| Longest Day of the Year . . . And It Sure Felt Like It
Stiffler_from_Denver and I met for coffee on the rainy morning of Monday, June 20th to debate our departure time. We had agreed over the weekend that we would hike up either Mount Harvard or Mount Oxford from a base camp near Little John’s Cabin on Pine Creek sometime during the week, but we were of different minds on when we should leave. Having reviewed the National Weather Service forecast, Stiffler_from_Denver believed a Tuesday morning departure would ensure a dry hike. I, on the other hand, have come to believe that the National Weather Service is run by a cabal of television executives attempting to force as many Americans as possible to stay inside and watch commercials all day long. After you have enjoyed a few hikes on absolutely bluebird days for which the NWS predicted an 80+% chance of rain, it is hard not to formulate such a conspiracy theory. Well, Stiffler_from_Denver was convinced that the NWS was correct and we’d get drenched if we hiked in on Monday afternoon. I was equally convinced that the NWS was once again exaggerating the possibility for precipitation and we should strike out immediately after we finished our coffee. It was pretty tense . . . Paris Peace Accords tense. Had Henry Kissinger been there, I’m sure he could have devised a more sophisticated compromise. As it was, we negotiated a practical solution: we would leave after coffee, but, if we got rained on, Stiffler_from_Denver had the right to complain vigorously, tell me “I told you so”, and hold it against me for the rest of our lives. That worked for me. After packing our gear and picking up some provisions, we left Denver at 1:15 p.m. There were a few sprinkles as we drove west on U.S. 285, but by the time we stopped in Bailey for a hot dog at Boardwalk Coney Island (which reinforced my retirement plans of operating a hot dog stand), the sun was shining.
Who can resist stopping to eat at a giant hotdog?
We arrived at the Pine Creek Trailhead and struck out for Little John’s Cabin at 4:15 p.m. It was a beautiful hike in along Pine Creek, and the seven miles went by pretty quickly. I must admit the clouds over Belford and Oxford were making me a bit nervous that maybe this time the NWS was right, especially when a fine mist started falling on us. But that soon passed and we arrived dry at Little John’s Cabin at 7:45. After setting up camp at a perfect site behind the cabin, cooking up some pasta and brats for dinner, and having a few pulls from the flask (or, as I call it, liquid toothbrush), we went to bed at about 11.
Along the Pine Creek Trail.
Waverly Mountain, Mount Oxford, and, in the distance, the south ridge of Mount Belford.
Little John’s Cabin.
Another view of Little John's Cabin.
We were up by 4:15 a.m. the next morning (Tuesday, June 21st--the official start of summer and the longest day of the year in terms of sunlight). Stiffler_from_Denver made us a hearty breakfast of sausage and eggs, and then we left camp at 5:50 a.m. to conquer Mount Harvard. Our first challenge was crossing over to the south side of Pine Creek. After deciding against our initial options, we eventually found a rustic, man-made log bridge. I crossed first, and just as I was warning Stiffler_from_Denver to be mindful of the ice on the lower log, I looked back to see his left foot slip. I thought for sure he was going to take a plunge, but luckily he caught himself and we crossed safely to the other side of Pine Creek. This is where things really started to get fun.
We had decided to do the North Slopes route of Mount Harvard as described in Roach’s “Colorado’s Fourteeners.” This route has no trail, no cairns, no markers of any sort. The route description can be summarized as: find ridge, climb it. We bushwhacked our way west through thick pine forest along undulating terrain for quite a while, then had to cross a long expanse of avalanche debris—hundreds of downed pines and a thousand chances to break an ankle or leg. Once past this obstacle, we found a gentle slope of stable rock leading up toward the east side of the north ridge. At this point, we could either have hiked up a grassy slope toward the ridge crest or scrambled up and around a rocky ridge. For some reason, we decided that scrambling up the rock would be better. After an ascending traverse from the east side all the way around to the west side of the ridge (mostly Class 2+, with a few Class 3 sections here and there), we found ourselves on the gentler northwest slopes of Mount Harvard’s north ridge. After some tiring elevation gain, we finally attained the crest of the north ridge and could get a clear view of the summit.
Setting out for Mount Harvard.
The log bridge crossing Pine Creek. This photo was taken on our way back down to camp, after the ice had melted.
Gaining elevation toward the north ridge.
Stiffler_from_Denver surveying our morning bushwhacking route.
Grassy slope or rocky ridge? I can't recall now why we thought the rock option would be better.
Stiffler_from_Denver hiking up the north ridge. Mount Belford (left) and Mount Oxford (right) are behind him.
The rocky ridge crest leading up to Harvard's summit. Our route is marked in red.
As we got closer to the summit, the grassy slopes turned again to rock. As we scrambled ever closer, we veered west to avoid some snowfields. This led us to the crest of the east ridge of Harvard, just east of the summit. A short scamper westward and Stiffler_from_Denver displaced the marmot king who had been sitting on his throne at the very top of Mount Harvard. I soon joined him on top of the summit for some great views and photo opportunities. We made the summit at 12:15 p.m., roughly a 6.5 hour ascent time. The weather was great, so we spent just over an hour taking photos and videos and taking in the mountain air. As we were getting ready to descend, we were joined by a friendly North Dakotan who came up the standard route from the Horn Fork Basin. The Horn Fork Basin still looked incredibly snowy, and he confirmed a substantial amount of postholing on his way up.
Stiffler_from_Denver nears the summit.
This photo was taken shortly after Stiffler_from_Denver deposed the marmot king of Harvard who had previously been sitting on Harvard's pinnacle.
Looking south from the summit into the Horn Fork Basin. Four 14ers are easily visible: A) Princeton, B) Antero, C) west slopes of Tabeguache, D) Yale
Mount Columbia and the connecting ridge from Harvard.
Mount Oxford and Waverly Mountain.
We left the summit at 1:20 p.m. and headed east along the crest of Harvard’s east ridge. We briefly entertained the idea of following the connecting ridge over to Mount Columbia, but wisely decided it was getting a bit late in the afternoon to be adding more mileage and elevation gain. We instead dropped off the north side of the ridge and headed down toward the northeast ridge of Mount Harvard. We descended through the basin between Harvard’s north and northeast ridges, spotting a few elk en route. Below timberline it was back to bushwhacking, but we fortunately ended up reaching Pine Creek within 50 yards of the log bridge we needed to cross. From there it was a short hike back to our campsite, which we reached at 4:45 p.m. We both have done longer climbs, but we agreed that the longest day of the year had certainly felt like it. Needless to say, we slept soundly that night.
We descended to the saddle in this photo, then headed down through the basin on the left, west of Harvard's northeast ridge.
This image roughly shows our descent route through the basin.
Getting ready for some more bushwhacking.
We broke camp on Wednesday morning (June 22nd) and started back to my car at 9:50 a.m. after another great breakfast courtesy of Stiffler_from_Denver’s Boy Scout camp cooking expertise. The hike down the Pine Creek Trail was just as enjoyable as the hike in. We made excellent time, getting back to the trailhead at 1:15 p.m. We stopped at Quincy’s in Buena Vista for lunch, and were back in Denver just in time to get stuck in rush hour traffic.
On the hike back to the trailhead.
Looking back on Mount Harvard.
Harvard's summit from the Pine Creek Trail.
Another view of Waverly, Oxford, and Belford.
All in all, we logged about 20 miles roundtrip and just about 6,000 feet of vertical elevation gain for our three days. This is a great location for a multi-day 14er excursion, with beautiful scenery and ample campsites. We’re both looking forward to tackling Mount Oxford from a base camp along Pine Creek sometime later this summer.
I’ve hiked a number of 14ers alone, but I was very glad to have a partner for this route. The mental and physical fatigue produced by bushwhacking and pathfinding on an unmarked route makes having a trustworthy climbing partner essential. It also alleviates the self-doubt about your route decisions that can creep up on you when alone. We might not have taken the easiest way up or down, but we were at least able to put our heads together and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our options.
Despite how tiring it was, I really enjoyed the challenge of this route. It also provided a perfect excuse to camp along Pine Creek. However, this route should not be undertaken without considering its difficulties. You will need proficient orienteering skills to find the correct ridge, you will need to bushwhack extensively through thick pines on rough terrain, you will need to be prepared for at least Class 3 scrambling, you will need to be on exposed terrain above timberline for several hours, and you will be completely responsible for choosing your path up the mountain. If you are up for this, however, tackling Mount Harvard from the north can be an entertaining and memorable adventure.
Columbia and Harvard from Buena Vista.
This map roughly traces our route (you may need to click on the image to make it large enough to see in detail).
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):