The boulders increase in size and steepness as you approach what looked like the destination. At a few points, we could peer over the north edge of the ridge into the valley below, with scenes of Mts Huron, Massive, and others. By now, our only sense of an approaching summit was the GPS altitude read out. We took once false scramble that ended at a notch looking down into the northern valley before clambering up the final 30-40 meters up large boulders (clearly a very short Class 3 stretch) and attaining the summit minutes before 0800. The summit of Harvard ranks among my Top 5 favorites to date. The view from the middle of the Sawatch up and down the range is impressive, but the valley views below are really outstanding—accentuated this year by the still ample snowfields and full alpine ponds and lakes. On this crystal clear morning, we could see three corners of 14erdom: Snowmass; Longs, and Pikes. A solo hiker made the summit before the last two in our group and we were soon joined by Eric and Charlie who, coincidentally, we’d met the weekend before atop Mt Sherman. The two former Marines in our group broke out their MREs and brewed oatmeal at 14,420 feet while we took a few more pictures. The weather was absolutely perfect with light to zero wind and just a few fair weather morning clouds scattered across the sky. We could see the ridgeline clearly towards Point 13,516 and the ugly brown lump that is Mt Columbia (clearly the Collegiate Peaks were NOT named by a Columbia grad). Our two former jarheads decided that one peak was enough for them—one had arrived two days before from the lowlands. Meanwhile, we watched the solo hiker move along the traverse towards Columbia and took notes. We started down the ridgeline and saw a few cairns along the way, but not many. We’d printed diagrammed pictures from earlier trip reports that (we thought) described the path pretty well and handled the first 30 minutes or without any trouble. The views were great over both sides of the ridgeline and the boulder hopping and hiking not terribly challenging. We made it to the open green and surveyed the route ahead, but it wasn’t very clear where we should descend to the valley below. We stayed high on the east side of the bouldered slope around 13,516 but seemed to lose whatever trail there was. I suppose we could’ve dropped far lower directly into the valley, but (as many seem to do) we chose not to do that. Meanwhile, Charlie, Eric, and a young lady hiking with them appeared on our left flank. One of our party of four joined them moving down the southeast facing ridge from 13,516, while two in our party joined me as we moved just about 100 meters directly south and descended a fairly steep couloirs of loose dirt, rocks, and boulders.
None of us really enjoyed this, but we did it slowly and carefully. A couple of 50-100 pound rocks were dislodged during the couloirs descent, but we were prudent about calling out the falls and no one came very near to being struck—though a couple of these small boulders tumbled ominously down more than 300 feet (estimate) below us. I don’t have any pictures of this portion because I had more important things on my mind…
I took a notch to the right edge from the couloirs than put me out in a south-facing boulder field that led to the first snowfield along the ledge that seemed to lead to Columbia and was diagrammed in blue by an earlier trip report. My two colleagues followed by, each separated by about 50 meters, while Charlie’s group appeared lower down the spine and came into view as we approached the first snow. Charlie and Eric traversed below us, while the woman climbed up to our traverse, as did the fourth in our group. Our legs were toasted from the descent and we all took a break in the shade of the boulders on the south side of the snow. I put on one of my microspikes, shared another with one of my hiking buddies, and gave one of my Leki poles to a third.
The traverses were uneventful as we all took them carefully. The snow was solid except for the fringes near large rocks and a few of us scraped our shins and ankles when we accidentally post-holed there. Older footsteps showed the way through the dirty snow and the lead hiker across each field accentuated the prints to aid the followers. Charlie was in full 4x4 mode and had no trouble. We crossed at least six small snowfields that had been only two or three a few weeks before—none was particularly steep or dangerous.
After the last snowfield we came out onto a sloping meadow just about 400 meters due east of the traverse ridgeline. We followed Charlie’s party towards the spine and began the final ascent up Columbia in what was unmarked trail where one could occasionally discern a path, but there were no cairns or any other indication.
The boulders got larger, sharper, and “gappier” as we went up and Charlie was having obvious problems scrambling them with Eric—in fact, we caught up to Eric quickly as he was forced to hoist Charlie up many of the rocks using the grip on Charlie’s backpack. The last 100-200 meters (linear) and 200 feet up Columbia from our path is (in my humble and not terribly well informed opinion) Class 3 bouldering. There’s no real exposure, but one has to put hands on rocks and CLIMB from boulder t boulder to another small, hard-to-see summit. I arrived first at about 1200 followed closely by my friend, Luke. The young lady hiking with Eric and Charlie was already there (sorry that I didn’t get your name!) and snapped a couple of pictures of me.
Soon thereafter, a party of three summitted from the southeast ridge route and we were then joined by a very tame and hungry marmot and some pika that were so close that they sounded like someone’s fire alarm batteries needed replacing. I opened a New Belgium Brewery Wit Beer and enjoyed the view while Luke relaxed and snacked. Eric and Charlie arrived a few minutes later followed by Tom and Dave, the other two in my group. Even before descending, we simultaneously declared our disdain for this ugly, brown, topographical stain of a mountain. We probably should’ve waited to do that, though, as Ms Columbia gained additional revenge soon after.
The clouds were staying away, or tamely dissipating as they moved east and we only heard one rumble of thunder all afternoon—an orphaned storm over the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness area. We were thankful for the clouds that kept the Sun away about half the time, though, as by now we were very low on water. The traverse had taken us 3:30 when we were expecting something on the order of an hour less. By the time we were ready to head down the mountain, we were down to about 12 ounces of water and two beers between us—and no one wanted another beer after having surveyed the topo map of the southwest ridge descent (they remained unwelcome ballast in my bag).
Again we followed Charlie et all down the ridgeline and found the right turn off the ridge about a third of a mile from the summit. We could also see the Horn Fork Creek below us in a summer scene equivalent to the view from atop a long double-black-diamond ski slope. The group that had summitted from the southeast ridge was already en route down this path and they did not appear to be enjoying the terrain.
The mile was like descending the Manitou Incline (2kft) without the benefit of railroad ties. The dirt was loose and the rocks unstable. The trail is really a series of ad libbed 15 foot switchbacks terminating in personal slide areas. I put my microspikes back on and made good use of my poles, too. At several points, people were just sliding on their butts. One hiker said it was like descending from the La Plata ridgeline to the south into the meadow area (another slippery, steep spot of note), only seven times longer. Again, we all agreed that this was our least favorite 14er descent ever.
The dirt slide of doom ended, ironically, in a small snowfield near a rocky outcropping at about 11,800 feet. Two of us rested there and took a few pictures of the Columbines as they others slid. From there we all rejoined and walked another 30 minutes to our campsite. The two wimps who’d not joined us met us halfway up the trail, concerned that we’d had problems and starting out to find us. They’d left a message at the campsite in case we’d descended another way. We agreed that they’d made a good choice to forego the Mountain-Whose-Name-Shall-Not-Be-Spoken and packed up the campsite.
We arrived at the trailhead a little over an hour later (by now it was 1640, with the final two returning at 1700) and we packed up the Yukon on our way to Buena Vista and hamburgers at K’s. We finally arrived back in the Springs at our rendezvous spot (my house) at 2000, all of us having already called spouses explaining our late return and placing the blame on either the MWNSNBS or me, the trip planner. Unpacking was followed by another Vitamin M (800mg Motrin) and a nice shower.
In summary, I’m very glad to have the block by the MWNSNBS checked—only Holy Cross left to polish off the Sawatch now. We all agreed that it was an excellent trip and that we’d gladly return to Harvard and the Horn Fork Basin with friends and family for another summit. In doing so, though, we promised to avert our eyes not gaze up and west while doing so.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. 14ers.com and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless 14ers.com and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the 14ers.com Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.