Peak(s):  Mt. Harvard  -  14,420 feet
Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Mt. Oxford  -  14,153 feet
Mt. Belford  -  14,197 feet
Date Posted:  08/25/2009
Modified:  09/18/2012
Date Climbed:   08/21/2009
Author:  offman
 Pine Creek Solo. 4 summits, 2 days  

Trailhead: Pine Creek

Day 1
-Hike in and set camp at 11,000 ft.

Day 2
-Harvard North Slopes route
-Traverse to Columbia (exit to S. Pine Creek)

Day 3
-Oxford South Slopes route
-Traverse to Belford (exit to Elkhead Pass and upper Pine Creek)
-Pack up camp and hike out

The forecast for the Sawatch last weekend was looking super so I got it together for a long weekend. I mainly wanted solitude and off route trails so on Thursday I hiked into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness from the Pine Creek Trailhead north of Buena Vista. It took me about 5 hours to make it up past Little John's Cabin and set up camp at the bottom of Harvard's northern slopes route at 11,000 feet, approximately 8 miles from the TH.

This was my second time backpacking into this drainage and it is as beautiful as I remember. And the people... where are they? Oh, that's right, at North Cottonwood and Missouri Gulch. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Friday morning I left camp at 3:40 a.m. and crossed over Pine Creek . For this route you want to exit the Pine Creek Trail at the first meadow on the left about one mile past Little John's cabin. There are several options to cross the stream and the bushwhack to the beginning of the route is fairly short, even by headlamp. I cleared treeline before five a.m. and stopped for a few minutes to appreciate the new moon and clear skies. I could see the milky way and several satellites.

This route was super fun and fairly stable except for the circled area where I got into a hundred feet or so of nasty and loose. I could have avoided that if I had started a little later and had enough dawn light to see I needed to stay left. I hit the ridge just before sunrise.

What's left of the climb from 13,426.

It took a total of 3.5 hours to gain the summit. I only hung out for 30 minutes because I was psyched to get going on the traverse. After reading all the reports I could find here, I knew I was going to lose a little elevation. I was okay with that since at least on tundra you can put your head down and grunt.

I descended to 12,200 feet before crossing the creek. The yellow shape is to align this picture with the next. Even though this is in other trip reports, I wanted everyone to see that you have to kick way out to the east if you want to walk on grass the whole way. Even though it looks rocky, there is a good trail just above the cliffs in the center of the photo. The last climb to the summit though is a solid scramble - one of those sections where you have to concentrate on the rock in front of you and relax and not freak out about how much is left before you top out.

This is the northwestern aspect of the Frenchman Creek drainage. The red is my descent. The green is my escape back out of this basin. Sorry I didn't get any shots to the left of this where it's almost entirely scree/talus. I still would make the choice to go all the way to the east and then the valley bottom again. At least you know what you're in for. I admit it did feel strongly counterintuitive to keep heading up towards Columbia knowing I would have to climb down and then up again for a third time later.

I made it to Columbia at 11:15. Total traverse time - 3 hours 20 minutes.

Harvard from Columbia.

I had the summit to myself for about 45 minutes. From there I headed back down again, then up again, to a pleasant overlook just under point 13,242. The weather was perfect and I could concentrate on pacing and not fret about electricity.

View west by southwest from the South Pine Creek saddle. I just headed down to the right until I came across the upper switchbacks of the South Pine Creek Trail. I felt the trail was accurately represented on the Mt. Harvard topo until just past the second lake where things got a bit wonky.

Having found the trail, I thought I would be home free once I got to treeline, but no. This is approximately the last 1,300 feet of descent on the South Pine Creek Trail as seen from Little John's Cabin. I'll confirm what other reports have stated - this trail is rough and sometimes vague. I'll add that it is way hard, and way steep, and way uber-loose. This section destroyed me. And I was so pleased that I had managed to avoid the ski-scree descent from Columbia I've read so much about. My notes from this part of the day say "Brutal" and "OW!" There is also cursing. One of the rarely mentioned good things about being solo is that there's no one around to see you get whiny.

As a bit of reward, Jay Johnson's old mine camp is at the bottom of the South Pine Creek Trail, just south of Little John's Cabin.

Look at the tins, they represent all the major er... food groups: coffee, syrup, antifreeze, and laundry powder.

From here, my camp was a mile north on the Pine Creek Trail, a highway after the earlier steeps.

I drank 4 liters of water and the total time was 13 hours and 10 minutes. I'm not sure of mileage but the elevation gain was approximately 7300 feet. I saw and talked to four people, two on each summit. I saw one other couple far off on the Three Elk Trail but didn't see anyone else on the traverse and no one at all in the Pine Creek Drainage.

I collapsed into camp and ate two dinners at once. Then major nappy time.

Saturday morning I left camp at 4:15 a.m. and headed just shy of a mile back down the Pine Creek Trail to the turn off for the Mt. Oxford South Slopes route. It is the first stream to the west of Little Johns Cabin. Here's a picture from cpittman's 2006 trip report that I used to identify the junction on the hike in. Thanks cpittman!

I don't have many pictures from the first part of this hike. It was dark and the bushwhacking was intense and I was feeling the elevation from the previous day. It's alarming to stumble through so many aspen in the dark and come up again a vertical heap of granite. Uh oh, steep class 4, on sight, in the dark. No thanks. Of course there were easier choices nearby. I did see several cairns but I didn't fuss over the perfect line. The route according to Roach is to follow the ridge just west of the stream all the way to the upper ridge and then the summit. It is simple, and very direct, but not easy. It is steep and unforgiving and you do have pick through talus often.

Here is the Mt. Oxford South Slopes route as seen from the west. It's just the grunt it looks like.

It took me 4 hours to top out. Again, I had the summit to myself for about 30 minutes.

Small pano west from Mt. Oxford at the traverse to Mt. Belford

As I went to Belford, it suddenly felt like a front range climb: there was a stream of people coming over from Missouri Gulch and dogs running around and the constant tapping of trekking poles. It's cool - I'm part of that crowd too, but it was a strong contrast from the previous day. The traverse is fun though, and after two non-standard ridge climbs in two days, I was totally loving just following a trail.

It took an hour to do the traverse. There were so many people on the summit I just stored a waypoint and then immediately split for the high shoulder of Elkhead Pass, south of the traverse trail. Back to solitude again, so quickly. Once I dropped back into the Upper Pine Creek drainage I didn't see anyone except these folks up on Missouri (no repeat for me today thanks! way too tired!)

Here was my over-treeline route for the day, as seen from 13,426 on Mt. Harvard.

I made it back to camp at 12:15 for a total time of 8 hours. I had some lunch and packed up camp and did a controlled stumble 8.2 miles back to the truck. The drive back to Denver on Saturday night was perfect. I saw a good lightning show over the LCW and traffic wasn't horrendous.

My feet were wrecked but I was happy. Big shout out to B(3) whose 2008 trip report gave me a sort of permission. I had considered doing Columbia and Harvard from Pine Creek but thought it would be too long and difficult to lose and gain elevation so many times. When I saw B(3)'s report I thought OK, I can do it too. So hey B(3), thanks for the kick. Emcee smith, Ja_son27, and paulperea all had helpful trip reports on the traverse from Harvard to Columbia. Thanks yall.

Nearly all of my wilderness experience has been solo. I enjoy the extra challenges and the opportunity for introspection. That said, I'll eventually have to get into the forum to find some compatible buddies for other routes and especially some moderate snow climbs. Surely there are many others into the early starts, big days, and endless moleskin?

Total elevation gain for 3 days approx. 13,500 feet
Mileage approx. 33


I'll spare you the pix of my feet.
Happy climbing everyone!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

08/25/2009 23:20
Now THAT‘S a trip report! Looks like a great way to tackle a few!


08/26/2009 21:12
Good on ya for going the less traveled route. We‘ve been up that Pine Creek drainage many times (for 13ers and 14ers). Beautiful area. Thanks for posting. Happy trails!


08/28/2009 21:09
Would enjoy doing monsterous hikes like those... but I need to get in much better shape... Great report


Next summer
08/29/2009 05:04
We thought about this as a backpacking trip this year, but opted for 4 pass loop and climb of Snowmass Mtn instead. Might do your route next summer. Question: Did you carry your full pack up all of the summits, or did you leave campsite to hike summits and then retrieve gear for rest or journey?


thanks for the comments everybody
08/29/2009 16:21
Jerry, i basecamped at 11,000 feet just north of Pine Creek at the beginning of the Harvard north slopes route. This is approximately a mile west from the start of the Oxford south slopes route.


Well Spoken
06/06/2015 22:55
This is great writing! Thanks for the report. I’ll be doing similar this summer (2015).

   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.