Thursday, August 4, 2016

Angels and Demons: Mythical Mount of the Holy Cross

It's Colorado’s most mythical mountain.

The serrated summit of Holy Cross
At the head of a gray basin whose old-growth conifers give way to gumdrop glacial boulders, and a winding crystalline stream dumps over gray ledges then through deep pools and over tall cascades, Mount of the Holy Cross stands guard with its stern, weather-worn face.

We stood at a kink in Half Moon Trail, lost in wonderment by our first look at one of Colorado’s most impressive sights. “That mountain is dangerous,” we were warned by concerned family members. “No one should ever climb that peak.” It seemed like a lot of fuss for a mountain that garnered a paltry Class 2 rating. But of the many climbs my wife, Ella, and I have attempted over the years, perhaps only Capitol Peak generated a more negative reaction from our family and non-climbing friends. For me, however, encountering the stark beauty of that great mountain for the first time is one of the most powerful and emotional memories from my mountaineering life.

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In my opinion, Mount of the Holy Cross is the crown jewel of the Sawatch Range, a spine of peaks in the center of the state that includes many famous summits such as Mt. Elbert, Mt. Massive, Mt. Princeton and La Plata. Holy Cross’s rugged north and east faces seem out of character in a range dominated by sleepy giants with long, relatively gentle slopes. The craggy, boulder-strewn basin into which the famous cross drains feels out-of-place, almost as if it was plucked out of more rugged neighboring ranges and dropped randomly here, 13 miles southwest of Vail.

The postcard image of Colorado’s rood in the sky has inspired believers and non-believers alike ever since an 1873 photo by William H. Jackson first proved true the rumors of a mountain bearing the holy crucifix. It was featured in an oil painting by famed landscape artist Thomas Moran, as well as a poem entitled “The Cross of Snow” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. For decades the ostensible sign from God drew zealots and fanatics to make pilgrimages to the mountain to witness it. And the great cross of snow did not disappoint.

In contemporary times, the fervor surrounding the religious iconography of this diminutive 14er (the 3rd lowest of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks) has waned dramatically. The peak, however, continues to draw alpine and mountaineering enthusiasts from all over the world. Its popularity, combined with some unique and challenging terrain and a series of tragic and semi-mysterious accidents, has lent the mountain a new reputation. One of mystery, menace and danger.

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Storm clouds building over Holy Cross
Holy Cross has been called the “Bermuda Triangle” of the Colorado high country. So numerous have been the rescues, accidents and near-misses that people have come to view the area as cursed. The Holy Cross Wilderness is a rugged and convoluted landscape notorious for misleading trails and terrain that can quickly lead inexperienced and ill-prepared hikers astray. From the primary access point, the Half Moon Trail, hikers and mountaineers on most routes must climb up and over Half Moon Pass before reaching the base of the peak, an undertaking that requires at least 1,000-feet of “wasted” elevation gain in both directions. All of these factors combine to make Holy Cross more difficult and dangerous than your average Class 2 Sawatch 14er.

Of all the accidents and rescues documented in the wilderness surrounding Holy Cross, two incidents in particular provided the most potent fuel for the emerging mythos of Colorado’s most mysterious mountain.

In June of 2010, a 31 year-old man from Chicago named James Nelson went missing while on a 5-day backpack trip in the Holy Cross Wilderness. Despite an exhaustive search that included over 100 volunteers, the days turned to weeks and the weeks into years and still no sign of the missing man was found. It wasn’t until more than two years later that his tattered campsite was spotted near an abandoned mining camp, and his remains were found at last. An investigation of the years-old scene, revealed no evidence of foul play. However, a journal may have indicated he was afflicted by altitude sickness. Still today, however, it's difficult to draw firm conclusions about what happened to Nelson, and the events surrounding his death are somewhat shrouded in mystery.

An even more disturbing and prominent incident was the 2005 disappearance of Michelle Vanek, a 35-year-old mother of four. Vanek, along with her climbing partner, had attempted Halo Ridge, a long and circuitous route that traverses several sub peaks including Holy Cross Ridge (Colorado’s 91st highest mountain), en route to the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross. Halo Ridge is known for its up-and-down terrain and long exposure to the above-treeline elements. Just five-hundred vertical feet shy of the summit but out of food and water, Vanek decided she was too exhausted to continue and gave her partner permission to go ahead to the summit. When he returned, however, there was no sign of Vanek. Despite the largest search in Colorado history, with over 700 people committed to the cause, no trace of Vanek was ever seen again.

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The Gore Range from the standard route on Holy Cross
The morning of our climb was cool and calm, ideal for an attempt at the mythological Holy Cross. As we packed our climbing bags and departed our camp along the bubbling banks of East Cross Creek, first light cast camellia hues over the basin. Far to the north, the blade-like summits of the Gore Range cleaved the morning sky. In the ethereal light, the mountains could have been heavenly.

By 9:00 a.m. after a strenuous but non-exposed climb, we stood on the summit in ecstasy. “We made it!” Ella shouted with a hug. A brilliant panorama spread as far as we could see in every direction.

The clear skies had filled with high, horsetail clouds and the wind was beginning to whip at our shirtsleeves. We basked in the commanding beauty of the mountain for half an hour as the morning gradually matured. Knowing what a long day we had ahead, we grudgingly departed the summit and made the long descent back to camp. By the time we broke down our tent, re-packed our bags, and slogged partway up Half Moon Pass to the final overlook where Holy Cross would disappear from view for good, the skies had changed dramatically.

A terrible storm, black and menacing, hovered directly over the serrated mountain. The tempest appeared to be a product of the peak itself, boiling out of its summit and casting doom on the basin below. The mountain looked more evil now than angelic.

A sharp crack of thunder shook us back to reality.

“Come on,” Ella implored anxiously. “We need to get going.” We still had to climb over the open exposure of Half Moon Pass.

Warily, I turned my back on Holy Cross, feeling moved by that potent place. Is there something mythical that gives power to Holy Cross, a spiritual vortex or religious portal? Or is it just something innate in the mountain’s rugged beauty and naturally complex terrain?

As we hiked out with forks of lightning stabbing the earth all around us, I couldn’t decide what difference there was between the two anyway.

(NOTE: This story was originally published in print and online in Our Backyard (Volume 11, Issue 4, August 2016), which is inserted in The Nickel, and the Moab Times-Independent)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Stranded on Monitor Rock Near Independence Pass

Monitor Rock. Trooper Traverse follows the prominent
 ramp/crack system in the center of the main face

We’re going to be on the news….

It was the only thought my adrenaline-charged, near-panicked mind could summon. “Three rock climbers had to be rescued last night off Monitor Rock near Twin Lakes just east of Independence Pass. Reportedly, the group was stranded when their rope became stuck as they were rappelling from the 450-foot-tall rock.” Something like that. People on their couches at home would guffaw and grumble “idiots” before clicking around for something better. Now that we’d been in our predicament for over an hour, this scenario seemed not just possible, but likely.

On the positive side, we were on a solid ledge that had not one but two bolted anchors. At ten feet long, two feet wide and 350 feet off the ground, was it comfortable? No. But at least we were in no danger of falling. It was autumn, however, and evening was approaching. Though it had been a warm, bluebird day, once that sun went down, it was going to get cold.

“We can think this through,” said my wife, Ella, sounding much calmer than I felt.

“There is no reason to panic.”

“I also have this,” added my friend and often climbing partner, Trent. He reached into his backpack and retrieved a Spot Satellite GPS messenger. With one touch of the panic button, this little device would transmit an S.O.S along with our coordinates to emergency dispatch, and the finest in backcountry rescue services would be deployed to save us. But how long would it take them to arrive? Monitor Rock was 26 miles from Leadville, where it was likely any such rescue operation would be staged. The amount of time it would take to mobilize and travel here alone could be hours. Then they would have to climb to us, and get us down, and do whatever follow-up was required. I was guessing we’d be lucky to get home by midnight.

“Are we at that point?” I asked, watching his finger edge closer to the button. The three of us were silent. There was only so much pulling one could do on a stuck rope before giving in to the harsh reality.

Ella sighed. “We might be.”
The author leads the pitch 4 traverse pitch

I swore out loud, which didn’t help anything. The climb itself, a historical multi-pitch traditional route known as the Trooper Traverse (5 pitches, 5.8+) had been smooth. We’d swapped leads and made our way up the enjoyable line in decent time, even taking the more-difficult 5.9 crux variation for the final pitch. The setting for Monitor Rock was breathtaking, especially with the golds, oranges and yellows of fall at their peak. The cobalt sky was dotted with friendly, paintbrush clouds and the perfectly warm air was so still we could hear calls of “take” and “lowering” from the climbers cragging on other routes far below us at the base of the wall. I hated the stark juxtaposition of all that beauty against our current predicament.

“All right,” I said to Trent with a deep breath. “I guess we have to do it.”

Trent’s thumb hovered over the panic button.

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It’s a common mountaineering axiom that the way down is the most dangerous part of an expedition. The descent occurs later in the day when we are exhausted and weather is more likely. And while going down, we are leading with our feet instead of our heads. Then there is complacency. Feeling that the summit, and the worst, is behind us, we lower our guard.

Rappelling is a special type of descent that can speed up our progress and allow us to cruise past gnarly sections that would be difficult or impossible to downclimb. Duane Raleigh, publisher of Rock & Ice magazine and first ascensionist of many Western Colorado rock climbs, asserts in his article “Rappelling-Surviving Climbing’s Diciest Business” that “of the myriad ways to kill yourself climbing, rappelling is the quickest.” This grim truism echoes through my head every time I fix myself to a rope to begin a rappel descent.

When done properly, however, rappelling is quite simple, easy and generally safe, but the consequences of any broken link in the chain are disastrous. There are many ways rappelling can go wrong, including anchor failure, knot failure, improper connections with the belay device, loss of brake-hand control, failure to tie backup knots, rappelling off the end of the rope, and more. One of the most common rappelling faux pas, however, is getting a rope stuck when pulling it.

Now, there is an advantage to this mistake over the others: you are at the bottom of the rappel when it happens. If it were just a single rappel then at worst you have to leave your expensive rope behind and hope you can come back for it later.

On a multi-rappel descent, getting your rope stuck up high can leave you stranded with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet still to the ground.
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“Let me try it one more time,” said Trent, slipping the GPS tracker back into his bag. Taking both ends of the rope, he began to saw the two lines back and forth.

At first, nothing would budge. Then suddenly, a hundred feet above us, the knot popped free from whatever it had been stuck on and began pulling through the anchor. A minute later it hissed down the smooth granite and landed at our feet.

We stared at it with our mouths hanging open in shock. After more than an hour being stranded, we were free. We cheered. We hugged. We celebrated. No hours-long rescue. No Channel 5 News story. No being benighted on a two-foot-wide ledge at 10,000 feet elevation. We were going home.
Ella Wright just before the rope
became stuck

There were still two rappels to go however, and we couldn’t lose focus. The last thing we wanted was to get out of one bad situation by the skin of our teeth only to end up in a worse one. The best moment, however, of any rappel is when your feet and rope are back on the ground, and an hour later we were there. At the bottom of the rock we laid in the grass and gravel and tried to laugh off what had just happened. It seemed surreal, the sudden transition from danger to safety.

“Let’s get out of here,” Ella said after we packed up our bags. She started the march down the trail in the direction of our car.

“I couldn’t agree more,” added Trent and followed.

I looked back at sweeping heights of Monitor Rock. Evening was already almost at hand and the glistening gray rock was falling into shadow. I could still pick out the ledge where we had spent an hour stranded. I couldn’t help but think how close we’d come to still being up there.

“Maybe we need to go get a beer,” I added. I turned away from the rock to follow the others, and didn’t look back.

NOTE: This article was originally published in Our Backyard (Volume 11, Issue 3, June 2016), an outdoor publication that is inserted in The Nickel and the Moab Times-Independent. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Peak of the Week: Mount Massive

Mt. Massive's South Slopes route
The South Slopes route from just above treeline
Mount Massive is one of Colorado's most magnificent and gigantic peaks. With seven distinct summits, four of which are over 14,000 feet, Massive is almost more of a sub-range or a massif than a singular peak. As most everyone knows by now, Massive is the second-highest peak in Colorado and the third highest in the lower 48. By almost any measure, Massive is one of Colorado's most impressive mountains.

There are several routes up Mount Massive, from the relatively easy South Slopes standard route (class 2) to the scrambling ridgeline that connects North Massive to Massive proper to the marathon nine-summit "Massive Mania," which truly traverses the entirety of this great mountain. By the time you have completed your visit to this majestic peak you will understand its reputation and its name.

Mount Massive TH
From Leadville, drive 3.5 miles south on Highway 24. Turn onto CR 300. Follow this road for 7 miles to the obvious trailhead just past the trailhead for Mt. Elbert on the left side of the road, Half Moon Campground (right side of road) and over a creek crossing. The trailhead on the right.

North Half Moon TH
Follow the directions for the Mount Massive TH. Continue past the Mount Massive TH for 2 miles to a junction. The road may be 4WD beyond this point. Continue straight for another half mile to the trailhead.

Windsor Lake TH
From downtown Leadville drive 4.5 miles west to Turquoise Lake. Cross over the dam and follow Hagerman Pass Road for 7 miles. Park on the north side of the road, cross over the Carlton Diversion tunnel and find the start of the trail after crossing a small stream.

East Slopes (13.5 miles; 4,531' elevation gain; class 2)
This is the standard route on Mount Massive and is a walk-up classic. One drawback, however, is that being the easiest route on Colorado's second highest peak, it is popular. Don't expect solitude unless you go in the off season.

rotten snow on Mt. Massive in the late spring
Slogging up snowfields on the South Slopes in late spring
This route starts at the popular Mount Massive TH very close to the Mount Elbert TH and Half Moon Creek campground. It contours along the base of the peak, following the Colorado Trail for 3.5 miles. Turn left (don't miss this junction) onto the Mount Massive Trail at 11,300' and follow it through the trees until you emerge in the gigantic basin on Massive's east side. The summit doesn't look far away, but the distance is deceiving.

Follow the well-trodden trail for 3 miles as it climbs to the saddle on Massive's southern shoulder (between Massive and unranked "South Massive". This saddle is at 13,900'. Follow the rocky ridgeline to the summit and take in the view.

Southwest Slopes (5.8 miles; 4,001' elevation gain; class 2)
This steep, abridged route is the shortest way to climb Massive and avoids most of the crowds of the South Slopes. From the Half Moon TH, follow the trail northwest  to 11,200' and locate a tricky-to-find hiker's trail that cuts north up a gully. Weave through some broken cliffs, climbing very steeply and join the Eat slopes route just above the saddle and follow this to the summit.

Massive Mania (11.9 miles; 4,953' elevation gain; class 3)
This impressive route is accomplished via a car-shuttle and collects all nine of Massive's numerous summits. This incredible journey gives you the full Massive experience. Starting at the Lake Windsor TH follow the Continental Divide along the lofty ridge of Massive's massif until you reach North Massive, a "possibly ranked" 14er. Descend southwest along a scrambly class 3 ridge to "Massive Green" and continue the traverse along easier terrain to Massive's main summit. Continue the exposed ridge traverse to "South Massive" and "South South Massive" and finally over Point 12,381. Descend to the Mount Massive TH and congratulate yourself on an incredible journey.

By every route, Massive is a big mountain. The standard route is long and exhausting, and almost every route on the mountain will carry you high above treeline for long periods of time. Take careful consideration about the weather forecast and don't get caught on Massive's long ridges in a thunderstorm.

Mount Massive on

Mount Massive on