Holy Cross Mountain

August 19, 2021

2021 was THE year for me to bang out some mountains that had spent way too much time on my Tick List. I had been admiring Holy Cross from several vantage points for a few years. Now that I’ve done it, I’m not sure why I waited so long. All I can say is that perhaps the waiting made it that much more enjoyable.

It’s a bit of a long approach, but even in the rain we thoroughly enjoyed it. The mountain itself has some lovely scrambling up the ridge, a good scree descent down the bowl, and the views – spectacular!

We had some unexpected rain, which turned into snow at the summit. We were completely fogged in, so our descent route was a big unknown. That slowed us down a bit as we knew there were some rock ledges to get around, we just didn’t know where exactly they were.

If you’ve never heard of Holy Cross, I don’t blame you. It is tucked away, mostly out of view. It is surrounded on three sides by fun hikes like Junction Hill, Gunnery Mountain and Grass Pass. Living down south, I love to find these hidden gems. Holy Cross was worth the time and effort!

Holy Cross is only visible for a short time while driving west on Highway 541, towards the Kananaskis south gates.

Gear

Hiking boots, poles, and regular day pack kit.

Overview

Take the Gunnery Creek trail for about 4 km, then angle left to gain the south flank of Holy Cross. From there, descend into the valley, then gain elevation on the opposite north ridge of Holy Cross. Scramble up the spine of the north ridge to the summit. Return is via the bowl, skiers left of the stream down the centre. Once at the valley again, regain the south flank of Holy Cross, and return via Gunnery Creek Trail.

Parking and Trail Head

The parking spot is on the north side of Highway 541, just west of the Sentinel Day Use area, and east of the Highway 40 park gates. Park just west of Gunnery Creek. For specific directions, visit the Gunnery Mountain trip report.

The star marks the parking spot for both Gunnery Mountain and Holy Cross. There is a slight pull out on the north side of the highway, immediately west of Gunnery Creek.

Gunnery Creek Trail to South Ridge of Holy Cross Mountain

Follow the Gunnery Creek Trail heading north for about 4 km. At around 3 km, Gunnery Creek peters out, but the trail continues through the meadows and into the trees.

After Gunnery Creek runs out, the trail stays strong for a bit. The south ridge of Holy Cross is seen on far left of photo. We will be angling that way shortly.
The trail seems to lose steam for a bit, but it’s still visible.
Once we entered the forest, the trail was again strong.

It was in this (above photo) stretch of forest that the trail started to braid. It’s now time to start angling around the toe of the south ridge of Holy Cross, gaining elevation. We came out on a scree slope with a well defined trail, and a great view of our approach up the north ridge of Holy Cross.

As we worked our way around the base of the South ridge of Holy Cross, the trail seemed to disappear. We kept on the correct bearing, and again found a strong trail. We took a different route back down, but both times we ended up exactly where we needed to be.
We hiked to a high point on the south ridge of Holy Cross, where we again found a strong trail. This was the vantage point to plan our route up the north flank of Holy Cross.
Distance to this point is 4.5 km, and about 1 hour and 40 minutes of hiking.

From this high point, the trail heads down into the valley between the two ridges, and ends at a cairn.

This high point is the ideal spot to plan your route. If you want the hiking route, then head straight west from the valley cairn, and up the gully to the summit. This route avoids the exposure, scrambling, and the knife-edge at the summit.

As we had signed up for the exposure, scrambling, and knife-edge summit, we picked a line that would gain us the north ridge fairly low down, so could spend more time on the ridge itself. There is a wall of exposed rock on the right. We picked a line that would take us right above this, and would lead up to the north ridge on far right.

The trail heading down from the high point is in good shape.
The trail ends in this cairn. It’s a free for all after this.

Once we hiked to the bottom of valley, we found the cairn. I will admit we lost the plot after this for a short bit. There are numerous ‘trails’ heading in various directions. Plus, there is some washout from the stream during high melt. After stomping around for a bit, we angled for the rock band we spotted from above. Once we got on that, it was a straight shot to the north ridge.

This looks like a trail, but there are a lot of these to choose from. We just kept angling towards the ridge.
If you wanted to hike up the gully, then stay on this dry stream bed, and simply follow it to the base of the gully. From there, the path up to the summit is fairly clear. That was the route we took down from the summit.
We gained enough elevation and distance, generally heading north west, and popped out of the forest at the base of the rock band. We stayed above this band, and hiked to the ridge top.
This is looking back at the south flank of Holy Cross Mountain. The trail (red line) wraps around the base of the flank, provides a nice viewpoint, and then descends into the valley between the north and south flanks.
Mike hiking up the open meadow, heading towards the top of the ridge.
Alisen is nearing the top of the ridge. The meadow has given way to rock. Behind the south flank of Holy Cross is Grass Pass and Bull Creek Hills.

Once on the ridge, we had some amazing views in all directions. I was thankful to have taken so many photos here, because the weather was coming in, and the views would soon be lost to the low clouds.

Distance from the trail head to the ridge was 5.59 km, and time was 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Looking down into the gully. This is our descent route from the bowl below the summit.
Looking east, down the end of the ridge.
Looking north at Mount Head.
Looking west to the summit of Holy Cross Mountain. There are several fun scrambling bits along this ridge. The descent route is just to climber’s right (skiers left when descending) of the stream in the middle of the bowl. There are a few rock bands higher up to get through, but otherwise it’s a pretty good scree slope down. The waterfalls half way down were lovely.
The full 360 degree view from the lower north ridge of Holy Cross Mountain.

Scrambling the North Ridge to the Summit

Now the fun could really begin. We donned our helmets, and started up the ridge. I think there were three short but quality scrambling spots, spread out along the ridge.

Some impressive walls along the ridge. Looking at the map, it seems it would be possible to by-pass many of these scrambling bits by going down on the left.
One of the scramble bits. Pick your own route.
The rock is in good shape. Not many people come up here, so it’s not greasy.
Another scramble section.
Looking back down the ridge.

We hiked through chunky rocks as we angled towards the summit ridge. Despite the snow hiding the trail, we managed to more or less stay on track to the final ridge. The clouds were really moving in, and we lost all our views. However, the cloud also blocked the terror-inducing sight straight down either side of the mountain. So, win-win.

There is a bit of a trail through the chunky rocks. Even when we lost sight of it, it was fairly easy hiking up this section.
Alisen is just below the final summit ridge.
Mike contemplates the final ridge. The summit is up there, somewhere.
Mike is so close – the summit is the final hump beyond.
Mike looking down from the summit as Alisen works her way up.
The ‘view’ from the summit. Seriously, the views would have been amazing. The people up prior to us had their views obscured by wildfire smoke, so we are considering ourselves lucky that we had clean air.

Distance to summit was 7 km. Time was 4 hours, 30 minutes. Elevation gain 1,175 m.

Unfortunately, only the view to the west of Junction Hill and Cat Creek Hills was visible.

Holy Cross Mountain Return

The light mist had turned to snow after we arrived at the summit, so we needed to get off this mountain pronto. The descent route is down the gully from the summit, to skiers left of the stream, once it starts. The upper slope was tricky due to the large and varied rocks, which were snow covered. The low visibility was also a factor in route selection. We knew there were some cliff bands, but didn’t know exactly where they were.

Mike starting down from the summit. Some viz would really help with navigation. Rocks were hidden by the snow. We didn’t want to roll an ankle, so we went slow.
Some of the rock bands. They were not big, but the snow did make them more slippery than was really necessary.
Once the groove for the stream started, we knew to stay to the left of it. The bigger rocks were now giving way to scree, and a bit of a trail was visible.
As we descended, the snow gave way to rain. That made going down the short rock crops much easier. It was a good thing we started early, as I would not have wanted to be on the summit ridge when it was wet or snowy.
Despite it being a really hot and dry summer, the fresh snow and rain brought the waterfalls to life. This is crazy to have water here in late August. #snowinaugust

It was straight-forward to get back down. The only real navigation issue was this rock wall. There was a trail to the left and right. We went right, and it didn’t go. It ended in a waterfall. We climbed back up, and went left. It went around the base of the waterfall/lower rock wall no problem.

Mike working his way down this rock face. It was fun scrambling, but it ended in a sheer waterfall. As it was still pouring rain, we decided wet rock wasn’t ideal, so we climbed back up and tried the other side. No problem.
This is the area from the other side. Our trail down is on Lookers Right (hiked down skiers left). Further to Lookers Left is the waterfall.

Other than this one rock wall, we headed straight back down to the valley. After meandering through the same washed out braided trail system, we again found the one cairn. We could then easily retrace our steps, and take the trail back up the south flank of Holy Cross Mountain.

It was still pouring rain, and we were getting soaked. It was a wet 4 km back to the trail head, but we were in great spirits knowing we missed the worse of it on the mountain, and had a car to warm up in.

All in, despite the rain and snow, I really loved Holy Cross Mountain. It was well worth the wait!

Thanks for following along on the adventure! Please do me a huge favour and click the Star button to “Like” it. You can also follow my blog, join my FaceBook page Al’s Adventurers, or follow me on Instagram

Alisen

Totals – Tracked on Gaia, Displayed on Strava

Date: August 19, 2021
Group:  Two (Alisen and Mike)
Distance:  13.3  km
Elevation:  1,194 m (3,940′)
Time:  8 hours (includes lunch & breaks)

We ascended the north ridge of Holy Cross Mountain, and came down the gully. Navigation was straight-forward, even with low to no visibility.
The 4 km hike in was a nice warm up for the steep ascent up Holy Cross Mountain. The descent down the gully was a quick way to get down safely.
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Posted in Adventures, Scrambling
8 comments on “Holy Cross Mountain
  1. That looks like a tough one at the tough. Well done!

    • alisendopf says:

      Thanks Ann. I was lucky there was no wind, and no smoke. While our views were obscured, I was actually happy about that because I do not do well with heights. Even looking down from the summit was hard…

  2. Of course you opted for the route that includes exposure, scrambling and the knife-edge at the summit! Your views from the top of the ridge look lovely. That’s too bad about all the fog at the top of the summit, but your pictures look super neat. The descent down in the snowy section did not look like it was fun.

    • alisendopf says:

      LOL! I’m glad you saw that 🙂
      I am actually scared of heights. so to have that summit ridge and the drop below blocked by clouds? VERY happy about that.

  3. Judith says:

    Wow! What an adventure. And gorgeous views!

    • alisendopf says:

      Thank you Judith. It truly was a very special day. I’m glad I took some time before writing about it, because it made me relive it all over again.

  4. Diana says:

    Looks like an awesome hike!

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