Peak(s):  Mt. of the Holy Cross  -  14,005 feet
Date Posted:  01/01/2019
Date Climbed:   12/30/2018
Author:  bmcqueen
Additional Members:   JtheChemE, ScreeSurfer, JQDivide
 Mt of the Holy Cross to Close Out a Great 2018   

Mt. of the Holy Cross - December 30, 2018


Holy Cross in winter had not really been on my radar until last week. Up until the start of this winter, I had dismissed it as much too far, with its staggering ~27.5 mile round trip and ~8,000 vertical feet effort. I started this winter with 19 winter peaks to go, so Holy Cross started climbing up the priority list out of necessity. Justin Becker (JtheChemE) reached out on the solstice to see if I might be interested in Holy Cross early in the winter. We agreed to keep in touch.

John Balciar (ScreeSurfer) and I kicked off the first full day of winter with Castle & Conundrum, so I was feeling good that the season was off to a good start. I had hoped that perhaps there would be a window right after Christmas to go for Chicago Basin, but large amounts of snow started rolling in and making that unlikely. I started thinking more about Holy Cross and Justin’s offer. The long distance and potential for brutal early-season trenching meant that we wanted a larger team if we could muster one. I put out a number of feelers, but lots of holiday travel plans were in full swing. We ended up with a team of four: me, John, Justin and Joel Quevillon (JQDivide).

I knew that Joel and I were slower than John and Justin, so he and I decided we would plan to spend two nights at Halfmoon Pass and have a leisurely hike out Monday morning. John & Justin were going to play it by ear on the 2nd night.

Day One – Saturday, December 29, 2018

Miles ~9.5 (Justin's Strava got 9.8 on the way up and 9.2 on the way down, so we’ll call it 9.5)
Altitude gain – 3,597 feet
Camp Elevation ~11,600
Time ~7 hours car to camp

We met at the junction of Highway 24 and Tigiwon Road around 8:00 Saturday morning. John and I met another John, this one from Kansas, gearing up his sled and preparing to head towards Holy Cross as well. Joel, John & I began walking the road at 8:43 AM with both me and Joel using a sled set-up and John hauling his winter camping gear on his back. Justin would start about 20 minutes after us and catch us shortly.

Joel all set to go with his sled in tow.

John ready to walk.

Nova Guides runs snowmobiling tours up the Tigiwon Road during the winter, so the road is nice and packed – no need for snowshoes for the first eight miles! The guides were super cool when we passed them getting the machines ready for the clients for the day. They were extremely courteous and let us know what time they would be coming up the road and that they would be sure to watch for us and make sure their clients didn’t mow us down. We appreciated that seeing as we were far from nimble with the heavy packs and sleds!

First round of snowmobiles go past. They look at us like we are crazy. I guess maybe we are...

Joel & I pulling our sleds up the groomed road. Photo - John.

Those eight miles up to the summer trailhead were a bit mind numbing, but we enjoyed chatting and the warmer than expected temperatures. John pulled ahead somewhere around mile three so that he could have the privilege of busting the trench from the summer trailhead to our camp at Halfmoon Pass.

Groomed road ends at the summer trailhead. Photo - John.

Justin enjoys a cup of hot cocoa at the summer trailhead.

My sled & I roll into the summer trailhead. Photo - Justin.

When I told Justin I had brought a cook tent for camp so we could have a nice place to sit and eat, he volunteered to take the #2 spot up through that deeper snow, several times going in past his knees even after John had put in the initial track. My sled, with my giant Hilleberg along with the cook tent, appreciated getting the #3 spot. Joel ditched his sled and threw his heavy pack on for the final march up to camp.

Summer trailhead - even with John ahead of us, the going gets harder here.

Justin seconding the trench.

Nearing the pass and hoping to see John and camp soon.

As we got closer to the top of the pass, we had a brief panic thinking maybe John had gone down the other side to set up camp at the summer wilderness camp sites. Luckily, we saw him and his tent set up nearly at the top of the pass. John being John….he had already stamped out tent platforms for the rest of us - thanks John!

Justin sees John & camp and hangs a hard right at the pass.

Camp at Halfmoon Pass near the trees in the distance.

Sunset from Halfmoon Pass. Photo - Joel

We got the rest of the tents set up, then hung out in the cook tent to boil water for dinner, then went into water production mode by melting enough snow to get all of our bottles full for the morning.

Camp at dusk. Photo - Justin

A "pinkish hue" at dusk. Photo - John

Camp for the night - looks colder somehow in the dark.

Day Two – Sunday, December 30, 2018

Miles – 8.5
Altitude gain – 4,283 feet
Time – 11 hours camp to camp

We rolled out of camp at 7:17 AM Sunday. It felt good to just be carrying day packs and we were blessed with virtually no wind at the pass. I jumped out front to try to get some trenching credit on the downhill stretch. About 10 minutes in, I thought, “uh oh, I’m in trouble. If it’s this tiring trenching the downhill leg, what is the uphill going to be like later?!?!”

Descending from Halfmoon Pass. Photo - Justin

Joel in the alpenglow. Photo - Justin.

Trenching around Notch Mountain with Mt. Jackson getting first light.

We carried avalanche gear and soon found the couple of suspect slopes as we did a descending traverse around the north side of Notch Mountain. Lots of saplings, visible rocks and a lack of any sort of wind slab made us feel better crossing, but the trenching across the traverse was tough. Justin took the lead at one point and I commented that we needed to try to keep John well rested in the back for as long as we could because we were going to need his super human trenching ability for the uphill!

Justin takes over.

We went a bit too far towards the standard summer trail and realized we needed to backtrack to the northeast a bit to drop the dreaded 1,000 feet of elevation and avoid the cliff bands that the summer trail delicately navigates. Before we dropped too much, Joel let us know that the summit wasn’t in the cards for him that day. His hip was bugging him and he didn’t want to slow us down. He headed back to camp and would leave each of us a little food treat before he packed out down to his car (Swedish Fish for Justin, oatmeal for me and a pasta dinner for John - thanks Joel!).

Joel is back at camp leaving us goodies before he heads down. Photo - Joel

We cut back to the northeast and eventually found milder terrain for our descent down to the drainage.

Time to find a way down. Mt. Jackson in the background. Photo - John

Justin & I looking for a way down. Photo - John

A not fun section trying to work our way back to easier terrain. Photo - Justin.

After navigating down to East Cross Creek, it was time for the worst of the trenching. Justin located the summer trail and soon we were passing wooden signs marking the upper campsites as we ascended through the forest. I took a turn up front, with my goal to put in 100 paces. On step 86, I went in up to my waist. John said, “that looks like fun.” I told him I had hoped to get 100 done with my dignity in tact, but that was not to be. John humored me and let me do another 14 paces before he took over. I’m not sure either Justin or I ever got close enough to him to offer to break trail again.

A beautiful trench in the morning light.

More pretty trench.

Almost to the North Ridge.

The going gets easier as we get higher, but the wind picks up the slack.

Won't that be nice for the next people?

When we got above tree line and up onto the North Ridge, we stopped for a quick break and to take off the snowshoes. I joked with John that I thought he had done a few more than 100 paces. “Maybe just a few”, he replied. We discussed leaving our snowshoes and avy gear there, but decided against it just in case the weather was good and we decided to descend via Halo Ridge, a long, exposed ridge run, but a route that would avoid us having to re-climb Halfmoon Pass at the end of the day. Snowshoes went on the packs, spikes went on the feet and we plodded along trying to rock hop as best we could up the ridge.

John admires his 1,000' of trenching while the mere mortals catch up. Photo - John

Looking back down at Justin and the North Ridge. Our camp is a long ways away where Notch Mountain meets Halfmoon Pass.

Getting ready to turn the corner for the summit push. Photo - John

John making his way the last bit to the summit of winter 14er #53.

Justin rounding the corner and ready for the summit push.

The wind picked up as we moved up the ridge and the temperature dropped a bit. Slowly, but steadily, we worked our way to the summit. I should have put my OR Alti Mitts on sooner, but waited until the summit to put them and my puffy on. My fingers were quite cold, so I got not a single summit photo. John and Justin had both done a better job getting their big mitts on sooner, so they handled summit photo duties quickly and efficiently.

Me on the summit with Holy Cross Ridge behind. Photo - John

Justin & me on the summit. Photo - John

John and me on the summit. Photo - Justin

Obligatory marker photo. Photo - Justin

Another brief conversation about Halo Ridge or re-tracing our steps yielded a unanimous “back the way we came” answer. The peak was socked in and it was cold with the wind. We just wanted to get back down and out of the wind, even if it meant ascending Halfmoon Pass in the dark.

John off in the distance heading back down the ridge.

Me descending to John & Justin. What happened to our nice trench??? Photo - Justin

Me re-establishing our trench on the way down. Photo - John

A light snow began to fall around dusk and continued until we were back at camp with an 11-hour day under our belts. With Joel already gone, I think Justin and John decided to take pity on me and hang out one more night. They are both plenty strong where they could have descended that night. I didn’t have another 9+ miles in me. I wanted dinner and my -25 degree sleeping bag.

Re-ascending Halfmoon Pass in the dark in light snow definitely hurt a little.

Somehow my left boot had been letting water in all day; my sock was drenched and my small hot spot from Saturday became a deep blister during the day Sunday. Good thing I had spare socks to change into before bed. The other one froze solid during the night.

My wet sock caused a deep blister on my inner heel.

The still-frozen sock Monday afternoon back at home.

Day Three – Monday, December 31, 2018

Miles – we’ll say 9.5 again
Time – 3:30 camp to cars
Vertical gain – not positive, but there was some! (yes the road is uphill as you leave the summer trailhead – ugh).

None of us slept great – our bodies were all restless from the long day. In a rare human moment, John admitted that one of his hamstrings cramped during the night. We started moving about 5:30 AM with the goal to be walking by 7:00. As is so often the case, things take just a little longer than you think, especially when it’s cold and dark. We walked at 7:16 AM, me with my sled and them with their heavy overnight packs.

John leads the way down Monday morning. Photo - Justin

We zipped down the hill to the summer trailhead and all enjoyed the luxury of indoor facilities (sans running water or furnished TP, but who needs those!).

I'm happy to be back on the road. Photo - Justin

Thankfully it was unlocked on our way out!

The walk up the first long hill of the road was a touch demoralizing, but less so given that it was 8:00 AM after some rest in the tents. John and Justin pulled away a little, and I told them at the summer trailhead to go as fast as they wanted as I knew they were anxious to get out.

Walking out in a light snow.

I was thrilled to get to the top of the hill and feel my sled sliding solely with gravity instead of the slight tug at my hips. When it zipped past me the first time, I thought, “hmmm…maybe I could ride it?” I gave it a try down one of the steeper hills on the descent. Yep, that works just fine. I almost crashed a couple of times, but I knew I had to be making up some time on Justin and John. I was pretty happy about the idea of sledding past them soon and waving that I would see them at the bottom. Then I discovered that the road graders had made the vast majority of the road just a little less downhill than a sled needs to move comfortably without its occupant working very hard pushing. Guess I’m walking after all….

Aspen forest on the way out. Joel does a better job of appreciating the views around us. Photo - Joel

Every now and then, the sled would get going enough for me to try it again – usually short bursts in between having to walk. Then towards the very bottom of the road, I got two great, long sled runs in, and with my steering technique better-honed, I didn’t really come too close to crashing. Sure enough, as I started walking again at the Nova snowmobile base camp, I saw that the guys were not far in front of me at all. They looked over their shoulders and did a double take when they saw me. I confessed how I caught them and we all celebrated another successful winter 14er at our cars, then headed home to enjoy New Years Eve with our families.

What a great way to conclude 2018! I hope you have big plans for 2019 and take the baby steps that are necessary each day along the way to see those big plans come to fruition!

Happy New Year and thanks for reading!

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

Thank you
01/01/2019 09:41
I always enjoy your reports.


01/01/2019 18:07
Nice work! Did it last winter and felt like skis were the way to go. Got down the 4wd road in like 7 min!


Crossing over
01/02/2019 11:16
Excellent report, Brad! Congrats on a hard-won summit to cap off 2018.

Thanks for the trench!
01/02/2019 15:51
Jon from Kansas here! I ran into stove troubles shortly after you guys passed me and thought about turning back. Ended up pressing on but only made it to the summer TH and decided to camp there. Man it got cold! I was wondering how you guys fared higher up. The next morning I followed your tracks up to where you camped then packed back out to sleep in my truck. I can't believe you made it that far with the sled! Even with a well packed trench and just a day pack, that climb took some work. Good job making the summit and thanks for the nice trip report! I never take enough pictures.


Great Pictures!
01/02/2019 21:00
I imagine not many people make it to the pass in winter, let alone the top. Glad to see the weather cooperated enough to snag the summit!


01/04/2019 07:57
Brad, thanks for writing this up. It was a good trip, and I sure will miss that luxurious cook tent the next time I have to winter camp!


10/06/2020 20:31
Impressive work; thank you- this is inspiring!

11/02/2020 17:47
Great write up. As someone starting to poke around at different winter options, I really appreciate this post.

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