Mount of The Holy Cross (14,005')
Ascent of Halo Ridge Descent of North Ridge
Approximately 15 miles Round Trip
5410' Elevation Gain
From the very beginning we should have known that things weren’t going to go right. We left the place where we were staying in Buena Vista right on schedule for the long drive to the Half Moon Trailhead. We’d only gone a few miles when my brother realized he’d forgotten his water bottles. Oops, back to the house! A lost half an hour later, we were on the road – again.
The plan was to follow the Halo Ridge route around the Bowl of Tears Basin, hitting each of the successively higher 13ers on our way to the Holy Cross summit, then descend by the North Ridge Route. Our party consisted of my brother, Kevin, my wife, Linda, and myself, each with more than 2 dozen 14ers under our belts. Yeah, it would be a long hike of 15 miles, at altitude, but we were each ready – at least physically.
The evening before our multiple summits bid, we discussed what we should carry with us, what to do in case the weather turned against us, and how long the trek should take. Let’s see, plenty of trail food and water, warm clothing, gloves, hats, extra batteries for the cameras and GPS devices… That should about do it, don’t you think? We decided it would only take about 10 hours round trip, and okay, sunset was supposed to be about eleven hours after our planned start time… So yeah, we should be okay.
Unfortunately by the time we reached the trailhead we were 45 minutes behind our planned departure time, and by the time we hit the trail, an hour. To make matters worse, 15 minutes down the trail I realized I’d left my sunglasses in the car. I knew I had to have them. It was a perfectly clear day, and from the weather reports, looked to stay that way. I dropped my pack beside the trail and ran back to the car. Meanwhile, my wife and brother continued ahead. I can move pretty fast if I have to, and suspect they were moving slower than normal, so by the time they reached the beginning of the switchbacks up Notch Mountain, I was caught up.
I felt pretty good and wasn’t too beat up by my unplanned run. The weather was perfect, and with the trail to ourselves, we worked our way up the mountain with a few stops for picture taking along the way. Upon reaching the shelter house we took more time out for pictures plus time to eat and refuel. Still perfect weather. The views of Holy Cross were great, as were the views in every other direction.
Three High 13ers
Eventually, and in no particular hurry, we began the hike toward and over the 13ers, Point 13,248, Point 13,373, then the highest, Point 13,831. It was during this portion of the route that things began to fall apart for us. See, my brother and I are pretty comfortable moving over and around rocks. We’ve been referred to as goats a time or two. (Okay, I admit it, sometimes old goats – we’re both over 50 after all.) Anyway, Linda does not feel so sure-footed and moves more slowly on rocky trail. Kevin moved ahead at a pace normal for him, while I stayed back with Linda. We could always see each other so there was no chance of our group getting separated, something I consider to be a unwise in the backcountry.
Kevin reached the Holy Cross summit substantially before Linda and me. It gave him time for a nice rest. In fact, I’m pretty sure that by the time we arrived, he was ready to go. But he was polite, and waited for us to get a little rest, food, and gave us time for pictures. At this point I knew we would be lucky to make it back to the car by dark. In fact, I knew we didn’t have a chance, unless we moved at a much faster pace. I also knew the descent down the North Ridge was rocky and Linda was not going to be moving any faster than she had during the portion of our route over the 13ers.
Eventually Linda and I reached the bottom of the North Ridge and picked up our pace considerably on the easier trail. Kevin was long out of sight. It didn’t take us long to reach the stream at the bottom of the switchbacks up to Half Moon Pass. I filtered water into our close-to-empty bottles while Linda made a head start on the switchbacks. In just a few minutes I was on the trail again. I moved as fast as I could, trying to catch Linda. Daylight was visibly diminishing and I wanted to get as far as we could before it got dark.
It was at this point that my heart rate got higher than I had ever before recorded on my monitor. For the first, and probably the last time, I’d decided to wear my heart rate monitor on a 14er and recorded 193 bpm as I tried to race up the switchbacks and eat at the same time. Supposedly a guy my age, 57 at the time, can’t produce that heart rate. I’m here to tell you it’s possible – and nuts!
I caught up to Linda shortly after the trail leveled out at the top of the switchbacks and we proceeded down the trail as fast as we could in the failing light. Then, a few minutes later we saw something in the trail, something light colored. It was my brother’s Tilly hat! Now, I have to let you in on a little secret. Kevin has a tendency to leave his hat and sunglasses on summits. (Some sort of gift to the summit gods, I guess.) Knowing this, we immediately assumed that once it began to get dark, he’d tied his hat to his pack, just not too well and it had fallen off. We stopped for a minute while Linda picked up his hat and put it in my backpack.
By now it was almost dark and we had yet to reach the woods. In poor light, my eyesight is better than Linda’s, so I moved in front while holding her hand. I led her slowly down the trail, telling her where to step so she wouldn’t twist an ankle. Surprisingly we made pretty good progress and finally reached the woods. But, the trees made the trail even darker. After moving only a few hundred yards into the trees, I had to give up. I couldn’t see the trail.
I knew the most foolish thing I could do was to guess where the trail was and have the possibility, no the likelihood, that we would get far enough off the trail so Kevin wouldn’t be able to find us when he came back with a light. I still didn’t panic. Kevin and I are enough alike that I knew he’d come back to look for us once he got a light from the car. And I knew there was going to be a full moon that night. It still hadn’t cleared the mountains to the east, but I knew it wouldn’t be long. With a full moon, I would be able to see the trail, easily.
We sat down beside the trail on a little patch of grass and waited. It wasn’t cold, but we put on our extra jackets anyway; there was no sense in waiting to get cold first. We ate, and drank. We looked at the stars, and believe it or not, started to feel sleepy. Afraid that we would be asleep when Kevin returned for us, I stretched some survey tape (which I always carry) across the trail so he couldn’t miss us. Mind you, we were less than 10’ from the edge of the trail, but in the dark, well, you never know.
We sat for less than 15 minutes before we could see a strong light moving up the trail toward us. Yep, it was Kevin! He’d retrieved the huge flashlight I keep in the car and come to our rescue. He’d even borrowed a headlight from a camper at the trailhead for Linda to wear on the way down. What a guy!
While we walked the 30 minutes back to the car, we told him we’d retrieved his hat, so he didn’t have to worry, it wasn’t lost after all. Well, the laugh was on us. It turns out he’d carefully placed his hat on the trail and put a small 1-cell flashlight on top of it for us to use. He told us he couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d changed the battery and hadn’t known how long it would last. Unfortunately it had already been too dark for us to see the flashlight on his hat. We could only assume the next hiker up the trail got him- or herself a new flashlight! We promised him a new light.
We lived to tell our tale, and for me admit stupidity. Now I carry a light every time I go hiking or climbing, even when I think I’ll only be out for an hour or two. You just never know…
The North Ridge
Kevin had been to the summit of Holy Cross once before, up and down the North Ridge Route. I knew he wasn’t going to get lost as long as he could see where he was going. I gave him the car keys and told him to go for it. Linda and I would go as fast and as far as we could until darkness forced us to stopped. He boogied! Linda and I started down the trail, but at a much slower pace. As we proceeded lower and lower, I could see Kevin putting more and more distance between us. I was pretty sure he’d make it back to the trailhead before dark. The sun was now pretty low in the sky, producing a really nice sunset. Too bad we couldn’t stop to appreciate it.
Still, I wasn’t worried in spite of the fact that we didn’t have a light of any kind with us. Stupid! I know, I know. It had been my mistake to think that we could maintain a faster pace than we did, and had foolishly taken the headlight out of my pack. To save weight? I guess that’s what I was thinking, but come on, it only weighs a few ounces. What an idiot!