The plan was ambitious. Four of us would attempt to climb Mount of the Holy Cross in mid-January. I was sure we had a very good chance of summiting.
The members of the team were:
JANUARY 13, 2006:
The first mistake of the day was noticed right away. The night before, Jon and I slept at Stuart’s condo near Vail. I had commented that I would just take my bivi sack and sleep on the ground since I move around so much at night. Stuart and John decided on the same thing. Unfortunately, when we met Alan at the trailhead, we had discovered that he planned on tenting with one of us and didn’t have a tent. I had brought a tent, but left it at Stuart’s house. It was a big mistake on my part. The ascent would have to be tent-less.
We decided to cheat and catch a ride on snowmobiles part of the way. After bidding farewell to our sled drivers, we began the climb. It was very slow once we reached the summer trailhead. Breaking trail through four feet of powder snow was very tiring. Views teased us now and then before getting to the more open areas around timberline, but it was still slow-going. We reached Halfmoon Pass and marveled at the incredible views. Mount Jackson and the Gore Range were clothed in all their winter glory. The weather was absolutely beautiful. It had taken us over three hours to cover the last 1.7 miles to the pass. Even so, we were all pretty optimistic. 0.5 miles per hour is not a bad speed for January, considering we were breaking trail and carrying 50-80 lb packs. It should be easier to go down to Cross Creek and we should arrive in plenty of time to set up camp, or so we thought.
Going down the west side of Halfmoon proved slower than going up the east side, though the views of the mountain made the effort worth it. There were some open areas to traverse and the snowpack was a concern. Traversing proved to be very slow, as was the route down through the trees and very steep slopes. The route was not easy to find, and we found ourselves cliffed-out above Cross Creek. There would be no easy way to reach Cross Creek. One thousand feet of descent doesn’t seem like much on paper, or in the head, but in January with very steep slopes loaded with powder snow, it was actually a very long way down to Cross Creek Basin.
I had wanted to take a more southern and more direct route, though very steep, that followed the approximate summer route. There was much concern about the steepness, and the possibility of slipping down the steep slopes, and possibly off a cliff. John had wanted to a more northern route down a spur, but I was concerned that the unknown route looked to have a 200 foot cliff at the bottom on the map, and that we might not reach Cross Creek. Unfortunately, none of us had climbed Holy Cross before, and some summer scouting of the route would have been of great help.
After much wandering around looking for a viable route, we decided to set up camp in a little hollow among boulders just above a big cliff. It was almost dark by the time we reached this place and it had been a long and hard day. We set up camp and ate dinner.
More than physical tiredness, it seemed like the slow progress to reach this point was damaging to morale. Cross Creek was still far below. There were many thought of not pushing on the next day. A storm was due sometime on the 15th. We didn’t have any tents. The going was very slow. We all had different thoughts, but there were no conflicts or arguments, and everyone got along well and enjoyed each others company.
Here are some of our thoughts:
I still wanted to push for the summit, and thought that at least some of us could. The going was slow, but it would be easier once we hit the North Ridge of Holy Cross above timberline. The snow should be blown off or wind-packed. The storm was due in two days, but the weather was now beautiful, and even the nights were fairly warm. The storm was worry some, but there was a bright full moon out, and we could climb until way after sunset without using even a headlamp. As long as we were to the summit and back to camp the night of the 14th, we should be just fine, and we could always turn back. I am slow myself, but wouldn’t mind trying for the summit in one long push. If in fact the storm did hit early, and even if it did snow much, we wouldn’t be trapped. I did get trapped for a few days once on a winter climb because after a storm dropped four feet of snow, it put a huge cornice on top of the pass, we were in a cirque with a cliff below, and couldn’t retreat down that way, nor could we retrace our steps through the cornice (it took us two days and two nights to dig through that cornice). This time was different. Everyone had four days or more of food, and this was only day 1. Even if the storm did make retreat over Halfmoon Pass impossible, we (whoever wanted to try for the summit) could go directly down Cross Creek. It would be a very difficult two days of trail breaking, but it should be safe (but difficult) route.
On the other hand, I had many concerns. I wouldn’t go at this alone. I only want to go with the crowd, and wouldn’t go if no one else was interested in the summit. Alan was not feeling well, and he didn’t have a tent or bivi sack. If Alan went back, Stuart would too, so Alan wouldn’t be alone. But…John and I rode to the trailhead with Stuart. If we did try for the summit, Stuart said he would pick us up, but how would he know when? I guess we could call from the Outfitter Trailer near the highway? Also, we still didn’t know of the route down to Cross Creek. Could we find a safe route down? If not, we would have to return, which might not be easy.
Climbing Holy Cross in the winter was a genuine challenge. I really wanted to go on the climb but two things were giving me pause. First, I had been developing a cold all week and it seemed to be getting worse the closer we got to the climb. Second, I was worried about the weather all week before becoming comfortable that we could either make our goal or turn around and not put ourselves in an "epic" situation. When it comes to winter climbing, I am conservative. The forecast called for snow on our 3rd day (Sunday) and the Colorado Avalanche website noted the moderate avalanche danger. With all the heavy snow in the Central and Northern Colorado mountains, I felt we did not need to be taking chances.
It was good to see Scott again and to meet Jon and Stuart for the first time. I thought it was a brilliant idea to take snowmobiles to the trailhead and eliminate one full day of boring walking on 8 mils of groomed road. Once we arrived at the trailhead, it was a perfect day and we all set off with gusto. However, soon it became clear that this was going to be difficult, very difficult. Within 15 minutes from the trailhead at 10,200' the snow became deeper. We took turns breaking trail and sometimes it was waist deep requiring multiple kicks with our snowshoes to take a single step. Other times it was simple matter of taking methodical high steps to break a trail for everyone else.
We soon made it to Halfmoon Pass. The weather was still absolutely perfect. The views matched the weather and we spotted the route to the summit of Holy Cross. It was this stage I became more concerned about what we were getting into. First, it was clear we were not making good time with the deep snow; second, none of us were certain about the route and there were no visible clues; third, it was Hell of a long way down to Cross Creek - our intended camping spot for the evening and finally it was already well after 1:00PM and the days are short in the winter.
As a team we continued to break trail towards the creek as well as working well together on the route finding. However it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that we were not in good shape. Again, I am conservative in these situations. I feel there is no shame in coming home short of a goal but safe. With the sun about to set, we all agreed to make camp and see how everyone felt the next day. Personally I was tired as my cold had moved to my chest. As I went to sleep, I had made up my mind to retreat.
In spite of no bivi bag or tent, I slept fairly well in my MH 0F bag and two mats. Only my feet were cold. The moon was so bright; I actually had to shade my eyes. It was amazingly quiet and peaceful through the long night. As the sun rose, so did everyone. After a short conversation, it was clear that Stuart was ready to retreat and perhaps climb Notch Mountain. I had already made up my mind and Scott and Jon were still raring to go for the Cross. However, Jon soon said he wanted the group to stay together. I seconded his thought since the wind had slightly picked up and some wispy cloud had moved in. However, I respected their decision to continue and did not want to influence them. That said, I just don't think it is a good idea to be alone or even in pairs in January in the Colorado Rockies 10 miles from the nearest help!
So here is my take on our adventure. First, we made some mistakes by under estimating the snow conditions, route finding and impending weather that would cut out available time in half. Second, we do not communicate clearly enough on tents, stoves and gear thus we probably had a little too much of some things and not enough of others. Third, I am proud and gratified that four strangers can get together and do some serious winter climbing, make some difficult decisions and part still friends. Finally, winter climbing the Colorado Rockies is serious business and not to be taken lightly.
As we saddled up on the snowmobiles for Scott's rather ambitious Holy Cross winter attempt, I was feeling cautiously optimistic that we were getting off to at least a good trailhead insertion. I did, however, have some misgivings about this style of trip, being only my second trip with fellow summitposters.
On my first summitpost trip, a few days before Christmas, I had turned back from below the saddle on an attempt on Horseshoe Mtn in what I considered dangerous winds (a steady 50-60 mph, gusting to over hurricane strength) and low visibility. The other three in the group went on and summited. When I asked them back at the trailhead if they had communicated their plan (I had noticed that two of them headed for Peerless Mtn in a brief moment of clearing), they said they talked about it, but couldn't hear each other over the howling whiteout. Then when the two fellows who summited Peerless saw the third member halfway up Horseshoe, they went on up to see if he needed help. They told of a minor epic when descending Horseshoe together on the wrong ridge, only noticing their error during one of the ocassional brief increases in visibility, and then regaining the correct saddle.
This left me with the feeling that a summitpost trip was like internet dating for mountaineers: you weren't going to really know what you were getting into until after the first camp! But I was impressed with Scott's ambition and goal oriented resume with over 100 winter climbs, in spite of his admitted slowness. Jon had the vim, vigor, and eagerness typical of a 26 year old mountaineer. Alan, who at 49 was my age, had worldclass big mountain experience on peaks who's very names ooze adventure, including Aconcagua, Cho Oyu, Everest and Denali, and was planning a June, 2006 expedition to Broad Peak and K2. I had lead small-scale wilderness expeditions with my brother Brian, and we had summited lesser peaks such as Rainier, Gannett Peak, and Illinizas Sur in Ecuador together. (My big ambition in mountaineering is to climb Denali.) So the experience level of the group was high, even if the cohesiveness and comparable levels of summit fever were not on the same page, simply because we had never climbed together.
I had a great time on this trip; I felt that I gained a lot of experience in winter travel/camping and got a realistic idea of the difficulties of such an endeavor. We did a good job navigating and route-finding and with a better weather report, we could have picked our way down the west side of Halfmoon pass. In the end, the uncertainty of the best way to the creek, the possibility of a bad storm (Vail ended up getting 7in Sunday night, which would have probably been even more at our elevation), and not wanting to split up the group halted the trip early, but it was awesome to see how the four of us were able to work together and come to a consensus on what the best action would be.
NIGHT OF JANUARY 13, 2006:
Everyone except for me was in bed by 6:00 pm. I can’t lie down that early, so Stuart suggested I build a fire to have something to do other than pacing back and forth above to the cliff and back. This I did, and let it burn until 8:00 pm, at which time I went to bed.
None of us slept well. I could here Alan stirring a lot at night, something I did as well. John slowly slid down the slope and by morning, he was about 20-25 feet from where he first lay down! Stuart also moved a little throughout the night. I’m sure all of us had a lot of things on their mind, such as what to do tomorrow. Would the others want to go back? Would anyone be interested in a summit? I’m sure the same thoughts were with everyone else.
Even though we didn’t sleep well, it was a beautiful night. The Moon was big and the brightest I have ever seen. The mountains were lit up and glowing. The stars were out and there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a fairly warm night, at about 5F (-15C).
JANUARY 14, 2006:
In the morning, everyone was awake early, but no one stirred. I guess everyone was waiting for someone else to make the first move! As soon as Stuart popped his head up, I did too, and I was followed shortly after by Jon and Alan. We all had a laugh about how far down the hill Jon has moved during the night! It was late, and I was wondering what everyone wanted to do. I’m sure everyone else was doing the same thing. I would go along with the crowd. Consensus was that we should return to the trailhead as a team. There was too much uncertainty about the route and weather to continue. It was settled. Camp would be packed up. I was still secretly hoping some might be interested in a try on Notch, but wouldn’t be loose any sleep over it if no one was interested.
Going back up the trail we packed was much faster than going down was the day before. Stuart and I spotted the possible summer route, and thought it looked steep but OK for a winter route. We made it to the pass without much trouble. The weather was beautiful and warm (for January). We ate lunch, but no one else was interested in Notch, so we headed down the mountain. The next 1.7 miles took us 45 minutes. It had taken us over three hours the day before. Having a packed trail made a huge difference. Walking the groomed track that is the summer road was easy, but we made an error. In summer, there is only one road, but in winter, the snowmobiles have groomed tracks all over the place. Most are shortcuts that are steeper than the summer road. This one appeared the same. We descended to the Notch Bowl and met a bunch of snowmobilers. It was here we learned that this was a dead-end track and that we would have to backtrack a mile with 1000 feet elevation gain to reach the correct track to get back to the vehicles. Doh! It was a long climb back.
We retraced our route and went down the correct track. It was easy, but at the end of a long day. By the time we reached the trailhead, it was almost dark. Alan wasn’t feeling well, so he got a ride down with a snowmobiler for the last two or three miles. Jon caught a ride as well for the last mile. Stuart and I walked. We had covered 14 miles in a long day, which was pretty good for January. Next was Chilly Willys for grub and then home.
Alan adds: The next morning (January 14), we made excellent time back to the Pass and then to the trailhead. Again, I was tiring quickly with my cold but Jon was an animal and Scott was steady right behind him. Stuart was a great climbing partner and stayed by my side. We tried to get a lift out via Nova Guides but they were fully booked and had no one available. However 5 miles down the road a couple of good Samaritans came along and gave me a lift out as well as all our 4 packs. Jon hitched a ride on his sled as well.
Thus ended the January 2006 Mount of the Holy Cross attempt. It was a good trip, even though we missed the summit by a long shot. There is always next year……….