Backcountry Skiing in Colorado

Skiing and Hiking in the Colorado Backcountry

Cross Couloir, Mt. Of the Holy Cross (14,005′)



Mt. of the Holy Cross smiles, as if to say "you're welcome."

Mt. of the Holy Cross smiles, as if to say “you’re welcome.”

We all have those goals in life that just seem like they’re never going to materialize.  We try and try, yet something always finds a way to thwart our best laid plans.  Then, one day, the clouds part and you see your goal in front of you in all its glory.  For the first time it appears totally attainable and that attainment unfolds almost effortlessly.  For me, this scenario describes my relationship with Mt. of the Holy Cross to a T.

For 5 years I’ve wanted to ski this mountain but it never quite worked out.  No partner…road closed…bad snow year…. and then last year I finally made it to the base of the elusive couloir… only to be shut down in the worst way.

But this year would be different, very different.

After an excellent snow year, my friend Chris and I decided to wait until the Tigwon road opened before we attempted Holy Cross.  This would save us an additional 16 miles, which was a major cause for Casey’s and my ultimate failure last year.  Our plan was to start early on Saturday and make it to the Bowl of Tears Lake, camp at the base of the couloir, and make our summit/descent the next morning.  After having made it to the lake last year, I was well aware of how difficult the hike in would be, but the route was also burned in my mind, and I knew where we had to go.

Starting out

Starting out

Chris and I made short work of the hike up (and down) half-moon pass, and before long we were at the Cross Creek.  It was here that we broke off trail and I led the way through the trees and up the steep forest climb.  I remembered this part of the climb well, but was forced to veer climber’s right more than I wanted due to the plentiful snow that was covering up the “trail” (If it can be called that.)  Still, we trekked our way through the trees and eventually came to a cruxy area Casey and I had scrambled through during the previous attempt’s lightening storm.  However, this time the crux was filled in with snow and we easily climbed through.


Chris after a "Cruxy" area.  None of this snow was here last year.

Chris after a “Cruxy” area. None of this snow was here last year.

After the crux we had to navigate the marsh.  Typically one would stay climbers left, but again, the snow was deep and soft and it made for some tedious post-holing along the marshy bank.

Once clear of the marsh there was another ascent to the left of a boulder field.  Last year, there was a visible path here, but once again, we lost the path in the maze of snow drifts that criss-crossed the valley.  Undaunted we followed the path of least resistance through the trees.  I knew we were close to where Casey and I had made our biggest mistake last year, and I wasn’t going to do it again.

Finally we crested through the trees, and there in front of us was the boulder field which had thwarted Casey and I almost a year ago exactly.  This time, we chose left and down, and made our way towards the lake.

After a short descent, we were again skirting semi-firm snow along another marshy area, heading for another rocky crux.

Chris Navigates the rocky ascent.

Chris Navigates the rocky ascent.  Lots of snow in the background.

Once through this gap, I knew it would be a steady climb to the lake, and our camp spot.  It wasn’t long before we passed the base of Holy Cross and got our first view of the couloir.  As if the snow on the way in wasn’t predictive enough, the view of the couloir confirmed that there was plenty of snow.

View of the Cross Couloir... 1800 ft. straight up.

View of the Cross Couloir… 1800 ft. straight up.

Although it would be tempting to climb from here, there are several cliffs in the couloir that make this climb difficult without ropes.  Chris and I would swing around the eastern flank of Holy Cross and camp at the Bowl of Tears Lake.  We made our campsite by 2pm, which gave us plenty of time to set up camp, eat and rest up for tomorrow’s attempt.   It was during this time of rest and relaxation that we both felt an unbelievable feeling of peace and contentment.  It was so quiet, and we were so remote, the world seemed so far away.  Our tranquility would occasionally be interrupted by a jet passing overhead, but for those few hours, we both truly felt alive and at peace.  That time camping was not only rest for my body, but a much needed rest from the chaos of life.  Needless to say, our spirits were high and it seemed as though things were going perfectly to plan.

Our campsite

Our campsite

Chris scoping the Halo Ridge

Chris scoping the Halo Ridge

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Mountain Flowers

Mountain Flowers

Chilling at camp as the sun sets behind Holy Cross' Summit

Chilling at camp as the sun sets behind Holy Cross’ Summit

Chris and I had a vague idea of how to access the entrance to the couloir.  It involves scrambling up a rocky/grassy area just west of the Bowl of Tears.  We found only one picture describing the route and very little descriptions on-line.  By our best guess it was going to be about 1000ft climb before the entrance.  We figured we’d give it our best shot in the morning and see what we found.

We were up early as the sun rose into the valley.  There were some clouds rolling in to the North but we felt good about the weather.

Chris crossing the snow field wast of Bowl of Tears

Chris crossing the snow field wast of Bowl of Tears

Bowl of Tears, still frozen at the equinox

Bowl of Tears, still frozen at the equinox

After skirting south along the west edge of the Bowl of Tears we turned west and began our scramble.  We could see a ledge which we thought would be the best bet for our entrance and made our way, first up the snow field, and then over the loose rocks and grass.

Chris resting on the scramble to the Couloir entrance

Chris resting on the scramble to the Couloir entrance

After an hour climb we were close and began heading for the ridge.  Chris was in the lead and about 10 paces ahead of me.  As he crested the ridge, I heard him exclaim that we had indeed guessed right, and had made it exactly to where we needed to be.  It was about 8am, and the weather was perfect.  It was then that we thought a thought we hadn’t yet dared to think for fear of jinxing the possibility, but in it crept…we’re going to ski this thing.

Bowl of Tears Lake from the Couloir entrance.  Notch Mountain stands guard.

Bowl of Tears Lake from the Couloir entrance. Notch Mountain stands guard.

We transitioned here and before long we were in the Couloir with crampons and ice-axes, making our final bid for the summit.

Chris leads the way

Chris leads the way

The snow was super runneled and sun-cupped, which meant the skiing wouldn’t be great.  But the climb was exhilarating and enjoyable.  Closer and closer the summit got until finally we were at the top, taking in the usual amazing 14er views.

Your author topping out (Photo Courtesy of Chris Manning.)

Your author topping out (Photo Courtesy of Chris Manning.)

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14er views

14er views

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After resting on top a while, and waiting for the snow to soften, we met one other duo of skier/climbers before dropping in.  They had come up the main route and were planning the same descent.

Chris getting firsties

Chris getting firsties

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Dropping in

Yours truly dropping in

The skiing was challenging, but we didn’t care.  Before long we were down 2000 ft and back at the campsite.  The day was still sunny and we had finally done it, we’d skied the Cross Couloir.

We quickly packed up camp and began the hike out.  The deep snow made for a difficult hike out, and a short run-in with another lightening storm made for an exciting exit.  But still, after the storm passed, the clouds parted and I snapped the shot of Holy Cross at the beginning of this post, smiling at us.  We both knew that the mountain had let us get her this time, and we were grateful.

We arrived at the car sore, dehydrated and exhausted, but utterly elated in another successful venture into the mountains.

Until next time…. keep rippin’!


Author: Collin Tilbe

I'm a Husband and a father. I love food, travel and fitness. My mission in life is "To be free to live life on my terms, while providing value and to kindness to others."

4 thoughts on “Cross Couloir, Mt. Of the Holy Cross (14,005′)

  1. Yeah Collin! I’m so stoked for you guys on this one!

  2. Wish you were with us on this one Jon.

  3. It’s about time you wrote this buddy! Haha – great report and job well done finally !

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