| Halo Ridge
Holy Cross- Halo Ridge ascent, standard descent
Start time- 5:35 AM
Summit Time- 10:50-11:20
Trailhead- 2:50 PM
I‘ve had my eye on the Halo Ridge for a couple years. The route always looked interesting in the pictures, and I really wanted to see the cross couloir, which I didn’t see on the standard climb a few years back. Then a friend of mine loaned me a book called “Colorado 14er Disasters,” which I highly recommend. Most of the stories revolve around winter and snow, which I found very reassuring. My wife and I have an unspoken agreement- I don’t climb during winter and avalanche season, and I’m allowed to climb solo in the summertime.
I don’t want to dwell on the story, but the final section of “Colorado 14er Disasters” tells the story of Michelle Vanek, who died in a summer attempt of Holy Cross. There were many mistakes that lead to her disappearance, and I learned a great deal from the account. I don’t want to show a lack of respect, so I won’t go into details here, but Michelle’s story was heavy on my mind the whole climb. Partly it was interest in the details of what went wrong, but the story is so tragic and so sad.
Part 1- Trailhead to Notch Mountain Shelter
Matt and I met up at a nearby campsite, and got a 5:35 start. My hope was to make quick work of the first five or so miles up to the shelter- it would be the fastest track of the day. To my surprise, it was a far more rewarding intro section than I had expected. The trail is certainly very fast. Church congregations have gathered at the shelter, so I assumed the trail would have been developed with that in mind, and would be mostly forgiving. It was. You definitely gain some elevation, but the many switchbacks assure that there’s nothing too steep or grinding. There’s also far more eye candy than I expected- Matt and I are usually more businesslike at this point, but today we felt like a couple of blubber butt Kansas City tourists. “Stop- quick picture!” Still, we made the shelter just before 8:00 AM, which put us in good position for the day. We considered nipping over to Notch Mountain, but with the entire Halo Ridge looming, we decided better of it.
Sun first peaks over horizon, kicking a solar field goal between two trees
An opening reveals a beautiful valley
Mountains spread out in layers behind a solitary tree
A beautiful meadow- worth getting up for right here
Trail through the meadow- peaceful in the early morning
flower in the front, distant lake in the back- take that Ansel Adams
Typical terrain during the many switchbacks gaining the ridge
Part 2- Notch Mountain Shelter
It always kills me how a physical landmark can get into your mind even though you’ve seen a million pictures of it. The Golden Gate Bridge and the Eiffel Tower were both that way for me- I already knew exactly what they look like- I’ve seen pictures and trinkets and lego versions for years. But when I got there, they both just held me in place- I could have looked at them for hours, and I probably still can. Uncompaghre had that effect on me as well. Obviously with the set up, the Cross Couloir had that kind of effect on me. It was powerful. I was immediately reminded of the legend of the Spanish priests who were lost and prayed, just before seeing the cross. Religious or not, this is an incredible landmark- everyone should hike to this spot to experience it.
We stayed for a good 25 minutes taking pictures, oogling, and snacking. The Halo Ridge quickly got our attention as well- it stretches way around Holy Cross, and it would obviously take some time. I didn’t want to leave, but you can only stare so long and take so many pictures before duty calls. I hope I return to this spot someday.
First look at Notch Shelter- time for church!
Money shot- Cross Couloir reveals itself
Holy Cross with the second half of the Halo Ridge
The first half of Halo Ridge
I loved this view- like seven layer dip, only with mountains
Part 3- The Halo Ridge
There are three distinct humps on the Halo Ridge- Point 13,248 (a ranked 13er), Point 13,373, and Point 13,831, before eventually reaching The Mount of the Holy Cross. You circle all the way around Holy Cross, so the result is that if you ascent Halo Ridge and descend the standard route, you effectively circumnavigate the entire mountain.
Right from the start, there was no real path- the story of the ridge is rock hopping. There are a few places, especially on saddles, where there is more of a social trail beaten into some tundra, but rocks make up probably 90% of the route. I enjoyed this right out of the gate- the views were breathtaking, the route was interesting with a bit of route finding and exposure while remaining solid class 2. I was suppressing a huge smile for the most part. There are spider webs build between rocks throughout the route, with huge spiders. We joked that Aragog would be making an appearance before long.
We gained the first hump- Point 13,248 in quick time, and spilled onto a brief meadow. The second hump- Point 13,373, looked more imposing, but it was still quick and fun getting up it- a few cairns mixed in here and there, but basically pick your line and watch out for unsteady rocks. From afar, the third hump- Point 13,831 looked less imposing than the second hump, but there is a lot more up and down, hidden saddles to drop down to before regaining elevation. We finally topped out over its high point, and for the first time, began to get impatient with the up and down and many rocks. Route finding is pretty straight; you have choices in the short term, gaining ridges, choosing lines. In the long term, the ridge always filters you to a choked saddle that you have to pass, section to section.
Approaching the second hump
On the second hump, with the third hump and Holy Cross behind
Approaching the third hump
Summit push- on the Holy Cross shoulder
For me, the best part of the Halo Ridge was the view- first of The Mount of the Holy Cross as you circle around, but better was the Bowl of Tears, the lake just at the bottom of the Cross Couloir. Just a lake, right? I couldn’t stop staring at it- the color seemed unique- a deeper blue than I’m used to seeing in a lake- and it seemed so tranquil. It struck me that at some point it would be worth a day to hike to the lake and sit with a picnic on its edge. Here are some shots of the Bowl as I circled above.
Bowl of Tears- first look
Bowl of Tears under Holy Cross
Bowl of Tears- couldn't take my eyes off it
Bowl of Tears from above one of the many couloirs on Halo Ridge
Bowl of Tears from final saddle under the shelter
Part 3- Summit and Descent
After passing the final saddle- the point that Michelle Vanek was last seen- we took the final summit push. It sneaks up suddenly, and we were rewarded with some amazing sights. This was Matt’s Sawatch finisher, so there was a celebratory feel in the air as we dropped down to eat lunch over the basin we just circled. Across the way, we could see the Notch Mountain shelter, where we first came up to the ridge, and we followed our way around. It was very hot- we found out later that Denver hit 105 degrees on this day, and you could feel it at 14,005 feet. The clouds were not forming, just floating around, so we took our time, laughed, ate, hydrated with a stout, before eventually making our way.
Matt, happy, enjoying lunch and his Sawatch finisher!
Not a bad lunchtime view
Summit shot- it never gets old on the top
The route down was mind numbing. I did the standard route a few years back so I should have been prepared, but we were so focused on the 970 feet of gain, we didn’t really consider the long drop to the creek. It was a forever descent. The mosquitoes were discouraging any real rest, thick as thieves. I ran out of water, so I took some from the river and added purification pills. Just about the time we began to feel that “How long till we get there” frustration, we looked back, and the view from this side was almost as picturesque as from the other side. More tourist photos. How long till my water is done? How long till the pass? Where are those Gatorade powder packets? More tourist photos. My feet are just about done.
I don’t know of any other 14ers that allow you the chance to view the mountain from as many points in a complete circle around it (Longs from the very top, but too close for what I mean). I really enjoyed that aspect of the day, and recommend it highly.
Holy Cross from the initial shoulder of the descent
Dropping down the ridge, back at Holy Cross
Stunning view while gaining Notch Mountain Pass
Holy Cross with part of Halo Ridge
The parking lot was a welcome site, and we were quickly on our way down Tigiwon Road. This was one of those near perfect days that will push The Mount of the Holy Cross far up my list of favorite 14ers.
Last shot- view you don't get on standard route
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