| COLUMBIA-TO-HARVARD... a TRAVERSE to HIGHER EDUCATION!
Most guides and trip reports outline a traverse in the direction from Harvard-to-Columbia. This trip report takes the traverse in the OPPOSITE direction: COLUMBIA-TO-HARVARD.
I did a lot of debating on how to summit Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia. North Cottonwood TH? Frenchman Creek TH? In all of the research, I recognized some reoccurring themes: (1) Harvard has a great standard route; (2) Columbia's standard route is one of the worst; (3) the Harvard-to-Columbia traverse is long, filled with talus and has difficult route finding; (4) and there is very little beta on the traverse in the opposite direction, Columbia-to-Harvard.
I strongly believe Columbia-to-Harvard is a great direction, unless you hate the idea of climbing up the loose gully of Columbia's west slope. Here's a few of quick "pros" of the traverse in the opposite direction, Columbia-to-Harvard.
(1) Climb UP Columbia's nasty loose west gully in the morning with fresh legs. Bring some trekking poles for this climb.
(2) Down climb Columbia's undulating talus slopes with great visibility of the traverse route. Less guess work and less potential for route finding mistakes.
(3) Take an EASY class 1/2 hike up the grassy east slopes of Harvard. You actually find a great trail most of the way to the top of Harvard after regaining the ridge.
(4) Hike down the EASY standard route of Harvard with a great marked trail.
(5) Skip having to slip-step down Columbia's west gully at the end of a long day.
(6) Save the highest peak (Harvard) and best views for last.
(7) Afternoon delight. Great views hiking out of Horn Fork Basin.
EDIT: Since completing this route and posting this report... The 3rd edition (2011) of Roach's COLORADO FOURTEENERS guide book was released and has been updated with the traverse in this direction. Roach cites the reasoning for this change is because an ascent of Columbia's fragile west slope will cause less damage than a descent.
The standard routes for Harvard and Columbia start from N. Cottonwood trailhead. The first part of this shared trail is as EASY AS IT GETS for a 14er route. This great trail parallels Horn Fork Creek and after ~1.5 miles you will reach a SIGNED trail junction. Stay right of the sign and continue hiking in the direction of Horn Fork Basin and Bear Lake. After the signed junction, the trail finally gets a bit rougher and steeper in sections as it climbs into Horn Fork Basin.
Hike another 1.5 miles until you reach an UNSIGNED junction. This is the trail split for Harvard or Columbia. Take the trail to the right for Mt. Columbia.
** NOTE: Follow the standard Mt. Columbia West Slopes guide on this site for direction to Columbia's summit. The remainder of this TR is dedicated to the traverse from Columbia-to-Harvard, so I will not go into detail on the hike up Columbia.
Here's a view of the traverse route to Harvard from the summit of Columbia. Follow the ridge down to the grassy slopes below. The initial talus down climb is steep and some of the rock will move so tread lightly.
Staying close to the ridge will avoid the steep pitch of Columbia's north face and it will quickly get you to the grassy ridge.
Continue along the grassy ridge and gradually start hiking down and away from the ridge as you near the first point along the traverse. You are unable to see the difficulties on the other side of this point. Hiking down towards Frenchman Creek (northeast) will avoid the cliff band and steep gullies (hidden in this photo) on the other side of this point.
This photo takes a look back up at the first point along the traverse. Drop low enough to avoid these steep gullies and cliff band.
Once you bypass the difficulties of the first point, you need to start hiking northwest again towards the "rabbit" on the ridge.
Here's a key photo of the traverse route. A great benefit of this direction is that you usually have great visibility of some key route landmarks. I've circled, lettered and named the major landmarks that guided me across this undulating and complex terrain. Study this photo. You could successfully navigate the traverse using this single photo as your guide.
(A): "White Slab" Rock
(B): "Double Set" of Cliffs
(C): "Flat Box" Rock
(D): "Grassy Corner"
Here's a similar photo pulled from the traverse guide on this site. Bill Middlebrook used this photo in his guide as a "look back," so his line/arrow is reflecting the traditional Harvard-to-Columbia traverse direction. HOWEVER, this IS the KEY photo I used to guide me through the traverse in the opposite direction, Columbia-to-Harvard. You can identify all of my "landmarks" in this photo too.
The photo below takes a look back on the route thus far. This photo was taken just below the "rabbit" on the ridge. Columbia's summit cannnot been seen in this view.
Continue crossing this rugged terrain and head in the direction towards the (A) "white slab" rock. At this point, you may actually pick up a few random cairns. The terrain is very undulating and fun to cross.
After down climbing and traversing a ton of talus you eventually reach the (A) "white slab" rock. You actually pick up a faint trail at this point (look closely beyond the white slab in this photo) that will lead you up and over the (B) "double set" of cliffs.
Continue traversing the talus until you are near the (C) "flat box" rock. You are now just below the steep gullies of point 13,516.
At this point you will see a grassy down climb BEFORE you get to the (C) "flat box" rock. Take the short grassy down climb IF you want take the EASY and grassy slope to gain Harvard's east ridge. Climbing directly up the steep and loose gully from this point is the more direct BUT difficult option.
Here's a photo looking back up from the (D) "grassy corner," which is also the low point in the traverse. You will see more grassy terrain that will lead you across the shoulder of point 13,516 and avoids all of the steep gullies. The (C) "flat box" rock is just out of the frame of the picture to the right.
"If you like talus, this route is for you." A look back on the talus traverse. It's an easy uphill to Harvard after this point. This photo also shows the (A) "white slab" rock in the distance and the the difficulties avoided by dropping below the first point along the ridge. It also shows the elevation you do not lose by following the landmarks along this route.
Here's a look up at point 13,516 from the northeast side of the ridge. The easier terrain is to your right but staying left and closer to the ridge is the direct route.
Here's a photo looking up at my route. Harvard's summit is hidden at this point of the route. I also deviated from the online guide and took a LONGER and EASIER way to hike and clear point 13,516. You can keep most of the initial ascent on grassy terrain (right) or stick closer to the ridge for steeper and more rugged terrain (left). The traditional guide on this site sticks to the ridge (left) OR uses the steep gully on the other side. I went for the layup, an easy grassy hike up the east slopes of Harvard. This was an enjoyable climb after crossing all of the talus below Columbia's north face.
Follow the trail after regaining the ridge above point 13,516. Harvard's summit is not visible in this photo.
Here's a photo looking back down after clearing point 13,516. There is a great trail leading most of the way up the east ridge of Harvard.
You eventually crest an area above 13,900 feet and get a good view of Harvard's summit and the remaining traverse. There are several easy points to climb or bypass and you will continue to find sections of a good trail or cairns to lead the way.
Start traversing south below Harvard's East Ridge. Cairns will mark a route leading just to the right of this rock tooth. You will regain the ridge after climbing past this point. There are also a couple of larger sharp points along the top of the ridge (on the right) that are just outside of the frame of this photo.
Here's a view looking back as you cross between the rock tooth and the sharp points on the ridge.
Most of the required elevation gain is complete. However, there is still some work to do and a few ridge points to clear before you arrive at Harvard's summit. There are multiple options at this point: Left, over-the-top, or to the right. I tried to stay on the ridge proper and found some fun and easy scrambling options with minor exposure. You will find various trail segments and route markers. The final summit block has a short and easy scramble and you will need to pick your own line to the top.
The descent from Harvard is a great way to end the day. Pick your line to scramble down from the summit blocks and locate the standard route on the south ridge. There will be spectacular views overlooking Bear Lake and Horn Fork Basin in this direction. Once off the summit block, the trail is excellent and well marked with giant cairns. The steep sections of this trail include great "rock steps" to get you through the tough terrain. It's nothing like the nastiness of the west slope of Columbia.
Here's a great view of Columbia's west face. A solid trail leads through upper Horn Fork basin with NO bush-whacking involved.
Horn Fork Basin, Bear Lake and Mount Yale.
The view looking back up Horn Fork Basin towards Mt. Harvard.
The hike out is long but gentle and is a very scenic way to finish….
Pass by the West Gully of Columbia and be glad this was NOT your exit route. Continue hiking for several more miles. As soon as you feel burned out, you will see the signed junction in the forest only to remind you that you still have another 1.5 miles to go! Follow Horn Fork Creek back to the trailhead.
I did this route solo.
Regardless of the direction you take... the traverse IS still 15 MILES and 6100 FEET of hiking!
There are multiple trail junctions and camp sites as you make your way over to the base of Columbia's west gully. Review the 14er.com standard route guide on Mt. Columbia for more details.
The actual traverse took almost 3 hours exactly. It took me 1.5 hours from the summit of Columbia to reach the low point of the traverse near the "grassy corner." It then took another 1.5 hours to climb the east ridge of Harvard. The entire day took nearly 11 hours, including all breaks, chats and photo sessions! My estimate is that most people can do this route in 10-12 hours depending on your pace and length of breaks. If you move slow on talus and/or make route finding mistakes you can definitely turn this into a LONG day.
You lose site of the incoming weather/clouds during the traverse. Frenchman Creek is an escape route but you will need to find a way back to your vehicle at N. Cottonwood. At least you would be close to Buena Vista.
The descent of Harvard's standard route is SIMPLE and OBVIOUS route finding. Once off the summit, I never had to refer to the trip guide or topo map for direction.
Review all the options in figuring out which route is best for you to summit these 2 great collegiate peaks. Anyone doing these 2 peaks in separate hikes should consider taking the excellent standard route via N. Cottonwood for Mt. Harvard and then take the alternative Frenchman Creek route for Mt. Columbia. The climb up Columbia's west slope was not that bad but I see the suck in having to go both UP and DOWN it in one trip.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):