5th times the charm
30.1 miles (per GPS)
Willing sufferers: Ryan Scoppola, Ben Conners, Stephanie Lynn, John Williams, Zion, myself
We've been here before...
I’ve tried Mt. of the Holy Cross four times now in winter and once in early spring. Each successive defeat only leaves me a little more determined to get back there and correct the mistakes that cost the trip. Two weekends ago,
The next morning, Indiana Kevin not being used to the physical component of breaking trail in thigh-deep powder, turned around and headed back down to the car not to be seen again (He didn't have a tent with him to begin with so that trip was pointless). Kevin & myself decided it was worth a quick trip up to Halfmoon Pass and have a look around. We had only camped about 300-v-ft below the pass in the trees, out of the winds and protected from Notch Mountains North Slope. So it's not like it was a huge effort anyway.
The weather was stellar. But, at 11:00am, any summit bid was hopeless & laughable. We headed back down and called it a day. No summit but strangely, an enjoyable winter trip! It was Kevin’s first experience in winter camping!
I had plans the next weekend to head to Capitol but in lieu of the trench that Kevin and myself had put in to the pass, I was able to convince Stephanie, John, Ben and his friend, Ryan to head into the Holy Cross Wilderness for my 5th foray at the summit of the namesake peak.
Through sheer determination and endurance, the trip granted us a successful summit through the dry, January snow but a member of our party (Ryan) fell ill with Pulmonary Edema that turned summit day into a mad 22-hr push to get as far down the mountain (and road) as we reasonably could. January 3rd and 4th was an exciting but uncomfortable first for everybody.
The Long Walk...
The snowpack in the HC Wilderness (at least the east side) isn’t what it normally is this time of year as evidenced by the complete lack of shortcuts that the snowmobiler`s typically create through the forest. So this trip was going to see all 8 miles of Tigiwon Road.
We took the obligatory stop at the Community House and had drunk cider, hot chocolate, warmed up and I filled my thermos with boiling water to enjoy that night and for the next morning. A couple of the guides have gotten used to seeing me so it was cool to talk with them. We were welcomed to their supplies and water. One of the guides, Tom I had recognized from Paddy’s in Eagle-Vail. We chatted briefly with some tourists from a group who had stopped by, kids played with Stephanie’s dog, Zion and we packed up and continued on our way thoroughly refreshed.
This being my 6th go up Tigiwon Road, Holy Cross had become a bit of a nemesis for me. I knew most of the nuances of the road and we all set out at our own paces. Personally, Holy Cross had joined a small group of 14ers that included the likes of Kit Carson, Capitol and Pyramid that had thwarted multiple attempts to gain their craggy and cold heavens before I was granted access.
The summer trailhead was reached which meant we were at the end of our easy walk. Our attitudes picked up because at this point, we were only another 1.6 miles from Halfmoon Pass. And the whole distance already had a good trench laid down. Even with the fresh snowfall, the packed snow held wonderfully. We donned snowshoes, drank and set out. Two years ago, when Glen and I had been back here in March during a heavy snow year, the snow line had covered the three Forest Signs (placards) to within 5 inches of their tops. You needed a beacon and probe just to access the outhouse! Today however, even their posts could be seen.
We all took turns taking point, making steady progress up the trail. Two months previous on a trip that Stephanie and I took up Notch Mountain, I had marked the summer trail with blue ribbons to expedite route finding in the deep powder that I was expecting a few months hence. On previous trips with friends such as Glen Maxson, Ariel, Brian Miller, Shawn Straus & fellow sp'er, Pete Castricone, we had killed a lot of time meandering our way up towards Halfmoon Pass. This time, there was no meandering.
Instead of camping at the pass, we decided to use Kevin’s and mine camping spot from the previous weekend. It was well protected from avy’s off Notch Mountain and from the weather. Plus, everyone was really feeling it. We set camp about 6:30pm Sunday night.
I hadn’t slept since Friday afternoon, around 2:00pm when I woke up, so I stayed behind and put up the tent and our sleeping bags and Stephanie continued up the trail a little further with Zion re-breaking the trench. I stayed up longer then I wanted to but Ryan had created an awesome fire and in low teens/high single digits, the warmth was hard to say no to. John had retired for the night being completely spent by the 9.5mile walk in.
Some dinner, hot drinks and 45 minutes later, it was lights out for Stephanie and I. Ryan and Ben stayed up for quite a while longer. Soon as my head hit the sleeping bag, I slept like the dead, not moving so much as a muscle for at least 6 hours. It was a good, deep sleep.
Onward and Upward...
John decided to stay in camp and pack out later that morning. Sunday had really taken a toll on him. Ryan and Ben were still making preparations so Stephanie and I left camp at 5:50am, an hour behind schedule and trenched up to Halfmoon Pass, again, taking turns and admiring the steeled views out east.
The lowland valleys: Fall Creek, Peterson, Homestake and beyond were held prisoner by cold and dark clouds.
Standing there in the dark, my hood creating an illusion of even deeper isolation, I envisioned ancient and broken canals of smoke and stone, cracked and weakened by century old threads of dark pine like evil seeps of lichen and moss, a misplaced piece of German Bavaria reworked by The Brothers Grimm. The weak and ghastly light of approaching dawn and a waning gibbous moon lent illusion to a sick and sinister land.
Per Mark Pierson and John Fielder’s book, “Colorado’s Wilderness Areas”, the Holy Cross District contains 164 miles of trail that vivisect almost 123,000acres of wilderness. A good chunk of that is remote even by summers’ standards and more then 25 peaks rise over 13,000ft (3.962m).
Having been buffeted by a weak and emphysemic breeze for long enough, Stephanie, Zion and myself sought shelter in between a rock cropping and a five-foot high snowdrift. We waited for Ryan and Ben to arrive. It was unfortunate that John couldn’t be with us this morning. I understood the physical commitment required. Forcing someone onward past his or her physical capabilities in winter is selfish and dangerous when so far in the backcountry. So I didn’t push the issue or try to coerce him. But I did feel tangles of guilt for not suggesting that he at least walk up to the pass to drink in the views. Halfmoon Pass is a seldom-visited place.
After a few minutes of rest, the four of us set off towards the dubious traverse around Notch Mountain.
I led the way winding through the trees on a gentle but descending traverse hoping to pick up the summer trail. Eventually, we reached the trail as evidenced by the trees. In the short time that we left Halfmoon Pass to the broken clearings before Notch Mountain, the oncoming morning, which would not be denied had violently seized the night and like a piranha, shredded it to pieces.
The views that were now afforded to us, gazing across the lower slopes towards Mt. Jackson were beautifully sublime and transcendent. All the gothic underpinnings of the pre-dawn had evaporated. Fear and doubt were replaced by wonder and confidence. For the moment, standing on the edge of the slope unaware and oblivious of the dangers that lurked underneath, the four of us shared a marvelous and silent communion of color. It’s not often that the new day is parleyed by pink and lavender. Carpe diluculo!
This cold wilderness however, was not without its’ dangers. Notch Mountain’s NW Slopes are notorious for sliding. It sits there like a bear-trap, acres and acres full of potential energy awaiting release. Beacons switched to on, I started out first across the slope of quicksand on a slow, methodical and deliberate pace. Ryan, Stephanie and Ben watched me like hawks. I was almost to a pair of small evergreens when I think I heard Stephanie shout. I looked up slope but didn’t see anything. However, at 2:00pm looking up slope, a crack had materialized that I didn’t remember seeing.
This, along with the fact that the others had started to ascend and take a high traverse plus the poor snow quality, basically undulating pockets of dry sugar, powder and poorly frozen, weak upper layers unnerved me enough to stomp the evergreens out and rest. Honestly, I was a little stressed. I started to climb straight uphill linking rock outcroppings. Near the top of the slope, I crossed over the crack. The dam thing was almost an inch wide! It looked to be 2”-3” deep. I don’t know how I missed the whoompf or the crack as it formed. I’m surprised the slope didn’t slide. Although, I imagine it could be because the volume was uniformly inconsistent, swiss-cheesed and for the angle of inclination, just not enough top-weight to force momentum. Sometimes, I think snow and avalanche forecasting is nothing more then skilled dartboard science. Stephanie helped me out of a deeper pocket of snow (stomach level) in some willows and I joined the others for the remainder of the traverse.
In the Backcountry...
Again, I stomped out a small area in which to sit. The technical crux was now over and done with. We had successfully navigated Notch Mountain and reached the bottom of the basin without incident. But now, we had the second crux to deal with. This one demanded fortitude, perseverance and Herculean stamina. It was great to have people along this segment. East Cross Creek in winter solo can be a wonderfully beautiful but amazingly lonely place. Ben took over and led across the glade and back into the forest. I was delighted that the normal swarms and mobs of flies & mosquitoes were absent. I mused silently to myself, “Where are you little shit's now?” trying to keep my spirits up. This particular segment normally belongs to the mosquitoes and anyone who has passed along this way or camped here now how fiercely they guard it. The powder was actually deeper in the open glades but since the insects were gone, thank God for small mercies! The descent into Cross Creek to be honest, wasn’t that bad. The key is to switchback frequently and to do so as near many tress as possible to provide extra holds on the way down and for the way back up!
The volume of powder wasn’t letting us off the hook. It felt like we were making progress but at the same time, it was maddening because we were moving so slowly. Moving any faster simply wasn’t an option. We would end up burning ourselves out in half the time plus profuse sweating is actually borderline dangerous.
We expected snow, we expected hard & laborious trailbreaking and we expected cold temperatures due to the Alaskan-sized high-pressure system that had put its’ tent stakes up over Colorado but we didn’t expect the amount or depth of the snow. Compared to the snow levels in the rest of the Sawatch, Holy Cross was a huge anomaly.
The further into the forest we moved, the higher up the North Slope we coursed, the snow was actually increasing. There was still no consolidation or layering. A few times as Ryan and Stephanie took their turn breaking trail, the snowline came up to stomach-level. It was hilarious and torturous to watch them! Ben and I being taller had an easier time with it. We had regressed to taking 100-200 steps per turn before we recycled to the back of the line to rest.
Holy Cross was boasting one hell of a moat around its’ parapets and tower. The actual ascent up through the forest on the lower North Slope turned out to be the hardest section of the whole ascent. The snow was just too deep, powdery and dry to hold any weight. We crawled through this area cursing with every step (at least I did). No matter what direction we took or thought would provide easier passage, the difficulties were equal.
Eventually, as Ben was leading the line, breaks in the trees had started to show a bare slope up ahead. That was enough to give everyone a fresh start of energy and soon, we had cleared the trees and arrived on the talus slopes of the North Ridge.
It was positively the hardest snowshoeing I’ve ever done to date. Although a solo venture up Dark Mountain in mid spring up in RMNP ranks up there pretty high.
Granted, once we reached the tundra, the summit was still a ways away but at least there would be no more trenching and our movement would be more continuous and constant.
Trenching through waist deep powder uphill can really weigh down one ones confidence.
Ben led most of the way along and up the North Ridge. I eventually caught up with him and chatted for a short while as we walked along. I took over lead and kept up a steady but slow pace. I weaved and switch-backed up the final slope, passing the exit for Angelica without a look. The sky out west was on fire! There were no clouds but the higher winds were whipping up some mean spindrift off the western peaks creating a similar image to Ed Viestur’s iconic image of him climbing Lhotse with a wind-blasted Everest in the background.
The summit of Holy Cross was a torn and ruined place. It was a solid snowcap that resembled something like a Himalayan peak, definitely not Colorado. With the water colored spindrift on the western horizon, the sunset looked like the Aurora Borealis had been mercilessly tied to the bumper of some angelic 1933 Ford Coupe and dragged all over the horizon by some renegade seraphim. I walked back to the edge and saw Ben stroll up. Ryan came up a few minutes later followed by Stephanie and Zion. We summited at 6:10pm. It took us just over 12 hours to hike/snowshoe 4.5miles! I hope that gives some impression at how hard the trenching was.
I had found my second wind on the summit and despite the dropping temperatures; I was absolutely elated to be standing there. Ben too it seems, had found an inner source of energy and perked up. Zion was no longer black. He was wearing a nice patina of white from the blowing spindrift.
The Situation Degrades...
Ryan and Stephanie had hit their physical wall on the descent. It worried Ben and I because we still had a ways to hike before we made camp again. Having no liquids with increasingly colder temperatures, this really put the importance to everyone to make haste as best we could. All I had was thick, apple-cider slush in my Nalgene (which was actually quite good!).
The climb out of East Cross Creek was likewise, not as bad as I was expecting. Ben and I took the front to further pack down the trench to provide easier traveling for Ryan and Stephanie. Ryan kept lagging further and further behind on the up-climb. Ben and I figured it was just exhaustion and slowed our pace so we wouldn’t be too far ahead but kept steady progress. Stephanie came walking up to us while we had crested the NW Shoulder again and reported that Ryan was doing badly. He was really lagging behind and slow.
Ben decided to wait for Ryan while I walked up trail a little further to stomp out a resting platform on the leeward side of some trees, something to provide a natural windbreak so we could all have a rest.
We all took a good, well-deserved break. Ryan was feeling languid, tepid and out of breath. He was experiencing the same symptoms he came down with in South America on Aconcagua. The Pulmonary Edema that forced his retreat back down the Argentian mountain was making a reappearance now. Ryan was already physically exhausted, tired and cold, so getting back to camp as quickly as we could was now direly important and tantamount to Ryan’s safety. But amazingly, Ryan kept a very upbeat attitude. It was something you could hear in his voice. We retraced our steps across Notch Mountain and I waited in a large tree-well for the others to arrive. We discussed our options.
I would go ahead and break out Ben’s stove and get some water boiling so everyone would have fluids once they returned. Stephanie and Ben stayed with Ryan for the descent back to camp. They arrived back at camp shortly after midnight. Ryan dropped all gear and crawled into his sleeping bag to warm up. Stephanie crawled into our tent to partially recharge her batteries with Zion. We were thinking of staying & sleeping for 3-4 hours so everyone could get some hard-earned rest and warm up before we broke camp and started back down towards the road.
Then the dam stove ran out of gas.
As much as we didn’t want to, we forced Ryan to get back up and he and Stephanie packed out ahead of Ben and myself. We switched packs. I took Ryan’s and I gave him mine since it was the lightest. Ben and I packed up camp and made our way out following them. For the urgency of the situation, we were strangely feeling good and energetic. Ben and I connected fairly strongly on this trip, which consequently, was out first meeting. We caught up with them at the trailhead. Ryan and Stephanie had made impressive progress and speed down the trail.
Ryan was looking better but not feeling any better. However, he still had that positive vibe in his voice. Ryan knew what was happening and instead of languishing in doubt and worry, he did the smartest thing that he could, keep a positive outlook. On the walk out, I took my pack from him and shouldered it on my front side locking it in place by widening my arms. At least this way, Ryan could move quicker and be bereft of additional weight. Because of the additional weight I was now carrying, I had to keep moving at my own pace and soon out-distanced everyone else. I walked the gentle uphill to the wide turn-around clearing about a mile or so away from the trailhead and dropped my pack and Ryan’s. It felt good to sit unencumbered. Ben came strolling up soon afterward followed by Stephanie and Ryan. Since Ben had skis with him, he would take my pack and do the same thing and ski down the road back to the Community House, which is where we were planning on stopping for the night.
This way, by the time the rest of us showed up, Ben would have the fire going and water boiling in the pots that NOVA leaves at the house. It was a good plan but the best we could do under the circumstances. Ryan had collapsed on the snow in a half-sleep. He mentioned every 10 steps felt like a marathon.
I told him he should probably get up since he was losing a lot of body heat to the ground by lying on the snow. We three started out walking the last ~2 miles back to the Community House. However, I was starting to grow much colder then what I could handle. The pace was slower than what my body could generate in terms of heat to counteract the temperatures, which I think had dropped back down into the single digits. So with about a mile and half to go, I took off at a quicker pace and Stephanie stayed behind with Ryan. Stephanie was still focused and clear of mind, just physically spent. Ryan’s condition was about the same but he still reflected an upbeat attitude. I arrived at the Community House and dropped my pack, shed some layers and sat in front of the fire that Ben had started with a cup of hot cider. About 15-20 minutes later, Stephanie, Zion and Ryan came in. We handed them cups of cider and stoked the fire even higher. Ben plied Ryan with cups and cups of cider and hot water. The plan was to sleep for a few hours in the house in warmth then get Ryan a snowmobile ride down in the morning.
I couldn’t get John on his cell phone and hoped he was still at the bottom of the road near the gate as opposed to driving out back home. We had no idea.
Ryan and Stephanie, after multiple cups of cider, slept in front the fire and Ben and I slept on the wooden platform in the corner. We had finally called it quits at 4:00am. It was a 22-hr day.
Soon as I closed my eyes, I dropped into sleep like an anchor cut from its' ship.
I woke about 7:45am to Ben calling my name. I rolled out of my bag in a deep, groggy state to a very cold cabin. My voice had dropped at least an octave and I sounded gravely. I could have sung a duet with Bob Dylan & Tom Waits! Stephanie and Ryan were in a half-sleep and Stephanie was doing considerably better. Ryan exhibited no change.
But alas, John had left two texts and had called! He was still parked at the bottom of the road waiting for us! It was amazing! We can’t thank John enough for weathering out the night in uncertainty and ignorance of the situation. He has the patience of Job! John was the reason we were able to get Ryan off the mountain promptly.
Through conveying messages and information, the owner of NOVA had let John suit up and take one of his snowmobiles to the cabin to take Ryan down (but to be fair about it, only after John said he’d pay for a day’s rental. The owner didn’t give a shit what was happening). John arrived at the cabin at 8:30am and took Ryan down with Ben following on skis. Stephanie and I cleaned things up at the cabin, shouldered our packs and left.
Fortunately, about 3 miles from the bottom, Tom, one of the guides came up and stopped. Said he knew what was happening and reported that our two friends (Ryan and Ben) had left and were back in Vail awaiting one of Ryan’s friends to arrive from Denver to transport him back to Denver to the hospital and that John was still at the bottom waiting for us. He was on his way to deliver supplies to the cabin and would stop on the way back down and pick us up which, he did.
Stephanie rode the back carriage musher style and I rode shotgun, holding Zion.
We met Ben at Denny’s later that morning in Avon, devoured half the menu and I trode off to work by 1:00pm. Gabe had called me that afternoon and wanted to know if I wanted to join him, Mike (chicagotransplant) and a few others for a night skin up Arrowhead. I laughed. All I had in mind after work was doing some serious damage to a 6-pk of Heineken and melding with my bed and becoming one with it.
Ryan, after a week’s worth of steroids and antibiotics, is back to 100%.
Holy Cross is a mountain that won’t be forgotten by anyone.