| Harvard from Frenchmans Creek
Harvard has been on my list since we were turned back last fall due to a pending T-storm.
Our trip this time around started out a bit unsettling as I was battling a cold and sore throat resulting from a lack of sleep and being generally worn out from
too much travelling this past 6 weeks (for work). Given my subpar condition, our original goal of three fourteener climbs now seemed way too ambitious,
particularly since I hadn't been able to workout for a few weeks.
I thought the main route was likely to be more crowded and since we were after a quiet day in the mountains, we opted for another route and thought
the lesser travelled route from Frenchman's Creek would be a good choice. This was considered to be a little longer than the standard route and we
also heard there was a bit more elevation gain and some more difficult terrain higher up. We were up for the challenge! A bonus would be fewer
people on the trail, lending to a pleasant day of solitude in the mountains. Isn't that the reason you go to the mountains to begin with?!
We had climbed Mt Columbia from this trailhead late last year and though there was route finding on the latter half of the route,
was generally not much trouble and took 11 hours trailhead to trailhead to finish from parking a couple miles below the trailhead.
As such, with Harvard some 350ft taller, we figured a similar timeframe to complete.
Maybe because we were both not feeling too well, or because this was a bit longer, but this proved to be a long climb and we underestimated the length of time it would take to complete.
We got into Buena Vista from New York the day before, so had a day to rest before starting, but were not entirely acclimatized, so we opted to take it slow.
Our hike began along the rough 4x4 dirt road off County Rd 386 north of Buena Vista at a fork where R387 begins. According to the topo map, elevation here is 8,960ft.
We slept in a bit and began our ascent a bit after 4:00AM and started the slog up the dark dirt road.
Some simple math here reveals an unadjusted elevation gain of 5,460ft for the climb, not considering ups and downs enroute.
Wind was moderate and the night sky was spectacular, a great morning to be on the trail.
As we walked up the forrested road in the pre dawn darkness, the noises of the woods stood out as owl hootings and strange stirrings kept us alert. Frost tipped the leaves of
goldenrods and grasses along the road. My lingering fever caused me to sweat profusely, despite our slow pace and wearing only a light longsleeve wicking shirt in the crisp morning air.
We hiked onwards into the darkness.
90 minutes later, we reached the end of the road and began hiking through the woods up to the Frenchman Creek basin. Elevation here was about 10,200ft.
Dawn's glow soon enveloped us, we put away our lights as we were greeted with blue columbines and violet colored lupines along the trail.
Swollen by recent meltwater, Frenchman Creek roared alongsidein the gulley. It was so loud, it, drowned out our periodic yells aimed at alerting any
possible bears in the area to our presence. We also saw some semi-fresh bear scat on the trail. We yelled louder.
We soon crossed the creek (below) and signed the register.
We passed through the woods without incident and without seeing a sole, save for a distant campsite near the intersection of the Colorado Trail, which we would cross over.
Soon we arrived at the entrance to the beautiful basin, which opened up into a verdant valley lined by fir and spruce, capped by the ridge formed by Columbia and Harvard's east ridge and filled
below with willows and beaver ponds (we didn't see any beavers though). Frost and recent flurries covered the ground in an eery whitish coating up to treeline.
I didn't know it at this point, but from this route, the summit of Harvard would not be visible until much later, until we were nearly on top of it.
The creek was running high and we had to look for a good spot to cross without getting too wet. Soon after crossing Frenchman Creek to the north, the trail would disappear and
prudent route finding was needed to continue. Looking north, I deadreckoned and shot up to what I thought was the summit. Maps were not too helpful here, however.
We felt strong and thought we were near as we made good time to the top, no problems with the altitude, despite not having too much time to acclimatize. As I neared the top,
I realized this was not the summit but a large gendarme on the southeast ridge of Harvard proper. I also noticed neighboring Mt Columbia at 14,073ft, was still a few hundred feet above
where we stood, indicating I still had more to climb, a lot more. With cliffs on two sides, there was only one way to go, that being around to the left. This is where the terrain and route
finding got harder. Note: if you're climbing this route, pay attention around here for a wrong direction will cost you a lot of time!
No more straightforward hiking, more rigorous climbing began here. Routefinding became a bit more difficult as I opted to drop into a drainage to see if I could climb up a gulley to the top, unfortunately,
losing precious elevation along the way, elevation I'd have to make up later - but which peak was the summit? I saw a couple distant peaks that from where I stood that rose from the Harvard ridgeline,
and all roughly seemed the same height. I climbed across the south face a bit longer until I was cliffed out on one side and ran up against a 60 degree scree gulley on the other. I tried going up
this slope but my effort was in vain as one step up resulted in a scary ten foot slide backwards. I was going nowhere and wasting precious time. We also wasted about 45 extra minutes travelling down
into this gulley. Time for a Powerbar and to sort things out. A marmot begged for a bite. Seemed he was trying to impress me with his acrobatics.
It was now almost noontime and for a while I was not able to determine which of the three peaks in front of me was the true summit. There was still not a sole around, which was nice and we seemed to have
the mountain to ourselves. We only saw a pair of ptarmagin and a lone mountain goat, roaming the barren tundra. Ravens circled overhead as if mocking us.
The image below has the two ptarmagin - can you spot them?? There is a male and female there.
Climbing back up to the flat vantage point, standing back at about 13,900ft for 15-20 minutes I pondered the situation and considered my options. The ridge above seemed too hard at a solid class
4/5 (which was why I descended into the ledges below, downclimbing the Class 3 terrain looking for an exit to the summit. I was on the clock. We were certainly off the anticipated Class 2 stuff.
I was glad I had been doing some extra pull ups in the gym! We were starting to regret not taking the standard route as we were getting into some hairy terrain on this side.
Cumulonimbus clouds I figured would soon move in, bringing with with them the inevitible Colorado thunderstorms which chased us off the connecting ridge last fall coming from Columbia.
This ridge was not the place to be in an electrical storm. We had been climbing all morning and were still not on top, not even sure of where the top was, though I knew we were close.
This was a time for introspection - was the summit worth it or would it have to wait another day? We had seemingly seen all of our options and none looked doable without putting us seriously in harms way.
There had to be a way. We still felt strong and I was feeling a bit better, so we opted to continue on.
I moved up a bit more and stood just underneath the ridgeline, which was uniformly around 14,000ft. We put in an extra mile or so and few hundred feet of elevation walking *around* the route we finally took up.
Note to those going up here. Coming up from Frenchman, stay far left to the first gendarme, then shoot across to the first saddle and you will find a way up.
Suprisingly, the sky was still clear, nary a cloud in sight. I spotted a potential route that bisected a talus field diagonally up towards a saddle on the mountains south flank.
So, giving it one last chance, we started up, slowly finding a route, being careful not to climb up something we would later be unable to get down. The route now seemed doable and easier than the
stuff we got into earlier. Like an Alpine Hansel and Gretel, I marked the route with small cairns as we climbed up so we could find our way back down.
We were tired, yet determined. Hungry and thirsty, running low on fluids and energy food. Air bubbles were coming from my camelback as I sipped-not a good sign BEFORE a summit.
My fever was still causing me to sweat quite a bit, drinking more water than I probably needed. I consumed my final Powergel, hoping its 25g of carbs would get me to the top before we mentally
It was an epic battle between mind and mountain.
We climbed on, over volkswagen sized talus towards a notch separating two large rock piles on the ridge; we were at 14,300ft, almost there. After 40 minutes, we surmounted the second gendarme, and saw
what appeared to be the real summit, less than a 1/4 mile away, though class 2- 3+ terrain stood in its path. Nothing else rose taller, this had to be it!
We moved slowly but surely across the cold granite, by passing three small snowfields and yet another large rockpile. Ravens continued to circle overhead.
After getting over one last gendarme, we made our way up the sofa sized boulders, crawled and climbed, slipped and slid until only one large boulder stood in our way and summited this mighty mountain...
There was no conquering any mountains today, Harvard let us up and the weather cooperated allowing us to continue, forgiving a route error earlier.
On top, we were greeted with stunning views in all directions and the oddly clear blue skies let us see a bevy of other fourteeners including nearby Mt Columbia, then the trio of Belford, Oxford and Missouri,
and probably 20 others as far as the San Juans.
All in all it was great, yet tiring day. We opted for a slightly longer, easier descent route around a large snowfield near Columbia before veering off back into the grassy basin instead of going straight back
down over the steeper talus field. This was a better choice.
~16 miles and 5,700 feet of elevation gain later, we were done.
We also saw several Pronghorn on 285 on the way down to Buena Vista, which was nice to see.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):