When I was five years old my dad decided to move the family from southern Ohio to Woodland Park, Colorado. We had no family, no friends, and knew absolutely no one in the area but dad fell in love with this place and who can blame him? Thus, it has been nearly eighteen years since I attempted and completed my first 14er, Quandary Peak, in early August of 1995. I don’t remember every bit of it, but I do remember a few things very vividly. As we approached tree-line we heard a lady screaming for help so my dad told my cousin and I to continue up the trail and he ran ahead to investigate.
When my dad reached the distraught woman he quickly realized why. Her husband had just suffered a heart attack in his early 60s and was lying unconscious on the trail. Dad knew immediately the man was dead but performed CPR anyways because the man’s wife was in such disarray, as can be imagined. I still have the image of that man lying there to this day.
This story recently came back to the forefront of my mind as I thought about all of the climbing legends and personalities who have recently passed away, so I relay said story as a preface to the theme of my hike. Even after experiencing, second hand, the trauma which went along with my first 14er I was hooked immediately and have been ever since. After reading about all of the recent tragedies I had to step back and ask myself if this love I had for the mountains was still worth it. I knew with a short, last minute trip to Colorado in the immediate future, this was my chance to test that notion.
To this point I have also taken the most continuous time away from running since before I was in high school. My last semester at the University of Akron was supposed to be one which was filled with track PRs ranging from the 800 to the 5k, or so I had hoped, but that was not to be. After fighting through a case of Plantar Fasciitis for a few months I had finally had to shut it down in early April. Thus, I also wanted to use the trip to test myself physically and to use it as a refreshing of sorts. I never realized how much running was a part of my mental psyche until I was unable to do it. For me, running and exploring the mountains give me a similar high and since I have yet to really be able to get back to running as I would like, I felt like I NEEDED this trip. Maybe that train of thought was bit selfish and sophomoric, but for me it was the perfect storm.
As a last aside, when I was around ten years old and had completed my 8th 14er I figured I was well on my way to completing all of them. Little did I know we would soon be moving back to Ohio and my chances to climb would become few and far between. Thus the completion of Harvard marks only my 15th 14er completed but it also comes with a couple firsts. It is the first time I have embarked solo on a 14er and it was the first time I planned on writing a trip report. So, we’ll see how the trip report goes!
Dad and I on the summit of Elbert in 1999.
--Frenchman Creek TH (4wd) @ 10,300
--Camp near intersection of CO Trail and Frenchman Creek Trail @ approx. 11,000
--Total Elevation Gain: 4,120 feet (per Roach)
--Total Mileage: 11 miles (per Roach)
--Total Hiking Time: 7 hours
With only a few days notice that I was coming out to Colorado I had to make quick decisions as to what 14er I wanted to attempt, or even if I would rather just explore a 13er or maybe even just hike in the Gores. In the end, I decided to stick with something that was fairly straightforward and close to Woodland Park: Harvard via Frenchman Creek. The next course of action was to find a vehicle to take me to the TH. Fortunately, friends with whom we used to go to church and who also employed me for a summer while in college allowed me to borrow their Jeep for a couple days.
*If you live close to Woodland Park and need some lumber, rustic furniture, a nice mantle, etc stop by Casey’s Lumber!
Once the Jeep was in hand all that was left to do was to load up my stuff and hit the road. My excitement was definitely building as it had been nearly a year since I was last in the mountains.
As I headed west on HWY 24 and reached the top of Wilkerson Pass I knew there was a good possibility that I would be getting wet. Dark clouds had set in over the Ten-Mile range and the Collegiate peaks and the forecast wasn’t all that great. Unfortunately, I knew this was my only opportunity for the summer to get into the high country so I was at least going to make every effort to follow through with my plans. I stopped in at “The Trailhead” in Buena Vista to pick up the Harvard and Harvard Lakes quads, but they were out so I had to settle for the Trails Illustrated map of the Collegiate Peaks. I was back in the car and finally on my last leg of driving! It was 5:00 PM by the time I reached the 4wd TH for Frenchman Creek. FR 386 isn’t all that bad of a 4wd road but a few steep grades combined with the heavy rain I was experiencing on the way in made me very glad to have 4-lo. I sat in the car for another half-hour hoping the weather would break a bit but it didn’t and I headed for the hills at 5:30.
Looking at the start of the Frenchman Creek Trail from the small parking lot at the end of the 4wd FR 386. Elev. Approx. 10,300
When I finally threw on my rain jacket, strapped on my pack, and headed down the trail it seemed like the rain was even picking up a bit even though the sky seemed to be lightening, but that could have just been my imagination. Either way, my spirits couldn’t be dampened. I knew it was about 1.3 miles to the intersection of the Frenchman Creek Trail and the CO trail and I also knew from experience that there were some nice camping spots not far from that spot. About ten minutes after setting out I reached the creek crossing and crossed (on a nice log bridge) to the south side of Frenchman Creek at around 10,500 ft.
Creek Crossing shortly into the hike
After the creek crossing the trail started to get rockier and a bit steeper and it didn’t take long for me to realize how unacclimated and out of shape I was! Eleven months since I had been any higher than a couple thousand feet elevation and three months since I had stopped running, yet the burn in my lungs felt good. I could hear the rain falling around me, the creek rushing close by, and my footsteps and trekking poles as they fell in rhythm. The Frenchman Creek Tr./CO Trail intersection came into view just shy of 11,000 ft and right before 6:00 PM.
The trail intersection comes on quite suddenly
The rain was still falling and while the sky looked fairly light I wasn’t convinced the rain would stop any time soon so I decided to find a good spot and set up camp. Walking up the trail just a few hundred yards past the intersection there are some great spots where the ground levels out and it is obvious numerous parties have camped there before.
When the ground levels out, the camping spots become evident. Continue to follow the outskirts of the trees and allow downed logs to funnel you towards the edge of the clearing to continue following the trail.
The place I pitched my tent was just a shade over 11,000 feet in elevation and any camping spot near there allowed me to listen to the rush of Frenchman Creek in the background as I fell asleep. I stayed in my tent from 6:15 until 8:00 and when the rain finally stopped I decided to get out and stretch my legs a bit and scout out the beginning of the trail for the morning. It was similar to how I remembered it but I was amazed at the work CFI or some other group had done in clearing out all the downed timber. Last year I led a group of eleven boys from a summer camp up that trail in route to summiting Columbia and the amount of down timber was unlike anything I had seen on a trail before. Following the trail was impossible at times (last year) but this year it looked like it would be much more enjoyable.
The next morning I awoke at 4:15 and was ready and on the trail by 4:45. I was hoping for a bit of an earlier start than that for sunrise purposes but it worked out well in the end. From the camping area, the Frenchman Creek trail continues across a small stream almost immediately and begins to climb once again.
The trail descends just a bit to get to the stream where there are a few rocks and logs which can be used to cross.
As I continued along the trail I was still amazed at how much work had been done to clear away the trees. Navigating those downed trees and trying to stay on trail in the dark would have been quite annoying and time consuming. I was also amazed at how lush everything was. Even though the snowpack was still pretty low this year the rains have obviously been frequenting this area. On my way back down I was able to get some great pictures, which tell the tale.
I’m a sucker for trail shots, especially when it is a green as it was up there.
Here’s a good shot which shows how much work has been done in clearing downed trees.
The trail eventually began to level off and opened into a large meadow somewhere around 11,600-11,700 ft. I entered on the left side of the meadow and the trail seemed to go straight across and into a stand of trees. This is where I lost the trail and it took me a while to find it again. On the way back down I realized the trail actually curved along the trees and entered further down to the right than where I entered.
Follow the trail to the edge of the trees where it then turns right and enters further down (north) towards the creek.
A closer look shows there is a very small cairn where the trail enters into the stand of trees.
Seeing as how I didn’t follow this path on the way up, I had to decide how to proceed. For a short time I was tree hopping through and over trees in the dark but realized quickly that wasn’t the best option. I ended up making my way north towards the creek and following fairly close to its bank. Eventually the bank started to become steeper and just when I thought I was going to have to go back into the trees for some hopping, the trail reappeared on my left no far from the creek and angled back into the forest.
From here the trail went away from the creek for a while and entered into the beautiful basin. The sun was just starting to shine through the clouds across the valley to the east and made for a beautiful sunrise.
My treat as I entered the basin below Harvard and Columbia.
The trail goes high, above, and away from Frenchman Creek as it exits the basin.
Looking back down the basin around sunrise.
Once the trail gained some elevation it then began to level off and turn back towards the creek, eventually crossing to the north side near 12,000 ft.
The trail descends into some willows and cross the creek in the center of the picture.
Once I cross the creek (and even before then) I had a plain view of the Harvard-Columbia traverse as well as the first false summit of Harvard.
The little knob to the far right of the picture is the first false summit of Harvard around 14,000 ft.
I continued to follow the trail along the north side of the creek for a while until it turned away and headed north, towards the ridge. It begins to become fainter and smaller and while the route description said the trail would eventually turn west again and lead to the ridge/saddle, I could never follow it shortly after it turned west. It seemed to disappear on me. This was close to 12,500 ft.
The trail becomes quite faint, although still discernable enough to follow for a while.
A few times it will disappear and reappear through some willows. This was one of my favorite shots from the trip.
This is where I finally lost the trail for good. Instead of ascending the steep scree slope to the right (not in this picture) I went around to the left and ascended the grassy/rocky slopes all the while angling towards the ridge leading to Harvard.
The scree slope is how I descended but now I ascended. The descent allowed for a bit of glissading/slide-hopping (as I like to call it).
The grassy/rocky slopes I ascended.
As I neared the saddle between an eastern 13,xxx point and Harvard I heard voices for the first time. Even as I gained the saddle, however, I still couldn’t pick them out visually and wasn’t sure where they were coming from. The saddle itself was a nice, broad and grassy slope which allowed me a bit of a breather after my off-trail climb.
A view of the terrain of the saddle and Harvard’s first false peak.
As I started to ascend the steeper part of the slope leading up to the first false knob of Harvard I finally got a visual on the voices. I decided to wait for them. It turns out they were four recent grads from Texas A&M working in one of the valleys below for the summer. They were all around my age, nice guys and enjoyable to hike with and spend the rest of the morning with.
I gave myself an extended breather as I waited for the guys from Texas.
The push to the summit once we neared the first knob was much more involved than I thought it would be. Some of us made some fun scrambling out of a few places but after the third or fourth false peak we just took the most direct route we could. The terrain undulates to a certain extent and it seems like elevation is being lost at an often annoying rate.
We finally reached the summit around 8:45 and had it all to ourselves. The rest of the trip I didn’t see another single soul. We stayed on the summit for over an hour just shooting the breeze and enjoying the nice weather and wildlife. Yes, wildlife, and especially the very curious Mountain Goat who decided to occupy the summit with us. I have a feeling he has been fed all too often up there because he was fairly aggressive and not afraid of people in the least.
Hey Mr. Mountain Goat
Mr. Mountain Goat and Mr. Marmot.
A little too close for comfort. Those horns don’t look fun.
After some leisure time on the summit, the clouds were starting to build and we knew it was time go head down. The five of us stayed together until it was time for me to head down south off the ridge and for them to continue northeast into the Morrison Creek drainage where they came from. As I started to reach the basin again I was glad we left when we did.
Looking ominous back up the mountain.
I arrived back to camp right around 12:00 and was packed up and heading out by 12:30. I reached the TH and the Jeep a tad before 1:00 and was back in Woodland Park before 4:00. All in all it was a great trip. The solo experience is one I am glad I partook in, even though it wasn’t completely solo. At the end of the day I think I prefer enjoying the mountains with other people whom I know enjoy them too. That’s just me and I know many people like to be solitary in the mountains and I can say that I did feel that draw and experience the allure of such. I came to peace with the fact that I still love the mountains and even though there will always be risk involved, I won’t be able to stay away. Whether that means I end up completing all the 14ers, I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that John Muir’s quote was often repeated in my head as I was reflecting on my trip on the way back down.
“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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