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Cross Couloir, Mount of the Holy Cross, Colorado


Author: Gary Clark

Participants: Gary & Lynn Clark

The "Mount of the Holy Cross" had eluded us for a long time. First, the name is a put-off, but the big reason was the distance from Los Alamos. A 7 to 8 hour drive to a trailhead is not my idea of major fun, but it's the cross we New Mexicans bear in trying to put all the Colorado 14ers in the bag. Fortunately, this one is not a purgatory of a dirt heap like some of the others. It's in an exceptionally beautiful alpine area, has a dramatic appearance that nobody would mistake for a large pile of gravel, and has some quality routes on it. We waited for a long weekend and went for it.

June 30: We made it to our usual "dirt-bag" camping spot in the Twin Lakes region after 5-1/2 hours of driving, just about the max I can handle at the end of a workday.

July 1: Up reasonably early and on through Leadville. We called the Forest Service to inquire about permits and were amazed to learn that none were required. One of the 14ers guidebooks is wrong in this regard. A few miles south of Minturn we turned off to climb over 8miles of steep dirt road which stops short of being 4 x 4 country but not short of being tiresome to us and our vehicle. At the trailhead we were not too surprised to find over 60 cars parked in and around a parking area designed for 20. All thoughts of a wilderness experience were quickly dismissed.

The unique aspect to the approach to Cross Mtn. is the altitude profile. First comes a 1400' climb from the trailhead at about 10,300' to a pass. Then a 1000' descent to a creek. Then a final climb up climbers' trails to the basin below the East Face of the mountain, also named grandiosely as the "Bowl of Tears". Even though we had started rather late in the day, we were amazed to have this lake to ourselves. All the occupants of all those cars had somehow been absorbed at lower elevations. The Lake is an alpine jewel set at almost exactly 12000 in a glacial cirque'. This is certainly one of the nicest settings in Colorado. We shared a small meadow with several marmots and pikas, which showed enough curiosity to be cute, but not so much as to be obnoxious. We fed them several large bags of marshmallows and Cheetos, of course; future visitors should find them much more friendly assuming they survived.

We had fortunately crossed paths with a couple of climbers on the way to the lake. From their appearance I guessed they were returning from the Cross Couloir climb. When questioned they proved to be a valuable source of information. The important points were: (1) the couloir was in good shape; (2) they had kicked big steps; (3) no rope was needed; and most importantly, (4) it had taken them only 4 hours to get up it. I mentally cranked the alarm clock forward to a much more reasonable time than we had been planning. One of the most obvious points of strategy for this climb is that it faces directly east. The sun would be full on it from the moment of sunrise. It was also too warm, not reaching freezing during the night even at the 12,700' level where the couloir climb begins. We called the front desk to arrange a wakeup call at 4:00am.

July 2: The alarm rang, but it was brutally dark out there. We dawdled around waiting for some semblance of light, because the first 700' or so was to be up steep broken terrain that would require the kind of route finding that is not practical with headlamps. Finally at 5:00am we began the hike up a gully system to a grassy ramp that would lead us to the edge of the couloir. In early season it is possible to climb the entire couloir from the bottom, but the lower section is completely melted out by the end of the summer, and not really recommended in any case in the guidebooks we had. Our approach from the side to intersect the couloir some 300' above it's base is the standard route. We didn't do the initial scrambling section very efficiently, getting off route in the dark right at the start. This wasted some time, and we arrived at the couloir right at sunrise, which was later than I had hoped. The steps of yesterday's party were obvious. We ate & drank, thermo-regulated, and got out our pointy toys. We each had two tools - a regular length ice axe and a droop pick technical tool. The latter was completely unnecessary, since the couloir was technically trivial, especially with the tracks in. We could probably have climbed it without an ice axe or crampons. (However, this would have been, like, totally stupid, dude, since a slip without an ice axe would guarantee a quick and grisly death. Still, if an eccentric billionaire were to offer me a few zillion dollars to try it, I'd certainly have to think hard about it.)

We arrived at the top in fairly short order and hiked the short ridge to the top. Many mountains have couloirs dropping from ridges, but one interesting aspect to the Cross couloir is how closely it drops from the summit. This makes it an even more desirable climb; a true "diretissima". We were on the summit at 6:45, which I believe is the earliest we've ever reached the top of a fourteener. We had not been there 15 minutes, though, before some dogs arrived, and then their master, from the North Ridge walkup route.

Now for the descent: there are many options, including going back down the couloir, but neither Lynn nor I find backing down a steep snow slope very aesthetic, nor is it very safe as the sun continues to soften the snow and destroy any strength it might have had on the way up. We also knew that another party would be coming up, so we didn't want to be kicking stuff down on them. I did a little reconnaissance and suggested a traverse via a very attractive ridge to the south. The south ridge goes to a saddle, then up about 400 feet to the summit of a peak marked 13,810' on the map. From this summit we turned down the East Ridge (called the "Halo" ridge). This is a very scenic ridge, with views of lakes, glacial valleys, and distant peaks in all directions. It involves no technical sections and just a bit of talus. We continued down it to the head of a large couloir. We had studied this couloir the day before from camp and decided it looked pleasant and perhaps even glissadable. It was indeed pleasant, but there was too little runout at the bottom to convince me of the wisdom of glissading it, so we plunge-stepped down it instead, constantly tapping our crampons which were by now balling badly in the quickly melting snow. From the bottom of the couloir it was a short run around the lake to our camp.

We arrived at the tent at 9:00am - 4 hrs roundtrip. After a lunch and a nice nap it was almost noon. We started down, not too excited about the the thousand-foot "climb from Hell" (oops, forgot this was a holy area) that faced us on the way out. Just out of camp we encountered a party of five headed up. The leader asked us where to go up the mountain, since they were intent on summitting that day. They had no map, no description, and no idea of possible routes. Between them their climbing gear consisted of one ice axe, which was dull. Footwear ran from floppy hiking shoes to Teva sandals. I described the various routes, and recommended they descend back to the base of the North Ridge if they really wanted to get to the top. We left them talking among themselves, but I figure they continued up against my advice. Hopefully their instincts of self-preservation would prevail before they got in any real trouble. I wanted to get far away before the rescue effort began. At the trailhead we counted 88 cars. People get very creative when it comes to parking.

Synopsis: A very aesthetic and fun route up one of the most classic Colorado 14ers. Pay close attention to the season and strategy; this route could turn serious in the wrong conditions.


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