Thursday, August 4, 2016

Angels and Demons: The Two Faces of 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)

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