Eagle County Highpoint Trip Report
Mount of the Holy Cross via Half Moon Trailhead (14,005 ft)
Date: August 12, 2005
Author: Adam Helman
Note: All NAD27 UTM coordinates are in zone 13S.
As a Colorado fourteener this mountain has been overzealously described in numerous
books and trip reports. I provide here a detailed description of the standard route
via the Half Moon Trail and north ridge.
This effort was part of a
collecting Colorado county highpoints in late July and early August 2005.
As the final ascent of my journey, Holy Cross was climbed, in part, as the final
test of whether my recently incurred thigh injury had resolved.
David Covill and John Mitchler's guidebook describes access to the Half Moon trailhead.
Basically one takes Exit 171 on I-70; drives southeast through Minturn on route 24,
and, about four miles from the interstate, turns right (west) onto FR707 -
possibly signed to Tigiwon Campground. This unsavory gravel and dirt road measures
8.3 miles from pavement (as route 24); is replete with potholes;
and should definitely be slated for some form of repair work.
I arrived late the previous afternoon, about 5 p.m., and found the trailhead parking lot
UTM coordinates as (376826 E, 4373091 N), elevation 10,400 feet. One fills out a free
wilderness use permit, retaining the buff-colored copy for the climb.
A young lady from Boulder, perhaps twenty, was also at the parking lot, biding her time, as myself,
until the pre-dawn hours for her start uptrail. She had an inquisitive dog, very friendly,
who would accompany her to the summit and back. I offered to join forces but she declined
citing a boyfriend who was supposed to show up later that evening. He never appeared.
With an enormous lunch behind me, I merely had some sharp Asiago cheese
with bread and strawberry jam at 8 p.m. - and then fell asleep in the camper shell.
I awoke without the alarm at 3:19 a.m., and, seeing stars, prepared my exit. The temperature
was quite mild - enough so as to not really need even my liner gloves - perhaps 45° F.
Raisin Bran with milk was certainly yummy - far tastier than the plain water drunk
for hydration purposes. G-d really did err in failing to flavor the water molecule.
I started hiking at 4 a.m. with only three quarts of water instead of the four I originally planned upon.
I would simply fill up at the East Creek crossing on both the uphill and downhill passages.
It is always eerie to hike or climb by headlamp. On a glacier, and by light of a full moon,
the effect, I dare say, approaches the surreal. But not this morning. I was pleasantly surprised
to find that I had reached Half Moon Pass, at 11,700 feet, in all of 50 minutes elapsed time - so making
for an ascent rate of 1,560 feet / hour with a twentyish-pound daypack. That's "OK" in my book.
Half Moon Pass is roughly two miles from the trailhead, as measured along the trail, and entails
a 1,300 feet elevation gain. Forest and meadow are the venue, with the trees shortening and making
themselves sparse as one nears the pass itself. Given the hour I witnessed this scenery only on my return.
The descent to East Creek on the west side is gradual for the first fifteen minutes, losing perhaps 300 feet.
Then - boom! The route descends quickly along a series of switchbacks down into the valley
and East Creek some 600 feet below. The trail in this section has some large rocks,
and even the occassional boulder, which were annoying to bypass by dark.
I reached East Creek at 5:30 a.m. with hints of dawn heralding a clear day.
I crossed East Creek at a wooden plank, perhaps 8 inches wide, and by headlamp.
With only the narrow ray of light available, most of my depth perception was unavailable
for balance. About two-thirds way across I felt safer crawling on all four limbs.
Were I to fall in on the return I really would not care as much - I could dry my boots
after changing into tennis shoes at the trailhead just two hours later. However taking a
spill now would present a health and safety issue (to my feet) for the climb's duration
since I did not have a spare change of wool socks let alone spare boots. Hey, who carries
spare boots on a dayhike anyways?
UTM coordinates for the East Creek stream crossing are (373560 E, 4371826 N) at 10,700 feet.
The trail continues past the stream, initially paralleling it south. In less than a hundred yards the trail
turn west, gaining perhaps 300 feet in serpentine fashion before actually meeting the north ridge of Holy Cross.
The trail, still quite apparent, climbs the north ridge in a series of switchbacks clear
through to timberline - with ever-widening views of the surrounding mountains. The trail
can be steep at times (for a trail, that is). Roots of nearby evergreens are at times embedded
within and atop the trail.
I expected the trail to diminish in width and ease of identification. It did NOT!
Timberline elevation here depends on how small an evergreen must be before you make the call
and say that shrubs dominate the ecology. Any value from 11,700 to 12,000 feet suffices on the ridge -
and, through it all, the use trail (as it really has gotten a bit narrower by now)
climbs past the last trees and into the zone of rock and scree.
At 12,150 feet I cached one-half quart of water and saved a GPS waypoint.
A pair or trio of large, 3-4 foot tall cairns marked the path but a hundred feet higher up.
One is advised to stay close to the actual north ridge but not to accidentally stray over to
the east side. There are actually numerous smaller paths available. All paths, including whichever
one concludes is the "largest", never exists for more than a hundred horizontal feet at a time.
In-between are sections of nothing but rock and boulder - and you are forced to "guess" at the
location of the next section by religiously keeping an eye peeled for cairns above.
The difference between following these pseudo-paths for all they are worth, and simply
rock-hopping the entire ridge, may cost you an hour on ascent and nearly as much on descent.
So follow the cairns - they are your friends!
The summit of Holy Cross is visible to the ridge's left as the obvious rock mass at
"eleven o'clock" that appears unclimbable from your viewing angle.
The ridge appears to lead to a false summit at over 13,000 feet. Once this false summit is achieved
you find the ridge to be nearly level, as it climbs perhaps 200 additional feet over a considerable
horizontal distance of perhaps 1,500 feet, to the base of the final summit pinnacle at 13,400 feet.
I took a well-deserved break at this level, as the turn from south to east, and with just
600 vertical feet remaining. With 4,000 vertical feet behind me a chocolate chip granola bar,
enjoyed with dried apricot and pistachios, was eaten for more than its taste value - I appreciated
the energy it provided for the final push.
For Holy Cross you must turn left (east) here. UTM coordinates
for the 13,500 foot level are (372300 E, 4369479 N) - valuable information in a whiteout.
Please note this is using the NAD27 datum. The WGS84 datum, using the same coordinates,
will deviate some 200 meters from the correct position - a major, potentially dangerous
error at this location!
Some paths exist for the final push east and up. However I found them to be of marginal value.
Besides, these boulders (no longer mere rock and talus) are of the "fun" variety:
table-sized with plenty of ways to climb up, over, and around them.
The summit features a circular windbreak, and, perhaps thirty feet southeast, the highest
natural ground as a large boulder oriented north-south and with the Holy Cross benchmark affixed.
Step on or otherwise touch this boulder for credit - else you have to come back and reclimb
the mountain for full county highpointing honors. The webmaster has spoken.
I summited at 8:50 a.m. under clear skies - good enough for a satellite telephone call
to mother and, despite the hour, my "lunch" of (stinky) French cheese, excellent sourdough bread,
and assorted condiments. Dried fruit finished my break alongside wonderful views of high
mountains at all compass points. I left forty-one minutes later at 9:31 a.m.
Descend the route of ascent, perhaps taking a good break after the East Creek stream crossing
in preparation for the final 1,000 feet of ascent to Half Moon Pass.
The young lady and her dog were just coming up as I started out down from the summit.
We ended up playing leapfrog down the mountain - with one person passing the other in succession in an unplanned
series of encounters. In a sense I ended up climbing the mountain with her - and even took her
picture (with her camera) on the uphill portion after the stream crossing, with Holy Cross as backdrop.
I returned to the trailhead at 1:10 p.m. - 9 hours 10 minutes after starting and with
enough daylight and energy to drive into Utah for a motel enroute to San Diego.
The route described is Class 2. I started somewhat early to evade the perennial afternoon
thunderstorm threat of August Colorado. Many people backpack to split this effort into two days.
Take your pick - either way Mount of the Holy Cross is a "winner".