Driving to the Half Moon Campground Trailhead that morning from the N. Denver suburbs, I got a late start as it was, but still planned to make bagging the Mount of the Holy Cross a one-day affair. Driving over the horrendous Tigiwon 'Road (probably the worst I'd encountered until then)' in my poor Plymouth Horizon delayed the start even more.
Most of the people I passed on the trail were on their way back, having summited that morning after camping halfway up the night before. I got some skeptical looks from some who believed there would be insufficient time. The aspen groves and other stands of lush vegetation at the beginning of the hike were wonderful, and I made good progress. Things were going well. The trail became more and more obscure, however, & I was forced evermore frequently to wander through the woods in the suspected direction of travel, hoping that the trail would soon reappear. Angry curses were uttered with ever-increasing recurrence, as I began to spend more time in the forest on my own self-defined 'trail,' as opposed to any intended one.
Eventually I came to the realisation that at some point I had parted ways rather drastically with the trail/route on which I desired to be, and instead was headed for the Bowl of Tears Lake. Perhaps a half mile from said lake, instead of continuing on my altered course, I decided to overcompensate for my route-finding deficiencies, and started cutting over westward towards the N. ridge. Being too late to attain the ridge proper for any notable length, I made an improvised ascent of the N-face of the mountain, popping up slightly below the summit.
Finally reaching one of the ridges, I followed it, passing by a fellow on his way down, a few minutes before finally attaining the summit. While I was fairly elated to have reached my goal, this thrill was short-lived, as the clouds that had gathered, and been looming for some time, decided to purge their contents, initiating a brief snow flurry. Pausing briefly to mark off the ascent on my 14ers shirt, & signing the summit register, I decided that lunch could wait, and made a hasty retreat.
Going a short ways down the ridge, I soon lost all signs of a trail, & decided to drop down & follow my line of ascent, as the trail I'd found useless for most of the first half of my journey anyway. I crouched down amongst the rocks at one point and wolfed down my sandwich, before continuing. Strangely, the slope became ever steeper, more so than I'd recalled on the way up. The talus encountered on the upper slopes gave way to more & more cohesive mountain slabs. At one point, the only discernable way down involved dropping from a ledge I might not be able to get back up. Stubbornly compelled to continue on the course in which I'd gotten myself stuck, I dropped, praying that the difficulties would ease, and I would soon again be in the safety of the valley. Downward I went, at least recognizing the valley I'd come up before, and wishing to be THERE instead of HERE, on the unrelenting mountainside.
After an eternity, I eventually made it to treeline. Instead of solace, however, it instead brought continued pain & suffering. An impenetrable mass of vegetation confronted me, with entwining branches and piercing thorns. After several pathetic attempts yielding minute progress, I discovered a kink in this armor of biomass- a small stream, cascading downwards from the mountain's upper reaches. Deciding to use it to my advantage, I headed down. The residing plants on the streamside still lashing & stinging me, and my feet becoming soaked in the process, I nonetheless eventually managed to get to the ground below. I felt grateful to have escaped the threatening slopes of that accursed mountain, intact & injury-free. Amazingly, sufficient time still remained to make it back to the car before sunset (good thing too, as I had brought no source of light).
Upon closer inspection of my surroundings, though, I discovered that all was not well; I concluded that they were different than those on the way up. My attempts to make sense of the situation were in vain, & I focused on the trail opposite the stream, on the other side of the valley. Upon reaching it, I promptly started going in the direction that seemed to be the correct one. What had started out as an easily discernable, well marked trail quickly deteriorated; the path quickly became choked with brush, and large felled trees lying directly on, and perpendicular to the trail began blocking progress every few hundred feet. In an attempt to determine my whereabouts, I decided to climb up the adjacent slope to get a better view. The tracks that I spotted of a large cougar in the snow 2/3 of the way up did nothing to ease my anxiety. Finally gaining the ridge, I had a look about me. None of my surroundings reminded me of the route which I'd taken that morning- I finally had to admit to myself that I was lost. The trepidation that had been building since I'd dropped down off of the ridge of the mountain found voice as I cried out in desperation as loud as I could, "Is there anybody out there?!!"
The following silence confirmed my visual diagnosis, and I felt quite alone.
After a few minutes of trepidation and fear of the unknown, I pondered my situation, the issues involved, and possible solutions, and reason & logic prevailed. Descending from the ridge, I soon reached the trail again, and started backtracking. It being almost totally dark by this point, I found a large rock on which I would be able to spend the night.
The temperature dropped quickly, & eating some of my few remaining granola bars, I put on my lightweight jacket, took off my boots & socks (still soaked from my stream descent), & attempted to get comfortable. On went the dry spare socks I fortunately had brought, as well as wrapping them in toilet paper, for (minimal) extra insulation.
The night seemed impossibly long, and it seemed ironic, that, though I saw multiple airplanes flying overhead, I seemed so far from civilization. Using what I'd brought to keep me warm proved futile, and the cold, hard rock reminded me of why sleeping pads had been invented. Fortunately the night was mostly clear, and there was no precipitation. I would do a round of push-ups to warm me up and get my blood pumping. The effects of this were short-lived, though, and the process needed to be repeated every 15 - 20 minutes.
Following this phantasmagoria of (mostly) waking & (almost no) sleeping, the sky grew, at first almost imperceptibly, lighter; I was grateful. Gathering my few belongings and throwing on my still sopping boots, I was soon ready to go. Once logic had taken over my thoughts the night before, I'd concluded that, regardless of my location, were I to hike North cross-country for 3-4 miles, I would reach I-70 (& hopefully a ride back to my car)- the key to success would be a clear sky, which would reveal approximate bearing (I'd forgotten my compass- for the last time on a 14er!). The clouds from the day before had vanished, and it looked to be a beautiful day.
Proceeding on the trail I'd discovered (this time in the opposite direction, which seemed to be the correct one), clear heavens above me, and a promising trail underfoot, I strode forward with newfound confidence. Any lingering skepticism I'd had from the previous night had retreated with the shadows, and a bright new day beckoned. I hiked through the beautiful surroundings, and eventually came across some hikers headed the other direction. Encountering a disheveled hiker (with just a day pack) that early in the morning headed TOWARDS the road must have seemed strange, but they were nice, & I graciously accepted the small bottle of water they offered me (having run out late in the afternoon the day before, I was parched, & quite dehydrated!).
Eventually intercepting the road (leading to my vehicle, but quite a ways down), I began the quite undesirable uphill return by foot, in the quickly escalating heat. A ways up the road, a sheriff passed by, looking for me it turned out, after my failure to reappear at home by that morning. Foolishly declining a ride (my pride resisted the request- a small part of me felt that making it back to my starting point by my own power would be more honourable), I continued on. Reconsideration by a more rational part of my brain (as well as other factors) led me to request a ride by two cute girls in a pickup that passed by, who kindly allowed me aboard. Twenty-five high altitude miles & almost a day later, I was safe & sound back at my connection with the civilized world- my car.
A reunion with my relieved dad, who had driven up, followed. Going to a convenience store in the hamlet of Minturn, I guzzled Gatorade like a sponsored athlete in front of a TV camera, replenishing my spent fluids. It seemed a world removed, sitting amidst cars, buildings, and people, dozens of degrees warmer than alone on the peak a day before. Content in the sunshine, my thoughts nonetheless were already on my next mountain adventure.
Next time, however, there were certain things that would be done differently. A lighter (to make a fire, if necessary), flashlight (headlamp these days- for the inevitable slog back in the dark), & compass (duh) would be my continual companions up mountain treks in the future, along with map & other (what I'd already deemed before) necessities. This memorable adventure gave me an important lesson, one that has recurred time & again (in various guises) in the high country: Though I didn't come away from this episode any smarter, I most certainly finished wiser.