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The first winter climb of Mount of the Holy Cross

Letter by Allen Best

Colorado Central – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Men Should Ask Directions, and the First Winter Climb of Mount of the Holy Cross

Dear Ed:

I feel as though I’ve just seen Michael Jordan miss a slam dunk or heard Keith Richards miss a riff. I’ve seen you fumble on both regional history and regional geography! I will not relish in that discovery. First, you can so easily find errors in my own work. Second, the error about Holy Cross was merely a suggested one; moreover, the factual history has been obscured by a bogus but widely disseminated account.

First, those twin fourteeners near Aspen are North and South Maroon (not East and West).

Second, those students from Holy Cross College were not the first to reach the 14,005-foot summit of Mount of the Holy Cross in winter, although they did claim the offered prize of $1,966 after reaching the top on New Year’s Day in 1966. That story is told in Borneman and Lampert’s Climbing Guide to the Fourteeners and probably countless other accounts.

However, some years ago, while shuffling through dusty papers in the makeshift Red Cliff museum (really, nothing more than a room with stuff lying about), I came across a copy of the newsletter/newspaper (Blizzard) issued at Camp Hale during World War II. It told of several troopers who climbed Mount of the Holy Cross in winter. Then in February, while surfing the Internet in search of 10th Mountain Division material, I came across the story again, in a different fashion. That story was one of the “grandpa’s stories” on a website created for a truck and/or fruit farm of some sort in the panhandle of Idaho.

Russell L. Keene, born in 1909, was one of those “ski troopers” drawn from the ranks of Western outdoorsman. Many of the lOth’s best-known veterans came out of privileged backgrounds in New England. Keene was reared in the panhandle of Idaho, near Sandpoint, and was something of a backwoodsman. But, although he died last September, let’s let him tell his own story:

Although most of the men in the 10th were avid skiers and volunteers, many used their weekend passes to go into Leadville or take the train to Denver to party and enjoy the “comforts of civilization.” I would invite my buddies to go hiking in summer and skiing in winter to the summits of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. Most would only go with me ONCE but a few good men continued to share my hobby with me on a regular basis. During the three years we trained at Camp Hale, I collected 26 of Colorado’s 14,000 footers (And many of those more than once)…

One of the worst climbs I made was on Christmas day. I collected some of my buddies for a ski expedition to the summit of the Mount of the Holy Cross, elevation 14,000. We made it — the only problem was that the temperature was -41 with a 60 mph wind. That made for a wind chill that none of us wanted to even think about; and several of us, myself included, ended up in the hospital with frostbitten lungs. I darned near got court-martialed over that one!…….

I corresponded with his son, who operates a farm of some sort near Sandpoint, and he related to me some of the diary entries:

Friday 12/24/1943: Again, classes in the a.m. and skiing in the p.m. Ina sent me a pen, diary, and two boxes of candy and raisins. Furgerson, Freedman, and I struck out for Holy Cross Fri. eve. We made Gold Park by 10 p.m. Built a roaring campfire and spent two enjoyable hours Xmas eve.

Saturday 12/25/1943: Today we went to timberline under Holy Cross.

Sunday 12/26/1943: Today we climbed the great peak. I reached the summit at 12:45. The other two reached the top at 3:00 p.m. We left camp at upper Hunky Dory Lake at 10:45 p.m., reaching gate No. 1 at 6:30 a.m. and the Dispensary at 7:15 a.m. Worked all day. Quite ill with the flu. 101 deg. fever.

Best regards, Allen Best Now of Denver