Peak(s):  Mt. of the Holy Cross  -  14,005 feet
Date Posted:  07/03/2011
Date Climbed:   07/01/2011
Author:  Makalu
 Interesting Experience on Mt Holy Cross  

This report is in two parts; my experience climbing this peak, and trail conditions for anyone interested in this peak. But before I begin, I left my MSR snow shoes, and Black diamond ice ax at tree line on the main trail up Mt of the HC, I would appreciate it if anyone who finds it can bring it down for me. Thanks

My Experience

I intended this trip to be a day trip and I packed as such, but as I was packing to leave I, by reflex, took an extra bottle of water and one more pack of food (you can already guess where this is going). I left the locked gate to Tigiwon road at 5:40am and arrived at the summer trail head at 8:15am, covering the first 8 miles of the trip. After signing the register and keeping my brown copy I headed up the Half Moon Pass trail. Note, I had no GPS.

I arrived at Half Moon Pass around 9:30am and headed down towards East Cross Creek. There was a lot of snow from HMP to the start of the switch backs leading to ECC, it was time consuming but manageable. I crossed ECC around 11am and decided at this point that if by 1pm I still had more than 1 1/2 hrs of climb I would abort.

The first half mile from ECC was snow free after which the trail became completely snow packed to tree line. It took quite a while to navigate this section, even at a blistering pace, with plenty of bouldering and post holing. I arrived at tree line at 12:50 and decided to push on for the summit.

I arrived at the summit at 2:15pm, took a 15 minute break, took some pictures, and started heading down. I had educated myself on the common mistake on Mt of the Holy Cross, going farther north and ending up in the wrong drainage, and I took special care to memorize my trail going up. Despite my care, I made the same mistake and ended up farther north.

Let me put my mistake in a geographical context. Imagine a sleeping letter "V," the open side opens at your right hand, the point end(bottom) of the "V" to your left hand, and you're looking down from top (plan view). Mt of the Holy Cross protruding up in the open side, East Cross Creek runs along the north end of the sleeping "V" and Cross Creek runs along the south end of the sleeping "V." These two creeks meet at the point end of the sleeping "V" that is to your left hand. Your way home from Mt of the HC is to come down from the mountain, keep right and drop down on the East Cross Creek side.

If you drop down on the Cross Creek side, you have two options to correct this error: 1. climb back up and drop down on the East Cross Creek side, or 2. traverse the entire length (south end) of the sleeping "V" until you get to the point end of the "V" (where the two creeks meet) and then traverse the other side of "V" until you find your trail. Intuition will suggest option two but this is bad and deadly.

I realized my error around 3:15pm and almost by reflex chose option 2 above to remedy my error. I stayed above tree line with the hope that I'll run into the trail. At about 6pm I still hadn't found the trail. I concluded at this point that I had to change plans, I switched to survival mode. I repelled straight down some very steep class 3/4/5 sections into a very wooded, snow filled, dangerous area. There were sharp drops and deep gullies that was concealed by the chest deep snow. At 8:30pm I arrived at a very marshy section, about 50 meters away from Cross Creek. I'm convinced that moving from here would have led to death. The water in the marshy area concealed a lot of bad things, rocks, dead trees with sharp ends etc. There was absolutely no way to cross Cross Creek, it was gushing heavily.

I located a huge rock platform in the middle of this marshy area, climbed up and decided to spend the night there, luckily I had signal on my phone. I called 911 and told the dispatcher that I was lost and asked her to compare my phone coordinates with Half Moon trail coordinates. She couldn't/wouldn't, perhaps she misunderstood my request, but instead connected me with search and rescue. Greg, the SR guy I was talking to, asked me questions and we were able to identify where I was. You see, Cross Creek (the south side of the sleeping "V") does not run straight, it makes a sharp right turn before it continues to meet East Cross Creek. Much like a bump on a straight line. I slept right in the corner of that bump. Greg said he would assemble a rescue team in the morning. Though I now knew where I was, I had only a bottle and half of water left (no filter or iodine tabs) and I still had plenty of travel. There were no guarantees but I concluded that I had to use that water to find the trail in the morning.

I buckled down for a cozy night without any camping gear, there was a dead log on the rock platform so I had plenty of firewood. I made fire, and though I was wet from all the snow travel, my layers, and goretex, waterproof everything kept me warm. I spent the first couple of hours watching the beautiful sky and stars, but I eventually fell asleep with occasional interludes to put more firewood in the fire.

I awoke around 6am and called Greg, I gave him a heads up on my plans, and he said the team was held up on Tigiwon road because of the logging trucks hauling out the infested trees. My plan was to climb back up from the Cross Creek side of the sleeping "V" to the East Cross Creek side. I only had to climb directly towards the rising sun to accomplish this. I spent some time scoping Cross Creek for a projected plan, my best shot was to walk along the creek and slightly climb up to the right. As I was scoping out the creek I looked down and saw a camera in the wooded banks of the creek, I went through a marshy area to pick it up. I thought that perhaps it would provide some closure to the families of the two climbers that are still missing at Holy Cross if it turns out the camera belongs to one of the two climbers. Eagle county SR is currently trying to get the images on the card in the camera.

I proceeded to climb up and down some very steep, exposed sections, and around 10 am I arrived at the East Cross Creek crossing I used prior. The SR team met up with me here and we all proceeded to climb up from the creek. Earlier in the morning when I spoke to Greg, I asked him to tell the team to bring me a sandwich. I believe they brought a turkey provolone sandwich. It's fair to say it was by far the best sandwich I've had since I learned to appreciate food. We climbed out and hiked back to the summer TH and then drove back to the gate at the entrance of Tigiwon road. I retrieved my car and we all drove to Paddy's in Vail for a nice meal (fish tacos) and a beer (Colorado native).

Before I get into the lessons learned I have an apology to make. Prior to this experience I had zero sympathy (I still don't) for all the mountain gurus who go into the mountains with absolute certainty that they will make it back out or go in unprepared for unexpected situations. Another set of climbers have difficulty matching their ambition/desire with their capabilities, or perhaps have an exaggerated notion of their capabilities. The business is a dangerous one, it may be recreational, but death is as real as the state of Colorado. It is the risk we take when we go out there.

I want to say I'm sorry to all persons, living and dead, who have been unlucky in the mountains. Until now I tended to put more blame on people who get injured or die in the mountains, without consideration for whether they were just unlucky. But mountain luck has nothing to do with skill or intellect, I believe this even more now. The lucky ones are those who are able to remedy mistakes in the mountains, the unlucky ones are the people whose every move after an error only compounds their first error. The exact mechanism of how this luck is bestowed I don't know, but I'm convinced of its existence and I will not venture to analyze it.

Lesson Learned

It would be futile to enumerate lessons learned since every situation is different. However, I will say that, if you ever find yourself in a situation in the mountains where you feel lost, it is absolutely imperative that you pause (by this I mean stop completely), establish communication if you can, and develop a plan before moving. The reason is that, you have a limited resource (your physical strength) that when sufficiently depleted makes you sloppy. Combine this with a vulnerable mental state and other environmental variables and you have a recipe for a painful death. It is dangerous to wonder around in the mountains and arrive at a place where you need absolute concentration and at least 75% energy level, only to be exhausted. Better yet, retrace your steps backwards after 15 mins (this should be an absolute limit) of recognizing your error. Do not attempt a remedy that appears intuitive. Intuition maybe good for your everyday activities, but intuition is not reliable in the mountains. Certainty is better.

The whole experience was enjoyable, even though I was lucky. The combination of extreme vulnerability, exhaustion, and a night in the forest, with the nakedness that is familiar to our non-human animal compatriots, gave me a rush that is hard to explain. This would not be the first time I felt a rush like this, but it is always the same every time because I always end up thinking about what matters in life. Someone once said "it is not the mountains that you conquer when you climb, it is yourself." I believe this is a true assessment, but that's because I believe in mountain luck.

Trail Conditions

1. Tigiwon rd gate to summer trail head: clear of all snow except trucks and logging activities.
2. Summer TH to Half Moon Pass: mostly clear with little or no snow hiking.
3. Half Moon Pass to first switch back when descending to East Cross Creek: plenty of snow with moderate snow hike and some post holing if you're crossing later in the day.
4. Descending to ECC: free of snow
5. 1/2 mile from ECC: free of snow
6. 1/2 mile from ECC to tree line: plenty of snow, with several sections of the trail completely covered in snow. A good eye for the trail is very important here, though I don't think snow shoes would be helpful, gaiters and micro-spikes will be good. This will take time so it is best to get here early.
7. Tree line to summit: mostly clear of snow with small snow sections. Micro-spikes may be good.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

07/03/2011 20:27
Quite the epic. Good for you to keep your head in a scary situation, especially solo.

Congrats on your safe return.


interesting to say the least
07/04/2011 05:28
Glad you made it out alive. I hope the Eagle SR finds something on that camera to shed light on the missing persons, good find!

I fall a lot

07/04/2011 15:07
Good on you for keeping your head clear throughout the ordeal and thanks for sharing your story! Scary.


Nice report
07/05/2011 02:23
I appreciate your working through this and writing it out. I just happened to read this, I guess because of the title. Nice analysis of the situation. I had a similar epic sans SAR on my first big solo attempt. I decided to carry a gps after that, even if I just used it for tracking. And I pack enough to spend the night.(maybe not comfortable, but alive) Well done!


Glad you made is safe!
07/16/2011 20:50
I did Mt of the HC from the French Creek side about a month ago and I can totally see how you can get turned around in that wilderness. Way to use your head and keep clam, and good job on getting to the summit, I think that the amount of people getting up this mt this year will be drastically reduced due to the road closure and large amounts of snow that are still remaining.

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