| Harvard/Columbia Combo – N. Cottonwood
After spending the night in Buena Vista, we drove up the easy 4WD road (in a Hyundai Tucson, with no problems), found a spot in the crowded lot (bunch of campers), and then started up the trail at the North Cottonwood trailhead at 3:15 a.m.
The trail was pretty easy to follow, even in complete darkness. Although, there were a couple instances where some willows tried to beckon us off course, but we didn't take the trail bait and we were able to stay the course.
The morning air was cold, and because I was breathing heavily my lungs really began to burn (and continued to do so for hours). It kind of felt like my throat was coated in Mentholyptus.
Shortly after breaking above the trees it became light enough to turn off the headlamps. Then, moments later, I shot this picture of the ridge:
As we ascended past Bear Lake and up to a level area, we originally thought the 13er up to our left was Mt. Harvard. But after following the trail a bit further, we realized Harvard was right in front of us.
Harvard's south slope was pretty steep but the trail was pretty good. Then, close to the top, there was just a short rock scramble (easy class 3) to the summit.
Here's a shot looking back (from Harvard) down into the valley:
We were finally up on Harvard's summit at 7:45 a.m.:
Tired, but not beaten, we were ready to continue on to Columbia. After a careful inspection of the sky (crucial for this climb), we decided the weather couldn't be any better, so we pushed on down the ridge.
Harvard's east ridge was fairly easy and there was even a trail on some parts. I think we started on the left (north) side and then switched to the right (south) side after a break in the ridge.
Here‘s a pic of one section of Harvard's east ridge (the left/north side, I think):
Soon thereafter we made it to what I called a "grassy knoll," on the east ridge‘s "shoulder" (about a mile east of Harvard's summit). From there, the ridge turned to the south as we descended off the grassy knoll.
In the pic below ... Left: On the "grassy knoll," looking south. Columbia is in the distance. Right: Jen climbing down a loose gully. Some of those rocks way down below (upper portion of the photo) were as large as two-story homes.
After that easy section, the route became much less obvious and much more serious. I think we first traversed a steep, rocky slope, and then we descended a slippery, scree-filled couloir. It was rather nasty.
From that point, here's a pic of the rocky mess we had to contend with (keep in mind, the photo really doesn't do it justice):
At one point we found an overlook where we stopped for a few minutes to figure out a route. All of the options before us looked pretty grim. As I saw it, we had three: (1.) Descend far into the valley (where it was green) and then climb around the rocks and all the way back up to Columbia, (2.) Climb down until we could find a route to traverse across the boulders and talus, or (3.) Stay high, with the risk of cliffing out or encountering class 5 sections. We chose option 2, but it was an option filled with many more options along the way.
The route-finding quandary before us (I highlighted the general route we took):
We ended up going down to about 12,600' (according to my GPS) before traversing parallel to the ridge over some huge boulders. I can't recall ever seeing such a large pile of rocks. It was massive, and as I said, some boulders were as big as houses.
At one point we decided to take some grassy ledges to bypass a rock field that was below us. As the ledge narrowed I began to worry that it would cliff out. Thankfully it didn't, and it was a good route to take. But there were many more gullies to climb up and/or across. We just continued to slog up the mountain of rock toward Columbia. It was extremely grueling.
After finally making it up to a level grassy area, we easily regained the spine of the ridge and headed up the last pitch (about 700 feet) of rock to Columbia's summit. After huffing over one small false peak, we gained the summit at 11:20 a.m. Thankfully, the weather had been great all day, and it continued to be great throughout the day.
Me on Columbia's summit (Bear Lake in the background):
As we descended we saw a whole mess of goats on Columbia's east ridge trail. In the pic below … Top: Goats on Columbia's East Ridge … Bottom-left: Jen about to descend Columbia's west slope … Bottom-right: Trail marker.
Had to be careful not to take the scree-filled couloir (Don't do it!). We just kept on walking to the more hump-like ridge, where we found a cairned trail down. We also noticed some bright orange trail markers (bottom-right photo above).
Hiking down Columbia's west slope (4 on Roach's map) was not fun at all. It was very steep and very loose (mostly dirt and gravel). On our way down we ran into the first people we had seen all day. Toward the bottom it was even more eroded. I didn't like contributing to that erosion problem, but at that point we had no choice. I didn't realize it was so bad.
After what seemed like an eternity, we made it down to the trees and found a single-track trail leading into the woods. The trail soon came to a V, which we took to the left (south). After passing through some campsites and hooking up with another trail, we continued on until we hooked up with the main trail (big cairn at the junction).
The last 3 to 4 miles were easy, but our feet – er, "blister nubs" – were killing us. I guess my lungs also burned, my eyes were dry and itchy, and just about every muscle in my body was sore. It kind of felt nice, though, in some sort of sick and twisted way.
We had planned to climb San Luis the following day, and I was wondering if that was going to be possible ...
At 2:30 p.m. we finally stumbled into the parking lot at the N. Cottonwood trailhead. Of all the 14ers and 14er combos I've done, the Harvard and Columbia combo has been the toughest and most time-consuming to date. Harvard on its own wasn't so bad, but getting up and then down Columbia was pretty grueling. I doubt I'll ever visit that summit again.
So just how much mileage and vertical gain did we encounter on this trek, you ask? Well, here it is broken down, as I see it:
MILEAGE: Trailhead to Harvard's summit (6.75 miles) … plus … the ridge between the two peaks (2 miles, "as the crow flies," but I don't know anyone that hikes like a crow – hence, you must add switchbacking, backtracking and meandering (1/2 mile, at least)) … plus … Columbia's summit back to the trailhead (5.75 miles) = 15 miles, as I estimate it. Not bad on paper, but keep in mind that a good portion of that mileage is on steep slopes, loose scree and unstable boulders.
ELEVATION GAIN: Trailhead to Harvard's summit (4,600') … plus … our lowpoint of 12,600' on the back of the ridge and up to Columbia's summit, which is 14,073' (1,473') … plus at least 100' (being very conservative here) of gain from going up and down on the back side = 6,173 total feet gained.
If you are considering this route, I suggest keeping the following things in mind:
- Plan on hiking at least 14.5 miles and gaining about 6,000 feet or more … over rough terrain that requires some healthy routefinding.
- Bring plenty of food and water. Three liters wasn't enough for me … and we ate all the food we brought.
- Regardless of whether you do Harvard or Columbia first, when you reach the first summit take a really good inspection of the sky. When you're on the ridge, in between the two mountains, there really aren't any escape options if you run into bad weather.
- It took us 3-1/2 hours to get from Harvard's summit to Columbia's summit (we weren't going as fast as we normally do, but we weren't taking our time, either).
- For your reference: When we climb Longs Peak (Keyhole Route) it takes us about 8 to 9 hours. This combo took us about 11 hours.
- Columbia is an evil mountain. I can't speak for its east ridge route, but its north and west sides suck beyond belief.
- If you don't like steep scree slopes, loose talus, shifty boulders or unstable rock piles, this combo climb would be your worst nightmare.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):