I normally do not write about failed attempts but I thought this adventure warranted a description anyhow. At the very least it might serve to help others in their attempt at the same objective.
I have been trying to ski the Cross Couloir on Holy Cross for 3 years now. Each time the plan seems to go awry. 3 years ago the couloir melted out before the Tigwon road (the access road to the trailhead) opened. 2 years ago we had plenty of snow but the Tigwon road was closed due to dead tree removal from the Pine Beetle devastation. Last year was the worst winter in 20 years and again, the couloir melted out. This year we had a great end of the season, and the couloir was full. I decided to make an attempt before the road opened by biking the 8 miles up the Tigwon road to the trailhead, which I have seen various people do in several trip reports. With a crew of 4, we had our sights on Holy Cross, but what would ensue would be a perfect storm of bad luck, chaos, and perhaps a little bit of help from a higher power.
Dave, Paul, Casey and I had plans to head up Friday afternoon and bike the Tigwon road to the trailhead. We were planning on camping at the trailhead and then hiking up to the Lake of Tears the next day (Saturday), camping again and skiing the couloir on Sunday before heading home. Casey, Dave and I were planning on skiing, Paul was along for the camping trip.
Casey and I arrived at the gate around 6:30 PM and began our ascent up the hill. Nowhere had I read that the 8 miles to the trailhead covered about 2000 vertical feet. What I thought would be a bike ride turned out to be a bike push, with a 50lb pack on my back for 8 miles. We reached the community house about 6 miles later and decided to camp there for the night. Dave and Paul were delayed, and when they didn’t show up by dark we were a little concerned, but still had high hopes for the trip.
I should’ve taken it as a bad omen when I went to unpack my bag and found that one of my delicious Dale’s Pale Ales had exploded, leaking beer all over the inside of my pack. My sleeping bag, and pretty much everything else were soaked with beer, which made for a cold nights sleep to say the least.
At 1:30am, Dave and Paul finally rolled in. They had found the Yurt by the reflectors on our bikes and quickly went to sleep. At 4:30am the alarm went off and Casey and I jumped out of bed to start the day. Dave told us he was exhausted and would meet us at the Lake of Tears. We thought this was an ok plan and took off ahead.
We had about another hour to the actual trail head and although we were tired from the night before, Casey and I made it up over Half Moon Pass in about an hour’s time. Upon the descent we were treated with some fantastic views of Holy Cross in the distance.
In about 30 minutes we were down the pass and at the Cross Creek crossing. This was supposed to be where we were to leave the main trail and pick up the climber’s trail up Cross Creek to the Lake of Tears. Everything I had read had made this seem pretty straight forward. What we found was quite the opposite. We searched 30 minutes for anything resembling a trail. Far off the main trail we finally found a cairn marking what appeared to be a faint trail. Figuring Dave and Paul would have a hard time finding this marker we decided to wait for them. After an hour we met a fellow climber who said he had passed the Community House at 9:30 and had still not seen our 2 friends. This put them at least 4 hours behind us. We decided we couldn’t wait any longer and headed up the trail, just Casey and I. By now it was 11:30 and we figured Dave and Paul would be able to catch up before dark, but we had no idea what lay in store for us.
The trail we followed was somewhat marked, but very steep and narrow and took us west of Cross creek. It was extremely difficult with our skis on our backs, and boots sticking out to manage the branches and trees. After we crested through the trees we were confronted with a marshy area which required us to bushwhack through shrubs and trees to stay high of the marsh. It took us about and hour to get up past the marsh and here we were confronted with a boulder field. We had two choices, we could either go left and lose precious elevation or right, up a gully and stay high. We knew that Lake Patricia should be close, but we couldn’t see it anywhere. We thought if we at least stayed high we might be able to find the lake. We chose to stay high, and this mistake cost us dearly. Or, depending on how you look at it, could have saved our lives.
The choice to go right set us boulder-hopping high on top of a boulder field. The further into the field we got, the bigger and more treacherous the boulders became. Eventually we weren’t boulder hopping any more, but instead were climbing, with our heavy packs, up, down over and through these giant boulders. Finally we came to a point where there were cliffs on all sides, and it appeared we had no safe exit from the maze of boulders. We were now over an hour into the boulder field, and I was worried how we could get out. We tried to scramble west to the ridge where we thought we could traverse out of the field, but this proved impossible, or dangerous at the very least.
Looking back towards our ascent, we could see what appeared to be Lake Patricia in the distance. We were way high of the Lake but decided our best bet was to try and climb back down to this known waypoint and find our way from there. We backtracked an hour and a half over the same treacherous boulders, eventually reaching the point where we made our mistake. We were exhausted both mentally and physically and were even more frustrated when it took us only minutes to find the trail leading back down into the valley.
Too tired to go on, we decided to set up camp above Lake Patricia for the night. It was now 4pm and there was still no sign of Paul and Dave. We began to worry.
Our camp spot was actually pretty awesome. We were at about 11,600′ and had trees on one side to protect us from the wind and a boulder on the other. We were right by fresh water and even had some snowbanks which served as built-in beer coolers.
We also had an impressive view of Holy Cross, which by now seemed to be laughing at us. By this point, including our wandering, we had covered over 12 miles and several thousand vertical feet with heavy packs up some challenging terrain and we were completely exhausted. We were trying to decide what to do the next day and Casey went ahead without his pack to try and find the route to the base of the couloir. When he returned an hour later he said it wasn’t far, and if we started early, we could make it the next day. We decided to give it a try. Dave and Paul still had not shown.
At 4am the alarm went off, and both of us could barely move. Dave and Paul never showed and we were worried about our friends. We hoped they hadn’t attempted the trail at dark, or worse ended up on the boulder field. I felt like I had been hit by a truck and the idea of climbing up the couloir with ski gear, up another 2000 ft to the summit, back down through the steep trees and back up the 1000ft Half Moon pass with my 50lb pack seemed impossible. Casey felt the same way and we decided that Holy Cross had beaten us, and we would be happy just to get home in one piece. We packed up camp and Casey took me up the route he had taken to the Lake of Tears to at least look at the couloir.
The couloir looked in good shape above the entrance and for a moment I felt like I wanted to give her a try. Also, the surrounding area at the Lake of Tears was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The Halo ridge above the lake also offered some awesome looking skiing.
After viewing the couloir I mentioned to Casey that I kind of wanted to give it a go. I am almost positive that the Mountain heard me and unleashed its final fury on us, as if to say, “Haven’t I made myself clear?”
We began our descent back down and almost immediately after my comment the clouds rolled in.
We made it back to camp in 20 minutes and what had been predicted to be a crystal clear day soon turned ugly. As we left our camp spot we felt the first few rain drops, and soon thereafter, thunder. Eventually the rain started coming hard and there was lightening all around. We were dashing down the same trail we had come up the day before in a desperate attempt to get below tree-line. The thunder was getting louder and the lightening closer and we knew this was bad news. By now, the temperature had plummeted and the rain had turned to graupel-snow. We were soaked and cold, but nothing motivates like the impending possibility of electrocution. It helps that the 1000 feet was all down hill this time, but what didn’t help was that the steep terrain was now super slick and dangerous. Still, what had taken us hours the day before took us 30 minutes and before long we were back the the cross creek panting, cold and wet.
We knew our friends would be worried, thinking we had attempted to ski the couloir. Luckily we hadn’t or we would’ve been way up high in the storm. At the creek we found a note lying in the trail! Dave had left us a message saying they camped down low, unable to find the trail and would meet us down the hill. We were elated that our friends were ok and with the weather clearing we downed some fuel and headed for the steep ascent back up Half-Moon pass.
By now Casey seemed possessed and practically ran up the 1000 ft pass. We were at the saddle in 45 minutes and he let me know he was tracking Dave and Paul’s footprints and we weren’t far behind. “They’re fresh” he said. “We can catch them.” Like a shot he took off from the saddle and we practically ran back to the trailhead, where we found our friends safe and sound. We all high-fived and were happy to be reunited. By now the weather had cleared and things were looking up. But Holy Cross had one more going away present for us, as if to make sure we understood she was in charge. We strapped our gear on and readied for the 8 mile bike ride back down the Tigwon road. Within minutes, the temperature dropped 30 degrees and another storm blew in! I couldn’t believe what was happening and once again we were surrounded by rain, driving wind, hail, snow thunder and lightening. With my gloves buried in my pack my hands were frozen as I gripped my bike handles. By now, we just wanted to get back to the car in one piece. After 40 minutes of cold wind and rain we were back at the car, covered in mud, frozen, but ok.
We got the message Holy Cross. This wasn’t the weekend. Sometimes mountains just don’t want to be climbed. Still, I have to wonder if there wasn’t some divine intervention involved. This was a trip that I’ve seen others do in a day, we had 3. I have to wonder that had we not gotten pinned on those boulders – which exhausted us to the point where we turned around – would we have attempted to ski the next morning? Had we attempted, would we have been up top when that storm rolled in? My timetable says we would have, and that would’ve potentially been it for both of us.
Sometimes, even the most grueling failures can turn out to be blessings in disguise, no matter what your beliefs. I’m not a religious man, but I have to wonder perhaps Holy Cross – or some higher power – was actually looking out for us, instead of trying to beat us down. I guess we’ll never know.
Until next time. Keep Rippin’!