Cross Couloir Winter Ski Descent

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Holy Cross

Vintage photo of Mt. of the Holy Cross and the Cross Couloir seen from Notch Mountain (William Henry Jackson, 1873).

Partners: Matt Kamper, Brian Miller
Route: Sled approach using the Tigiwon Road (16 miles round trip), ascent of Holy Cross’s North Ridge from Cross Creek, summit ski descent of the Cross Couloir
Stats: 12 miles, 5,600′ climbed, 5,600′ skied, 11 hours RT (from summer TH)

Brian and I met Matt at the bottom of the Tigowon Road at 4am Saturday morning, the last full day of calendar winter. Our sights were set on bagging Holy Cross on skis via it’s classic line, the Cross Couloir.

Matt’s Friday afternoon recon mission to 12,000′ above Beaver Creek told the tale of a stable snowpack on north through east facing aspects. The CAIC reported that the recent storm snow had bonded well with the old snowpack, which we knew had been getting baked on east aspects by late winter, higher angle sun for the past two weeks. It seemed conditions were beckoning us to give it a shot.

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The moon is full, the sled is unloaded.

Matt towed Brian and I to the summer trailhead in twenty-five minutes flat. The low angle of the Tigiwon in addition to the fact that it gets groomed nearly every afternoon made for a smooth ski tow. We were unloaded and skinning by 5:30am.

Still traveling by headlamp we made our way west through the woods towards Halfmoon Pass. Thanks to Matt’s impeccable navigation skills, we broke treeline on the north side of Notch Mountain within an hour of leaving the sled. As we crossed over the pass the first rays of morning sun crept their way over the eastern horizon and reflected off Mt. Jackson to the west.

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Traversing the Notch Mountain avy slopes.

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Sunrise over the Gore Range. Photo by Brian.

We skied around the corner to a sight that would make just about anyone’s jaw drop…

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The North Ridge looks deceivingly close from here, but in reality it’s still a long ways away. A mandatory 700′ drop into East Cross Creek necessitated our first turns of the day. Then it was back to skinning below treeline. Thankfully, the snow conditions down here made for some fairly easy travel. A night and day difference between this day and our Cross Creek epic from last year.

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After cutting an efficient switchback track through the trees, we broke out onto the sunny North Ridge.

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Out on the ridge proper. Photo by Brian.

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The Northern Sawatch provides million dollar views in every direction.

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Mt. Jackson, capped in snow. Photo by Matt.

At 13,500′ things flatten out a bit and there’s a long section of skinnable ridgeline which lends itself to efficent travel.

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But then the final few hundred feet are sure to slow those wearing ski boots down to a crawl.

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The one good thing about this section of dry rock booting is that it doesn’t last long, we stepped onto the snow caked summit of Holy Cross at noon.

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As we were making our way up the final stretch of ridge, the wind had increased significantly and there looked to be some dark clouds headed our way from the west. By the time we reached the summit we were realizing the full brunt of the 45mph wind forecast. It would have been nice to lounge on the summit and enjoy a windless, sunny day, but that just wasn’t in the cards.

After throwing on a few extra layers we clicked in and skied off the summit down to a small bench sitting atop the Cross. Brian volunteered to take it first, he edged out to the rollover, hopped around a bit, and made a tentative turn/cut across the fall line. After gaining some confidence in the snow he opened it up and disappeared over the lip…

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Matt and I followed down to a safe zone, we then had this to look forward to:

It wasn’t quite the fluffy, light powder we were hoping for but it was still pretty darn good.  Some ski shots (myself, Matt, and Brian):

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Photo by Brian.

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If you look closely, you can see Chair 5 at Vail in the background. Photo by Brian.

We had a pretty good sized slough train running down the center of the couloir, so we made turns on either side.

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Because of the flat light conditions, I’ve artificially backlit most of these photos.

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Lower down we had wind and spindrift plumes of snow and ice gusting up the couloir, which certianly made things more interesting.

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Photo by Brian.

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At the exit. Photo by Brian.

We regrouped and looked for the exit to skier’s right. The Cross Couloir does not run all the way to the valley floor, but rather constricts into a 200′ cliff at the bottom. I think we’ll take the exit…

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Exiting out of the Cross on this day required a graceful body-flop-over-a-cornice move. Photo by Brian.

Don’t miss Matt’s excellent helmet cam documentation of the descent, it is far more interesting than what I’ve written up:

We skied down the open face to the Bowl of Tears and continued to fight fierce winds. I was looking forward to seeking refuge and taking a much needed break, which we did behind a rock outcropping.

Once out of the Cross things opened up.

Once out of the Cross things opened up.

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Looking back up at the Cross from below, that cliff is what we avoided by exiting early.

After taking a long break and downing some grub and fluids, we skied down past Lake Patricia with our exit in sight. A narrow chute provided safe passage through the cliffs which guard the lake’s north shore.

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Once below Lake Patricia we glided across another flat secion and began a climbing contour out of Cross Creek. Some steep, icy sidehilling forced us to take our skis off and boot for a few hundred feet.

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A last look at Holy Cross, what a majestic peak this is during snow season.

Gaining Halfmoon Pass was just a matter of shutting off the brain and putting one foot in front of the other.

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Some good low angle turns were found en route to the sled.

We pulled into the summer trailhead at 4:30pm and fired up our ski-mobile.

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We hit dirt at 5:15pm…

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…then it was off to The Saloon in Minturn for dinner and Margaritas. Great day out fellas, thanks for making it a special one.