Saturday, July 11, 2009

Holy Cross Wilderness

Last week I went on a four-day backpacking excursion into the Holy Cross Wilderness near Minturn, CO with my friends Dan and Nate. The highlight of the trip was summiting the 14,005 ft. Mount of the Holy Cross (my first 14er!). How cool was it that my first ascent was named after the Cross? Early settlers to region noticed the mountain's juxtaposed, intersecting snow-filled coloirs and thus aptly named it. I'm thankful that the Lord gave me the opportunity to experience His awesome creation. The scenery was absolutely amazing! Azure lakes set into massive cirques and high alpine meadows festooned with abudnant wildflowers were some of the trip's highlights.

Day 1
Leaving from the Fall Creek Trailhead, we hiked for about 5 miles towards our destination of Lake Constantine. The weather was pretty warm with spotty, overhead clouds. Upon arrival at the lake we pitched base-camp right as the first thunderstorm rolled in. Thankfully we managed to erect our tents and tarps before the massive deluge of water. The campsite we selected had a commanding view of the lake and rested upon large granite shelf with a few trees for cover. We spent the remainder of the day recovering from the hike and fishing from the shore. I caught my first native Colorado cutthroat trout that evening - the first of 18 I would eventually tally.

Day 2
Waking at 3AM, I arose to make preperations for our summit attempt. It didn't look promising as a storm had socked into the lower ridges. There was a slight drizzle and the group decided to postpone the trip for the next day. After arising again later that morning, we made breakfast and enjoyed some cofee taking in the beautiful scenery. We fished a little more and decided to hike up to the Tuhare Lakes. This would give us an idea about the approach and eliminate some near-dark routefinding on summit day. Also, the lakes had plentiful fish opportunities. We threw in some snacks and a couple of cold beers into our day-packs and headed out. The trek up to the first lake was steep and ardous with a couple of class 3 sections thrown in for fun. When we arrived at the lake, we assumed it was the Lower Tuhare, but actually turned out to be a high, alpine tarn. Observing some interesting rock formations, I trekked down to the lake dodging sunbathing marmots. The water was very clear and I could easily spot numerous troat swimming so we decided to hang out and fish the locations. After fishing and generally being lazy for a few hours, we were enouraged back to camp by a very dark and angry approaching thunderstorm. The storm eventually broke back at base-camp and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset dinner from our granite perch.

Day 3
The alarm went off promptly at 3Am and I arose with suprising eagerness. The temperature was in the lower 40s and the sky clear - which allowed for delightful stargazing. We ate a quick breakfast, hydrated, and threw on our day-packs. It was still very dark when we broke camp so headlamps were powered on and the hike commenced. We hiked for about 45 minutes and crested over a ridge that held a magnificent watefall. We continued along a small trail until forced onto a steep, rock-hard snowfield. The going was a bit dicey but our trekking poles gave us some aid. Eventually we traversed around the lower lake, up a steep embankment, and over a ridge that seperated the two lakes. After a long slog across another hard snowfield, we finnaly arrived at the main approach. Dan was having a rough time at this point and our slow pace began to worry me. During a short rest I used the GPS and map to gain our position and ascertain the next segment. I couldn't see the route from our position because a huge boulder filled hill abscured its view.

We pushed on and began tackling the boulder hill. The hill was very steep with unsettled boulders and scree which required moderate scrambling. About half way up, Dan was done. He had taken a nasty fall at base camp (retrieving a lure) and injured his ribs. The lower oxygen levels were really kicking his butt. Knowing the pace that we needed to maintain in order to safely summit, we agreed that he would stay here and await our return. Nate and I continued on and crested the hill which gave us an unabstructed view of our route - and it wasn't pretty. There was a small, snow-filled coloir that was the only opening in the cliff bands but it was hard and very slick. I spied a crevasse that edged the snowfield where the cliff and snow met. We entered the crevasse and shimmied upward about 70ft before we got jammed. I took off my day-pack and straddle-hopped the remaining 10 ft onto a narrow ledge.

The coloir continued upward at a rude angle among small ledges and chunks of tundra. It was slick and the footing was dodgy. I found a route through the mess and avoided the coloir as much as possible. Nate followed up and we rested at the beginnings of a giant talus field. Halo ridge was still a 1000 ft up. We rested and began the slog up the loose talus. Eventually we gained the ridge and had our first look at the amazing Mount of the Holy Cross. It was straight across from us, the direct approach guarded by the enormous Bowl of Tears. We summited Point 13,600 and began our traverse of the Halo Ridge. We boulder-hopped and scrambled around the traverse until finally resting at the base of Holy Cross. Nate was beggining to feel fatigued but I urged him onward noting how close we were to the summit. I banged out the remainder of the ascent which required frequent stopping to recover my breath. Finally I topped out and was on the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross. Woot!

While I waited for Nate, I talked with a couple of people on top and snapped a few pictures. It was around 9AM, roughly five hours of hard work. Nate emerged looking happy but knackered. We rested and rehydrated for no more than 10 minutes before my internal clock chimed. The clouds were small and seemingly innocuous. However, in the distance I noticed a couple of cumulus forming. I pointed out these, the time, and the re-wind of traverse to Nate and we began our descent. 45 minutes later we were back on the summit of Point 13,600 and looking down into the large cirque below Unammed Peak. Nate told me he had no desire to down-climb the nasty coloir so I plotted a new route down the enormous talus ridge into the cirque.

While the pitch down the ridge was moderate, the talus was unstable and testy. I was starting to feel the fatigue and my legs complained about the loose footing. I eventually stopped at a place where the talus ended and a large, snow-filled cirque began. I was so over the talus! I mentioned this to Nate when he finally reached me. The snow had softened up considerably and I proposed a glissade (another first). I collapsed my trekking poles and they became a make-shift rudder. With my butt firmly planted on the slope, I pushed off. I would guess the glissade was no more than 300-400ft, but man it was fun. Once we traversed around the cirque, we side-hilled more snowfields above Tuhare Lake. The snow was soft, but there was a decent pitch - one that would require a self-arrest if you were to fall. After navigating a few more boulder fields we eventually reunited with Dan. By this time we both were pretty spent and Nate looked like he was bonking. While it was almost noon by now, dark thunderstorms began forming above us. I did not like this because we were still way up above tree-line. With new-found energy (read adrenaline) I pushed the group onward at an accelerated clip. We eventually made it made it back to camp around 12:30, totally spent after 8 hours of climbing and thousands of feet in elevation gain.

Day 4
We slept in and arose to a sunny, warm morning. I made some oatmeal and washed it down with some coffee. After breakast we broke camp, repacked our backpacks, and left around noon. As we hiked out I could hear thunder moving in. Sure enough, about a half hour later it was hucking down massive hail. I took cover inside a thicket and put on my rain gear. It poured the remainder of the hike out and we emerged at the trailhead soaked, but content.

Pictures from the trip.