“There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Cross of Snow”
HOLY CROSS WILDERNESS, WHITE RIVER NATIONAL FOREST • Photographers, mountain climbers, religious pilgrims, writers, poets and dreamers — they all once flocked here.
When it was first photographed in 1873, a mythical peak with a snowy cross that lingered all summer, Mount of the Holy Cross captivated the nation. It was a sign of God’s stamp of approval on American westward expansion. It was a holy place where the sick sought healing. It became a national monument in 1929.
These days, it’s mostly the climbers who come, notching the 14,005-foot peak off their fourteener lists. Erosion has long since cut away at the cross, and dwindling visitation ended its monument status in 1950.
And the mountain has become known for another reason — danger. It is one of the more brutal fourteener hikes in Colorado, 12 miles round-trip, 5,600 feet of elevation gain, a trail that forces hikers to go up and down Half Moon Pass each way.
Rescues are common here, and two people have died on or near Holy Cross since 2005, including a woman who seems to have vanished into the thin mountain air.
“It’s not an easy mountain, because the trail is so indistinct and because the approach march is so long,” said Dan Smith, president of Vail Mountain Rescue, which conducts about 10 missions, a fifth of their calls, on Holy Cross each year.
Because of the safety concerns, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has spent the past two summers working to improve the trail and safety on what some climbers have begun to call “the Bermuda Triangle of Colorado.”
Take a photographic journey to the mountain.
I first climbed this peak in 2005, on a cold and cloudy summer day. It’s the northern-most fourteener in the Sawatch range, with a trailhead eight miles down a forest lane from Minturn.
While some hikers backpack in, to get 1,000 feet of elevation and two hours of hiking out of the way, I decided to hike it all in a day.
With fresh legs, I flew up the side of Notch Mountain and down into the Cross Creek Valley. Giving the campsites barely a glance, I followed the great trail up and hit treeline about three hours into the hike.
That’s when I got my first close-up look at the impossibly steep summit, surrounded on two sides by treacherous cliffs, and realized I still had 3,000 feet to go.
This is true on all fourteeners, but especially Holy Cross — because of afternoon thunderstorms, an early start is essential.
Two hours later, I stood alone on the summit, locked in a cloud, and then gingerly began making my way down. That’s when I discovered what climbers have called “The Oops Trail.”
Ascending, it’s easy to stay focused on your goal. It’s looming right in front of you. But downhill is when most climbers run into trouble. Led by social trails and what appears an obvious route back to treeline, some hikers descend too early instead of staying on the ridge they came up.
I was lucky. My missteps only cost me an hour of unnecessary rock scrambling. It has cost others their lives.
Two months after I was here, Michelle Vanek, of Lakewood, and a hiking partner were near the summit when, exhausted and out of water, she told the companion to go ahead. The 35-year-old mother of four was never seen again.
The largest search and rescue operation in Colorado history failed to find a trace of her.
“She was last seen at 13,800 feet. That’s just boulder after boulder, some the size of a house. It’s very hard to find somebody in there,” said Smith.
Did she fall down one of the many cliffs in the area? Did she get lost trying to hike back to the trailhead? Was it an animal attack? Said Smith, “There are as many theories as there are rescuers.”
In 2006, a Minnesota hiker also told his friends to go ahead and got lost trying to descend. He was found alive and well. In 2007, Jacob Gately spent two days on the mountain after he got separated from his brother while descending.
He was found alive and told reporters from his hospital wheelchair, “I wasn’t going to let the mountain have me.”
In 2010, 31-year-old James Nelson, of Chicago, set off for a five-day, 25-mile loop through the wilderness and up Holy Cross. His remains were found in May of this year at a campsite. A cause of death has not been determined. Authorities said writing in a journal indicated he had been suffering from altitude sickness.
Some nights, bedtime is 5 p.m. Wake-up is always 4 a.m. That’s life on the side of a mountain.
Each summer, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative sends crews on a couple of the well-traveled peaks for several months of trail work. They worked on Holy Cross last year, and a dozen are living just below timberline this year.
They work up to nine days in a row, hiking an hour each way in the dark to spend the day high above treeline, digging trenches, building cairns and moving massive rocks, all in the effort to make the trail more obvious for hikers. They are also working on campsites along Cross Creek, where the U.S. Forest Service plans to establish 10 designated campsites. They are paid $300 a week.
“The best part of Colorado is the wilderness, and I think it’s really an amazing opportunity to get to work in some places that are very beautiful and to give back to a community I care for,” said Katie Medved, of Colorado Springs, one of 10 Rocky Mountain Youth Corps workers who will be at the site until the end of September.
Every so often, they hike out, up and down Half Moon Pass, for a couple days of rest.
Leaving is bittersweet. Said Medved, “I do not really want to leave.”
Reaching their high-mountain camp again, said Robyn Martin, of New York, “It really feels like we’re coming home.”
After finding a quiet campsite in late July, I settled in for an early night and a 5 a.m. wake-up, to see how recent work has improved the trail and maybe spend some time on the summit of Holy Cross in the sunshine.
The hard work was evident on many stretches of the trail, and after less than three hours, I stood atop this fabled mountain.
It was sunny, with nary a cloud in the sky, and some two dozen other hikers shared the broad summit.
On the way down, I once again got lost, floundering on the car-sized boulders for 30 minutes until I could make my way back to the ridge and the real trail. It was a reminder that hiking in this harsh and barren environment is inherently dangerous, and all the trail work in the world won’t change that. You still need the strength to walk up and down and the mental acuity to stay on track.
“It’s long. It’s a really long day,” said Tom Cronin, co-chief of the trail crew. “A lot of the times, when people make it to the top, they’re spent.”
“Our goal is to make the trail more sustainable and design it more obviously so people don’t get lost.”
Contact R. Scott Rappold:
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