Sunday, December 9, 2012

Fall Aspens in the Holy Cross Wilderness

Fall Aspens in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

Was overdue for a run to the hills to see the fall colors and in the process decompress and unwind the  mind.  Decided to do a short hike around the Tennessee Pass area and all of the wonderful network of trails that make up the Holy Cross Wilderness.

The final choice was Fancy Creek Trail.  To get there you turn off of Tennesee Pass on the road towards Homesatke Reservoir.  Drive 8 miles in to a turn off onto Forest Service Road 704.  From there the road brings you to two trailheads.This nice trail climbs to Fancy Lake which sits right at treeline.  If one was so inclined they could continue up and over Fancy Pass at 13,000 and drop down to where Missouri Lake and the Missouri Lake pass trail meet up.

Fancy Lake trail up to the lake and back was approx 6.5 miles round trip with roughly 1,350 elevation gain.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Fun with Friends in the High Country or Missouri Mountain from the West Ridge

So the dogs and I rolled into Buena Vista with the intent of having a nice dinner with family and friends then heading out to the spot on the map otherwise known as Rockdale.  The intent was also to pick up some first-hand local knowledge of the current flows in the creeks.  Reason being you need to be able to ford Clear Creek in two places with your vehicle to take almost 7 miles off the round trip journey to the top of Missouri Mountain and back that was our intended goal for the following day.

After much discussion and various points of beer induced wisdom, caution, and hot air it was decided that we would volunteer Fred’s old Nissan pickup as the official river crosser and SAG vehicle for the mornings journey. Plans and meeting times were laid out and we dispersed for the night.

Morning came and it was by no means an alpine start.  We loaded up on a solid breakfast cooked by Chef Bob and headed out to our first rondavous with Fred and Jeff at the CR390 turn off from Hwy 24.  Fred was there waiting and Jeff pulled in just as we did.  Quick review of the vehicle discussions from last night, condensed into two vehicles and headed towards our next turn off at Rockdale.

Found our turn off and wandered around the multiple dirt track splits until we came to Clear Creek and the inevitable water crossing.  Due to the lack of rain this summer the creek was flowing well below its normal levels for that time of year.  Even with that being said it was still something to be thought about before wetting the tires.  We piled all the gear, dogs, and people into Fred’s lil’ Nissan truck and plunged in.  Water came up to just above the hubs.  With a slow and steady push we crossed the first section and the second with no issues.  Only to be confronted by the steep muddy push up the bank and onto the very rough road to the trailhead.  Eventually we came to the gate across the road and the end of motorized travel.

Quick check of the topo to get oriented and mark our bearings and we were off.  A short ways up the trail we came to Clohesy Lake.  Beautiful high mountain lake tucked into the valley between Huron Peak and Missouri Mountain.  There used to be a nice one room cabin that had been built many years ago right on the lake that would be a wonderful shelter from the storm.  That is until the Forest Service decided that this cabin was being used for too many other things than shelter.

Up through the trees we went in a steady incline following the contours of the mountain.  Couple of small steep pitches and we suddenly broke out above tree line and got our first full glimpse of what truly laid before us.  A wonderful basin with a consistent pitch for most of the way up to the ridgeline that we would hug all the way to the summit and back.

Just enough time to shed a layer as we were now standing in the sun and up we went.  For most of this pitch it was a wonderful grassy hike that slowly worked its way ever upward to the first patches of scree and parts of the mountain that would make you earn the climb.  Just below where the trail meets up with the ridgeline the scree fields start.  Just above that the knuckle of the ridge sticks out and creates a more vertical challenge to work around.
Trail finding is always more of a challenge when all you can do is look up for that next gap in the boulders or that small pile of rocks that could be considered a trail marker. We zigzagged and meandered but eventually broke over the steepest section of the hump to find a clear path laid out before us and approx. a mile of ridge running with a small summit rise to Point 13,930 and onward to the summit.
At this point in the ridge is where the main trail coming up from the Missouri Gulch Trailhead merges with ours and the steady stream of hikers marching up from the valley below become visible.  A quick glance to the ridgeline also shows the humanity either ascending or descending our path to the summit.  Even with all the people the run along the ridge is wonderful.  Mt Belford stands to the east with Oxford tucked just below its own ridgeline.  Huron Peak stands to the west were the dogs and I had stood just two weeks prior to this climb.
Huron Peak to the west

Mt Belford to the east and the Missouri Creek Basin
The last crux of the run to the top is a small down climb of approx. 25 feet thru a narrow chute.  Dogs were not too sure about this section until Annie got below and showed them exactly where we wanted them to go.  Once that hurdle was cleared we were onward to the top.

Quick break for food, photos, and to tighten the shoelaces and we were on our way back down the ridge.  Up the chute, over Point 13,930 and down to the knuckle on the ridgeline.  Looking down on this section that had so flummoxed on our ascent was humbling. From a higher point of view the trail winding through the talus was plain as day.  Once we cleared the knuckle it was smooth sailing the whole way down the grassy covered ridge and back into the tree line below.
From the top of the knuckle looking down to the ridgeline and trail below

A detour off the main trail and down to the shores of Clohesy Lake took us a little further off trail than expected.  A short wander through the brush reminded us all too always be conscious of where exactly you are in the bigger context of things if you decide to step off that well beaten path at your feet.  We met up with Fred’s Nissan just in time for a light rain shower to start and keep us cool on the drive back down to Clear Creek and Rockdale.

When it was all said and done.  We covered roughly 5.5 miles with an elevation gain of 3,100 feet.  More importantly it was another great day shared with friends and family in the high country.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Make like a Fish and Go with the Flow

Leading up to the summer months I have been taking the dogs for longer and extended hikes on a regular basis to start building them up to tackling some of the bigger climbs required on my goal 14er summits for this season.  The dogs, as well as myself, were in need of some serious conditioning after a lackadaisical spring focused on school and work.
I was feeling good and felt comfortable that the dogs were right there with me in our physical progression.  As the weekend approached the weather forecast looked clear and would be cooperative for that first camp/climb of the summer.  A check of the website showed good trip reports and most trails unseasonably free of any lingering snow.  Nights leading up to the weekend were spent gathering up gear and airing out tents and sleeping bags from a winter of storage.  Everything seemed in order and good to go…or so it seemed.
Friday came and I plodded through the work day anxious to get home, loaded up, and headed towards the hills.  The magic hour came and I left the office in a rush.  I arrived home and started loading the gear that had only been partially pre-staged the night before.  In the haste to try and beat the normal Friday night summer mass exodus from Denver I did not do the normal double check of gear so important, especially for the first trip of the season.  Dogs and I were loaded and on the road a little before 5:00.
We had managed to stay just ahead of the traffic and made good time on hwy 285 through South Park.  Coming down the backside of Trout Creek Pass I started doing the mental checklist of gear in my head.  This brought me to my first check.  In the haste to get out the door I had forgot to measure out and pack the dogs kibble….DAMN!  Available options ran through my head with not many choices.  I finally concluded that we would make a quick stop at the City Market in Buena Vista to grab some substitute kibble.
Whipped into the City Market parking lot with all of the other refuges from the big city trying to stock up for their own weekend adventures.  Not many kibble options available in less than a 30 lb bag unless you wanted food for a 5 pound chihuawawa.  Zebbers and Harry were not going to be happy with me.  Found something that was remotely close to what the dogs were used to eating in a 15 lb bag and hit the road to the trailhead.
Drove up hwy 24 a little ways until I came to the county road I was looking for, turned off, and we were on our way to the trailhead with plenty of light left to set up camp.  A couple of miles in and we were brought to an abrupt halt with a large steel gate closed and bolted across the road in front of us.   Got out of the car to take a closer inspection of the heavy duty steel chain and industrial size padlock securely blocking access to the road and our designated camping spot for the night another 6 miles up the road.  DAMN DAMN!

Options???  Broke out the topo map for the Sawatch range and started mentally exploring the possibilities.  Mt Princeton or Yale were both close and they were on the bucket list for this summer.  Mt Princeton had a couple of recent trail reports that had said the trail was in good shape but I was not familiar with area regarding camping options.  Yale would be a little bigger climb than I wanted to take the dogs on to start and would be swarming with people.  Further north, Missouri mtn and Oxford were both on the list but I had already determined that I wanted to come at those summits from the southern route requiring a longer hike in. Hmmmmm, what about Huron Peak that is so often overshadowed by its monster neighbors to the north and south?  Quick check of the map and determined the trailhead was on territory already known to me from previous adventures up the south side of La Plata.  Topo did not show any extreme climbing or scrambling near the trail.  Sold!
Turned the car around and headed back downstream to hwy 24 and north towards the turn off onto county road 390 and 12 miles to Winfield.  From this point the road turns to rugged jeep track that will test your ground clearance and ability to squeeze between boulders and trees on one side and a drop off into the dark on the other.  A little more than 2 miles of this two fisted driving put us into the trailhead and the resting spot for the night.
Found a semi level spot tucked just off the road below the trailhead and set up the tent.  Attempted to feed the dogs with their substitute kibble to which Zebbers immediately turned up his nose as if I was attempting to pass off salmon eggs as beluga caviar at a black tie, invite only event.
Dawn broke and I got a quick lay of the land and adjusted my mental compass and map to the terrain and land marks around me.  Huron peak was not visible from the trailhead but tucked back around a rolling ridgeline that would start the climb.  Fed the dogs, broke down the tent, and staged my pack and gear for the climb.
Reached down into the supplies and grabbed one of the yogurts I had brought along for breakfast and opened it up.  At this point it occurred to me that my camping spoon and fork were still sitting on the counter at home where I had pulled them, freshly cleaned, out of the dish washer and set them where I would not forget them.  DAMN!  Oh well, sucked out what I could and used a twig as an improvised spoon for the rest.
Pack on, dogs harnessed in, and we were off.  By no means an alpine start but still fairly early to get moving before the usual afternoon clouds and thunder boomies rolled in.  The trail is well marked and in great shape after some very recent maintance work.  Starting out you enter the forest and start a slow climb while following the contour of the mountain around.  A very nice warm up to get the blood flowing and gear settled into place.
Eventually you come to a series of switchbacks that start working your way up in elevation while keeping the climb comfortable.  At one switchback just a little ways below treeline Huron Peak comes into view for the first time and you get a better idea of what lies ahead.  A pretty solid, unbroken mountain climbs directly up from the break in the trees you are standing in.

Hanging Valley and slope upward to ridgeline between Browns Peak and Huron Peak

The trail then takes you away from this view and eventually deposits you in a hanging valley above treeline to see Huron Peak and its adjoining ridges looming down at you from above.  One small section of steep climbing onto a large unbroken slope that rises at an even pitch upward to the ridgeline between Browns Peak and Huron Peak and the final push to the summit.  Climbing at a steady pace switchbacking  ever upward we made good time with only a brief stop to slip on a jacket to block the steady, biting wind from the west. 

Last 550' of vertical to summit

Cooling the paws while on the look out for yetis

The last 550 ft of vertical becomes a little steeper and you enter into a scree field with a well defined path snaking its way to the top.  A short break for the dogs to cool their paws in the last vestiges of a snow cornice and we are on the summit.  Without the face of the mountain to break the wind we are immediately hit with the full brunt of the constant icy blow coming from the west.
The lasting impression from this summit is the imposing view of the Three Apostles just to the south west.  Each a worthy mountain on their own.  Missouri and Oxford are visible just to the east and La Plata, with her own hanging valleys, swallows up most of the horizon to the north.

The Three Apostles

The constant biting wind at the top immediately took its toll on any exposed skin.  Fingers became numb and skin on your face tingled with the cold.  Not a place to hang around in long without shelter or protection.  Rested a little, fed the dogs, fed myself, and we were off again.

Aussie Dog playtime at 14,000'

Easy scramble down and started the steady passing of others just now working their way towards the top.  From the base of the hanging valley the slope up was now filled with a steady stream of people marching to the top like line of ants.  A last glance to the north at La Plata’s south slope and the fond memories of a previous climb and we dropped back into the trees for the final push down.

View of La Plata's Southern Slopes

A brief rest at a stream crossing for the dogs to cool off and play in the icy water and we were back at the trail head by 1:00.  Loaded up and prepared for the fun drive back down to Winfield.  The drive it’s self is no easy task as we were now confronted with two way traffic on a two track trail barely wide enough for one car to begin with.
Made it back to Winfield without too many scratches to the paint and we were headed for home with a brief stop at the Eddyline brewery to pick up a couple of growlers for home.  Lots of last minute changes and adaptations to obstacles and conditions transitioned into a very nice first climb of the season.  Make like a fish and go with the flow.
Notes from the climb: Trailhead Elevation: 10,560 Summit Elevation: 14,003 Total Elevation Gain: 3,443 ft  6.75 miles round trip.  Very nice climb to start the season with something that would be a great intro climb for those just learning about the mountains and 14ers.
“We may encounter many defeats in our life but we must not be defeated.  When, in fact, it may be necessary to encounter defeat so we can know who the hell we are and what we can overcome.  What makes us stumble and fall also somehow miraculously binds and makes us go on.”  LTJ Bukem

Sunday, December 18, 2011

December Mt Arkansas Western Slopes Snowshoe/Hike

This weekend weather was supposed to be nice and ski resorts are still hurting for a couple more good storms so I decided to wander up to Mt Arkansas on Fremont Pass.  Intent was to snowshoe up as high as I could then switch over to crampons if conditions were good enough and felt like climbing higher.  No real set agenda or goal other than to get outside and burn some calories while simultaneously clearing the brain.
Sun just lighting up the ridgeline of Mt Arkansas

Rolled into the access road/parking area just a little after 8:00am and geared up.  Sun had not broken the crest of the Mt Democrat ridgeline so things were still a little cold in the shade of the mountain.  Put an extra layer on as most of the route I was planning would be blocked from the sun for most of the climb.

Had about 8 inches of light snow that was a couple of days old with a solid layer underneath.  I worked my way up the same open glade on the western slopes that I had climbed last spring.  With every 100 foot or so of vertical gain the snow depth got deeper accordingly.  Before too long I was breaking trail through a solid foot of lighter snow with a firm layer underneath that was just strong enough to hold until you got your full weight on it.  Then you would crash down, snowshoe and all, another foot deeper.  If there was enough snow higher up this would have set off the avalanche warning signs in my head.  As the case was above tree line the western slopes of Mt Arkansas were still relatively free of any snow build up.  Most of the lighter powder snow that I was standing in below tree line had been swept up and over the ridgeline anywhere it was not sheltered.
Breaking trail while still lower with Mt Democrat looking down in the background

In fact, when I reached the same open chute that I had successfully snowshoed right up last spring to the exposed slopes above I was met with a large talus field only partially filled with snow.  Snow here was just deep enough to cover all but the largest boulders.  To cross this meant you would be walking blind to gaps between the rocks and surfaces at odd angles. Didn’t really feel like breaking an ankle or destroying my snowshoes in an attempt to cross.  Other option was to work back into the trees and fight the willows and underbrush in an attempt to gain tree line.

Decided to work my way back down and pick a slightly different route back to the car.  In the process came across a small sheltered clearing that the local elk population had used to bed down the night before.  Lots of sign and multiple tracks coming in and out of the clearing meant this was a very popular gathering point for a big herd.
Follow the Sun

Got down to the car just as another person was pulling in.  They had the same idea as I did but wanted to tele up the access road the end of the valley and back down.  Gave him my snow condition report, wished him the best.  Loaded the car back up and was back home by 2:00.  Approx 1,200 vertical gain over roughly 4 miles round trip hiking.

View of a snow covered Mt of The Holy Cross and the Halo Ridge from Fremont Pass

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Divine Ascension or Flight of Icarus?

Shavano and Mount of the Holy Cross Climb
With 3 days off in a row I wanted to try and do something that had been brewing in the back of my mind for a while now.  One of my goals coming into this summer was to try and complete my summit list for the Sawatch mountain range that includes all of the Collegiate Peaks and a few others in-between.  Two weeks ago had an incredible moon light climb up the backside of Mt Massive followed by a sunrise summit.  I was looking for something that would compare in regards to drop your socks awe. 

I had been wanting to do Mt Shavano and its neighboring peak Tabeguache for a while now.  That is supposed to be a fairly easy climb with no major technical challenges found in route.  I figured I could punch out one or both of those peaks with not too many difficulties so we needed to add something to it.  The other peak that has been on my to do list for a while but held back just for the respect it deserves is Mt of the Holy Cross at the exact opposite end of the Sawatch range from Shavano.  Holy Cross is a big climb that is best done in two days.  Factor into that equation that the Forest Service road to the trailhead is currently closed to vehicles and you add another 8 miles of hiking just to get to where you would normally park the car and start.

I got a slightly later start out of Denver Friday night than I was hoping for and was rewarded by getting stuck in the early stages of holiday traffic tying to exodus the city.  Stopped into Buena Vista and drove over to the Eddyline to grab a pizza for dinner.  Woofed down a nice Numbers Personal Pizza and washed it down with a yummy craft beer and was back out on the road headed towards Salida and the Shavano trailhead.  Pulled into the trailhead around 10:00pm and was mildly surprised that there were not that many cars or campers in the area.  Got the gear all ready and snuggled down in the car for a nice nap.

Woke up at 4:15 am, was geared up and headed out on the trail shortly after 4:30 am.  By the light of the head lamp I followed the trail through the forest and upward.  At approx quarter after five reached the shoulder of the main ridgeline of Shavano before the trail switchbacks and heads southwest to go up the main bowl that creates the Angel of Shavano in the winter.  I broke off the trail and climbed approx 150 yards up some talus to get above the surrounding trees and enjoy a beautiful sunrise.  From approx 11,800ft on Shavano looking over Salida and the Arkansas River valley I was treated to a wonderful sunrise with some unique cloud formations.

Looking southeast down the Arkansas River Valley towards Salida

After the opening scene of the day was over I loaded up, scrambled down the talus, and headed back up the trail.  A little ways past treeline came across a small group of bighorn sheep including one that came right up to about 15 feet and stood its ground like I was with the DOW and she wanted to know where her monthly feed stipend was.  Continued an easy hike up the bowl to the upper saddle.  From there the final pitch was in view and a little different then what had been described in the route guide.  The last 700 feet of vertical to the summit goes up this broken pile of skree and rocks with no real solid “trail” to be found.  There was a mishmash of paths that people had created working their way upwards.  One could only randomly choose which junction or turn felt the best and work their way upwards to the top.  This was the hardest part of the climb and just took time in picking your way.  Reached the summit somewhere around 9:00 am and looked over to Tabeguache. 

The peak of Tabeguache its self looked to be a very easy climb.  It was the saddle in-between that looked a little more challenging and time consuming.  It was very do able, just one that you would need to pick your route and steps with caution.  Decided we would save that peak for another day, and maybe a different route, and started the climb down.  Shavano was only the first stage of this weekend’s adventures.

Once I cleared the 700 feet of skree that makes up Shavano’s summit it was smooth sailing the rest of the way down as I passed the hordes of people that were just now working their way to the top.  Towards the end at the junction with the Colorado Trail stopped and talked to a real nice guy that was hiking the Colorado Trail from start to finish.  He was asking for weather details as the next few days of his hike would put him above treeline and exposed for long periods of time with nowhere to hide in the event of a storm.  I told him what I knew, wished him the best, and continued towards the trailhead.   Completed 9.25 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 4,600 feet.  Was loaded up and headed down the road towards our next stop by 2:00 pm.

Made a quick stop in BV for a Subway sammi to eat and one to pack in.  Topped off the gas tank and we were off.  Drove Hwy24 up to Leadville and over Tennessee Pass.  Pulled into the Forest Service road closure just south of Minturn a little before 5:00 pm and had to make some decisions that would later haunt me.  The original plan had been to hike up the forest road at least to the trailhead tonight.  That would put me 8 miles closer and with the option to do the rest of the hike in a day or stage it in two days.  Looking at the topo map and realizing that these 8 miles of Forest Service road also included some serious elevation gain that would put me into the trailhead well after dark helped to make my decision for me.  I decided to stay the night at the closure gate and then hit the trail tomorrow in the light of day and with fresh legs.

Sun setting on Red Cliff from the road closure

The Forest Service has not done a very good job in getting the word out about this road closure.  There was a steady stream of cars rolling in all evening and the next morning only to come to a screeching halt at the closure gate.  There were hikers, fishermen, and tourists that would all carry the same look of confusion and frustration as they turned around and headed back out the way they came.  The closure sign doesn’t really go into any details as to why it is closed, other than “logging operations”, or give a timeline.

As the light was starting to fade I walked up the road a little ways to stretch out the legs from the morning’s hike and get a better feel for the terrain.  Approx half mile from the car spotted a black bear that was in absolute bear heaven.  Along the trail everywhere you looked where bushels and bushels of berries of every kind imaginable in the absolute peak of ripeness.  This bear had parked himself in the middle of a berry patch and was doing his best to make sure he harvested every berry within paw’s reach.  Took a couple photos of Yogi and moved further up the road.

Then I came across the cutest little guy parked right in the middle of the road.  Couldn’t quite figure out if he was a mouse, a vole, a baby chippy, or what.  The photo I took doesn’t do him justice because he was smaller than a ping pong ball, and that was with his hair all puffed up to stay warm.  Light was starting to fade so turned around and headed back down the road to the car.  Semi staged my gear for the next day and tucked into my sleeping bag for the night. 

Cute lil' guy no bigger than a ping pong ball in the middle of the road
 Woke up the next morning feeling good with little soreness from yesterday’s summit.  Figured I would just take my time today as I had thirteen and a half miles to cover (8 miles of dirt road and 5.1 of actual trail) and 7,700 vertical feet to gain.  Started transferring things from my regular pack to a bigger volume one that would handle the extra gear and water needed for the overnight.  It is always that balance of potential need versus additional weight.  

As got started headed up I stopped and talked to some of the loggers coming down (with access to the gate) the road and a few fishermen that were trying to get into a small section of public water on the Eagle just past the closure.  According to the loggers there was a rumor floating around that the Forest Service may open the road back up for access up to the trailhead sometime in October to allow hunters to get back in there for hunting season.  This came from two different loggers that I talked to.

It became very apparent shortly after I started up the forest service road that I had severely under estimated this part of the hike.  There is approx 2,000 foot vertical gain on this road and for most of the first five miles it comes at you as one constant, unrelenting pitch upward only broken by the quick turn of a switchback.  The second factor was the sun.  Almost all of the first five miles of road sit on a north south axis with no shade or shelter from the sun to be found anywhere.  The day I chose to hike was hot, even for the high country.  No shade, a hot and dusty road reflecting that heat back up at me, and a full pack with enough gear and water for an overnight stay.

At mile five I came upon the Tigiwon house and made an immediate break for the shady picnic tables in the back.  Took the pack off, cooled down and evaluated the situation.  These 8 road miles and the unrelenting sun were taking much longer than I had planned for and sapping energy and water that would be much needed later.  A quick power nap and cool breeze coming from underneath the picnic table I was laying on helped to calm my nerves and refresh my spirit.
Rehydrated and reenergized I loaded up and started back up the trail to finish the last 3 miles to the trailhead and start the real part of the climb.  The last two miles into the Halfmoon campground finally level off and at times actually start to descend a little bit.  Much to my leg, lower back, and mental relief.

Once I arrived at the Halfmoon campground I was still a long ways off from my intended destination for the night of Halo Ridge and the Notch Mountain Shelter.  I knew that I was way behind my intended schedule and needed to make some serious choices about what lies ahead.  I could completely abort my original plans for the Halo Ridge bivy and go the standard route with an overnight stay at East Cross Creek.  Or I could take the trail towards the Halo Ridge and camp for the night when I got tired or when it got dark, whichever came first.

I chose to stick with my original plans and take the path towards Notch Mountain and the Halo Ridge.  I was a little nervous about hitting this route with dark coming on.  A previous climber had posted that they had missed the turn off for Notch Mountain completely from the Fall Creek Trail and got off course and sidetracked.  Not something that needed to happen to a person who was already a little tired and worn from yesterday and today’s activities.

The trail from Halfmoon campground to the Notch Mountain Shelter turned out to be a wonderful route that gains elevation but for the most part follows the same contour line around Notch mountain pretty closely for two and a half miles.  You move through heavy timber and steep hillsides with a feeling that you are in your own little remote part of the woods.  Then you suddenly come upon a small level opening in the trees and a very well marked sign showing the trail and path towards Notch Mountain. 

When I reached this point I was at another junction requiring a decision.  I was starting to feel a combination of the miles from yesterday’s summit of Shavano with the broiler heat of the hike in on the Forest Service road.  I knew I still had a couple of hours of daylight left in which to press on or a very inviting level and sheltered spot in which to camp for the night right in front of me.  Even though I knew I was getting near tree line and the potential exposure to lightning and the elements above I decided to press onward.

From the trail juncture you immediately start a steady gain of elevation moving upward through thinning trees interspersed with small pockets of open areas.  Then you break free of the timber into a large meadow still filled the last vestiges of summer’s flowers and the first real unobstructed view of what lies ahead. 
Looking up at the "Notch" in Notch Mtn
From this vantage point Notch Mountain looks intimidating.  To the immediate north is the gorge and cliffs that give this mountain it’s moniker.  Directly in front is a very impressive skree field climbing 600 vertical feet in less than a mile.  To the south is another series of small cliffs and drops.  Somewhere in between all of that is the trail and endless series of switchbacks working its way upward.  To add even further to the intimidation you cannot clearly see a solid ridgeline above where you know the switchbacks and trail must continue on.  In your mind you know there can be more climbing hidden just over the visible ridge than what is already standing before you.

Hindsight being 20/20 I should have called it a day right there.  There were several spots in the meadow and slope in front of the talus field that one could have made a fairly protected and level stop for the night.  Just like Icarus the temptation to climb higher was upon me.  I chose to follow the sun, which by now had long passed over the ridge in front of me and light was quickly fading in her passing to the west. 

I did a quick visual check of my surroundings and tried to imagine what each would look like in the dark.  The gaping hole of Notch Mountain on my right was hard not to miss. It’s emptiness and void would almost be tangible in the dark.  On my left there was a small vertical band of snow that would be visible in the starlight representing where the trail would be forced to turn and switchback up the mountain.  A few degrees south of due east and a mountain range away the lights of the Climax mine at the top of Fremont pass and the Mosquito mountain range were just coming on.  This would serve as a visual compass point in the dark if for some reason I got turned around and didn’t know what direction I needed to be headed other than up. 

Sunlight starting to fade and Climax Mine on Fremont Pass on right

In preparation for the quickly approaching night I pulled out the headlamp and made sure the backup lamp and spare batteries were easily accessible.  Switched out my jacket and made sure my knit beanie and gloves were tucked into one of its pockets.  Visual check of everything in the pack in case we had to dig for something in the dark, readjusted the straps, and loaded up.

At this point I need to give a huge shout out to the people that built and maintained this part of the trail.  I was very nervous about tackling this 600 vertical of skree and switchbacks that lie ahead in the dark.  In my mind I ran the scenario that halfway up this thing the trail would lose all definition and turn into a labyrinth of broken steps and false trails much like I had seen yesterday on the summit of Shavano, or previous experience on the south slopes of La Plata. 

As it turns out my fears were completely unjustified.  In hindsight I think a blind man, if they took their time, could find the trail up the final ridge of Notch Mountain.  To a tired mind and body these lost trail scenarios would continue to play out in my head as I started up the skree field.  I no sooner reached the first switchback before the last of the day’s light was gone and I was forced to turn the headlamp on.

About a quarter of the way up you start to get a sense of the gaping hole that makes up the actual “notch” of Notch Mtn.  When you would come to a switchback on the north side you could sense that not too far beyond your turn there was a whole lot of nothingness.  A void that seemed to swallow any feeble attempt to shine a light out into it.  A few switchbacks further up and it was there just off the trail.  Empty blackness and the open air of the notch were right there within arm’s length.  Not a good place to lose the trail or miss your turn.

Looking down into the notch from switchback in daylight
I continued a steady and slow pace up the switchbacks.  Headlamp focused primarily just in front of my feet and the next steps in the trail.  Trekking poles working much like a blind man’s cane to feel the upward slope on one side and the drop away from the edge of the trail on the other.  I knew that I was gaining elevation with each switchback but no real reference as to how far I had come.  In the dark a look to the ridgeline above did nothing to clue me into how much climb was still left as all sense of distance seems to fade in the dark.

Then it hit me.  I came to that mental wall that just screams for the body to stop.  I guess it was a combination of things that all came together at once.  A switchback that had a small, sheltered level spot that was just big enough to tuck up into and lie down in.  A small wall of rocks that would keep one from rolling off into the “Notch” during the night.  A nice flat rock at seat level with a backrest of which I was currently sitting on when this feeling of bonking and total exhaustion rolled over me.  The sense that I knew I had gained quite a bit of elevation but also knew I still had a ways to go.

The mental debate ran its course through my head.  Was there enough room to comfortably tuck into the rocks and bivy for the night?  How protected was I if a storm decided to roll in?  Would it be better to just work my way back down to the base of the scree field and sleep at the spot I had already mentally noted as a good area before the light had departed this side of the earth? I would still need to tackle this climb in the morning.

The final thought is what won the debate.  I broke out the Subway sandwich that I was originally planning to reward myself with when I stopped for the night and refueled.  Feeling some energy return to the system I stood up from my comfortable rock seat and continued on.

I was actually much closer to the top of the ridge than I realized.  A couple of switchbacks later and the trail suddenly only turned 135 degrees instead of the full 180 degrees of the countless other switchbacks below.  It was either a small shelf or we were actually getting near to the summit of the ridgeline.  Two switchbacks after that and the trail only turned 90 degrees and almost leveled off.  The summit of the ridge, the Notch Mountain Shelter, and our final goal for the night all had to be close.

I was almost skipping with excitement and anticipation at this point.  Then a magical moment occurred that Hollywood could not have made any better if they were filming it.  Out of the dark and slowly coming into focus with each step closer the two large trail cairns at the top of the ridge appeared.  Perfectly framed between them in the darkness beyond was the black silhouette of Mt of the Holy Cross on the opposite side of the valley and the snow of her namesake lit up in the moonlight.  I am not religious but that was a divine moment if I have ever felt one.

I scrambled for the camera to try and capture the moment but could not even begin to come close.  I would have needed equipment several thousand dollars more sophisticated than what I had and an hour or so to set the apertures right.  No photo could ever do justice to what I was seeing and feeling at that moment.  As I overcame my awe in the moment I saw the dark silhouette of the Notch Mtn Shelter, my final destination for the night, just 50 yards away on my left.

I walked over, quietly opened the door so as not to disturb anybody that might already be there and entered.  The Shelter is solidly built and completely sealed from the outside elements.  A nice, comfortable retreat from whatever dangers the weather might throw at you. It was approx 9:45 pm.  I shed my pack, took off my hiking boots, and just relaxed in quiet comfort for a while.

After a short spell I started to prep for the night.  I ate some food and tried to rehydrate a little more.  Rolled out the sleeping pad and bag, shed today’s stinky clothes for some others.  Took a final look at the stars and Holy Cross out the window and went to sleep.

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning a little bit before 4:00 am I had the strangest dream.  I had the sensation that someone, or more realistically something, was giving my fingers kisses.  This pushed my consciousness level up a notch or two from the deep slumber of exhaustion it had been very happily resting in.  Not quite fully awake or coherent as my brain struggled through the steps of rebooting I slowly came to the realization that the sensation I was feeling on my fingers was not a dream and was in fact actually occurring.  “How?”, “Why?”, and “Who?” all raced through my foggy thoughts at once.  Then it clicked.

A previous hiker who had stayed at the shelter had reported that a large rat had made an appearance inside the shelter when he was making his breakfast.  When I had entered the shelter there were a few traces of scat that I had roughly swept into a corner but no signs of a massive infestation.  With this in mind before I turned in for the night I had purposely sealed up all of my food and trash placing it back into my pack.  

So why my fingers?  I was hunkered down deep into my sleeping bag lying on my belly with my arms stretched out over my head with only my hands extending from the bag.  The salt from my dried up perspiration and sweat must have called out to the rat like a salt lick to a herd of cattle.

 “What to do?” raced through my now fully conscious grey matter.  The last thing that we wanted was a vicious bite from a scared animal that we would have very little luck in trying to catch if we needed to check for rabies, hantavirus, etc, etc.  Furthermore, up until now he had done us no harm other than to wake us from our restful slumber.  A two step resolution presented itself in my head.

With all my might I let out a large, “Boo!!!” just as if I was trying to scare the neighbor kids on Halloween while simultaneously jerking my hands back into the relative shelter of the sleeping bag.  I was rewarded with the sound of scurrying feet and my furry friend heading for the rafters.  On that note I reemerged from the sleeping bag and patted around in the dark for my glasses and headlamp which I had set next to my gear.

Glasses and headlamp on I spotted the long tail and eyes peeking at me from a corner of the roof where the rafters met the chimney.  I told Mr. Rat that I would not bother him if he would allow me a few more hours of sleep.  We had a staring contest for a little bit and then he squeezed through a small hole next to the chimney and was gone.

Even as tired as I still was sleep seemed a fleeting hope after my unexpected visitor.  Around 4:30am the winds started to pick up and really blow.  Not an occasional gust but solid, sustained winds that are usually the leading signs of a pressure shift and change in the weather.  Deep factors to consider as the next part of my journey to the summit of Holy Cross would require clearing three 13,000 foot  points and several hours of committed exposure above treeline with no place to hide.

At 5:00 am I got up, got dressed, grabbed the camera, and headed out to a quick hike a little ways up Notch Mtn and catch the sunrise.  I was rewarded with the beautiful alpenglow and morning light highlighting the mountains to the east and first light on Holy Cross behind me.  I never get tired of that transformation that happens in just a few short moments as the sun breaks over the horizon and begins to push the shadows of the night away.  As the sun’s light brought a new perspective to the day it also presented me with two questions to answer regarding the day. 

Dawns light breaking over the Halo Ridge onto Holy Cross
The Halo Ridge is made up of 3 ranked points above 13,000 ft, almost 2 miles of up and down ridge running over crests and saddles, and a solid 500 ft of elevation gain to push through on the last leg to the summit of Holy Cross.  Once the summit was reached we still had the long journey back down the other side to East Cross Creek, the climb up to Halfmoon Pass, and the 8 mile trek on the Forest Service road back to the car.  A very long day with lots of energy burned.

 The other factor was the solid bank of clouds that had blown in from the west staring at me from behind Holy Cross summit.  They were still a ways off but my premonitions about the constant winds starting in the early morning hours were proving to be true.  The cloud bank was far enough back that there was at least a couple of hours of climbing with no weather factors.  The problem to factor in was what happens after that?  2 miles around the Halo Ridge including the final push to the summit and another approx 4 miles coming down the North Ridge before you would be at treeline and the relative protection of the trees added up to more than the 2 hour window I was looking at.

The real inner question I had to ask myself to answer both of these others was did I have the energy reserves to get around the Halo Ridge, summit Holy Cross, and get down the North Ridge?  The answer to that was yes.  Did I have the energy reserves to do all of that with the turbos in gear at speed if I needed to get below treeline in a hurry to beat a storm?  The answer to that was no.  We also could not forget the 8 mile trek back to the car when all of that was said and done that would put the day’s journey at 16 miles.  Even without factoring in weather issues it would be a very long day and after dark before I got back to the car if I was to attempt what I was proposing.

Discretion being the better part of valor and wanting a reason to come back and do this route again I decided to pass on the summit push and head back down Notch mountain to the Fall Creek Trail and Halfmoon Campground.

I went back to the shelter, ate breakfast, loaded up, and prepared to head out.  On my way out of the shelter I sprinkled a few pieces of Cliff bar onto the mantle over the fireplace just below Mr. Rat’s access hole.  A payment for nothing more painful than kisses in the night and a lost hour of sleep, as well as tribute to something that could survive in this hospitable environment.  I closed the door to the shelter and secured it from accidentally getting open. 

Holy Cross and Point 13831 of the Halo Ridge

A last parting look at Holy Cross with the visual image of what that summit sillowette had looked like when I crested the ridge in the night.  I turned east to face the sun that was now fully over the horizon and started the journey back to retrace 13 miles of my steps from the night and day before.