At fourteen thousand feet above sea level, Mount of the Holy Cross is not just a mountain, it’s a place. A very big place that’s as rugged as it is wild. And like all high places, it’s alive with intensity in both physical and emotional experiences.
The place is made up of grand scenery at the edge of our imaginations. A mass of black rock jutting into blue sky, emerald green lakes sparkle in the breeze below, and a graceful waterfall welcoming you into the heart of its valley.
The Holy Cross began as legend. Somewhere in these vast mountains dwelled a magical peak that bore a magnificent cross made of snow. The official discovery came with solid proof in the form of a glass-plate image taken by pioneer photographer William H. Jackson in 1873. Jackson along with mules to carry the bulky photography equipment and chemicals, ascended neighboring thirteen thousand foot Notch Mountain to a viewpoint where the snowy cross rises before you with unspeakable beauty.
The mystical cross was readily accepted by a largely Christian population as a sign that westward expansion was indeed destined for this great country. Soon religious pilgrimages to stand, or kneel, in the very presence of the powerful and healing cross became popular.
Mount of the Holy Cross is still sought out by curious travelers. You can clearly see the cross from the top of Vail Mountain, and from Shrine Pass road, from June through mid-July. The prominent summit can always be seen, but the snowy cross melts away by mid-summer.
Holy Cross is a tough mountain to climb, not in a technical way, but in terms of endurance. While some hikers choose to camp out to break up the long hike, most choose to do it as a big day trip. Gerry Roach best sums it up in his guidebook, “Colorado’s Fourteeners”. He says, “By climbing Holy Cross in one day, you will minimize your impact on this beautiful landscape, but you will maximize impacts on yourself. Get in shape for this one!”
The route up Holy Cross is challenging the whole way. From the word go at the car, you begin a steep and steady 1200 foot ascent over the shoulder of Notch Mountain over Halfmoon Pass. From here the view of Mount Jackson, Grouse Mountain, and the Cross Creek valley below inspire visual bliss.
From Halfmoon Pass you look down to contemplate the one thousand foot descent that is now before you which will take you to the clear tumbling waters of East Cross Creek, and the foot of the mountain. After starting with such a stout climb, it is disheartening to start hiking downhill again and lose so much elevation. This will be just the first time the mountain will ask, “How badly do you want it?”
You know you want that summit, and as you round the corner, Wham! The first view of Holy Cross itself slaps you in the face. Standing in awe, you try to grasp the magnitude of the landscape both above and below. Like a big rock in the sky, the summit looms high above. Ahead down below, a majestic waterfall forms a flowing white veil over ancient stone, misting a rainbow spray over age-old spruce, heavy with girth.
As the narrow path winds down the steep mountainside, the view constantly changes from forest, to rock, to ledge. Eventually you arrive at the clear and refreshing icy waters of East Cross Creek. This is the place to use a water filter, and top off water supplies. Three quarts per person is recommended. You will get thirsty on the climb.
Now the true ascent of Holy Cross begins. As you make your way up and leave the sound of rushing water behind, in your mind you know you’ll be back later that day, and will splash cold mountain water on your salty face as a changed person. Holy Cross does that you know.
Oh, the steepness of the trail, the burning calves, and your head spinning! There is no question that this ascent means business. Slow and steady is the best you can hope for, but even the most aerobically fit person will gladly stop and take in the view.
After nearly a thousand feet of climbing, the spruce and fir yield to open alpine meadows of grasses and flowers. From this vantage, every time you look up, you grimace at what awaits you above; A sea of rock, black rock, jumbled rocks, shelves of rock, car-sized rocks, house-sized rocks, and finally there’s the haunting image of the big rock in the sky. It softly asks again, “How bad do you want it?”
The boulders are intimidating, and there’s only one way to get through them- one foot in front of the other. The boulder field is not a place for pussyfooting around trying to choose the next best place to step in a sea of infinite choices. Just pick a good step and go.
How long to the summit depends on the person. It’s at least two hours for the most efficient climbers to summit, three hours for some, and many simply come to a stop in the sea of boulders knowing it’s useless, and they’ll never make it.
The trip back down the boulder field is equally grueling, requiring constant focus on footing and choosing an efficient route. Remember, most accidents on mountains occur on the way back down, because climbers are fatigued both physically and mentally.
Although there is a maze of trails through the boulders, it is advisable to stay as close to the north ridge as possible. Not only is this an efficient route, but also it keeps you from straying too far west and getting off-route.
Hikers get lost on Holy Cross every year, mainly because if you descend through the boulders too far from the north ridge, a second false-ridge tricks your mind while the landscape cants further and further from the trail, depositing you into the dizzying sheer cliffs of upper Cross Creek.
Rescue teams find lost hikers every year that did not expect to spend a single night out, much less several cold nights out with little food or water. Sadly, last year a fatigued but capable hiker became separated from her hiking partner, never to be seen again. Not even one thousand searchers could find her or her remains. The place is just that big.
The best views of the snowy cross is from neighboring thirteen thousand foot Notch Mountain from much the same vantage where William H. Jackson stood to capture his famous image 130 years ago.
Relative to Holy Cross, Notch Mountain is a very pleasant climb, and is the perfect starter climb for new peak climbers. The trail is five miles to the ridge, with switchbacks all the way to the top.
A stone shelter equipped with lightening rods is also atop Notch Mountain. Interestingly, the structure has a beautiful stone fireplace, but the nearest wood is miles away. This harks back to the days when earlier travelers used horses and mules to pack heavy supplies up the mountain.
High peak climbing should never be taken lightly. Being prepared doesn’t mean bringing everything you need if everything were to go right, it means bringing what you need incase something goes wrong. For instance, a way to make a fire, having extra food, having a way to purify water, having a map and compass, and having a first aid kit.
When hiking above treeline, play it safe with lightening and get super-early starts. If skies become at all questionable, you should continually assess how far your retreat is back to the safety of the thick timber below. Hasty retreats during lightening storms are never fun, and can lead to serious accidents.
Consider group dynamics prior to a big hike, and lay out some guidelines ahead of time by agreeing to stay together. Or in a larger party, if it were to consider splitting up, each group has a pre-determined leader. If weather becomes questionable, it makes it easy to cast a vote and if any party member feels uncomfortable with continuing, the entire party simply turns around and saves the summit for another day.
I like high peak climbing because you can see sometimes a hundred miles to peaks in the far-off distance, and view uncountable high jagged peaks both far and near.
From high vantage points you can also see emerald green and azure blue alpine lakes that were carved by past glaciers, now fed by abundant snowmelt and clear-running springs. Often waterfalls and cascading streams appear as little gems along your route and add pleasure.
The wildflowers are fabulous, and the marmots, pikas and ptarmigan appear as local entertainment. Watch above for peregrine falcons and golden eagles as they make their sweeps for unsuspecting prey.
High peak hiking is for advanced hikers. Be prepared with rain gear, a warm hat, mittens, and plenty of food and water. Always have a map and compass and a solid understanding of your route.
Peaks never come easy. However the long journey can lead us to a special life experience that reminds us that we are all very small people, in a very big place.