Lessons from the Journey

Reflections from a Humbling Day on the Halo Ridge Loop

“Why do you think this class is called Journeys?” I posed this question to my juniors as we read two different pieces of literature —
Into the Wild and The Great Gatsby. They were perplexed until they saw the ways that literary themes mirror our own lives. In Chris McCandless’ escape to Alaska and attempted transition toward a transcendental lifestyle, students could counterpose their outdoor experiences to those of McCandless and the other adventure seekers listed by Jon Krakauer. The journeys in Gatsby are abstract, but once students saw the chase of materialism, success, love and all that the past has locked away, they connected to Fitzgerald’s classic story.

Journeys define us; in literature and in nature we see a singular journey reflect the themes that guide our lives, one step or decision at a time. Last year, I was asked to give an alumni speech at my high school in Memphis, and I told the students my story since graduation — the multitude of twists and turns leading me to find a home in Eagle County. Each step of my journey led me to this community, where my days are occupied teaching students and my weekends are filled with long run (or ski) adventures.

On a July day last year, my friend Marisa and I set out to conquer the Halo Ridge Loop in Holy Cross Wilderness. When she first sent me the route on All Trails, I responded, “Let’s do it!” My zealousness to summit Holy Cross and Notch in one day overcame the concerns I should have had about the terrain and our preparedness.

Holy Cross was first photographed in 1873 by William Henry Jackson. The 14,005-foot mountain is known for its couloirs shaped like a cross, holding snow and ice into late summer. It has long been a site of mythology and pilgrimage. Since the early 20th century, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts have ventured to Holy Cross Wilderness to submit themselves, body and soul, to nature and divinity in the hopes of curing rare illnesses and absolving sins. Many of us view it from a distance in Vail during summer hikes, rides and runs. In his 1869 book, The Switzerland of America, Sam Bowles wrote of the cross, “One of the largest and finest, the snow fields lay in the form of an immense cross, and by this it is known in all the territory. It is as if God has set his sign, his seal, his promise there — a beacon upon the very center of the continent to all its people and all its generations…”

Marisa and I camped at the Halfmoon campground the night before we set out on our adventure. We scoped the signage at the trailhead, reading quotes by Henry David Thoreau and Arne Ness, absorbing the silence and scents of pine and dust that Holy Cross Wilderness offered. In the final moments of light, we laid out our clothes and packs of water and snacks. We were prepared. Outside the tent, we sat in camping chairs and talked about life. At 9:30 p.m. we went to sleep, alarms set for 3:30 a.m.

Raindrops hit the cover of the tent like marbles that night. We woke up in a daze of excitement, exhaustion and predawn darkness. With our GPS watches set, we took off, headlamps lighting the way.

Climbing Holy Cross, one of Colorado’s 58 14ers, requires preparation. Though touted as a holy place, The Colorado Springs Gazette titled a 2012 article, “Mount of the Holy Cross: Colorado’s Bermuda Triangle” due to the number of mysterious hiker deaths and disappearances. We had done research on the route through word of mouth and reading online reviews. One stated, “If you’ve got a few other 14ers under your belt, this loop won’t be too much to handle. Halo ridge is arduous, but I wouldn’t call it dangerous. Lots of false summits.” The route on the app said it would take about 10 hours to complete. We were both well-worn hikers and trail runners training for fall races. We planned to hike up Holy Cross, run across the ridge and down the other side. I thought there was no way it could take 10 hours.

As we summited the first climb, we watched the super moon shine next to the peak of Holy Cross and the sun rise behind our backs. The silence of the wilderness as day broke reminded us why this place amassed its fame. We continued as the trail got steeper, rockier, and we emerged out of tree line again. This time, where the trees ended, the talus began. But in between the rocks grew wildflowers galore — purples, pinks, blues and greens poked through the cracks. We followed the trail by cairns, lunging from one rock to another, from marker to marker. After just over four hours, we summited Holy Cross.

We sat at the summit, eating granola bars, sipping water and talking to other summiters. One man dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, sweatshirt and shoes that looked like Vans approached the top from the ridge we planned to climb down. He started the loop counter-clockwise. He told us he was coming from Notch, and he guided us in the right direction, assuring us we would make it. He didn’t look prepared for a 10-hour trek. Marisa and I, questioning if we should continue, felt more confident after talking to him, and set off down the ridge.

We continued climbing over talus toward the next peak, sure the terrain would flatten soon. When we reached the top, we took a self-timed picture on my phone — the bowl of tears just out of frame to the left and two unnamed high alpine lakes in the background on the right. We were having fun.

Ridge after ridge, we descended and ascended, each revealing a string of several peaks and valleys before us, all covered in enormous rocks. The terrain we expected to run, we realized, we would crawl over, one boulder at a time. As we progressed, I noticed a dark cloud developing to the south. We were running out of time. We skipped our planned breaks to get back below tree line before the storm developed. It was only 11 a.m.

As we neared the hut on the top of Notch Mountain, after about six hours of crawling across a ridge of screen, Marisa pointed out Gilman in the distance. We could just see the mine shaft building and abandoned houses below perched on the cliff of Battle Mountain, the Eagle River flowing beneath. I wanted to stop and watch the town, but we didn’t have time. We needed to keep moving to avoid bad weather.

We reached the hut at the top of Notch Mountain and wondered aloud how it got there. Since childhood, I roughly knew the story of Gilman and the early residents of this valley, but it wasn’t until I moved here as an adult that I researched the town’s real history and relation to the land. I wanted to know how it felt to live in a town perched on the side of a mountain, surrounded only by wilderness largely untouched.

Ute Indians first called this wilderness home. They roamed and hunted animals like buffalo, elk and deer. Colorado and Utah were their land until prospectors began to lay their own claims to the area and the precious metals beneath the mountains. With miners came railroads, new settlements and no space for the Ute. Nathan C. Meeker was appointed the Indian agent for the area around Red Cliff and Gilman. In 1878, he was killed for demanding the Ute abandon their nomadic tradition for agriculture. Following the Meeker Massacre, the Ute were moved to reservations.

Residents of Gilman 100 years ago recall hiking, camping, riding horses, exploring the wilderness, fishing, skiing and sledding — living every moment outside. Vesta Coursen writes about her family’s arrival from New York, “Never shall I forget the feeling of insignificance that day. We three tiny creatures on a little dirt road dug out of the side of that massive, towering, sheer brown mountain! We were many days in adjusting to this sensation so that we again felt normal in size. But small as we were, we walked without fear, wondering if every shiny pebble could be gold.”

Climbing Holy Cross, one of Colorado’s 58 14ers, requires preparation.Though touted as a holy place,The Colorado Springs Gazette titled a 2012 article,“Mount of the Holy Cross: Colorado’s Bermuda Triangle” due to the number of mysterious hiker deaths and disappearances.

Marisa and I retraced the steps of Gilman residents and felt their presence in the Notch cabin, which was built in 1934 for day hikers like us. It’s hard to fathom trekking thousands of vertical feet with supplies to build a cabin, but they did it to admire Holy Cross, to shelter those enjoying the wilderness from danger, to lay their mark on the land and allow future generations to absorb the powers of Holy Cross Wilderness, if they survived its challenges.

We didn’t stay in the cabin for more than a couple minutes. We resumed jogging the trail heading down the side of Notch Mountain. Our legs were tired and heavy, but the storm cloud was growing larger, darker, closer. After we made it down the first few switchbacks, a thunderclap hurried our pace. We were still at least a mile above tree line. We ran down the trail into the safety of the spruce and aspen forest, several miles ahead of us. Despite our panic and fear of the sky, it never rained. We didn’t hear another thunderclap or see a lightning strike, but we knew not to slow down. We had been warned.

After a successful descent, nachos in Minturn and a long conversation about never trying that again, Marisa and I parted ways. That night, I researched old newspaper articles about deaths and disappearances in Holy Cross Wilderness. The lesson I gathered was the importance of preparedness and understanding nature’s cues. Marisa and I didn’t communicate about the storm except once or twice, but we didn’t need to. We’ve been hiking in Colorado for most of our lives, and we know how quickly a storm can turn. We both saw the cloud forming above our heads, and we knew we needed to get off the mountain before it hit.

In the days that followed, our friends asked us how it went, and our response never varied. We were glad we did it, but we discourage others from attempting the same route. The more we pondered those ridges, the hours spent above 13,000 feet, the more we realized how much danger we had been in that day. We were grateful Holy Cross looked favorably upon us.