| A Holy Nightmare
Trip Report - Mt. of the Holy Cross via the North Ridge
07 Aug 2008
Ryan - "COmedic04"
John - "Vykadin"
Louie & Dizzy
The GPS track of our route
It had been a couple of weeks since my last climb, and I was eager to get back up to the mountains for another. My weird work schedule made it impossible to climb with one of my usual partners, so I starting looking to the 14ers.com forums for someone to come along! I ran into John "Vykadin", who was also looking for a climb during the middle of the week, and we quickly formulated a plan to meet up and climb Holy Cross.
Since I had left my dogs behind on my last few trips (N. Maroon, Y-Couloir), I felt that I should bring them along this time, and from a quick study of the route, decided it'd be doable for them. I drove up and met John at his house in Highlands Ranch at about 1715 on Wednesday evening and quickly hit the road.
We made a quick trip up I-70 to Hwy-24, then the long drive up Tigiwon Road, arriving at the trailhead at around 2130. It was lightly drizzling, but we managed to find a well-secluded campsite that had plenty of large trees for cover. We pitched camp and, after situating our gear for the following morning, hit the sack.
The dogs and I getting ready for bed
The alarm sounding at 0330 was painful, as usual, but we quickly got up and got ready to go. After some oatmeal and wonderful Egyptian licorice tea, I was feeling charged and ready to go. We took a little longer than I had hoped to break camp, since we decided just to take everything down in the morning and move the Jeep to the trailhead parking lot above the campsite. When all was stowed and packs were finally on, we got to the trailhead sign shortly after 0500.
The dogs and I, rearing to go
John, looking stoic at the trailhead sign
We made our way up the trail, stunned at how wet everything was. This should have been a warning to us how much rain this area had gotten (and would get), but we just tromped along and made good time to the top of Halfmoon Pass.
John on Halfmoon Pass
Louie, ever the poser
We then made our way down the trail into the East Cross Creek drainage, evaluating our possible return trip and the anguish we had read about regarding this climb from the creek. We were considering returning over Halo Ridge, as we had heard about the beautiful views from that trail, and wanted to do something different on the way back. After discussing it, we decided we‘d decide after getting to the summit, based on the conditions, which way we‘d head. After turn one corner, we were treated to gorgeous views of the mountain herself, the Angelica Couloir, and the waterfall that comes down from Bowl of Tears:
We made quick time descending into the valley, and again appreciated how lush and green it was, due to the large amount of moisture. This lead to some beautiful wildflowers:
We passed several campsites at the bottom of the trail, which I would have loved to stay at, had we gotten to the trailhead earlier. If I do this hike again, I‘ll definitely stay down here; it‘s gorgeous! Even just a short backpacking trip without summitting would be great here. Anyway, we made it to the creek, and quickly made it across the rock bridge.
We also scouted further down the creek to see the rapids, which, ironically enough, were a pretty good representation of what the "creek" looked like at the crossing after the rainstorm that would ensue later that day:
We began the climb up the trail to the talus field without any difficulty, although it was quite steep. We passed one man on the way up who had turned around, saying "It doesn‘t get any easier after this, boys!" He does know this is a mountain...right?
Louie, wandering through the tundra
The summit provided some awe-inspiring peeks as we climbed
Checking out the massive cairns that marked the route
After passing the huge cairns in the bottom of the boulderfield, route-finding became quite tricky, especially with the dogs. There seemed to be multiple cairned routes leading every which way, and we found ourselves following some, but not others, navigating our way through the talus. Louie, my Jack Russell, was having a great time, but my Beagle, Dizzy, had some problems in a few spots and I had to assist her, which slowed us down.
A few times I considered stopping and letting John continue, because it was taking so long to help my dogs over the boulders, but it seemed that every time I‘d be just about ready to stop, the route would ease up and allow us to continue easily for a while. In retrospect, I probably should have listened to my instincts, but I was hungry for the summit, and felt badly for slowing down a climbing partner with whom I‘d never climbed. Needless to say, the views from the ridge were enough to quickly dismiss any woes:
John posing on a rock with Halo Ridge in the background
A great view of Bowl of Tears
We were so close at this point, we could almost taste the summit. The snow on the left side of the ridge also provided a much easier route for the dogs for a ways, although I was wary not to venture too close to the edge, knowing all too well of the cornice below.
Louie, getting summit fever
John walking along the snowfield
There she is!
As we came to the saddle where the Angelica Couloir meets the ridge, the conditions were starting to get pretty bad. But it was just lightly drizzling, and the clouds were more "wispy" than threatening, so we continued...bad idea. We hadn‘t heard any thunder, and figured we‘d be safe for a quick summit push.
As we got closer and closer, the weather just seemed to get worse and worse, as if the mountain didn‘t want us to capture the summit. Finally, we took a quick look at our GPS and determined we were within 50-100 feet of the summit. The dogs were slowing us down, so I told John that if he wanted to make a quick run to the summit, I‘d stay put with the dogs. He made a dash for it, as we waited. He quickly returned, saying that it was only a short distance away. I had already resigned myself to not making the summit, even so close, but his reassurance made me change my mind and go for it. I asked him to stay with the dogs while I made a quick run for the top. I made the summit block quickly, found the register and signed our names and took a quick snap of the marker and myself, then turned around at a noise, only to see that Dizzy had broken away from John and continued up after me! I was amazed, and glad to have the company on the soggy, wet summit.
The soggy summiters
As Dizzy and I made our way back down to John, I heard the strangest noise, and it took a few seconds to figure out what it was...it was my ice axe I had strapped to my pack, and it was buzzing like a Tesla Coil!! Needless to say, the hair on the back of my neck stood up from that realization, which was quite a feat considering it was soaked from the rain!
We quickly descended, only to find that we had dropped off the summit slightly to the right of where John and Louie were, so I yelled out to John (who must‘ve been freezing in his tshirt and shorts) to just make his way down, and we‘d meet up below. He yelled back that Louie had broke free and was making his way towards me, so I waited, looking for him, and finally found him. John had already started down, and I began the slow process of descending with the dogs over the wet, slippery talus. This process wasn‘t much helped by the fact that everytime I would turn so that my axe was the highest part of my body, it was buzz and crackle with the static from the air. I ran into a group of three climbers just below my position, who asked the way to the summit. I told them there wasn‘t really a good route, as far as I could see, and that I‘d really recommend not attempting to summit, because of the buildup in static. One listen to my humming axe, and they quickly turned around!
After I had finally made my way to the bottom of the summit ridge, I realized John was quite a ways in front of me, and continuing down. He must‘ve decided it was silly to wait in these conditions, so I continued as well. I started to get really nervous about the fact that I had a "lightning rod" strapped to my pack, and was easily the path of least resistance while walking along the trail on the top of the ridge, so the dogs and I dropped down off the trail onto the left side of the ridge. This made for much more difficult talus-hopping, but I felt we were a little safer below the ridgeline.
Conditions continued to deteriorate, with several flashes of lightning and thunder very close by, so I finally made the decision to find the closest outcropping of rock and find shelter until the thunder subsided. At this point, I couldn‘t see John, and figured he‘d probably gone on ahead. We quickly found a good boulder, which had some room underneath it; I got out my tarp (which I was very glad to have brought along!) and built a quick shelter. The dogs and huddled underneath and tried to warm up while lightning flashed all around us. Several of the flashes sounded to be no more than 50 feet away. We shared some jerky to try and warm up and get some energy, and I attempted to dry the dogs up a little with my chamois towel.
We quickly began to shiver, just sitting down, and although the lightning hadn‘t completely stopped, I decided it had thinned out enough that I needed to continue to stay warm. I estimate we were probably in the shelter for 45 minutes to an hour, although that figure could be far off.
We slowly began our trek down the ridge, through the boulders, the tenuousness of which was exacerbated by the fact that we were all cold and very wet. I could just barely make out John‘s shape passing the tree line at the bottom of the ridge, so we made for that point, trying to find the easiest way through the talus. That basically consisted of trying to descend to the nearest grassy area, continuing in a likewise fashion until we got down. We met up with a nice couple from Minnesota, and my spirits were lifted to have someone else to talk to as we made our way down. By the time we finally found ourselves at treeline, but at this time, I noticed that Louie was walking very slowly, and seemed to be having a tough time breathing. I knew that the dogs‘ pads were pretty cut up from the talus, but I wasn‘t sure why he has wheezing the way he was. He was walking so slowly, I decided that I needed to carry him, otherwise it‘d be dark by the time we got out. I bid adieu to the Minnesotans and made a quick phone call to let work know I wasn‘t going to make it out, as well as to try and contact John, and then hit the trail.
As is quite obvious by now, this portion of the trip report is sorely lacking pictures, as I was just desperate to get down, and didn‘t stop to take any.
We made it down to the creek crossing, which, as I had noted before, had now become a raging rapid. I was still carrying Louie, and didn‘t want to attempt to ford the creek at the rock bridge, so we struck out to find a different crossing. Upstream, the creek appeared to break into a delta-like marshy area, with several small crossings instead of one large one. This was good enough for me, and I began to cross. If we reached a crossing too large for the dogs to jump, I‘d toss Dizzy across, then hop over myself with Louie in my arms. This provided to be an effective method until we reached the last crossing. I trusted a log a little too much with my weight, and it rolled, plunging me into the creek. As I dropped, I tossed Louie onto the bank, and went face first into the stream. I was soaked up to my neck. The current was quite a bit stronger than I had imagined, and the water was icy, it took a few seconds to pull myself out. I thought to myself "no problem, we‘ll just hike to the campsites we had seen earlier, ask to stop and dry off for a minute, then continue." Well, needless to say, it appeared that all of the campers had fled before the storm, and I was forced with the decision to stay or go.
I had foolishly neglected to pack my spare clothes in ziploc bags, as I usually do, so I knew my spare socks and shirt were soaked. My camera was shot, and I was nervous that my phone was likely ruined as well. But Louie‘s condition seemed to be worsening (at this point, I had convinced myself that he had broken a rib, punctured a lung, and was developing a pneumothorax), so I decided I needed to continue.
I had been dreading the climb up the ridge back to Halfmoon Pass all day, but either the determination to get out or the survival drive must‘ve been in full-swing, because not only did I chug up the ridge without stopping, I barely remember most the hike up. I surreptitiously found myself standing on the pass a short time later, soaked, but encouraged by my newfound reserve of strength. I must‘ve been quite a sight, because I was passed by a Boy Scout troop just before the pass whose wide-eyed stares betrayed how badly I looked: soaked, slightly limping from twisting my ankle in the stream, bleeding from a cut to my hand, carrying a soaked, wheezing Jack Russell, and closely followed by a soaked Beagle. I laugh as I think about it.
As we descended the trail to the trailhead, it started to get dark, and I was nervous about running into a bear or mountain lion in the dark. So I started singing any song I could think of the words to at the top of my lungs...which consisted of "I‘ve Been Working on the Railroad", "The Air Force Song", and various songs from my daughter‘s "Backyardigans" cartoons.
The singing helped my morale a little, and kept my mind off of my aching, soaked feet, and my arms, which were burning from carrying my dog for this long. We finally found our way to the trailhead, just as it was starting to get too dark to see the trail. I was greeted by a group of woman who shouted "Are you the guy with the dogs?? Thank God!!" I chuckled, and said "Thank God, indeed!" I limped my way over to find John, drying out and sleeping in his Jeep. I situated my dogs in the backseat with a blanket and some food, and collapsed into the seat.
This trip really tested my self-determination and has made me re-evaluate several factors in my climbing mindset. It has definitely made me more ready to accept defeat and turn around, like I should have on several occasions on this trip, as well as made me plan better as far as my gear and preparedness is concerned. I had been thinking a lot about the story of Michelle Vanek which preparing for this trip, and can now definitely see how one could easily find themselves lost in this vast wilderness area.
After monitoring Louie through the night, his condition hadn‘t improved by morning, so I took him to the vet, prepared for bad news. After a couple of X-rays, the vet told me that while there weren‘t any fractures, there was diffuse pulmonary edema throughout his lungs!! This was not the diagnosis I was expecting, and after discussing the trip with the vet at length, we decided that, in addition to the extreme fatigue, it‘s possible that he might have been exposed to some electrical shock from the proximity of the lightning strikes, which would cause the edema. This shock could have easily been transmitted through the rocks and given him enough current, while not affecting him immediately, would cause some of the same secondary effects of lightning strike, namely pulmonary edema. In any case, some Lasix diuretic and some precautionary antibiotics, and he was quickly back to his old self.
Now that I‘ve had nearly a week to reflect on our experience, I look back on it as a learning opportunity, and feel greatful that we escaped with as little damage as we did. It has definitely given me a great appreciation for the vast, wild nature of the mountains, and have found myself encouraged to continue with my passion for the mountains.
Needless to say, my dogs will be taking a hiatus from mountain climbing.