Mount of the Holy Cross/Holy Cross Ridge trip report

Disclaimer

I successfully finished off the Sawatch Range 14ers, and bagged another Centennial 13er on this hike. But, boy, was it tougher than I thought it would be on almost every count, save two. It actually ended up finishing much better than I thought it might, but I'll get to that later. This is a long report, so pack a lunch.

The first thing about this hike that was easier than expected was the drive up the Tigiwon Road. Roach's 14er and 13er guidebooks call it "rough but passable with passenger cars". I would call it "rough but easily passable with passenger cars". Other than some bad washboarding near the beginning and a few deep potholes near the end, the road is in pretty good shape. I was able to generally do 15-20 mph in my Saturn sedan. That put me at the trailhead a bit ahead of schedule to keep me on the Fall Creek Trail until it got light enough to follow a rougher trail or no trail at all. My plan was to use the route up Fall Creek and the Tuhare Lakes to get to the summit of Holy Cross Ridge, and then make the short traverse to the summit of Holy Cross itself.

I had to poke around a little to find the Fall Creek Trailhead (just below the main parking) as opposed to the Halfmoon Trailhead (just above the main parking). At that point, I was assuming that I would be returning via the Fall Creek Trailhead via the same route I ascended. I started moseying up the trail at 0338, using my trekking poles and hoping they wouldn't screw up my wrists anymore than they already are. I enjoyed the nifty views of the Moon and Orion over the lonely unnamed ridge to the east.

I was surprised that there were quite a few ups and downs on the trail. (I actually added 100 feet to the total elevation figure for this, even though it's likely more.) Nothing major, but 40 feet here and 60 feet there starts to add up after a while, especially on a long route, and knowing that I would have to climb back up all those spots on the way down. But, I was still feeling strong as I passed Lake Constantine and reached the point where I would leave the main trail. As it turned out, I pretty much passed this point without being sure of it. The trail went down near the creek and there was an obvious right turn at that point. It was still a little dark, but I think the main trail did cross the creek here. I could be totally mistaken, but that was probably the junction although it really didn't necessarily look like a junction.

In any case, the trail was now climbing steeply up the drainage to the Tuhare Lakes. Just below the lower lake there is a series of small waterfalls that must be spectacular during the spring run-off. Near the top of this climb, the trail goes through a narrowing gully. After this point, you're mostly on your own and the terrain is rather complicated at times. I'm not quite sure exactly where I was on the map, but I ended up entering the lower lake basin well to the north of the lake and had to descend back down near the lake shore. I think the Trails Illustrated map actually has the correct trail route, so you might have better luck if you are more careful to follow that route. In any case, the terrain forces you to the inlet of the lower lake, below more waterfalls coming from the upper lake. (I think it's pretty safe to guess why Fall Creek got it's name.) I picked up a trail of sorts that seems to follow the route on the TI map up the left side of the drainage to the upper lake.

As the guidebook indicates, Upper Tuhare Lake is quite impressive and lives in a steep cirque. I took a 15 minute break here. The problem with the lake is the tedious hike over talus and boulders to get around it. The lake is 0.4 miles long, so you have a generally awkward half-mile hike to get past it. Pretty place, but yet another thing to make the hike more challenging. Past the lake it's more talus to climb up to a spot labeled on the map as being a permanent snowfield or glacier. There was indeed a small amount of bullet-proof alpine ice and snow; I wondered if, like other places in Colorado, the extreme drought was exposing ancient snowpack. It is entirely possible that no humans had been to this spot until the 1800s, and the exposed snowpack might have been that old.

At this point you can finally see your only exit from this cirque, to the right (north) up to a ridge extending east from the 13831-foot summit of Holy Cross Ridge. (Holy Cross Ridge runs north-south, with a "smooth" west side and numerous east-west ridges and cirques on its east side.) It might be slightly easier to stay as far right (east) as possible on this ascent and hit the ridge near 13300ft, but it's pretty much a Hobson's choice. You are stuck with a fairly steep ascent on talus in any case; luckily it was relatively solid.

While ascending this slope, I started thinking about whether I really wanted to descend this route. I would have 330ft of gain coming back over Holy Cross Ridge, plus maybe 100ft if I followed the ascent route around the lower lake to make sure I caught the trail as soon as possible, and a couple hundred extra feet on the trail. Plus, the whole route is almost 8 miles one-way. And, the tedious hike around the upper lake. Because the trailhead for the standard route up Holy Cross is at the same parking area, I could consider doing a traverse and descend that standard route. It is only 6 miles one-way, but has a major obstacle; an extra 970ft of gain required near the beginning of the trail to get over Halfmoon Pass. This is why I didn't use this route on the ascent, because to get both Holy Cross and Holy Cross Ridge requires over 6000ft of gain. The guidebook claims it's still the easiest way to do both peaks, and in retrospect that might be true.

I hit the ridge at 13700ft near a sharp point, and scrambled up steep talus on the last section to the summit of Holy Cross Ridge. I did not find a register or other marking; I even checked two other points that I thought were lower than the summit. It was 0838 when I summitted, exactly 5 hours after starting and 2 hours after reaching Upper Tuhare Lake.

The other thing that turned out to be easier than I expected was the traverse from Holy Cross Ridge over to Holy Cross. It was still an extra 500ft of gain above 13500ft, but the ridge itself wasn't too bad. So, I summitted my 38th 14er, and final Sawatch Range 14er at 0941. I was immediately able to find the register this time. I was pleased to note that just a few names above mine was Mike Garratt making his 4th ascent of Holy Cross. Mike is the author (with Bob Martin) of the first guidebook to the high 13ers and one of the two most prolific peak baggers in Colorado's history (again with Bob Martin). That was even my comment, something like "on the same page as Mike Garratt!!" I'm sure that reference was lost on most people, but Garratt and Martin wrote their guidebook many years before Roach wrote any of his Colorado peak bagging guidebooks. Garratt & Martin are also more or less responsible for standardizing the "rules" for calling a summit a separate peak or not, and for publishing on of the first complete lists of 13ers. But, I digress. ;)

Even though it was the Friday before a major 3-day weekend (or maybe because of that), I thought I might run into someone on the summit. It turned out that I was the first for the day, at least according to the register. I saw a few people above treeline while hiking down, and several groups packing in between East Cross Creek and the trailhead. The views from the summit were okay, but not great. It was a little hazy, so that didn't help. I noticed only one peak with snow and it was a goodly amount. I didn't think it was the right direction at the time, but with some map work I'm almost certain it was Snowmass Mountain. [Actually, I finally looked at my videotape of the hike and it was not Snowmass. I now believe that this is the permanent snowfield just below the summit of North Massive.] The weather was still great at this point; just enough of a breeze to be felt and just a few fair-weather cumulus clouds starting to form. I was able to continue sans gloves from this point. I left the summit at 1000.

I was hoping there would be a decent climbers trail over most of the ridge. This was not the case, and it was an awkward talus hike, except for the few sections of loose trail. By the time I reached 13200ft, my legs were just about shot. A lot of this was simply due to lack of conditioning. I was also sure that my poor management of eating and drinking was going to bite me in the ass, especially since I had that huge climb near the end of the hike. I was seriously wondering why the hell I do this shit anymore and couldn't imagine trying two more long routes next week. (I was getting close to my "use it or lose it" quota of earned vacation days, and since I do not teach, but do work with students, the first two weeks of class seemed perfect for me to run away.) I tried to spot cairns when I could and basically continued down the mountain in survival mode.

Finally, at a little above 12000ft, the good trail started (or ended, if you want to look at it in the usual way). That helped quite a bit and I could finally make good use of my trekking poles, which hadn't helped since 12000ft on the ascent. I was still hanging in there physically, although my legs were still shot, but I was still concerned about the big climb and whether I would totally fold up physically.

Thing is, the rest of the descent went pretty well. Yes, I wanted the hike to be over with, but I was still enjoying the scenery and being out in the wilderness on such a nice day. It still took a bit over an hour to make the 970-foot climb from East Cross Creek to Halfmoon Pass, but that was because I took it very slowly, settling into a pace where I could still breath through my nose and making liberal use of the rest step. My trekking poles were great here. The views of Holy Cross from this switchbacking trail are fabulous where the tree cover is thin. Halfmoon Pass is kind of weird because it just barely pokes up above treeline so you are in the trees on both sides but not at the summit. The segment from the pass down to the trailhead was stedily moderately steep, which was perfect; too steep and it would have hurt more, and too shallow and I always feel like I'm not making progress. I rather like it when I can look at my altimeter every so often and measure my progress downhill. I was dehyrdrated despite drinking almost 3 liters of sports drink and 12 ounces of water, and malnourished, but I took a 5-10 minute break every hour and managed to keep myself going.

I finally reached the mostly sunny parking lot at 1409. This was my 4th longest dayhike timewise, and the other 3 had more than 6000 feet of gain! I dropped off my poles on the trunk of my car and continued to the other side of the parking lot to sign out of the other trailhead register. Weird. There were more cars than SUVs at the parking lot, which is doubly weird! Anyway, this is the latest I've finished a hike in the high mountains in quite a while.

I noted that the Tigiwon Road has a lot of aspens, so I bet it will be pretty colorful in a couple weeks. It's been a long time since I've been on I-70 west of the CO 91 turnoff at Exit 195. I stopped at the Exit 190 rest area on the way back; it's a little too far off the highway for a quick piss-and-go stop, but the vending machine had Cheetos, which went well with the Mountain Dew I already had in my cooler. (For more diet advice, call 555-EAT-JUNK.) Since it was a Friday, eastbound traffic volume was low. However, by the time I passed through the Eisenhower tunnel, there was heavy volume coming up into the mountains for the long weekend, which I could only chuckle at. I hit Boulder at rush hour, but again that was mostly the daily mass exodus and not in my direction.

Unlike several of my hikes this summer, my quads weren't trashed the next day. I assume my trekking poles are responsible for that. Fortunately, 10+ miles of pole usage didn't screw up my wrists at all. As you might have guessed, I did figure out "why the hell I do this shit anymore", and now that I seem to be able to use poles again, I'm still looking to do at least one more long hike the week of Labor Day. As far as this hike: try to be in good shape and not be chronically injured. Maybe do the standard route on Holy Cross and then consider adding on Holy Cross Ridge if all is well. Plus, Holy Cross Ridge by itself via my ascent route will be noticably shorter than doing both peaks.


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File last modified: 30 December 2004

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