14er Fun Alpinistic Tales Sneffels

Holy Cross
Couloir

climbed: 7-14-2008

Mount of the Holy Cross - the Holy Cross Couloir

Mount of the Holy Cross at 14,012 feet is the northern most of the 14,000 foot mountains in the Sawatch Range. It is so named for the 1200 foot high cross like snow formation on its east face.

Mount of the Holy Cross

A popular legend tells that the cross was first seen way back in 1540 by two Spanish priests who had lost their way in a raging blizzard. The story goes that the two, hopelessly lost and close to death, were ready to give up when suddenly the clouds opened up framing the magnificent cross. The priests took new heart and new direction, eventually finding their way back to New Mexico. Many people have made and are still making pilgrimages to this mountain because they believe it has healing powers.

We climbed this mountain many years ago via the Halfmoon trail. We went straight up about 900 feet and then 900 feet right back down to East Cross Creek. The need to re-ascend those 900 feet after a long day of hiking will weigh heavily on the mind of any Holy Cross climber. As one descends into East Cross Creek, many big mountains become visible to the west. During our first climb, our dialog went something like:

One of us said, “This is really going to suck when we have to come back up this”.
Debby asked, “Which one is Mount of the Holy Cross”?
“None of them”, replied Jeff.
Debby asked, “Then where is it?”
Jeff said “Just wait”.

As we walked a little further down, there it was on the left…this incredible sight. It became breathtakingly obvious right away…THAT was our mountain.

Mount of the Holy Cross from high on Halfmoon Pass

The rugged asthetics of this mountain are unmatched in the Sawatch Range. The beauty of the view from the summit defies verbal description. Anyone who climbs this peak, even via the hiking trail, should enjoy a great sense of accomplishment. For us, it served as an immense inspiration and one of the primary motivations both to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers and take our climbing to the next level, technically.

Since first climbing Mount of the Holy Cross many years ago, we have done a fair amount of winter and spring ascents employing crampons and an ice axe. If you are interested in learning the snow climbing game, get some instruction/practice with a qualified guide or a very experienced friend. Make sure you know how to use an ice axe and crampons and that you have a thorough understanding of the very serious potential for avalanches in Colorado’s couloirs. If snow climbing is your game and you have the knowledge and experience, we wholeheartedly recommend these steep snow/ice classics:

     • Lost Rat Couloir on Grays Peak
     • North Face and Sunrise Couloir on Mount Evans
     • Cristo Couloir or South Gully on Quandry Peak
     • North face of Mount Wilson
     • Boudoir Couloir on Horseshoe Mountain
     • Bell Cord Couloir between Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak
     • Dead Dog Couloir on Torreys Peak

For this trip, the planned route would be the Holy Cross Couloir. The route goes right up the vertical leg of the “snow cross”. The plan was to rendezvous with Michael Mays at the Halfmoon Trailhead at the end of the Tigiwon Road. Mike is a very good friend of ours who we met when we were climbing Pico de Orizaba in Mexico. We met in the hut there at 14,000 feet and not three hours later he brought some blueberry cobbler that he made out to our tent. Mike has climbed the likes of Mt. Rainier, Cotopaxi, Cerro Aconcagua, Denali and received the runner-up to the Pro Climber of the Year award. We take great pride in calling him a climbing partner.

Mike Mays on Halfmoon Pass

The snow was in great condition and the days were staying clear. We’d made plans, aborted them, made new plans, aborted them again and finally felt that we and the snow in the Holy Cross Couloir were ready. If we were going to do this, the time was now. So after checking the weather on Friday, we decided that Monday, July 14, 2008 was going to be the best weather day to attempt our ascent on the Cross.

We camped at Halfmoon Campground, woke up at 4:00 am, packed our packs and headed out at about 5:00 am. It was still a little dark but we could see fine without our headlamps. Not much later we had a gorgeous sunrise to start our journey and we all felt great. We had been talking with Mike about this climb for some time and our excitement was palpable. The dialog that took place the first time we climbed this mountain repeated itself with Mike. As we were descending the 900 feet from Halfmoon Pass, he said, “This is really going to suck when we have to come back up this”. He then asked when we saw the mountains to the west, “Which mountain is ours?” We just looked at each other, smiled and said “Just wait.”

About 60 feet after we crossed East Cross Creek, we left the main trail and found the climbers trail in the forest. It was a little hard to see but with three sets of eyes and three great climbers minds we had no problem.

Jeff and Debby en route to Bowl of Tears Lake

We soon reached a bench where we had a great view of Lake Patricia. We continued south up the valley to the northwest end of the Bowl of Tears Lake. Even if you never want to climb the “Cross”, this easy trek up to this beautiful pristine lake with blue ice is truly something not to miss. With no one around we felt like we were in a little piece of heaven. We sat for a while and had a snack and just admired the lake…it was surreal.

Bowl of Tears Lake at the base of Mt. of the Holy Cross

Ready to make our last push up to the entrance to the couloir, we headed up west over the couloir’s southern edge to get above the cliffs at the bottom. Jeff tested the snow conditions and said it was "sublime". Mike suggested roping up. Jeff was a little hesitant and Debby hadn’t climbed steep snow or alpine ice using a rope since Pico de Orizaba. We decided to honor this classic route by climbing in classic style and roped up before heading into the couloir. We had forty feet of rope between each of us we were ready.

Entering the Holy Cross Couloir

Jeff entered the snow first, Debby went second and then Mike brought up the tail. The snow felt perfect as our ice axes and crampons were digging in nicely. The pace was steady, not too slow but not too fast and we definitely felt the pull of the cliff bands below us.

Blue skies over the Holy Cross Couloir

We were working well as a team, but this was a “no fall” zone. Before entering the couloir we had talked about wanting to spend as little time as possible in there because of falling rock. Sure enough, about two thirds of the way up Mike yelled “ROCK! ROCK! ROCK!” A volleyball sized rock was coming down…thank God it was about three feet on our right and stayed its course. We all felt our hearts pick up a couple beats.

Climbing the Holy Cross Couloir

We had now been climbing in the couloir for a little over an hour and were starting to feel the effects of the continuous effort. We knew we still had a few hundred feet to climb and it was imperative to stay focused and to not get lazy. In this upper section of the couloir above the horizontal arm of the Cross, the slope angle is almost 50 degrees.

Upper Part of the Holy Cross Couloir

Finally, Jeff crested the summit and gave a yell. After forty more feet of kicking steps, Debby reached the summit and also gave a holler, while belaying our last team member to the top.

Atop the Holy Cross Couloir

We did it! We all screamed and yelled and gave each other hugs. What a climb…what a remarkable feeling of reward, exhaustion, excitement and thrill all at the same time.

Atop the Holy Cross Couloir

We took off our crampons and walked the remaining 20 feet up to the true summit. We spent about a half hour on top and didn’t see a single soul. We shared our feelings of being truly blessed. We had great weather, the snow conditions were perfect and the team performed like a well-oiled machine.

Atop Mount of the Holy Cross

One of the most rewarding aspects of climbing mountains is sharing the climb and the summit with not only good climbing partners but great people. This climb was outstanding in that regard.

We hiked down the standard trail route, which was fun but long. The abundance of snow to the west and the15 foot high cornices yet on July 14th served as a reminder of the big snow winter of 2007/2008.

Abundant Snow on Mount of the Holy Cross

All and all it took us 13 hours from trailhead to trailhead but worth every minute we put into it. This will go down as one of our favorite climbs ever.

A special "Thanks" goes out to Mike Mays for the photos used on this page!
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