Harvard the Hard Way (and the Fickle Middle Finger of Columbia)
Ten years from now, prospective hikers will see my User Climb Time for Mount Harvard, and see a 4:25 ascent (reasonable) and an 11:30 round-trip, and they won't know what to think about that. I will attempt to document that as best as I can here.
My friend Eric (drhansenej) currently lives in Milwaukee, but still has the fourteener bug (it's a hard bug to shake). So this summer, he's been coming out once per month to summit - last month, we did La Plata and Yale (see earlier trip reports). This weekend, our intent was to summit Mount Harvard, and then do the traverse to Mount Columbia. We knew that it would be a long day - but little did we know.
I'm primarily posting this to give a condition report, because that would have helped me out a lot. I prefer the trip reports with plenty of pictures, so I try to let those tell the story as much as possible. Hope you enjoy!
Eric, my fiance Colleen, and I started at the North Cottonwood Creek trailhead just a few minutes before 2am. Spirits were high - it was a little cold, but there was a warm wind blowing through the valley that kept our legs moving. I always wear shorts during these things; I have "goalie legs" that don't really get cold.
We made great pace up the Horn Fork valley, and the first good camera light saw us looking across to Point 13,580' (C) and Mount Yale:
There are some snowfields on the upper portion of Harvard's south slopes, but all are easily avoidable (or traverseable):
Now we look back into the Horn Fork Basin and Bear Lake - a very muddy trail (with wet willows - I thought I'd seen the last of you on Bierstadt/Evans last August!):
And sunrise on Mount Columbia (just after 6am). It doesn't look so far away!
We reach the Harvard summit at 6:25am - some fun scrambling near the top, and nothing unmanageable. A look across at Mount Belford and Mount Oxford:
And the southern Sawatch - Mount Yale front and center, and then left to right: Mount Princeton, Mount Antero, Mount Shavano, and Tabeguache Peak.
Official Harvard summit photo. Not counting duplicates, this is Colleen's seventh, my twenty-second, and Eric's twenty-fourth:
Go Mariners! A few people have asked about the hat - so long as the 2011 Mariners are going to play like the 1977 Mariners, I will wear my 1977 Mariners baseball cap.
We were hoping to add another to that list later in the morning. Still plenty of time left, and the sky looked good! It was awfully windy on the summit (go figure), so we didn't linger for long.
Thanks to this site, we had known about another group ascending Harvard and also leaving at 2am. They caught up to us on the last part of the south slopes - it was nice to meet ChrisMilton, wizzer, MichiganBrian, and summitridge (I also believe that that's the order in which we met - I guess ten concussions hasn't entirely killed my brain yet). We decided that we'd stay near each other during the traverse.
The first part of the traverse had some snowfields - none of which were too bad (this one was rather fun). The other group went directly on the ridge (or so I believe) and managed to avoid these sections completely.
Eric surveys the route ahead (just follow his left arm!)
Eric picks his way down through easy downclimbing:
Here the downclimbing gets more serious - this was where things started to get mentally taxing; each rock could move under your weight if you weren't careful:
Spirits are still high at this point - all we have to do is skip around the lump to the left, drop down a little, and then reascend Columbia:
Two things to note here - the car is on the right side of this ridge, and we are about to go on the left side of the ridge. In other words, there's no easy way to escape back to the car.
Also, you can already see some snow on the traverse itself.
Descending down the Frenchman Creek valley - a very beautiful valley that few people get to see:
Beautiful flora in the valley (and some Harvardy goodness in the background):
Here's where we started to get worried - you can see the real traverse in the bottom middle of the photo - note the footprints in the snow. This would have been an easy traverse in dry weather (with the low point at about 12,800 feet). As it was, none of the seven of us felt comfortable making the traverse:
This was somewhat surprising, because it's the east side of Harvard/Columbia, with no intervening mountains - surely, this snowfield has seen some sunshine. Moreover, with the Saturday night rainstorm, the top layer of the snowfields were all nasty.
So...we had to descend into this valley at about 12,400' (including my fiance's first glissade!), and then reascend Columbia (the peak at the top right in the background). This not only increased our total ascent elevation by 400 long feet, but took us way out of the way.
However, it was the safest option (both at the time, and in retrospect). For those aiming to follow in our footsteps, we decided to ascend to the green lump left center (just in front of Point 13,740'), then diagonally up and to the right (just to the right of the snowfield), then along the ridge to Columbia's summit.
Here we start back up the south side of the valley. A look back at Harvard:
It was so nice to have seven of us on this part, instead of just three - it's so isolating on the East side of Harvard/Columbia, and we were making some pretty important decisions.
The other team of four decided to traverse the snowfield, while our group went directly up the ridge. As we almost gain the first ridge, Columbia mocks us:
At this point, about 13,700', we decided that although we could probably make the summit of Columbia, the thunderstorms would make the summit of Columbia before we did:
Eric is one of the few people on Earth who is more afraid of lightning than I am, so we decided to circumvent Columbia and join the descent route back to the cars.
As it turns out, we still weren't on the correct descent ridge - here we are getting across to Columbia's south ridge proper:
Now we are on the south ridge of Columbia:
This was the closest we would get to Columbia's summit - maybe a quarter mile horizontally, and 150 feet vertically. However, the storm clouds were gathering (both figuratively and literally), and I can't speak for Eric or Colleen, but my legs felt like blocks of granite.
Picture Mount Columbia giving us the middle finger here, and that's pretty much what it felt like.
And so we descend Columbia's fragile west ridge, which many have descrbed as the worst fourteener trail in Colorado:
To call it a "trail" is a bit of an overstatement - picture a slope this steep covered in loose baseball-sized ball bearings.
Now picture it wet - and that's why we wanted to descend before the thunderstorm hit.
Here's a pretty good shot of one of the "easier" parts of the Columbia descent:
During the first part of the descent, I remember thinking that "oh, this isn't so bad". Then it got Bross-tastic. I don't have any photos of the hardest part, because I was too busy trying to keep my balance and dodging loose rocks to take photos.
At this part of the hike, we did meet a nice group of three, including a man named Neal from Gunnison who is a wedding photographer. We got his contact information, so we may have a photographer!
A look back at Columbia after getting to treeline:
It's really just a big pile of loose scree. Eric named Columbia "God's Little Joke" during the hike, and I can't say that I disagree. If you squint at this photo, you can actually see a middle finger.
Mount Yale greets us through the trees:
Just as we hit treeline (for our first real rest of the hike), we were met by a downpour. In my mind, this validated all of our decisions to not summit Columbia - I couldn't even think of what the descent would be like in a thunderstorm.
The hike through the trees was pleasant (if a bit long at the end of a long day). We cross North Cottonwood Creek on a nifty bridge:
Most of the first/last leg of the hike parallels North Cottonwood Creek, which had a very nice cooling effect on a hot afternoon:
A Google Earth overview of the journey (16.5 miles, and 6500 vertical feet):
And a Google Earth overview of the backside (the traverse side), showing how far we had to descend:
And an elevation profile:
I also posted our GPX track, so that you can play around as much as you want to. Fun with computers!
By the end of the day, I was already thinking of all those who are ABCulebra, and thinking that I could be a different sort of ABC(olumbia). It's weird the difference a good night (12 hours) of sleep can make - I'm now looking at attacking Columbia from the backside.
If I were a more interesting man, I'd say that "I don't always hate fourteeners, but when I do, I hate Sawatch fourteeners". I climbed Longs and Bierstadt back in grad school, but since I started my "fourteener renaissance", I've never experienced failure on a non-Sawatch fourteener. Here's my current record on Sawatch fourteeners (with trip reports where applicable):
So that's seven up and five down for the Sawatch (and one trailhead decision), and a perfect 15-0 on non-Sawatch peaks. There's just been a lot of bad luck involved, and I can't wait until I have the entire Sawatch crossed off the list entirely.
I'm recently Catholic, and I always pray before every hike for God to keep us safe, and to keep us strong enough to handle anything that He throws at us. As it turns out, God has a bit of a sense of humor, but any hike you can walk away from is a successful one, right? Columbia will still be there for us later, whether it's later this year, next year, or ten years from now. I hope that you enjoyed my ramblings.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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