Building a 14,000 Foot Cairn

Although Colorado is home to more fourteeners, or peaks over 14,000 feet high, than any other state some of its residents have greedily coveted more. Such was the case with one of the state’s most famous mountains, Mount of the Holy Cross. Long rumored to exist, but not officially placed in its proper place on a map until the late 1800s, Holy Cross is best known for the massive cross of ice and snow on its eastern face. It was first climbed when James Gardner and William Henry Holmes, who were part of Ferdinand Hayden’s monumental United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, reached the narrow summit on August 24, 1873.

Just across the valley on Notch Peak was William Henry Jackson, another member of the Hayden Survey. Jackson was a photographer and was able to take a handful of shots the same day as his cohorts summited. He later wrote: “Near the top of the ridge I emerged above timber line and the clouds, and suddenly, as I clambered over a vast mass of rocks, I discovered the great shining cross dead before me…It was worth all the labor of the past three months.” Jackson’s stunning photograph was what helped make the mountain famous.

While on the summit, Holmes and Gardner measured the mountain’s elevation. They found it to be 14,170 feet high, one of fifteen fourteeners in the Sawatch Range, which includes Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert (14,440 feet). Unfortunately, the two men got it wrong. As happened with Katahdin, the first survey was too high and the elevation of Holy Cross started to drop. By the 1920s, the USGS had declared that the mountain was a mere 13,978 but Colorado’s fourteeners’ fanatics need not worry, noted legendary geologist/climber Fritiof Fryxell. “Altitude corrections must eventually be applied that will make the peak eligible to the exclusive 14,000-foot class, with a comfortable margin to spare,” wrote Fryxell, in Trail and Timberline, the Colorado Mountain Club’s quarterly magazine.

He was almost correct. A new study in the 1950s pushed Holy Cross up to 13,996 feet. What was four feet? Apparently it was a small enough amount that someone felt justified in erecting a cairn that pushed the mountain to the mythical height. Said person left a note in the summit register reading “We built it up to 14,000 on 10/6/63 — Hope winter winds won’t blow down our unstable cairn!” The impatient cairn builders need not have worried for yet another survey in 1964 gave Holy Cross the mantle of respectability it had long sought. The mountain now measured 14,005 feet. It has retained that elevation ever since.

Next, I will tackle the battle of the cairns, when groups of boosters sought to boost their mountains, not to mythical heights but to be just a bit taller than another mountain.



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