via Holy Cross couloir and down the North Ridge
Mount of the Holy Cross is the most rugged fourteener in the Sawatch Range. Still, it’s an easy, albeit long, climb along the north ridge . But, our route was to be the 1200 foot cross snow couloir that makes the mountain so famous around the world. Ken and I drove down to the trailhead on the afternoon of Friday, June 30th and discovered that there were already several cars parked. We were a little worried that we would not find a spot to camp. We packed up and headed out. The hike to the campsites leads you over Halfmoon Pass. It’s not a relatively strenuous hike to the pass and we made good time. After the pass, you have the view of Holy Cross. The trail then descends rapidly for 900 feet into the beautiful valley below. Once at the bottom of the valley, camping spots were plentiful and we found a great one next to Cross Creek.
During our descent into the valley, we were able to spy a lot of our initial route. We had to climb south directly up the valley through steep, cliffy, and dense terrain. We scouted out the trail turnoff before it got dark so we’d know where to go.
We awoke the following morning around 3:30am and began hiking at 4am. We found the trail turnoff quickly but things were not to go as expected…we lost the trail almost instantaneously. We had our headlamps but the trail was completely indistinguishable from the rest of the ground. Because the forest was so dense, there was little undergrowth, so the entire ground appeared brown. We weaved in and out of other campsites then I finally realized that we’d just have to brute-force our way up to the high lake in front of the Cross Couloir called “The Bowl of Tears”. So, we got out the map and compass and headed up. I was actually really pleased with our route and progress. A few times our way was barred by massive boulders and a few times we ended up walking along cliffs in pitch darkness, but for the most part, we knew where we were the entire time and were able to navigate up to where the terrain thinned out a bit. We encountered a large boulder field and ended up navigating through a tunnel created by some massive boulders that had fallen together. This was indeed a genuine tunnel; the roof was completely intact and our voices echoed quite a bit. The tunnel was only about 30 feet long with a hard left turn in it and we were soon out and on our way again. Finding our way through the dark, cliffy forest was to be the most challenging part of the day.
Finally, we made it to the Bowl of Tears. We then headed up the grassy slopes and I eyed a spot that I suspected was the correct entrance to the couloir, for the lower part was blocked by vertical cliffs. Indeed, this was the right spot so we put our crampons on and started up. This couloir never got too steep (45 degrees at most, I’d say – definitely requiring crampons) and the snow was moderately soft for kick-stepping. I do remember, however, that there were no real spots to sit down and rest since the couloir was so deeply inset, so any others reading this should be warned to be well-rested before beginning. Also, once you start, it’s not very wise to turn around since the longer you’re in the couloir, the longer the sun is melting the snow and making retreat more difficult. Anyway, after thirty minutes or so we could see what we thought was the top. Sure enough, this was it! The couloir ends right below the true summit and we emerged at around 8:30 as the first people on the summit that day.
We ended up staying on the summit for over two hours. We saw all sorts of people arrive on top, then descend. We rested up good, ate, took pictures, scouted around the lower parts of the summit, then finally headed down the north ridge route. The north ridge route is enjoyable and with good views. The true trail sort of vanishes from time to time because a lot of it is just huge talus fields. Eventually, we made it back to our tent and mentally prepared ourselves for the 900 foot gain that lay between us and Halfmoon Pass. It turned out to be not bad at all; we just set a steady pace and stuck to it. Once at the pass, streams and streams of people passed us, perhaps 75. Thank goodness we camped on Friday instead of Saturday. We probably would not have found any place to sleep, let alone our great spot. When we arrived back at the trailhead, we were amazed to see a hundred cars at the trailhead. There were cars lined up along the road for maybe a half a mile! This is obviously a very popular fourteener – for good reasons!