Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Mt. Harvard  -  14,420 feet
Date Posted:  07/28/2012
Modified:  08/07/2012
Date Climbed:   07/28/2012
Author:  brennan
 Columbia to Harvard via the traverse  

I made a video report as well. Check it out . Before doing this hike, we read trip report after trip report that talked about how lousy the hike down from Columbia is. That made us wonder whether it would actually be better to just do the traverse backward, from Columbia to Harvard. We found a trip report by tommyboy360 that did exactly that, and this report follows the same path laid out there.

We left Fort Collins around 1pm and drove to the trailhead via 285. I was worried about tackling the dirt road with my 2wd Jetta, but the road must have been recently resurfaced because it was in excellent condition. There wasn't a bad spot in the whole length. We arrived at the trailhead on Friday evening around 5:45pm and headed off. The plan was to make camp near the fork in the trail, and we ended up finding an excellent site just off the trail at about 2.5 miles in. We got up at 4am on Saturday, made some oatmeal, packed our summit packs, and finally got on the trail at 5:30am. The sky was just light enough to see without head lamps. We hit the fork about half a mile later and took a right towards Columbia. A few minutes later, we hit another fork in the trail. It takes a 90 degree right turn uphill into the forest and also continues straight. The right turn is the correct direction; the straight trail fades away some 200 yards later. We passed through a forested section toward Columbia and were soon out of treeline. We had a great view of the surrounding mountains, which were partially pink-orange from the reflection of the morning sun off the clouds. Image
Looking toward Harvard
Not much further, and we were looking up the dreaded scree field on the west side of Columbia. The wind picked up to a sustained 15+mph with gusts over 20 and the temperature must have been in the 40s. We all put on more layers and continued up. To our surprise, the hiking wasn't particularly difficult. We all agreed that it would not be fun at all to descend the same path. Looking backward, it seemed very steep and it was somewhat hard to distinguish the path. Going up, on the other hand, it was easy to avoid loose rocks and to see the trail. I was glad to have my trekking poles for stability because the trail got increasingly loose as we ascended. We very closely followed the Route 2 directions and doubled back behind the rock outcropping across a patch of boulders before picking up a very well-defined dirt trail that led up to the ridge. Image
Halfway up Columbia
On the dirt trail to the ridge
The next couple of hours were grueling. The path is a relentless uphill and the wind just wouldn't let up. I didn't bring my gloves, and my hands were going numb. I put away my poles in favor of keeping my hands in my pockets. Finally, we gained the ridge and soon found a spot on the east side that was protected from the maddening wind. Looking across to Harvard, the clouds were already starting to build, but it was difficult to tell whether it would amount to anything. We took at least a half-hour break and looked at our maps to find escape options off the traverse--just in case. All of them led off in the wrong direction, but it was good to know they were there. Either way, it was going to be easy and safe to summit Columbia, so we pushed on. We covered the last stretch of boulder-laden ridge and made it to the summit a little before 10am. Image
View from the summit of Columbia
There was a nice little wind shelter and the view was spectacular. We chilled out for about 15 minutes and reassessed the clouds near Harvard. They seemed to be burning off to some extent, and the forecast predicted only 20% chance of thunderstorms. After discussing it for a few minutes, we decided to go for it. The way down from Columbia toward to the traverse was not fun. It's basically a massive, steep boulder field with no particular trail. The girls were very careful with the descent and the going was extremely slow. We came across some pretty big boulders that were dangerously unstable, but we made it down to the ridgeline without incident. It was incredibly nice to be on grass, but the feeling was short-lived because the majority of the traverse is another massive boulder field. Again, our group progressed very slowly and carefully, and it was clear that the anticipated 3 or 4 hour hike across the traverse was going to take much longer. By the time we wade it to the beginning of the ascent, the clouds were looking seriously sketchy. We couldn't see what was happening to the west since the ridge blocks the view. We pressed on in hopes of a break, following the grassy area around the boulder field at the base of peak 13,516, and continued up toward the ridgeline. On our ascent, we heard lots of thunder from a storm forming over Columbia. Topping the ridge, I was very relieved to see that there didn't seem to be anything particularly threatening to the north and west, although Harvard was still blocking a good portion of the view. Looking back toward Columbia was another matter. Dark clouds, walls of rain, and frequent lightning made my stomach twist at the thought of being on Columbia then. Image
Storm over Columbia
We took a short break before continuing on. Soon we realized that the thunderstorm over Columbia was expanding in our direction and it started drizzling. There were a few lightning strikes that were a little too close for comfort and there was nothing we could do but keep going toward Harvard. The trail thankfully dropped just below the ridge on the basin-side. We crossed multiple false summits, and after a while, we got to a small saddle and looked out toward the north. Our hearts sank as we saw lighting strike from a thunderstorm over the closest mountains. Again, we couldn't see what was happening on the west side of Harvard, but it didn't seem good. We decided our best option was to drop down slightly in elevation on the north side of Harvard and find some shelter among the rocks. We waited for about half an hour in light rain, and to my immense relief, the thunderstorms fizzled out and turned into a rainy/snowy drizzle. Off to the northwest, we could see that it had covered one of the ridges (of what I think was Mount Oxford) with a small amount of snow. The clouds were thinning out, and we were very happy to get our stuff together and continue on. We summitted at 6:30pm and we had another spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. Image
View from Harvard
The sun was even out now, and I felt safe for the first time in hours. After some pictures, we looked around for a path down from Harvard, and the best we could come up with was a short class 3ish scramble down the south side, toward a huge cairn. The angle of the rock pretty much forces you to go down backward on a descent, and it seemed that one slip could have led to some serious injures. It looked worse than it actually was, and taking it very carefully, we all made it down without a problem. Going up the same path would have been fairly easy. Once down to the cairn, the going was easy. On the way down, we heard a pack of apparently very excited coyotes, who went into a yapping frenzy a couple times. We could just barely make out their movement next to one of the far-off small ponds in the basin. Also on the descent, we got a close-up view of big mountain goat. That was a real treat. The sun was setting and the whole experience felt a bit fantastical. Image
Mountain goat
We got some pictures and continued on. By now, one of the girls in the group was expressing symptoms of altitude sickness (tight chest, elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing, feeling delirious). We all figured it was likely due to her relatively quick ascent up Columbia with barely any water. The trail was quite nice, but given her condition, we had to go at a slow pace and take frequent breaks. We got out our headlamps and we all ended up in a dull achy trance as we trudged our way back to camp at 11:30pm, 18 hours after leaving. What a day. In the morning, we packed up our camp and left for the car at 11am. Unfortunately, the altitude sickness seemed to be even worse, and she couldn't carry a pack. Barely fit to walk, she had several coughing fits and had to stop every quarter mile or so to recover. She seemed fairly delirious and said her chest was tight and she couldn't take more than a very shallow breath without going into another coughing fit. It took over 3 hours to hike the 2.5 miles down perfect trail back to the car. Thankfully she felt much better by the time we got to Denver.

Some notes on doing the traverse from Columbia to Harvard:
-The hike up Columbia's west side isn't very sketchy and the scree field wasn't really an issue. If you were to descend the same route, it seems like it would pretty much suck.
-There are multiple boulder fields. If people in your party are not comfortable boulder-hopping (as was the case here), you can expect this trip to take a very very VERY long time.
-You can't see what's happening with the incoming weather for hours on end while you're crossing the traverse. It is easy to end up a situation where you hit the ridgeline as a thunderstorm is coming in.
-We seemed to be the only people who went this direction. We crossed several parties going from Harvard to Columbia.
-There are multiple false summits on Harvard when approaching it from the east.
-The scramble down from Harvard is a little tricky

That certainly wasn't the most pleasant 14er experience I've had, but everything ended up working out in the end. This was my first trip report--hope you enjoyed it!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Thinking of a 3 person traverse
07/12/2013 01:27
Liked your TR quite a bit. I'm not sure we could make it across in time. Might just hit Harvard and skip the back and forth.

Thanks for the helpful information. Your photo of Columbia shrouded in storms is great!


Re: Thinking of a 3 person traverse
07/13/2013 01:12
Thanks, I'm glad it was helpful. The traverse is certainly doable in a reasonable amount of time. I'd just be absolutely sure that everyone in your group is comfortable moving quickly over boulder fields and are up for the long hike. When we climbed, the weather was coming from behind Harvard when doing the traverse backward, so it's a bit of a rush to get up Harvard before the afternoon thunderstorms come in. Good luck!

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