Peak(s):  Mt. Harvard  -  14,420 feet
Date Posted:  07/18/2011
Modified:  06/27/2012
Date Climbed:   07/17/2011
Author:  Doctor No
 Harvard the Hard Way (and the Fickle Middle Finger of Columbia)  

Ten years from now, prospective hikers will see my User Climb Time for Mount Harvard, and see a 4:25 ascent (reasonable) and an 11:30 round-trip, and they won't know what to think about that. I will attempt to document that as best as I can here.

My friend Eric (drhansenej) currently lives in Milwaukee, but still has the fourteener bug (it's a hard bug to shake). So this summer, he's been coming out once per month to summit - last month, we did La Plata and Yale (see earlier trip reports). This weekend, our intent was to summit Mount Harvard, and then do the traverse to Mount Columbia. We knew that it would be a long day - but little did we know.

I'm primarily posting this to give a condition report, because that would have helped me out a lot. I prefer the trip reports with plenty of pictures, so I try to let those tell the story as much as possible. Hope you enjoy!

Eric, my fiance Colleen, and I started at the North Cottonwood Creek trailhead just a few minutes before 2am. Spirits were high - it was a little cold, but there was a warm wind blowing through the valley that kept our legs moving. I always wear shorts during these things; I have "goalie legs" that don't really get cold.

We made great pace up the Horn Fork valley, and the first good camera light saw us looking across to Point 13,580' (C) and Mount Yale:


There are some snowfields on the upper portion of Harvard's south slopes, but all are easily avoidable (or traverseable):


Now we look back into the Horn Fork Basin and Bear Lake - a very muddy trail (with wet willows - I thought I'd seen the last of you on Bierstadt/Evans last August!):


And sunrise on Mount Columbia (just after 6am). It doesn't look so far away!


We reach the Harvard summit at 6:25am - some fun scrambling near the top, and nothing unmanageable. A look across at Mount Belford and Mount Oxford:


And the southern Sawatch - Mount Yale front and center, and then left to right: Mount Princeton, Mount Antero, Mount Shavano, and Tabeguache Peak.


Official Harvard summit photo. Not counting duplicates, this is Colleen's seventh, my twenty-second, and Eric's twenty-fourth:


Go Mariners! A few people have asked about the hat - so long as the 2011 Mariners are going to play like the 1977 Mariners, I will wear my 1977 Mariners baseball cap.

We were hoping to add another to that list later in the morning. Still plenty of time left, and the sky looked good! It was awfully windy on the summit (go figure), so we didn't linger for long.

Thanks to this site, we had known about another group ascending Harvard and also leaving at 2am. They caught up to us on the last part of the south slopes - it was nice to meet ChrisMilton, wizzer, MichiganBrian, and summitridge (I also believe that that's the order in which we met - I guess ten concussions hasn't entirely killed my brain yet). We decided that we'd stay near each other during the traverse.

The first part of the traverse had some snowfields - none of which were too bad (this one was rather fun). The other group went directly on the ridge (or so I believe) and managed to avoid these sections completely.


Eric surveys the route ahead (just follow his left arm!)


Eric picks his way down through easy downclimbing:


Here the downclimbing gets more serious - this was where things started to get mentally taxing; each rock could move under your weight if you weren't careful:


Spirits are still high at this point - all we have to do is skip around the lump to the left, drop down a little, and then reascend Columbia:


Two things to note here - the car is on the right side of this ridge, and we are about to go on the left side of the ridge. In other words, there's no easy way to escape back to the car.

Also, you can already see some snow on the traverse itself.

Descending down the Frenchman Creek valley - a very beautiful valley that few people get to see:


Beautiful flora in the valley (and some Harvardy goodness in the background):


Here's where we started to get worried - you can see the real traverse in the bottom middle of the photo - note the footprints in the snow. This would have been an easy traverse in dry weather (with the low point at about 12,800 feet). As it was, none of the seven of us felt comfortable making the traverse:


This was somewhat surprising, because it's the east side of Harvard/Columbia, with no intervening mountains - surely, this snowfield has seen some sunshine. Moreover, with the Saturday night rainstorm, the top layer of the snowfields were all nasty.

So...we had to descend into this valley at about 12,400' (including my fiance's first glissade!), and then reascend Columbia (the peak at the top right in the background). This not only increased our total ascent elevation by 400 long feet, but took us way out of the way.


However, it was the safest option (both at the time, and in retrospect). For those aiming to follow in our footsteps, we decided to ascend to the green lump left center (just in front of Point 13,740'), then diagonally up and to the right (just to the right of the snowfield), then along the ridge to Columbia's summit.

Here we start back up the south side of the valley. A look back at Harvard:


It was so nice to have seven of us on this part, instead of just three - it's so isolating on the East side of Harvard/Columbia, and we were making some pretty important decisions.

The other team of four decided to traverse the snowfield, while our group went directly up the ridge. As we almost gain the first ridge, Columbia mocks us:


At this point, about 13,700', we decided that although we could probably make the summit of Columbia, the thunderstorms would make the summit of Columbia before we did:


Eric is one of the few people on Earth who is more afraid of lightning than I am, so we decided to circumvent Columbia and join the descent route back to the cars.

As it turns out, we still weren't on the correct descent ridge - here we are getting across to Columbia's south ridge proper:


Now we are on the south ridge of Columbia:


This was the closest we would get to Columbia's summit - maybe a quarter mile horizontally, and 150 feet vertically. However, the storm clouds were gathering (both figuratively and literally), and I can't speak for Eric or Colleen, but my legs felt like blocks of granite.

Picture Mount Columbia giving us the middle finger here, and that's pretty much what it felt like.

And so we descend Columbia's fragile west ridge, which many have descrbed as the worst fourteener trail in Colorado:


To call it a "trail" is a bit of an overstatement - picture a slope this steep covered in loose baseball-sized ball bearings.

Now picture it wet - and that's why we wanted to descend before the thunderstorm hit.

Here's a pretty good shot of one of the "easier" parts of the Columbia descent:


During the first part of the descent, I remember thinking that "oh, this isn't so bad". Then it got Bross-tastic. I don't have any photos of the hardest part, because I was too busy trying to keep my balance and dodging loose rocks to take photos.

At this part of the hike, we did meet a nice group of three, including a man named Neal from Gunnison who is a wedding photographer. We got his contact information, so we may have a photographer!

A look back at Columbia after getting to treeline:


It's really just a big pile of loose scree. Eric named Columbia "God's Little Joke" during the hike, and I can't say that I disagree. If you squint at this photo, you can actually see a middle finger.

Mount Yale greets us through the trees:


Just as we hit treeline (for our first real rest of the hike), we were met by a downpour. In my mind, this validated all of our decisions to not summit Columbia - I couldn't even think of what the descent would be like in a thunderstorm.

The hike through the trees was pleasant (if a bit long at the end of a long day). We cross North Cottonwood Creek on a nifty bridge:


Most of the first/last leg of the hike parallels North Cottonwood Creek, which had a very nice cooling effect on a hot afternoon:


A Google Earth overview of the journey (16.5 miles, and 6500 vertical feet):


And a Google Earth overview of the backside (the traverse side), showing how far we had to descend:


And an elevation profile:


I also posted our GPX track, so that you can play around as much as you want to. Fun with computers!

By the end of the day, I was already thinking of all those who are ABCulebra, and thinking that I could be a different sort of ABC(olumbia). It's weird the difference a good night (12 hours) of sleep can make - I'm now looking at attacking Columbia from the backside.

If I were a more interesting man, I'd say that "I don't always hate fourteeners, but when I do, I hate Sawatch fourteeners". I climbed Longs and Bierstadt back in grad school, but since I started my "fourteener renaissance", I've never experienced failure on a non-Sawatch fourteener. Here's my current record on Sawatch fourteeners (with trip reports where applicable):

Mount Elbert: success in September 2010.
La Plata Peak: failure in January 2010. Success in June 2011. ()
Mount Belford: failure in May 2010. Success in July 2010. ()
Mount Oxford: did not attempt traverse in July 2010. ()
Mount Huron: got to trailhead in June 2011; smoke from Arizona fires was too heavy - did not attempt.
Mouht Harvard: success in July 2011. ()
Mount Columbia: failure in July 2011. ()
Mount Yale: success in June 2010. ()
Mount Antero: failure in August 2010. ()
Mount Shavano: success in August 2009. ()
Tabeguache Peak: success in August 2009 (with torn quadriceps on descent). ()

So that's seven up and five down for the Sawatch (and one trailhead decision), and a perfect 15-0 on non-Sawatch peaks. There's just been a lot of bad luck involved, and I can't wait until I have the entire Sawatch crossed off the list entirely.

I'm recently Catholic, and I always pray before every hike for God to keep us safe, and to keep us strong enough to handle anything that He throws at us. As it turns out, God has a bit of a sense of humor, but any hike you can walk away from is a successful one, right? Columbia will still be there for us later, whether it's later this year, next year, or ten years from now. I hope that you enjoyed my ramblings.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Try another route
07/19/2011 14:56
Come from the east by the Three Elks trail. You'll come away thinking of Columbia not as a middle finger but a thumbs up.


Good work!!
07/19/2011 18:28
Someone said that you can't appreciate success without failure. Being able to make the call to sacrifice a summit in the name of safety is an important skill, the peak will be there for another day. Brian and I made the same choice, dropping into the adjacent basin and connecting to the Colorado Trail.

Nice to meet you up there, keep using your head in those situations.


Doctor No

Thanks, guys!
07/20/2011 00:43
@SuperPolok - I agree, the route(s) from the East both seem like great options. It's such a beautiful valley on that side, and the Three Elks trail reminds me a bit of the Antero hike I did from Raspberry Gulch (see separate trip report).

@ChrisMilton - Chris, it was great having you guys along during the traverse. We were becoming a bit despondent, and your positive energy bolstered our spirits. It's very good news that you and Brian made it out okay - when we split up (snowfield vs. ridge) and didn't see you all for awhile, we started to get concerned.

One nice thing about the hike is that it gave me a new baseline for what my body is capable of - now when I'm doing something in the mountains, I can say ”come on, you made it through that scree heap back in July; you can do this!”


Great Job!
07/20/2011 02:22
I share your pain. Last year I tried to do the traverse and ended up going down the drain, too. Snow wasn't the problem, just my ability to ascertain a good trail. I hopped across those building size boulders and was able to summit Columbia. That stretch down the scree to Horn Fork Basin was one I'll never forget. Don't give up on C!


07/20/2011 03:54
When I go back I'm definitely coming in from the backside. The Elk Creek Basin we dropped into looks like it could be enjoyable when it isn't dropping you off a few miles from your car...

Doctor No

07/20/2011 23:37
@ChrisM - I won't give up! I'm looking forward to coming at this this from another direction, though (it's weird that I'm looking to do a Crestone in the meantime ”to bolster my confidence” ).

@MichiganBrian - I agree with you. Glad that you guys made it out okay! Such a nice valley over there.

Exiled Michigander

So close and yet so far
07/20/2011 23:59
Sucks to be so close to Columbia and yet fail to summit. But look on the bright side: now you can take a another route up Columbia and enjoy different scenery. Plus, none of you became lightning rods!

Doctor No

07/21/2011 00:30
You're exactly right - I was on Bierstadt a few years back, and we descended during a hail/lightning storm. If I had hair, it would have been standing straight up on end. I never want to go through that again.

Plus this way I can strictly follow the 3,000-foot rule on each. Maybe we should have descended even further into the valley last Sunday!

Aspen Summit

Super Day
07/12/2012 03:34
I just finished your TR as I plan on taking Columbia soon. I don't think I'll have the endurance for the traverse, but I will try to descend to the Frenchman Creek Valley

Awesome job and thanks for the pics.


Doctor No

My pleasure!
07/12/2012 04:00
Thanks for the kind words, and good luck on the summit - I'm looking forward to doing the whole thing from that side at some point.

   Using your forum id/password. Not registered? Click Here

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

© 2017®, 14ers Inc.