Monday, August 13, 2012

Adventures on "America's Sinai" - Mount of the Holy Cross

I've always been intrigued by the history of the mountains in Colorado and I enjoy reading the stories of the early explorers and other folklore attached to the mountains. One of the most storied mountains in Colorado is Mount of the Holy Cross. Today this mountain is not as widely known as it once was, and is visited by relatively few people due to its' relative lack of visibility and accessibility from populated areas.

The first recorded ascent of the mountain occurred in 1873 when F.V. Hayden led his survey party up the peak. William Henry Jackson, the famous western photographer, accompanied the survey party and photographed the peak. Jackson's photographs of the northeast face of the peak, with its' distinctive gully carved into the middle of the face and the prominent ledge intersecting the gully high on the peak, would soon become famous.

Soon after the photographs were published, the painter Thomas Moran went to the area and produced a painting of what he felt was a more appropriate artistic interpretation of the scene.

Moran used scenery from three different vantage points of the mountain itself, a high waterfall in the valley below, and the creek in the foreground, then added in some extra mountains for symmetry and whispy clouds for the effect of grandeur in his construction of the painting. The stories and philosophies generated by the fame of this mountain with a cross carved into it further perpetuated the already popular idea of manifest destiny, and that the cross in the mountain was a sign of God's blessing on the settlement of the west. I could spend a very long time commenting on the line of thinking that leads people to conclusions such as this, but I'll refrain. Suffice it to say that it's unfortunate how little people generally understand about the basis for their beliefs.

The popular Halo Ridge route on Mount of the Holy Cross traverses the high ridgeline encircling the basin below the east face of the peak and passes near the location where Jackson first photographed the peak.

I set out from Denver Friday afternoon and made my first stop in Idaho Springs where I consumed a pizza that was recommended to feed 2-3 people. This seemed like a great decision at the time, but would cause some serious discomfort later. After leaving Idaho Springs I drove to the top of Vail Pass and took the Shrine Pass road to the high area around Battle Mountain. I found a good camping spot off of a spur road which also happened to be right next to an intersection with the Elk Pass/Two Elk Creek trail. I decided to go for a short run before setting up my camp, so I set off with high hopes of the great views I had heard were visible from this trail.

I didn't have to run long to realize that I was feeling generally sluggish and that the mound of pizza inside me was going to be causing me some trouble. I struggled through to the top of the ridge and admired the views of the Gore Range mountains to the north.

Storms were building to the west and south, and the rain hit me right before I started making the descent toward Two Elk Pass. At this point I decided I'd rather not risk getting stuck in any serious weather on the wrong side of the mountain, so I turned back toward my campsite.

I was lulled to sleep that night by the sound of the rain falling on the tarp above me, the hissing and crackling of the hot coals in my dying camp fire, and the periodic outbursts of nearby artillery fire. It was a mixed bag of serenity and sheer terror. After waking up the next morning I quickly broke down my camp and drove toward Minturn, then up to the Halfmoon trailhead for Mount of the Holy Cross. I set off at a good steady pace up the Fall Creek trail and passed by a couple of parties who looked like they were set to backpack further up Fall Creek. I passed one pair of guys who were loaded down with large packs, equipped with fishing gear, archery gear, and were accompanied by their Pomeranian carrying a pack that had to be twice its' own weight, which was impressive. I was quickly above treeline looking down into the valleys below.

The eastern slopes of Notch Mountain and the Halo Ridge made for a good quick climb with a well built trail switchbacking up the hillside.

I felt great when I reached the Notch Mountain shelter and took some time to soak in the views surrounding this historic site.

As I started making my way along the ridgeline traversing across the sub-peaks, the views of Holy Cross, the Bowl of Tears below it, and the East Cross Creek valley opened up and provided some spectacular sights.

To the south, the Tuhare Lakes valley looked nice and peaceful.

From this point on the wind started to kick up and the clouds began forming more rapidly, but there was no evidence that any storms were brewing, which is good because there were not any options for bailing off the ridge at that point. After summiting Mount of the Holy Cross, I began to encounter the first people I'd come across in quite a while making their way up and down the standard route on the peak. I continued on, descending the mountain to East Cross Creek, then making the climb up to Halfmoon Pass before descending back to the trailhead. At Halfmoon Pass I met the little guy pictured below, who I named Hackey Sack.

I named him Hackey Sack because that's the game that we played together.

After returning to the trailhead I went through my usual routine of cooling off in the creek. As I was lounging in the creek I heard a child start screaming behind me. I stood up and turned around quickly, which was probably the wrong thing to do because it seemed to only provoke more distress among the family standing on the bridge over the creek nearby. As far as I can tell, the various members of this family had noticed me sitting in the creek and decided to get freaked out over the fact that they thought I was either (a) naked, although I was still wearing my running shorts, (b) a bear, or (c) a crazy homeless person. I'm still not sure what exactly happened, but I wasn't interested in sticking around and trying to ease the neurosis of these people.

Halo ridge turned out to be a lot of fun, although tiring from all of the boulder hopping along the ridge. With the crazy history that the mountain carries, I feel fortunate to be able to climb it in a wilderness setting without dealing with tourist roads to the top and gift shops on the summit, as is the case with some of the other more historic mountains in the state.

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