The Long and Winding RoadOn the one year anniversary of my attempt at Mt. of the Holy Cross, I found it fitting that I would be contemplating the difference between failure and success. Although what follows is a long story, it represents for me—and hopefully for you—that failure is a necessary part of life. It is imperative to remember that our character is not defined by our failures or how many times we have quit or how many times we will quit in the future. In almost every endeavor, we define ourselves by how we pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. Do we take another step? Yes, of course we do—always. In this way, we actually never quit, we never give up. It is impossible to quit, because if we stop moving in one direction guess what happens? We start moving in another direction.
Mt. of the Holy Cross is the landmark peak just outside of Vail, Colorado. Standing at just over 14,000 feet, a climb of this remote behemoth is a serious undertaking; so, when my friend Kiefer Thomas called in April of 2009 to invite me on a winter climb, I was nervous.
I attempted to express my reservations while I was still on the phone with Kiefer, but he reassured me that we would be hiking at a reasonable pace. Of course, I knew that his definition of reasonable was much different than mine; but, I agreed and over the course of the following day I prepared myself for the adventure.
I bought some lasagna flavored backpacker’s meals, granola bars, and energy gels. I filled my water bottles and packed by rucksack with all the essentials for a three-day backpacking trip in the Colorado wilderness. I couldn’t wait to get out there and really rough it, but there was something in the back of my mind that kept nudging me…doubt.
The next evening, we parked near a rusty gate just off the highway and unloaded our heavy packs from the Jeep. A dirt road crept beyond the gate to a forest service trailer. The sun was low on the April horizon, but it was relatively warm. We couldn’t see Mt. of the Holy Cross from where we had parked, but we knew it was still winter in the Rocky Mountains. Strapping our packs onto our backs, we settled into a mild walk, passed the trailer, and headed up a snow-packed and winding road under a canopy of birch trees. At some point, deep snow took hold of the road, and we continued into the twilight on snowshoes.
Coming from Denver, it took me some time to acclimate to the new altitude. Still, with occasional group rests, I was able to keep pace with the others. Two days earlier, when I had agreed to accompany Kiefer on a three day climb of the 14,003 foot mountain, Brian Miller and Sean Strauss had committed as well. The previous spring, I had climbed Ice and North Apostle Mountains with Kiefer and Brian. In December of that same year, I had attempted Longs Peak with Sean. Our group had history and with that history inevitably was trust. So, when we arrived at the Forest Service cabin, roughly six miles into the hike, we quickly agreed to stop and camp for the night. The door was locked, so we crawled through an open window, easily accessible from the three feet of snow piled high against the cabin.
While I set about collecting firewood under the light of my headlamp, I quietly wondered if we should have continued to our original base camp, a further two miles ahead. I relished the thought of a warm fire and the relative security of a roof over our heads, so the thought quickly vanished into the frigid night air.
We boiled water atop our tiny stoves and made soup from freeze-dried packages and drank hot tea and cold beer. We replenished our water bottles by melting snow, while we sat on cold benches in front of a huge fireplace. With the intent to rise early, we unrolled our mummy-shaped sleeping bags and climbed inside. In the zero degree air, I felt like a turkey in an oven bag. The heat from my body rose through the opening where my face hid. Across the open room, the charred wood smoldered and cracked and cast dancing ghosts into the rafters. I barely slept.
My alarm was set for 4:30 a.m., but by four, I was ready to get up. When my alarm went off, nobody moved. I unzipped my sleeping bag, put on my jacket and crawled out the window. I slogged across crunchy snow for the restroom, a waning moon illuminating the dark forest. When I returned, no one had moved. I had a bite of breakfast and brushed my teeth and set about packing for the day’s climb. Then, slowly, the others woke and entered our cold reality.
We set off for the summer trailhead a few minutes past 6:00 a.m., following the hard-packed road as it gradually ascended into the forest, eventually reaching the trailhead two hours later. Here, I paused momentarily, climbing down into the Forest Service restroom, which was buried beneath five feet of snow. We strapped our snowshoes on our feet, had a bite to eat, and took off into the wilderness. No more road, no trails. Only a rising sun, our good sense, and a compass.
The climb to Half Moon Pass is relatively easy, although a heavy pack and a warming sun struck its toll early. Even though the temperature had yet to break 30 degrees, I began to sweat. Just an hour into the hike, I was already lagging behind.
From Half Moon Pass, we descended through a small patch of knotted evergreens and then traversed the south slope of Notch Mountain, tempting several million pounds of snow to break away and bury us. The relief of passing unscathed lasted only momentarily, as we descended the precarious slope more than 1,000 feet into Cross Creek basin, a meandering entanglement of dense forest choked by the winter’s heavy snowfall.
Deep snow swallowed my snowshoes with each step, and I was nearly out of drinking water. The endless traverse across the west-facing slope of Mt. of the Holy Cross, deep in the basin, ascended from the black sliver of Cross Creek at thirty-five degree angles, winding endlessly through buried evergreens and boulders hunkered beneath six feet of melting snow. Slender icicles hung silently around the hem of each outcropping, a tribute to the crisp spring sun. I had fallen behind the others in some brief revelation that I preferred to be last in line. I climbed at my own pace; yet, I had the awkward sensation of both the preferred isolation and the loneliness with which such an emotion thrives. It was already after noon, and I was worried.
Sean was not far in front of me and, from time to time, I caught up to him. Finally, he asked, “How are you feeling?”
“If I was to be honest, I’d tell you that I’m completely exhausted,” was my cold reply.
Although it was fairly obvious where we were headed, we were traveling without a map. My compass readings suggested that we were wallowing too far around the base of the mountain, and it was time to commit. Turning around, it seemed, was not an option. We’d come more than thirteen miles into Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness, to climb Mt. of the Holy Cross and Holy Cross Ridge, which now loomed more than three-thousand feet above us—and daylight was receding into afternoon.
Hunched over, I packed snow into my water bottles. I’d been scooping up handfuls of snow and chewing out whatever water I could. I clipped the bottles to my pack so that the sun could melt the snow. It wouldn’t be much, but it was better than nothing. I had stripped down to a sleeveless shirt and moved slowly, both due to exhaustion and to overheating. I was an odd spectacle with tattooed biceps and a sweaty black bandana wrapped around my head. Even on snowshoes, I sank several inches with every step. The temperature hovered around forty degrees under a royal blue sky, and I worried about heat exhaustion.
I trusted Kiefer. We’d climbed together before and spent some time exploring the Book Cliff canyons in Eastern Utah. He was more of a mountaineer than I aspired to be, and it was difficult to keep pace with him. But even as Brian and Sean continued ahead, Kiefer was sitting in the snow waiting for me.
When I reached him, he said, “We decided our only option is to keep going, hit Holy Cross and traverse to Halo Ridge, then bivy at the Notch Mountain shelter.”
Kiefer always had grandiose goals. Getting across Halo Ridge had been part of our original objective. This would have made the climb almost seventeen miles roundtrip from our camp. It was approaching 1:00 P.M., and we still had 3000 vertical feet to reach the summit of Holy Cross. We would not have enough daylight to get off the mountain, but it seemed like a better option than backtracking and climbing out of the demoralizing Cross Creek basin that we had just traversed.
“I agree,” I said flatly. Kiefer asked me what was in my pack: “A long sleeve shirt, a pullover jacket, a fleece jacket, and a windbreaker. That’s four layers, so I should be okay. I’ve also got expedition mittens, a wool hat, helmet, headlamp, and some long underwear,” I said. “But, I’m out of water.” I didn’t mention it, but I also had some chemical toe warmers and a single package of Gu.
We started again amidst friendly conversation: jobs, girlfriends, life. And then Kiefer was far ahead of me once again. As I broke from tree line, Brian yelled in my direction, “You got this, Pete!” And a slight rush of adrenaline pushed me forward...I moved swiftly enough to catch Brian. And then my strength gave out completely.
The mountain doesn't care about me. I put my head down and prayed for strength. But I didn't need God to tell me what to do. Stripping away the weakness and insignificance of humanity, the desperation, the vanity, and the fear, one thought remains: live or perish. My legs felt like blocks of concrete as I lifted each one, moving ever forward.
In the absence of strength, neither dignity nor vanity reigns. Rather, fulfillment is attained by endlessly moving forward toward survival. Therein lays the quality of the human spirit.
When you’re in the wilderness, confusion often dictates reason. I reasoned that the extreme distance we had traveled to get to the north ridge trumped the logic of retracing our steps. The experience had been utterly miserable: ultra-thin air with brief but brisk winds, overheating of the body core due to the massive amount of effort it took to climb through the snow, extreme muscle fatigue and joint strain, emotional stress, the constant post-holing—with snowshoes strapped to my feet—and endless doubt. I wanted to press on, to finish the objective, to live in the moment. I didn’t want to climb the mountain for vanity. I didn’t want to climb it for glory. No, I wanted to exceed my limits, to find strength where there was weakness, to find courage where there was fear, and to find hope where there was desperation. If I allowed it, this would be dying. But I refused doubt and kept moving, slowly, one step at a time.
As I ascended the lower part of the north ridge, I kept about fifty feet behind Brian and Sean. Kiefer had scrambled ahead and was no longer in sight. About an hour before, Brian had removed his snowshoes and had been favoring his right ankle. At 12,000 feet, Sean and Brian had stopped. I looked at my watch, and Sean asked “What do you think?”
“I think we’re going to run out of time,” I replied bluntly, thinking about the time. Then, as if to change the subject, “I’m in survival mode.”
It was already 3:00 P.M., and we had 2000 vertical feet remaining just to reach the summit of Holy Cross. From there, we needed to get across Holy Cross Ridge, traverse Halo Ridge, which most likely held questionable snow, and then traverse Notch Mountain. That summed up to another four or five miles to reach the Notch Mountain shelter…and none of us knew exactly where that was. I did know, however, that to reach the shelter, we would need to traverse the north face of Notch Mountain, a massive avalanche-prone slope, in the dark. Counting down to sunset, the three of us realized that we were in a precarious position.
The wind howled and sent a chill through my aching back.
“We’re thinking we should turn back.” Sean said.
We stood twenty feet from the edge of a giant cornice, which hung like a sentinel above the 3,000 foot precipice of the north face of Mount of the Holy Cross. Pointing across the immense void between the ridge where we were standing, toward jagged Halo Ridge to the east, and then the snow-covered ridge that completed the cirque between Holy Cross and Notch Mountain, Sean stated the obvious. We had a very long way to go.
“Whatever we decide, we shouldn’t split up the group,” Brian added. “Halo Ridge is going to be pretty dicey, and none of us have ever been up there.”
“I agree,” I replied. “I’m not leaving Kiefer alone up here.”
“Pete and I are the only ones with headlamps,” Brian replied, “and four sets of eyes are better than two.” Without hesitation, Brian turned and ran uphill toward Kiefer. Within moments, he was over the crest of the ridge and out of sight.
I didn’t want to quit. I never intended to turn around. There were moments during the uphill battle when my legs gave out, and I crawled a few feet before rising once again to the challenge of the mountain. But it was more than a battle to climb a snowy ridge and summit a 14,000 foot mountain. It was a battle of spirit and survival, of grit and determination, of overcoming the catastrophic failure of my body with the intention to succeed. My will decided to continue—but reason dictated otherwise.
Sean and I descended two hundred feet to escape the blistering wind. I was demoralized and hungry. But it was the right decision. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so slow the group might have reached the summit? Would we have continued across Holy Cross Ridge, sealing our fate to traverse Halo Ridge beneath the black stranglehold of night, without sufficient shelter, water, or means of navigation? In retrospect, I wonder if my focus on survival was a detriment, cradled by melodrama and fear? Or was it an intelligent decision by the collective egos of seasoned mountaineers?
Kiefer and Brian descended upon us like angels, wind swept flurries streaming across their backs like the wings of a Pegasus. Kiefer plied me with tuna and lemon pound cake, which I inhaled like a last supper. His tone implied disappointment but understanding; contemplating my exhaustion and Brian’s twisted ankle, he knew that the group was more important than his personal bloodlust for the summit. And he knew that we were all disappointed.
And so it happens that often the journey defeats the destination, which is why it becomes more important and failure becomes integral to success.
The remainder of the waning day, all I could think about was lasagna and my intent to devour some as soon as possible. (For no apparent reason) I repeatedly exclaimed, Yeah!, although admittedly less than enthusiastically, and offered an occasional word of encouragement to Brian, who had fallen behind due to a severely swollen ankle.
We retraced our windblown tracks down the ridge, post-holed through the relentless Cross Creek basin, and climbed with enduring pride back up to Half Moon Pass, only to be greeted by a fierce wind and a charcoal horizon. With headlamps blazing, our trek ended in the glory of a roaring fire, in front of which we dried our wet boots and socks and dreams, drank hot tea, and slept in utter solitude.
EDIT: I have since conquered Mt. of the Holy Cross. See my new trip report Slaying the White Elephant.