Peak of summer
EAGLE COUNTY — Mount of the Holy Cross has always been on my list. When I was a little skier, bundled in my bunny hat, I would glide across the expanse of Vail’s snow-drenched summit. That distant peak, with its distinct etching, was never far from my gaze.
More than two decades after my initial admiration of Holy Cross, and following years of backcountry hiking, tundra-walking and boulder-hopping, I finally had my day with the mountain in all her majesty.
Our six-person group began up Half Moon Trailhead before daybreak at 4:30 a.m., each hiker wearing extra layers and a headlamp — gear essential for the crisp and dim late-July morning. From the trailhead elevation of 10,314 feet, we gradually climbed up for about a mile. As we broke through tree line, brushstrokes of purple, orange and red were beginning to spread with the sunrise across the eastern horizon.
At 11,600 feet, we reached Half Moon Pass, just in time to see the full moon falling below the line of mountains to the west. It was only a few minutes later, as we began our 1,000-foot descent down the other side of the pass and into the East Cross Creek drainage, when the mountain came into view.
To me, Holy Cross had never looked more formidable than in that close-up meeting amid the early alpenglow. Many of my fellow hikers admitted later in the day that they had experienced a similar “knot-in-the-throat”— but even amid intimidation, it was Colorado’s clear skies and our own willing spirits that moved us forward.
The heart of
Half Moon Trail — the standard route — is well maintained and doable for anyone who is fit, agile and acclimated to altitude, but the trek is not for the faint of heart. Elations of peaking seem to dwindle in the day’s final three miles, as trudging seems to be the only way back out of East Cross Creek and up and over Half Moon Pass.
The Holy Cross Wilderness is also not one to be treaded lightly. Disappearances of two hikers, James Nelson in 2010 and Michelle Vanek in 2005, are “chilling reminders of what can go wrong in a vast, rugged wilderness,” as expressed in an October 2010 Vail Daily article. One notorious fork on the Mount of the Holy Cross Trail can be confusing for those not oriented to the area or who get caught in foggy conditions, so proper research and navigation is essential. Hiking alone is never recommended, and excursions in “The Holy Cross Triangle” have proven to be no exception.
Our group was well aware of the area’s reputation, and after a lot of research, we came prepared with route descriptions and photos, a topographic map and compass. Truth be told, I thought the trail was pretty self-explanatory. It was long, yet physically manageable, but we all agreed that with low-visibility or a quick change of weather, a hiker or a group could potentially lose their way on the descent, especially in the boulder field on their way down from the summit. Perhaps the route seemed simple because we were so informed before we started, and the fact that our weather was — with fullest gratitude — impeccable.
My mother, a seasoned hiker and our group organizer, Sandy Ferguson Fuller, 62, lives in Avon, and is well acquainted with the Colorado high country. Since her early Vail skiing years, beginning in 1962, she humbly admired and eventually longed to climb what seems to be the spiritual epicenter of these mountains.
She and I, in what I have been calling our “mirror year” (at ages 26 and 62), walked up Holy Cross together — proving not only to ourselves, but also to others, that desire and determination are not marked by age, but by heart.
It was a 12-hour, 11 and a half-mile day. By the time everyone in the group made it back down to the car, it was nearly 5 p.m. Weary and worn, we met in collective rejoice.
A climbing community
Mark Plachta, 35, is a seventh-grade science teacher at Gypsum Creek Middle School. He said it was his first time climbing Holy Cross and that he was impressed by the condition of the trail, comparing it to a staircase. He also mentioned the hike was much easier than Eagle’s Nest, a 13,432-foot mountain in the Gore Range, which he hiked two weeks prior to the 14-er he had just peaked.
“This is just an awesome view of Eagle County,” Plachta said on the 14,005-foot summit of Mount of the Holy Cross. “It’s really cool to see Eagle County pieced together from the top of it all.”
Plachta and his group had backpacked in and stayed overnight in one of the designated camping sites near East Cross Creek — a popular way to break up the lengthy route. He and his crew started hiking from their camp at 8 a.m. and walked toward clear skies for two hours to the top of the peak. They then made their way down, packed up camp and hauled it out over the pass.
After convening on the summit with Plachta’s group and the rest of the day’s climbing community, it was more than refreshing to see some familiar faces when we stopped for beers and barbecue at Kirby Cosmo’s in Minturn after the nine-mile, four-wheeled dirt drive out of Tigiwon Road.
Exhausted and accomplished, we sat together and lifted our glasses in a cheers of contentment.
“It’s truly gratifying to be able to see where you are going and to finally get there,” said Andrea Fasen, 23, of Denver. “It’s always worth it at the end.”
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