Notch Mountain, in the Sawatch Range just south of Vail, Colorado, has a perfect front-and-center view of Mount of the Holy Cross and its east facing cross couloir, made famous in 1873 by legendary wilderness photographer William H. Jackson. In the early 20th century, the mountain became a destination of Christian pilgrimages, and a rock hut was built on Notch Mountain (very close to where this photo was taken) for shelter during Sunday mass at 13,000 feet. The hut is still there, and back in October ’03 my friend Todd and I backpacked up there and used it for shelter ourselves. This was a memorable trip, so I thought I’d write up a trip report, ten years later.
Mount of the Holy Cross
Looking at the photo, you’d think the hut looks quite cozy. In fact, it was absolutely frigid inside. Yes, it blocked the wind, but it also blocked any heat from the sun and lacked the kind of small space body heat retention that a tent would provide. At one point we tried to light a small fire in the fireplace with scraps of trash but that only provided a few minutes of psychological warmth.
After I photographed the sunrise light on Holy Cross, we set out to climb the peak itself via the long undulating circuitous ridgeline that wraps around the head of the valley (seen in its entirety in the panorama photo above). This route, round trip, involves about 6 miles of hiking with over 2,500 vertical feet once you total all the subpeaks you must go over along the way. That doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s all at 13,000+ feet altitude and the entire rocky ridge was covered with about 4 inches of snow, making the going much tougher. About halfway out, Todd – being much wiser in retrospect – pulled the plug and went back to the hut. I was determined to push on. By the time I reached the 14,005 ft. summit of Holy Cross, I felt that I had used up 90% of my energy… and I still had to go back the entire way I had just come.
Sure enough, not too far along on my way back, my body just crashed. Exasperating my physical exhaustion, I hadn’t brought enough food or water to give me more energy. I could walk for about five minutes, then I’d have to sit and rest for five minutes. And repeat. In this manner, the return route took me far longer than I had expected, and by the time I stumbled back into the hut on Notch Mountain, I was a zombie – beyond exhausted. Todd and I had planned on hiking down that afternoon, but I told Todd – there’s no way, just no way at all I could do that. We had to spend another night in the cold hut. I rolled out my sleeping bag and immediately fell sound asleep, grateful to have bagged another fourteener – and more so to have made it back!