Hiking Colorado: Notch Mountain & Holy Cross
Notch Mountain, a 13,250-foot peak that's essentially a mile-long ridge cut by a deep and dramatic notch, is known more as the mountain that hides 14,005-foot Holy Cross than as a worthy climbing goal in and of itself.
Because of the way Notch is situated, hard against the famous flanks of Holy Cross, it prevents a clear view of the 1,500-foot vertical and 700-foot horizontal couloirs that fill with snow and form the elusive cross that can only be glimpsed from a distance or seen with startling clarity up close from the summit of Notch.
But the disparity in trail quality also vividly illustrates the modern allure of the Fourteener.
Qualifying by a mere 5 feet, Holy Cross is ranked as the 53rd highest of Colorado's 54 peaks taller than 14,000 feet. It's also one of the most famous Fourteeners because of the near-mythical quest for the cross, which culminated in the Hayden Survey's ascent in 1873 and William H. Jackson's famous photo that brought swarms of religious pilgrims to Notch in the early 1900s.
Today, the flow of those who attach spiritual significance to the cross has slowed to a trickle, but the hordes of fanatical devotees to the cult of the Fourteener are legion. At about 750 feet lower than Holy Cross, Notch Mountain is a classic Colorado climb - it's an easy walk-up with some minor bouldering - that affords staggering views of one of the state's true natural treasures (Holy Cross was established as a national monument in 1929, an honor rescinded in 1950 because of degradation of the cross).
The obsession with laying claim to standing atop all 54 Fourteeners, coinciding with the Colorado's population boom of the past decade, occasionally makes for very little elbow room astride the state's loftiest real estate.
The steady stream of peak baggers can produce a cacophony of cell phones and idle banter about work and weekend exploits on the way up many Fourteeners, particularly the ones closer to the Front Range.
For some people it's a status symbol. Who has climbed all the Fourteeners and has checked off the most of the 200 highest peaks? But if people stick with it, they'll begin to reap the rewards of the physical demands, route-finding challenges and immersion in glorious high-alpine scenery and surroundings.
The lesser-known peaks often are the least accessible and the most poorly marked. It is strongly recommended that novice climbers don't verge too far off the Fourteener freeways without the right gear, good information and a healthy dose of common sense.
You need to have good equipment, good maps, a good compass and route-finding skills, otherwise you're going to get into trouble. You're going to be out in the middle of nowhere and a helicopter isn't going get to you for several hours, maybe several days, so you need to have some serious safety awareness.
Recommended smaller mountains:
Byers Peak (12,804 feet): Southeastern Grand County's prominent stand-alone peak - it's named for Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers - is a relatively easy and very rewarding climb.
James Peak (13,294 feet): Now part of Colorado's newest wilderness area, it is close to Denver, very accessible and has views down Colfax Avenue.
New York Mountain (12,550 feet): The longest part is the drive south of Eagle to Yeoman Park. A great beginner climb with interesting mining artifacts and spectacular views of the Holy Cross Wilderness.
Notch Mountain (13,250 feet): The only way to get up-close-and-personal views of Mount of the Holy Cross. This mountain is a great intermediate-level climb.
Mount Jackson (13,670 feet): A prime example of why some Thirteeners can be just as grueling as Fourteeners.
Crystal Peak (13,852 feet): Just outside Breckenridge. Crystal is known for its wildflowers and wildlife. It is accessible and challenging - but very rewarding.