Thursday, June 7, 2012

Whitney Peak in Colorado's Holy Cross Wilderness

Whitney Peak (13271')
SE Ridge from Whitney Lake TH
~9 miles scrumblewhacking
Class 2+/3easy
4500' gain

In coordination with Teva's Vail Mountain Games, a local FoCo contingent headed up to Minturn for a fun weekend of camping and running. We were represented well in the races, but Nick and I branched off to use the opportunity to explore some beautiful sections of the Holy Cross Wilderness.

Our original plan involved Holy Cross Ridge, albeit with some concerns about the weather forecast for a committing ridge run (50% PoP, possible thundersnow) necessitating a very early start, but a busted clothes dryer at home significantly delayed my arrival Friday night. In addition to stumbling into the wrong campsite (luckily, the camper was quite mellow about it), by the time I arrived, all lights were out and everyone was sound asleep.

Exactly as I feared on the drive out:

I arrived at the campsite after 11PM, with everyone focused on getting a good night's sleep in order to have a serious run the next morning. Nobody had even drank any beer that night, so as to run better the next day, so my cooler full of microbrew would be entirely out of place.

As I arrived at the campsite, the dogs were the first to notice, shouting howls of annoyed protest. As my headlights swung across the tents, the children joined in succession, starting with an 18-month old crying; her brother then awakening and being startled and inquisitive about the stranger in the midst. The older kids, then, needing the precious extra sleep of teenagers, being unable to fall back asleep and registering complaints of cold and discomfort.

Finally, the elders would arise from their camps, Petzl's a-blazing, and interrogate me angrily:
"Hinterberg! Why did you even bother to come so late?"

Ashamed, I'd turn around the way I came, slinking back to the Front Range.

Luckily, it was nothing like that. Everyone was asleep, I was in my own tent in 15 minutes, and nobody was the wiser until sunup the next day, when they were surprised to see me there.

So as it was, Nick and I needed a proper plan for 4-5 hours.

Close by on the map was Whitney Lake and it's namesake peak. Sight unseen, and without the benefit of the internet for climbing beta, we headed up to make the most of it.

The trail to the lake is a steady but highly-runnable grade, from just over 9000' to just under 11000' in 2.5 miles. So in half an hour, we were standing at the lake, with our first views of Whitney Peak.

We were happy to find a pleasantly aesthetic peak worthy of our time.
As for routes, two obvious possibilities stood out: the constant grade of the southeast ridge, which looked promising but had some unknown terrain hidden behind the trees (left of picture); or a run along the northeast ridge (right of picture) which had a few open scree slopes that seemed manageable.

In either case, a fair amount of bushwhacking was required to start, so we headed counterclockwise around the lake. Ultimately, our route could best be described as fumbling around blindly until treeline, where we lucked out onto wide-open tundra slopes of the northeast ridge, where the rest of the climb was obvious and the weather was still great.

Everything's coming up Milhouse!

After a bit of tundra walkup, we had some alternating snowfields, stable talus and boulder climbing, and even some solid slabs, we topped out near a rocky pile on the otherwise expansive flat of the summit plateau. Higher points were evident in the distance, so we traced along the talus of the ridge, including a prominent notch on the summit that lead directly down into an artful couloir.

Farther along were the real summit(s), then: first, a large, smooth boulder just tall enough to be a 5.6 climb and which was a candidate for the summit. This boulder shall not be discussed further. More to the west, a seemingly equivalently tall summit pile directed our attention. It is here that both a USGS marker and summit register are placed.

3rd and 4th summits of the year.
We enjoyed superb views to the North of Halo Ridge that leads to Mount of the Holy Cross: some other day.

Although the weather was better than forecasted for the morning, rain was evident to the south with clouds building around us. Nick saw a flash of lightning in the distance. Time to head down.

We debated our options, and decided it was easy enough to head down into the drainage above Whitney Lake. We should then be able to take a direct line to the lake; quick and easy.

Above treeline, we had some fun scrambling, running, and shoe skiing. At one point, Nick said something about the terrain being similar to Zegama -- while he was saying that, I had five points of contact on the mountain.

At another point, I sent a large boulder in his direction, with the intention of bolstering my ultrasignup ranking slightly. I called it out weakly to assuage my guilt, but it instead crashed through the snow before coming to a halt.

At treeline, then, we began the bushwhack anew. It began with some fun, runnable sections on game trails, but then, Holy Cross Wilderness spun it's well-deserved reputation as being the Bermuda Triangle of Colorado, with the lake eluding us despite our extensive, fumbling search for it.

At least we were in the trees when the lightning, thunder, and sleet approached.

Alternately splitting up and coming back together, mucking through marshes, and relying on our speed, endurance, and stubbornness rather than map-reading and planning, we arrived back at the lake, satisfied that we covered every square-inch of non-lake prior, with an additional half-mile in the log to boot.

Finally, a fun cruise back down the trail. Some wildflowers were knee-high and will be three times as tall next month, while groves of aspen will be on fire in September -- this is a spectacular place for the summer and fall. A lesser-visited summit, but definitely recommended.


  1. I am pretty sure that killing competition does not impact ultrasignup ranking ... directly.

    And I am dying to hear about that boulder that shall not be discussed.

  2. Yeah, more of an indirect plan for future races.

    The boulder and USGS marker (also the summit on maps) appeared very close on Nick's altimeter...also received this info from a climber:
    There's always been a controversy about the true summit of Whitney Peak. FWIW, it's been water-leveled by others (and my GPS) and it appears that the harder boulder is the true summit. But it's a very close call as you know

    The OCD part of me kind of wondered if we should have took turns hoisting each other up there, or tried scrambling barefoot (shoes were wet and slippery). But practically, happy enough with the "runner's summit" and the summit register.

  3. AJW picked a New Belgium brew for beer of the week. Got to be a good omen for you Fort folks at Western.

  4. Upon further review I was not on Whitney Peak back in the day in Holy Cross. It was Eagle Peak, just another random 13er in the same general area.

  5. I had to stop by and read about "real" climbing, where you're above tree line so you can see where you're headed. At least we have the same issues about true summits - I've decided I have to stand atop everything that could possibly be considered a summit so I never have to go back.

  6. @JT: AJW's finally started picking seasonally-relevant and drinkable beers, instead of Imperials.
    @Mike: Just checked out Eagle Peak, looks like another good one. HCW seems like a great place to explore some more. And overall, we're spoiled to have all these options!
    @SQ: Saw your peakses and I enjoy seeing more progress on your project and checking them out on the map. Besides altimeters and GPS, you can always lie/embellish as a backup. But you can only lie to yourself so many times, in any given day.