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Sunrise from Mount of the Holy Cross

Sunrise from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado

Sunrise from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado

I had just one peak left in my seven-year quest to shoot sunrise (or sunset) from the summit of all fifty-four of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks: Mount of the Holy Cross. For seven years, I had been climbing Fourteeners alone. In fact, I had been the only person on the summit during all of my sunrise and sunset shoots. For the final shoot, it seemed fitting to ask my wife Cora and our two daughters, Emily, 19, and Audrey, 17, if they would like to join me. We had hiked a few Fourteeners together before, but never in the dark. To Emily and Audrey, it sounded like a fun adventure; to Cora, an ultra-fit athlete who disliked scrambling, it sounded like a challenge. If a solid trail led to the top, she would be the first to reach the summit; if the route involved balancing up boulder fields, she would be the last.

The most feasible route to Holy Cross requires hiking two miles from Half Moon campground to the top of Half Moon Pass, descending 900 vertical feet to East Cross Creek, then ascending the broad north ridge of Holy Cross to the 14,005-foot summit. Although many climbers blitz Holy Cross from the trailhead in one day, shooting sunrise from the summit with that approach would have turned an adventure into an ordeal. We chose to hike in the day before and camp along East Cross Creek.

I always worry about over-sleeping and missing sunrise, particularly when I need to get up at midnight. My solution was to buy two watches, remove the bands, then affix hook-and-loop to the back of each watch so I can attach them to the inside of a fleece hat. The alarms sit right next to my scalp, just above my forehead, making them impossible to ignore. That solution, while effective, was much too prosaic for Audrey (a born romantic) and so I set my smart-phone alarm to play Celtic Woman’s The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun at midnight. It’s a song that’s guaranteed to spur you out of your tent in the middle of the night, psyched to climb a Fourteener in the dark and witness sunrise from the roof of the Rockies.

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has worked hard to build a sustainable trail to the summit of Holy Cross, and for the first 2,800 feet of elevation gain we made steady progress. Five hundred feet below the summit, the trail faded into a cairned route across large blocks of talus. Our progress slowed to a crawl. Unlike our daughters and me, Cora didn’t grow up hiking in mountainous terrain, and she has never mastered the “twinkle-toed, tippy talus two-step,” as I call the delicate art of balancing across a boulder field. The sky began to brighten. The precious minutes before sunrise were ebbing away. Would I miss sunrise and have to try again? Panting hard, we reached the summit with only minutes to spare. I began shooting immediately. Emily snapped a few frames with her camera while Cora tried to help Audrey, who was shivering and suffering from the altitude. All too soon, the light lost its warm sunrise hue. My Sunrise from the Summit project was complete, but the elation would have to wait. First I had to make sure everyone descended safely. Fortunately, Cora found it a bit easier to navigate the talus in daylight. Audrey began feeling better as we descended. After a meal at our tent, she was feeling so good that she set the pace as we started the hike out with the 900-foot climb back up to Half Moon Pass. Soon afterwards we were rolling for home.

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