Mount of the Holy Cross is one of the more iconic peaks in Colorado. The large cross shaped couloir that splits its east face has been famous since the 1800s when Christians from all over the world would travel to the area and climb Notch Mountain to get a view of the Cross and be inspired by its religious significance. In June of 2013, a group of heathen atheists, including myself visited Holy Cross for other reasons...namely snowboarding/skiing!
Over time the ledge that makes the Cross has eroded and the Cross in the Cross couloir is a little less prominent, though the couloir's beauty and aesthetic line still inspires many climbers and skiers to visit it. Chris Davenport lists it as one of the Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.
It is also very difficult to get a good descent of the Cross. Tigiwon road is generally closed until June 21st or so, after which snow conditions are often questionable or non-existent. When the road is closed it is a 30 mile hike/skin to climb it from the road. A snowmobile eases the mileage but it is often difficult to find the Cross in avalanche safe conditions when a snow mobile is still a viable method of approach.
I had made plans multiple times over the last few years to climb and ride the Cross but they had not worked out, for multiple reasons, until now.
I had talked to Andy, Christine, and Craig about skiing the couloir and we settled on the day after the road opened as a good day to give it a go. Andy Christine and I drove to Vail Friday night (the 21st) and met up with Craig and his Dad, Steve at the Halfmoon campground. We went to bed pretty quick after settling on a 3am wakeup call.
14,005' Mount of the Holy Cross
photo-Mount of the Holy Cross. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
-ascent route: north ridge
-descent route: Cross couloir
-members of group: Craig Burger, Andy Mention, Christine Avena, and Zach Taylor
-4700' climbed, approximately 14 miles traveled with 1200' of snowboarding
photo-Craig Burger, in his soft-shell leiderhosen on the trail to the summit of Holy Cross. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
The alarm came early and we began getting ready for the day's climb. By 3:45am we were hiking up the trail. Trail conditions were dry, with only a few avoidable patches of snow all the way to the summit. We chose to hike around the Cross via the North Ridge, summit, and then drop in on the couloir. This choice was based on the fact that we only had one day to do the Cross and the approach into the Bowl of Tears from Halfmoon pass was supposed to be a haul. After hiking out that way later in the day, I think we made the right decision. There is a lot of complex, talusy, and cliffy terrain between the bottom of the Cross and the Holy Cross summit trail.
We made good time on the trail to the summit and reached the top by mid-morning. There were ten or so people on the summit and over the course of the hour or so that we hung out on the summit we probably saw ten more. Solitude was not in the cards for the day.
photo-Craig Burger, Andy Mention, and soe other climbers on the summit of Holy Cross. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
We chatted with some other climbers and waited for the snow to soften. Around 10:30am we dropped in, a few minutes after a couple other skiers. Andy went first, followed by Christine, and then Craig. I went last and took pictures of the others skiing into the couloir.
photo-A look at Cross Ridge from the Holy Cross summit. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
photo-Andy Mention skiing into the Cross Couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
The top of the couloir was decently steep and the snow conditions made riding challenging. As we got further down the snow conditions further deteriorated for skiing. The snow was sun cupped and had a runnel going through the middle of it. Conditions were great for cramponing as there was little boot penetration and it looked like the snow climbers were enjoying. The convoluted snow surface made it difficult to engage most of my edge while making turns.
The terrain was very cool but snow conditions were challenging. There were quite a few curse words muttered under our breaths as we all struggled a little to get down the couloir. It was not the most graceful descent I have ever done, that is for sure. Either way the line was iconic and the setting was beautiful. I think I may have to come back sometime, a little earlier in the year, so that I can actually experience the cross in good conditions. Imagine St. Mary's glacier at the end of July tilted to 45 degrees with a multi-hundred foot cliff at the bottom if you botch a turn, and that is about like the snow conditions we experienced up there.
photo-Christine Avena getting ready to drop into the Cross couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013
photo-Craig Burger dropping into the Cross couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
****Dawson's 14er guidebook and multiple trip reports on 14ers.com state that the exit out of the couloir if you are riding down it is between 12,740' and 12,800'. This is actually inaccurate. THE EXIT OUT OF THE COULOIR IS AT 13,000'. If you go much below that you will get cliffed out. We set two altimeters to 14,005', on the summit, before descending the couloir, and double checked our exit with a GPS as well. If you decide to drop in on this line without climbing it, look for an exit at the 13,000' mark, not 12,740'! If you go that low, you will get cliffed out, and have to climb back up.****
photo-Zach Taylor snowboarding the Cross couloir. photo by Andy Mention, 2013.
photo-Christine Avena and Andy Mention in the Cross couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
photo-Craig Burger in the Cross couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
photo-Craig Burger skiing the upper part of the Cross couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
photo- from left to right; Craig Burger, Andy Mention, Christine Avena, and Zach Taylor after a long day on Holy Cross. photo by Steve Burger, 2013.
photo-Andy Mention at the 13,000' exit of the Cross Couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
We exited the couloir at 13,000' just above where things cliff out. We found almost no snow outside of the couloir so we threw skis/boards on our backs, changed into hiking boots, and bushwacked out of the Bowl of Tears and hit the summer trailhead at the backcountry campsites. The bushwack out was pretty, but long and tedious. I think if I did this again, it would either be early enough in the year to be able to ski all the way out or I would just ride the couloir down to the cliffs and then climb right back up to the summit and walk the north ridge down. Either of those options is better than trying to hike out of the basin below the Cross couloir.
Eventually we hit the trail again, hiked over Halfmoon pass, and returned to our cars and Craig's Dad Steve (who had hiked Notch that day) at the summer trailhead. It took as long for us to hike out as it did to hike to the summit! By the time we got back we realized that it had been a 14 hour day!
photo-Christine Avena hiking out below the Cross couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
The Cross couloir is a classic ski line. However if any of you out there are planning on climbing/skiing it this season keep a couple things in mind;
-The snow is mature, dense, and starting to get suncupped.
-There is a runnel through the middle of the upper part of the couloir.
-Snow conditions are great for climbing right now.
-Snow conditions are not great for skiing. The convuluted snow surface is challenging to ride.
It is a treat to ski such a classic line, just do not expect great snow. If you want great conditions, use a snowmobile earlier in the year next year or bike the road before it opens. It was a great day out, with good friends, but the snow conditions were not spectacular this late in the year.
photo-Christine Avena downclimbing below Lake Patricia. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
photo-Andy Mention bouldering below Lake Patricia. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
photo-Craig Burger and Andy Mention looking out over the Bowl of Tears. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013
photo-Craig Burger below the Cross Couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.
photo-Craig Burger and Andy Mention making their way out from below the Cross couloir. photo by Zach Taylor, 2013.