Mt. of the Holy Cross
Descent Route: Cross Couloir
May 31, 2006
Ski Descent #45
I guess I really should not have been surprised to find such little snow on Holy Cross for this time of year, but given the great winter this area had, I certainly expected better conditions. The amount of snowmelt that has taken place over the last few weeks is pretty astounding. I was saving Holy Cross for later in my quest because I knew it had a decent snowpack from this winter, but I?m glad I didn?t wait any longer to ski this classic mountain by its ultra classic route, the Cross Couloir. Normally, people can ski the couloir well into summer, but this year the window of opportunity will be very short, as Mother Nature continues to bake the Colorado Mountains to a crisp.
Mount of the Holy Cross was first discovered in the late 1860?s, and it gained huge notoriety in Christian circles for the powerful image of the Holy Cross Couloir in the 1920?s and 1930?s. Thousands of pilgrims made the arduous journey up to Notch Mountain each summer to view the Cross and pray. I can only imagine the intense feelings they must have experienced being up in there in the high alpine and viewing the massive Cross. If only they had witnessed some skiers dropping in and giving it a good rip! Access to the mountain is long this time of year. The Tigawon Road, which heads into the mountains just south of Minturn, is closed to all motorized access until June 20th for elk calving, so the only way to get to the trailhead from this side is to walk or bike. We chose to hook kid trailers to our mountain bikes and grind out the nine and a half miles up to the Halfmoon trailhead. Three Vail locals joined me on this mission. Chris Anthony and Eric Warble are long time friends and ski partners. Chris and I skied Mount Columbia together a while back, and Eric and I have had many a great time in the mountains over the last ten years. Carl Cocchiarella is a long time Vail local and seasoned ski mountaineer. He has been on Holy Cross and skied the Cross Couloir several times before, and was psyched to show us the goods. I was thrilled to be skiing Holy Cross with these guys from Vail, since it is their ?local? fourteener.
We began riding up the road Tuesday evening and reached the Halfmoon trailhead after two hours of granny gear spinning. After a quick ?transition? into hiking shoes, we shouldered our packs and headed up the trail. An hour of hiking brought the group to Halfmoon Pass in time to see an epic sunset blazing over the mountains. Confident in the weather, Eric, Carl, and I slept out under the stars, while Chris got comfortable in his tent. I can?t possibly describe what a spectacular night it was up there at almost 12,000?, out in the open and under the massive canopy of stars, meteors, satellites, and the moon. The air was still and crisp, and we relaxed with just the right amount of anticipation for the coming days ski descent.
The sky showed signs of a new day as early as 4:45 a.m. The prolonged sunrise allowed us time for our bodies and minds to awake. The cold night allowed for reasonable start time, and we hit the trail at 6:20 a.m. We made quick time to the base of the mountain, stopping briefly at a magical spring that pours like a spout out of a solid granite cliff. We filled up with this pure H2O and continued on our way to the base of the couloir. Originally I had hoped to ski the entire Cross Couloir from the summit all the way to the valley floor. The couloir is split at about one third height by a cleft and cliff band that would have to be rappelled to access to lower portion. I was ready for this task with a rope, harness, and assortment of gear for an anchor. When I got a good look at it however, it was obvious that the snowmelt had done its job on the line and it was not in shape to ski in its entirety. The fact that a couple good-sized rocks flew through the cleft while I stood there made my decision a little easier. So we opted to continue climbing past Lake of Tears and up the slope that connects with the couloir at 12,900?. Our timing was pretty good in getting up into the couloir. The snow was just transforming into perfect corn, and we all made good, steady progress towards the summit. At one point, as I stepped out into the couloir proper to begin kicking steps, Carl yelled out? Heads up Chris?, and as I turned my gaze up the couloir a large boulder came whizzing right at me. I barely had time to side step out of the way of this missile. In all my years of climbing, alpinism, and skiing, this is as close as I have ever come to getting hit (or killed) by a rock. After a few deep breaths and thanks to the mountain gods (and Carl) I continued up the Cross Couloir. The climbing was easy, if not long. We all topped out at 10:30 a.m. and enjoyed some tranquil moments on one of Colorado?s great summits. The views from Holy Cross are beyond spectacular, with sprawling vistas fro the Front Range, Ten Mile Range, and Gore Range, across to the Elk Range in the west.
Skiing the Holy Cross Couloir had been on my list of must-do?s for at least a decade. Finally I was in position to ski one of the most classic couloirs in the state, and with three great friends as well. We dropped in one at a time, taking pictures and playing with the terrain. The snow in the upper 400? of the line was fantastic, but got progressively softer and more runneled as we descended. One might assume that being in a big and steep line like this means extreme focus and seriousness, and it does, but we all had huge smiles on our faces and laughed as we skied the excellent line. Just below 13,000? we crossed over onto the snowfield that drops back down to Lake of Tears, and ripped big, fast turns down the springtime corn to the lake. There must have been at least three different sessions of high-fives on the way down the run, and we celebrated our great descent with some water, a Red Bull, and some chocolates at the lake. After the break we continued skiing down to Lake Patricia, where we had to finally remove our skis and began the hike back up towards our camp. We all enjoyed another stop by the brilliant spring in the cliff to splash our faces and fill up. Back on the boulder strewn trail, we decided to head straight up the shoulder of Notch Mountain for some more turns back down to camp. I actually took a good forty-five minute nap on top, and then skied a killer line back to our flat camp spot on the pass. Once regrouped, we skied a little ways down the slope before having to switch to hiking shoes for the remainder of the Halfmoon trail. Then it was back on the bikes for the nine and a half mile ride down the Tigawon Road. It actually felt really great to spin our legs out on the bikes after a long day of climbing and skiing in the mountains. We finished off the memorable ski mission to Holy Cross with a few drinks at the Saloon in Minturn. One of the best parts of my project has been getting to share the experiences with so many wonderful friends, and I want to sincerely thank Carl, Chris, and Eric for joining me on ski descent #45.
Holy Cross is the last remaining fourteener with skiable snow on it this season. (From the summit) So now I either have to wait for a big summer storm to allow me to ski Longs Peak or Mount Bross, or simply wait until the snows come again in the fall and winter to finish the remaining ten peaks off. In either case I will have a season ending synopsis of where I stand with the project up here on the site in a week or two, and if you don?t here from me again until November, you?ll know why.
All the best,
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