The route through the boulders on the side of the north ridge was not so easy to follow. There were many cairns, probably marking multiple routes. It was easy enough to spot the cairns, but plotting the best courses between them was hit-and-miss.
The trail was easier to follow on the ridge crest, and the slope eased up quite a bit. Tracks in the snow showed that some people preferred to hike on the huge cornice that remained on the east side of the ridge; the snow was thoroughly consolidated and much more level than the rocky ridge. The final slope to the summit begins where the ridge makes a sharp left hand turn at about 13,400 feet.
There are no false summits on Holy Cross; the true summit is visible from the bottom of the slope. The trail on the upper slope is good in some places, and seemingly nonexistent in others. Some talus-hopping is required near the top.
The route took me past the top of the Angelica Couloir, which looked frighteningly steep. A fall down this couloir would not have a happy ending.
There was a pair of hikers on the summit when I arrived, but they soon left and I had the summit to myself on a bluebird day. The views included numerous mountains in the Gore, Sawatch, and Elk ranges.
Notch Mountain was on the other side of the Bowl of Tears. The rock shelter is barely visible in the above image.
Holy Cross Ridge stretched to the south from the summit. Certainly a great hike for another day…
I descended a few feet to the top of a cliff near the summit, and looked practically straight down into Lake Patricia.
The view of the Bowl of Tears was partially obstructed from my vantage point on the cliff. I ate a snack, hydrated, and started the long trip back to the trailhead.
Marmot showing off his mad bouldering skills
Down near treeline, an agitated marmot repeatedly chirped at me and practically begged me to take his picture. Was he actually mad at me for invading his territory, or just hamming it up for the camera?
Rosy Paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia)
The wildflowers looked even brighter in the afternoon sun. Rosy Paintbrush is always a favorite; it typically grows in moist meadows. I passed dozens of hikers as the trail got busier in the early afternoon.
I counted steps and measured breaths on the way back up Half Moon Pass, but I managed to make good time on the excellent trail. Not many fourteener routes torture hikers in this manner on the way back to the trailhead. I’ll have to admit that it was not as hard as I had expected. I was pumped when I finally saw the reflection from cars at the trailhead – this was my last fourteener in the Sawatch Range, and I had certainly saved the best for last.