Notch Mtn - 13,237 feet
PT 13,248 - 13,248 feet
Holy Cross Ridge - 13,831 feet
Mt. of the Holy Cross - 14,007 feet
Notch Mtn - 13,237 feet
PT 13,248 - 13,248 feet
Holy Cross Ridge - 13,831 feet
Mt. of the Holy Cross - 14,007 feet
|A Tale of Holy Cross: The Broken Halo|
A Tale of Holy Cross: The Broken Halo
Holy Cross, in terms of physical presence, could never equate to the allure of the 8000-meter giants, the fluted peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, or the sheer granite walls of Cerro Torre. Nor is it a mountain defined by alpinism, lest a short and seldom climbed mixed route on its north wall. It is merely a mountain, only important to those who find ponderance in its beautiful faces, couloirs, and forest. The mountain, like all mountains, derives its relevance through emotional connection. It finds a way to the heart of those pursuing something beyond the folly of human construct—something that can connect human existence to nature and create a more profound feeling, a deeper understanding, not only of human ideals but of the very principles life is founded upon.
During the heavy turbulence of early 2020, I found solace in Holy Cross. It was something to look forward to as the rest of the world lurched through its convulsion. Even as human existence changed, the mountains remained indifferent to our suffrage, content, and emotional indulgence. It was a place where normality prevailed, regardless of human indiscretion and cataclysm. Paradoxically, the mountains are a place of change, constantly rearranged by the force of nature. Yet in the face of human subjectivity and adjustment, they seem constant, or at least dependent on natural continuity. Holy Cross and its enduring nature found their way to my heart. Its allure was so tempting. Holy Cross became an exigency to me. I had to climb it.
A Broken halo is a variation of the normal Halo Ridge. Instead of bypassing Notch Mountain to the east, it directly ascends Notch Mountain’s north ridge from Half-Moon pass and continues through the notch to the south of the summit, meeting up with the standard Halo Ridge Route at the Notch Mountain Shelter. From there, an easy yet long ridge remain as Holy Cross’s final barricade to those seeking the summit and its siren song. This route derives its name from the iconic Notch just to the South of Notch Mountain’s summit. The Notch creates a break, or an interruption per se, in the otherwise slowly and peacefully ascending ridge that circles the bowl of tears—It breaks the halo.
Attempt #1: Affliction
May 25 - 27, 2020
Winter finally softened its iron grip on Colorado. I texted two friends of mine, Joey and Chase, to see if they would be interested in trying to climb Holy Cross from the winter closure. Without much reluctance—surprisingly—they agreed. After two weeks of planning, the three of us arrived at the winter closure of the Notch Mountain Road, roughly eight miles short of the summer trailhead. Our packs were heavy, teeming with food and gear for three days, all calibrated to put an attempt on Holy Cross via Broken Halo. We planned conservatively for the climb, one day to make a high camp near the summer trailhead, another day to climb Broken Halo and reverse it back to camp, and a final day to pack out. We knew there was still an abundance of snow up high, but even with this knowledge, we grossly underestimated how it would affect our climb.
The three of us set off from the closure a little after 8 am. No more than a half-mile from the car we were forced to reconcile with the antagonistic weight of our packs. We were moving at no more than a mile an hour and Chase already wanted to go down. Joey and I were too stubborn to give up that easily, summit hungry—both of us plagued by blinding intolerance for concession. Joey and I were quick to lighten Chase’s load through the burden of our own. No matter to our suffering, we all wanted to get to the top of that mountain.
We pressed on, stopping just short of the Tigiwon Community House for a lunch of pizzas utilizing glass canned sauce, pre-baked crusts, shredded mozzarella, and even pepperoni—a true testament to our disdain for weight consideration at the time.
When we left the trailhead, Chase had set his SAT phone to track our route and record its mileage. At lunch it was reading less than three miles. All of us were incredibly disheartened by this statistic, yet resentful of its accuracy. After much discourse, we came to the conclusion that the SAT phone had to be wrong; we knew we had walked more than three miles. Or was the weight in our packs merely distorting reality, leaving us in a state of distressing vexation, unable to reckon how many miles we had walked? Once we rounded the corner and saw the Tigiwon Community House, our hearts lifted. We knew the house was three miles from the summer trailhead, meaning we had already walked five. We rejoiced with a break that was soon met with the stark reality that we would once again have to continue upwards, into the forest.
The road engendered itself to infinity. Even with an inclination toward the pleasant monotony of road walking, I found myself consumed by contempt. The three of us had yet to prevail through the first day, and the mountain was already beating us.
The waning afternoon sun gave way to the suspense of evening as the three of us stumbled to the end of the road. Too tired to push on, we set up camp in the vacant Half Moon Campground, complete with a picnic table and metal fire pit—luxuries not usually afforded. I broke out my shovel and began digging out the campsite which was half-buried under snow. Thirty minutes of digging yielded the fire ring and logs in a wet but usable state. Joey and Chase set up the tents and filtered water. We brought two tents: a three-person tent and a two-person tent. We piled our gear into the 2-person, leaving copious amounts of space in the three-person for us to pass the night in comfort we never quite found. That evening we sat around our campfire, hope and excitement burning away at the dead forest of pessimism that had so recently fallen across our minds.
Our alarms went off at 5 am. All of our boots were frozen solid. Each of us, thoughts riddled with desolation, saw the beginning of the end. The boots went over the fire, each steaming as they slowly thawed. Two hours of roasting brought them to a functional state, yet far from ideal. With stubborn disdain for ceding the territory we had already gained, the three of us set off towards Half-Moon pass.
Trial breaking was non-existent with the fortune of a good overnight freeze but the altitude took its toll. Hours later we reached the top of Halfmoon pass. I was not feeling good, Joey was not feeling good, and Chase was not feeling good. The three of us, each remote, found ourselves huddled in the far and despaired reaches of our minds.
Still unwilling to make any concession, we were left with the unspoken ultimatum: continue or wallow in defeat. We had come so far and our desire remained strong while our physical state did not. So out of our continuous disdain, we went up. The trees gave way and the north slopes of Notch mountain rose above us. Lagging behind our now fleeting hope, we traversed softening snow to the North Ridge on Notch Mountain.
The three of us melted under the agency of the high sun. Once on the ridge, we began what would be our final endeavor of ascension. After many false summits and tedious devotion, the three of us crawled onto the summit of Notch Mountain. It was noon.
Five hours to the summit of Notch Mountain and Holy Cross looked more remote than ever. It was so far removed that our hope to climb it seemed just as distant, having run from the forefront of our minds to nothing more than a vestige of our desire, a tiny speck that no longer merited any attention.
The three of us discussed the affliction. It was possible to continue and make a blind descent along the standard route well into the night. At our current pace, an arrival to camp before the early hours of the following day seemed improbable. Beyond that, the snowy notch on Notch Mountain looked intimidating and deserving of the rope we didn’t have.
And so in our defeat, we took a final look at the mountain and wallowed back towards camp. All of us were disappointed, but I, in all my emotional indulgence, was bitter—mad at myself for our lack of preparedness and fitness—having wanted the summit so bad, having wanted to overcome the mountain that just so stubbornly turned me away.
We descended in silence until reaching Halfmoon pass, where the prevailing beauty of the mountains lifted my mood. Following our tracks down, we post-holed with snowshoes on through the ever-softening snow. We reached camp late that afternoon, made a fragile fire, cooked dinner, and found ourselves in the tent soon thereafter. There was not much to talk about, we were all broken and defeated. The mountain had taken its toll on us.
We woke up to our boots frozen once again. The morning was pleasant with a sense of peace in the air. There were no more summits to chase, no more stark upward animosity to overcome. With diligence, the three of us packed up camp, barely managing to fit all of our gear into our packs. Once we were all heavily burdened with an absolutely unwarranted amount of gear, we toiled, and toiled, and toiled down the road—well first up. For those unfamiliar, there is a mile of moderate uphill when leaving the summer trailhead. Normally this would have been of no merit, but man, we were all hurting.
Once the uphill was overcome, we plowed down the road, rejoicing over the idea of civilization and comfort. We reached our cars around 11 am. This trip, if anything, was a testament to the mountains, unwavered by the fragility of man, offering humility to those who wish to find it.
Yet this was not the end. The mountain was still there and I still wanted to climb it.
This trip was a turning point. It was the beginning of what eventually molded into my Centennial project, which I’d finish 18 months later. Even with all its toil, this outing taught the valuable lessons that would lay the foundation for many more climbs. We learned the lessons of weight management, preparation, and physical readiness. The funny thing is, we went on the trip thinking we knew what we were doing. But as the mountains always do, we were dealt cards we were unprepared to handle. It was one of the most profound early trips I went on.
This report would hold an incredible void if I were to not commend Chase for his strength. Joey and I were fairly seasoned in the mountains prior to this, both having mountaineering and backpacking experience. Yet for Chase, this was an introduction. In the first mile, he was disheartened by our undertaking (and so were Joey and I) but even in the face of his suffering, he chose to keep going, carrying more than his share of morale towards our desire. Never have I seen such commitment and devotion in the face of disenchantment. He did this whole trip off the couch—all 26 miles and 7,000 feet of vertical gain—with an incredibly heavy pack. I will never forget how the three of us were sitting there at Half Moon Pass, and even though he was in incredible pain—at the peak of his suffering—he chose to not give up, not only for his desire but for mine too. That sort of selflessness defines Chase, and I will forever be grateful for it. On the third morning, he woke up swollen, looking battered and bruised. But still, even in his poor state, he got up and helped us get out of there.
So to you Chase, my hat is off. You left a mark on Joey and me, and we often commend you behind your back (sorry!) and will continue to speak of your strength, endurance, and suffering. You were the epitome of human tenacity on this trip—a state in which I often reflect upon when I find myself suffering on my own.
Chase is one of the best rock climbers I know, climbing grades most of us can only dream of (I mean come on, V13!). Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to talk him into joining us mere mortals on another trip to Holy Cross. Our work is unfinished, brother.
Until Forever, Holy Cross.
Per Aspera Ad Astra.
Attempt #2: The Storm
June 22, 2020
As potently as the pain had come during the first attempt, it faded just as quickly. Desire returned and motivation renewed. Chase decided his afflictions were still too vivid to warrant another attempt, so Joey and I found ourselves planning a day trip of Broken Halo. The road to the summer trailhead was open and the snow had receded. All seemed to line up for an easy-going trip into the Holy Cross Wilderness.
We arrived at the summer trailhead at 7 am. walking soon thereafter. Halfmoon pass came quickly. (It sure helps when the road is open!). At the pass, we broke off of the main trail and followed a very faint trail toward Notch Mountain. We made good time up to the summit which wasn’t much to write home about besides the views and that the ridge crest is surprisingly fun.
Now upon the summit, we turned our attention toward the great void between us and success: the notch. We started down, slowly working down the loose scree toward the low point. We reached a small saddle where a sort of “shark fin” blocked further passage. There was a beautiful crack on its east side which we climbed up. In general, we followed the edge of the Shark’s fin, and it turned out to be some of the best climbing on the route—a nice taste of 3rd/4th class before our less-than-desirable route up the other side of the notch.
Once on the other side of the shark’s fin, an obvious ramp headed directly left up the prominent face of the notch. We climbed to its termination, where we made a move right onto a series of ledges, immediately following them back to the left. At this point, we found ourselves at the crux and not exactly sure which way to go. Joey took the lead, squeezing his way up a super exposed off-with chimney. In his words, it made him nearly “sh!t himself.”
With a general distaste for off-width climbing and buying new pants, I chose a line to the left. I pulled onto two very loose large blocks, delicately climbed up over them, before standing up and grabbing a lip above me to the right where I smeared and mantled to surmount. Both of these routes were not the best options with moves of 5th class, but oh well… There is a 3rdish class way (which I would find out on a later trip.)
These two routes brought us to the top of the headwall and out of the notch. Some quick talus hopping leads us to the Notch Mountain Shelter. Looking west, ominous clouds were building but were not prolific enough to warrant an immediate descent. So onwards we went. Unnamed 13,248’ came quickly, but the clouds had gathered and organized their antagonism, so we made a prompt reversal to the Notch Mountain Shelter and down the standard Halo Ridge Route. As we walked back toward our cars, far less defeated than our first attempt, thunder boomed overhead and it sprinkled before the rains came.
Attempt #3: Beauty
September 27, 2020
Ha! How could I ever make a concession? How could I ever be deferential to nature? After all, I am human, marred by cynicism and mediocre reasoning at best. With Holy Cross still at my heart, so diligently placed in my mind—like a gold mosaic upon a wall—I just had to go back. How fruitless I had been, but oh! How I saw the fruit before me—the great labors that would bring some sort of understanding, some sort of reckoning, of human existence, or maybe on a lower and more realistic frequency, of myself.
Darkness! Pitch black. Blacker, blackest. But there is my light! Oh my shining light! I see my feet before me but not where they are to go. Creating, altering, discovering. Upon an unknown path. Half-moon pass does not yield any portion of the moon, there is only my little halo. The darkness continues. Up, up, and up. Eventually, a ridge appears. The wind blows. The sun scrapes the horizon.
A sharp thing,
Into the surface
Time is deceit
My deceit is this mountain.
A thick return.
Time is my peak!
We climb to notch ourselves
Upon this mountain.
A better way! There must be a better way. Time fleeting, the skies rigid with animosity, moving fast, faster, but so slowly. Time is only a metric of our senses, not a bound upon our entity. I bypass the shark's fin on the right, hugging its side—nothing more than class 2. Now in the depths of the notch, I have a choice: retrace our steps from the previous attempt, or search for an easier way. A better way—maybe.
Instead of going up the ramp, I stay on the west side of the notch, looking for a foible point in the west wall. I try multiple cracks and chimneys, but none yield at any reasonable grade. I turn my back to the problem, looking toward Holy Cross, suddenly enveloped in clouds. Shit! I go back to the ramp and return to where Joey and I breached the notch through class 5 routes. I keep pushing east until the ledges completely terminate. With a high reach, I pull up and over the edge. A better way—class 3, and no need for a new pair of pants.
A single world upon a page—completely enveloped in whiteness. But it's placid, so quiet and placid. Beckoning. I take off at a fast pace, following the Standard Halo Ridge Route. Holy Cross Ridge provides no resistance, and oh! The summit! My summit! Almost weathered the holy ridge, the prize sought—so nearly won.
Step, breathe. Step, Breathe. Perne in a gyre. Once again the own master of my soul. I look out from the top of the highest boulder. I can almost see the halo, I know it's out there, but I see nothing but whiteness and the gentle snow. So for now, the halo remains broken in my thoughts, and will always be cracked and jagged. To hell with perfection or something beyond my own perception. If I ever sought such a fallacy, then I would have failed, with three attempts to what should’ve been an easy mountain. Nothing great enveloped my mind on the summit, but no prize is worth the adventure, no summit worth the realization—nothing worth the thought that there may be beauty in being broken.
Find your thoughts, find the notch in your mountain.
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