Completed: Mt. of the Holy Cross – North Ridge Route

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The view did not even touch what I expected, and the hike to see it was more difficult as well.

IMG_1204After making the 2 hour drive from Denver, I found myself at the trail head of the mountain around 9 am. This is a bit later than recommended, but I was confident I would be fine. As I mentioned, the experience was not what I expected. I was looking forward to rocks, not trees– complete exposure and a view of the mountain face. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a beautiful forest with birds chirping, the smell of evergreen trees and pine overwhelming the senses, and a cloudless sky. After reviewing the trail map, safety tips, and rules of the trail, I set off on my trek.

Starting off just over 10,000 ft. elevation, I quickly made my way up the first portion of the trail head, oblivious to what was in store. As I traversed switchbacks and natural stair steps, the natural beauty around me abounded. I was surrounded by the goddess Nature in all her fullness–captivating and truly divine.

About 2 miles into the hike, the trees started to separate so that I was able to see a mountain in front of me. I looked at my Garmin and knew immediately that what I saw was a false peak. I studied the trail map and guide before setting out, so I was aware that it was 6 miles out and 6 miles back, requiring a thousand foot decent before starting the 14’er itself. I continued to the top and as I crested the ridge top, I saw her!

IMG_1213I am unable to translate here, the pure amazement I felt at the discovery of my frosted destination. I was standing breathless at 12,000 ft elevation looking across the valley at the height I still had to surmount. In that moment, I realized the gravity of the task I had begun. I took a moment to mentally prepare to push my body beyond anything I had done before and accept that I would be sitting in the proverbial “Pain Cave” for hours to come.

IMG_1215I navigated down many switchbacks and back into the deep forest to get to the river. I took a short break to eat. As I sat, I listened to the river flow next to me. The mountain received significant rainfall the past couple of days so that the clear path of rocks that would normally allow for easy passage were submerged under water. I could only find four dry rocks to step on and one dead tree laid across part of the river. Hopping from rock to rock, I crossed the river, realizing the easiest part of my day was over. At 10,700 ft, I still had 3,000 ft in only 3 miles in order to reach the summit. After one more mile of hiking through the forest, I could start to see the surrounding mountains.

IMG_1217As I climbed up to 11,000 ft, I broke out of the very distinct tree line into a fully open view. How surreal it is to have nature’s terrain warn you without speaking–“This is where the road ends. You should probably stop here.” Nonetheless, I pressed on and upward. I felt rebellious in this moment, not unlike the few patches of evergreen trees shrubs that grew which were growing more bush-like than their counter parts lower down the mountain. At this point in the trail, rocks and boulders became my view and it was time to follow the cairns marking the path to the summit.

I took the opportunity for another snack and water break. Dried Mangoes, a Cliff bar, and some trail mix rounded out my lunch. I had consumed a liter of water at this point and had to switch nalgenes as I repacked my pack.  With a fully belly, I set off to attempt the last 1.5 miles and 1,800 ft. I prepared myself for the drastic elevation change by putting on my vest and gloves. As I climbed each boulder on my way up, I found myself not wanting to expend any more energy than I absolutely had to which is an uncommon feeling for me. I made my way up from cairn to cairn, carrying the burdens of muscle fatigue and lack of oxygen.  The wind and cool dry air wicked any sweat I was producing immediately as I climbed higher and higher.

IMG_1221I hit the 13,250 ft mark and my legs felt like lead as I struggled to lift each one for the next step. Despite the effort it felt like I was expending, the peak ahead never seemed to be getting any closer. On my trek up, I passed a couple of other hikers along the way, none of which appeared tired.  I did not ask them their experience levels with 14’ers or what their training regiments were. However, I silently wondered if any of the training efforts I had put in to that point were effective. Even more, I wondered if living at sea level for so long had an irreversible impact on my body. I’ll admit to you–I doubted if the peak was going to be possible.

I could see two people ahead of me on the trail and despite the fatigue and pain I was experiences, my competitive nature kicked in. I told myself that no matter how tired I was and no matter how much pain I was feeling, the people ahead of me must be hurting just as much. If they are doing it, so could I. I took this new lease and in a new effort, began to scramble along the borders, cairn after cairn.

IMG_1225It didn’t take long for my deep panting breaths to cripple the burst in energy, and I was back to the struggled steps and gasps for air. Step after step, each an accomplishment, I made my way around the mountain . Just as I caught up with the two people in front of me, we converged on the summit. Standing with my hands on my knees, 2hours 45 minutes after starting, I had reached the top. While the feeling of accomplishment was a reward in itself, the view I had just earned was the greater prize. As I stood up to take in my surroundings, it wasn’t the lack of oxygen that took my breath away.

I made it to the highest point for as far as the eye could see. I enjoyed a 360 degree view around me. The feeling of joy and accomplishment I felt is indescribable. After spending some time recovering on the summit, taking in the views around me, and taking some snap shots for my girlfriend, I made my way back down the mountain, across the river, and though the trails back to the car. 12 miles, 5,600 ft of climbing, and 4 hours 42 minutes in all, not to mention, the first of the 53 peaks completed here in Colorado. I now look forward to the individual challenges and the beauty to be found in every single one.

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