Friday, November 18, 2011

Mount of the Holy Cross: Frustration in Paradise

Mt. Of the Holy Cross (14,005')

distance hiked: 8 miles
elevation gained: 3,533'

To kick-off the third part of our summer, we embarked on two-day backpack into the Holy Cross Wilderness to attempt to climb one of Colorado's most famous mountains: Mt. Of the Holy Cross. Holy Cross takes its name from an inset couloir that splits the mountain's rugged north face. This tall shaft of snow is bisected at perfect height and angle by a sharp ledge to form a snowy impression of the Holy Rood. This dramatic image has given birth to one of Colorado's most iconic natural symbols. Holy Cross, though a bit removed from the others, is considered part of the Sawatch Range: it is the Sawatch's northernmost fourteener. Coincidentally, Mt Shavano (the Sawatch's southernmost fourteener) is home to the Angel of Shavano. It is interesting that the Sawatch Range is bookended by mountains of spiritual/religious significance. Regardless of religious faith, the Holy Cross Wilderness is a place of such intense beauty and power that it would undoubtedly stir the hearts and souls of even the most cynical skeptic.

The busy trailhead had us expecting heavy crowds. The trail, however, was relatively quiet in comparison:

The first part of our hike consisted of a climb up and over Halfmoon Pass. Immediately upon departing from our car at the busy trailhead, we were besieged by a grueling combination of heat and mosquitoes. With fifty pounds of gear resting upon our shoulders, the three-mile, fifteen-hundred foot climb was a rugged test of perseverance and conditioning.

At the summit of Halfmoon Pass, beautiful vistas opened of the East Cross Creek drainage, and we tried to guess which of the peaks rising to the south were part of the Holy Cross Massif. The pass was just shy of timberline, and a chilly wind groped with cold tendrils at our sweat-soaked skin.

After a brief hiatus we began the thousand-foot descent to our destination as tall, dark storms accumulated on the surrounding ramparts of the northern Sawatch Range. About a half mile in we were greeted with our first, breathtaking view of Mt. Of the Holy Cross when its rugged northwest face appeared suddenly through the trees. The view was neck-bending and imposing. A few switchbacks later we found ourselves looking down on the dramatic depths of the East Cross Creek Basin.

I will never forget that first view of the basin at the foot of Colorado's holiest mountain. No guidebook description or photograph had prepared me for its majesty. The whole valley seemed like a great bowl of granite angles and cliffs. Imposing walls adorned with a lush green wardrobe of pines and aspens framed the crystalline streak of a stair-stepping waterfall. The upraised thumb of Holy Cross Mountain stood tall over everything like a benevolent sentry. We both remarked that, without a doubt, this was the most beautiful place we'd seen yet in Colorado.

Holy Cross and the East Cross Creek Basin (the cross itself is not visible from this vantage):

Close-up of the waterfall (the small appearance in the picture of this huge waterfall gives an idea of the scope of this valley):

After dropping into this Eden, we set-up camp on a beautiful site surrounded by amicable trees and a base of velveteen sand and leaves. The chorus of rushing waters from the nearby creek, a sound omnipresent on our previous three week adventure but depressingly absent during our week in town, provided a soothing backdrop.

After lounging for an hour or two in our hammocks, we set-out to investigate this veritable playground. For the next two hours we played like children, discovering convoluted granite canyons with S-turn rapids, pristine pools with every detail of their cobbled bottoms strikingly visible, and talus fields festooned by ribbons of cold water. We scrambled up the eastern end of the valley to the last few steps of the mighty waterfall we'd seen earlier from above and lounged on a rock in contemplation as the skies above cleared and a magnificent, blue-sky evening took shape. We could explore this place for days and days and barely nick the surface of all Holy Cross has to offer.

Moonrise over Granite escarpments:
Quiet contemplation in paradise:

That night, however, we found our sleep troubled as our minds struggled to re-adapt to the challenges of wilderness life. Rain knocked on the top of our tent, humidity made us sticky in our sleeping bags, and our bodies emanated an unpleasant combination of mosquito repellent and sweat. When the alarm pulled us from our "sleep" neither one of us could boast more than a few hours of good rest.

The clear skies from the evening before had been replaced by a grim layer of clouds, and we couldn't help but feeling from the very outset that it was unlikely we would reach our summit. We attempted to the climb anyway, despite the weather, and were rewarded with a magnificent sunrise that painted the clouds a vast palette of reds, oranges, and purples. By treeline, however, shafts of rain had all but overtaken our paradise, and we were forced (once again) to turn around short of our goal. Only a few minutes later rain began tumbling from the sky, and we could see a dark shroud woven around Holy Cross's summit.

A dramatic sunrise provides a magical moment on an otherwise frustrating morning:

Rainclouds overtaking the valley and chasing us off the mountain:

We returned to camp disappointed and napped for an hour or two through the storm. When we awoke, the rain had broke and the clouds were scattering. Tufts of blue sky spread until, by the time we had dismantled our camp, blue sky dominated the view as far as our eyes could see. We couldn't believe our misfortune and bad timing, and considered briefly renewing our ascent. Our energy stores for the day, however, were low, and we still had a difficult return trip up and over Halfmoon Pass.

On the way out we reached that magical overlook where we had first laid eyes on the valley. The good weather was vanishing and clouds were once again roiling high into the heavens. There was some disappointment that we hadn't made our summit, but it was hard to feel too upset. Failing to reach Holy Cross's summit was, ultimately, a small price to pay for spending two days in one of Colorado's most magical places. We knew we would have to return and give this place the time and attention it truly deserves.

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