Peak(s):  Mt. Harvard  -  14,420 feet
Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  07/04/2011
Date Climbed:   07/03/2011
Author:  Zambo
 Harvard & Columbia Traverse for the Sawatch finish.  

Climbers: Zambo & Andrew (awknox)
Conditions: The middle Horn Fork basin (just below treeline) is pretty wet, with lots of melting snow and plenty of mud. Harvard's South slopes are relatively free, with one sizable field on the lower wall which must be climbed. The traverse still has quite a bit of snow, especially past Point 13,516 to the final 500ft on Columbia.
Summary: A long, fast, and great day out on the Harvard-Columbia traverse to wrap up the Sawatch Range.

It seems like most of the peaks in the Sawatch can be characterized by two common traits: gorgeous approaches through high alpine basins, and long boring slogs up thousands upon thousands of vertical feet.

With that in mind, I figured what better way to finish the range than via the Harvard-Columbia traverse? 15 miles & 6,100 vertical feet meets the slog requirement, and the Horn Fork Basin is about as pretty as it gets. Yes, this route seemed like the perfect fit to sum up the Sawatch Range.

A Saturday night Denver departure had us to the N. Cottonwood Creek TH by 11:00pm. We found the road to be in great condition, and had absolutely no issue getting my Ford Taurus up there. Knowing there was a long day ahead with a 30% of storms afternoon the next day, we caught a few short hours of sleep in the car and were on the trail by 4:00.

Fresh off of training from a Rainier climb a few weeks prior and having been at altitude the day before, Andrew set an absolutely torrid pace as we plowed up through the forest in the dark. I was happy to get the trees behind us as quickly as possible, so I loved the speed as we burned up to tree line in under an hour and a half. We passed quite a few tents along the way, but no one was stirring yet. We were also dealing with quite a bit of moisture just before and after treeline. Not too much snow left in the trees, but there is plenty of water and mud to slow you down.

Dawn offered us some of our first looks at the basin to come. Simply stunning.

Alpenglow over Yale.
The big ugly mound that is Columbia.
Another one back down the basin as the sun rose a bit.

One quick piece of beta. At some point (maybe .75-1 mile past treeline??), we had to cross the creek which was all but impassable due to the high water. We did the manly (and by that I mean, stupid) thing of bushwhacking it for 20 yards or so until we found a spot we could (barely) jump across. Once across (of course) we then saw the huge snow bridge which could be walked over no sweat. Just an FYI for anyone headed up this way.

Not a great pic, but this is your target. Look for this snowbridge.

A bit more trekking had us to the South face of Harvard. On the whole, the route was mostly snow free with the exception of the large field on the lower South Wall. The snow is very consolidated and pretty firm as we hit it in the early morning. Although we took our axes, I was able to make it up just fine with just trekking poles. I'm sure later in the morning, boot stomping up this fairly easy as the snow softens.

Grassy and beautiful in the morning sun.
The final climb, with our route drawn in. Pretty straight forward.
Beginning the snow.
Andrew high on the field.
Over towards Point 13,598.

Past the field seen above, it was snow-free to summit. It was nice to have it to ourselves considering the absolute zoo this thing must have been a few hours later...

Looking back down the Horn Fork Basin from Harvard's summit.
Summit shot with Belford & Oxford beyond.

Now it was on to the interesting part.

We were off the summit by 8:30, without a cloud in the sky. From Harvard's summit, we could see the route was clear all the way to Point 13,516. Past that, we could tell there was lots of snow in the lowest parts of the traverse, but couldn't see how much or what sort of challenges this would bring.

Only one way to find out.

Descent off Harvard.
We lounged a bit on this grassy spot. I could have spent all day here with a good book.
Andrew contemplates the meaning of it all.

The walk down to Point 13,516 was straight-forward, with the partial trail visible and clear the whole way. Standing on this flat area, we took some time to soak in all of the beautiful views. We also had to decide the best decent route as we were now beginning to deal with snow again.

The direct gully off of the South side of this face was typically rotten, but also and ended on a steep snowfield - no luck going this way. The route which traverses down and around the point contained quite a bit snow and would have made for an even larger detour than it is already.

So, we opted to go direct down the shoulder to the low point of the traverse. In retrospect, picking our way through these boulders ate up quite a bit of time, but it seemed the best current option to avoid the snow.

Also at this point, we were finally able to see the full route to come on the East side of the ridge.

Traverse from the West...
...and from the East, highlighting most of the major obstacles and current snow conditions.
Same shot as above, with our route drawn in.

Reaching the low point of the traverse, things got a bit interesting as some dark clouds had been building just to the East of Columbia's summit. Nothing too dangerous at the moment, but we did get a bit concerned realizing these had the potential to build into something much more substantial by the time we were set to arrive on Columbia's summit. It's one thing to be going up and having the option of descent at anytime, but in our case, the quickest way off was to go UP, which was a bit unnerving.

With that in mind, we threw on the gaiters, whipped out the axes, and tore off to get across the snow and back on to the ridge as quick as possible.

We found the snow to be delightfully consolidated and firm. A boot pack was obvious for parts of the traverse, which was gratefully followed. All in all, there were 3 or 4 major fields to cross, however, only one had anything even close to a high angle. We were absolutely happy to have axes and gaiters, as it would have been wet and much more interesting without them. The snow ran out just beneath the point of reaching the ridge beneath Columbia.

A different angle, with the route highlighted.
Looking back the other way.

During the ascent, the storm clouds were becoming more and more foreboding. Reaching the final 500 feet up Columbia, we just kept going right on up. We were fully into beast-mode at this point and ended up covering the covered the ~1,500 feet of gain back up to Columbia in under an hour.

We were glad to reach the summit and didn't plan to stay long. Surprisingly, there were only a few other groups on top and most were heading off.

Snow free, but dark on the last 500ft up Columbia.
Happy to be done with the uphill.
Horn Fork Basin below, with Bear Lake still hanging on to winter.
Final look back on the traverse from Columbia's summit.

A few quick pics and we were off to descend Columbia's West slopes. I've heard quite a few people claim this as their least favorite peak, and I must say, I can't really blame them. Ugly, boring, and as loose as it gets, there are few redeeming qualities for this heap. The good news is as we descended the weather cleared up to become a beautiful and hot day.

Departing look.

Many thanks to the gentlemen who helped point out some of the best ways down this thing. We were down to the trees in a flash, and then raced down the inevitable looong trip back to the car. Again, it was very surprising how uncrowded the peak was, as we didn't pass anyone the whole way down.

All in all, we did the whole trip in just over 9 1/2 hours, with 3 of those spent on the traverse (much of it spent on route finding). A great day out there, and many thanks to Andrew for hitting them with me.

So, done with the Sawatch and excited for many more Summer adventures to come.

Happy Climbing!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

07/07/2011 16:20
Congrats on finishing the Sawatches! These are my last 2 peaks in the range and will be hiking them later this summer. Thx for the good trip report!


07/07/2011 19:52
we are planning this same trek but wondered if there are any fish to be had to supplement our freeze dry as we plan to spend the night. Lake or stream?

James Scott

fantastic tr
07/12/2011 00:35
I was trying to explain the traverse to a friend who's going up tomorrow, and your pictures were so helpful. I have some similar shots in my tr, but the arrows help a ton. Really makes me want to get back up there at some point this summer and redo that traverse. If only Columbia's fun house of scree wasn't waiting on the other side.


Thank you!
04/02/2015 19:45
Heading that way in a couple of weeks. Thanks for the beta!

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