Peak(s):  Mt. Harvard  -  14,420 feet
Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  09/17/2009
Date Climbed:   09/12/2009
Author:  gryoung
 Mt. Harvard with Traverse to Mt. Columbia via North Cottonwood Creek  

I departed my hotel in Buena Vista around 4:15am and arrived at the trailhead around 4:45am. High clearance vehicles are necessary and 4 wheel drives are a plus.

Once at the trailhead the first couple of miles go extremely fast. Make sure you glance up and get a global perspective of the trail direction rather than just watch your footing in the dark. The trail is well defined however I ended up on a smaller animal trail near a creek crossing and had to backtrack to find the main trail again. I could have easily avoided this mistake by slowing down. It's better to sacrifice a bit of speed and not have to backtrack.

The hike to the Bear Lake turn-off (3.5 miles in) went really fast. The valley is truly inspiring especially the sunrise striking Mt. Yale to the south. I can see why many elect to backpack in and begin their hike from such a beautiful camp.

Personally, I always preferred the light and loose day hike. I was past the campsites in under an hour so don't feel that you are at a large disadvantage by not backpacking or sleeping in your car at the trailhead.

Just below the summit I have seen some reports about climbing the final pitch towards the middle or right edge. I actually found it easiest going to the left. I would say the middle would be the hardest.

My total summit time from the trailhead was 3 hours and 35 minutes. I didn't stop too many times because I wanted to attempt the traverse to Columbia and I knew I would have a higher probability of success the earlier I started.

Everyone standing on top of Harvard needs to make the decision whether to try the traverse to Columbia. The ridge will isolate you from the trail home and also prevent you from seeing the weather coming in from the west. I decided to go for it because it was still early even though the weather did call for scattered thunderstorms. I prearranged a plan with my ride that if the weather came in I would descend the Frenchman's drainage.

Make sure to stay high on the ridge while traveling from the summit towards the traverse. There is a natural tendency to descend but is much easier to stay on the ridge. At one point I actually climbed along the north side of the ridge before coming back over to the south. Once you are down to around 14,000 feet you can see the trail towards the Columbia. I elected to descend to around 12,800 feet before traversing across towards Columbia. There was an abandoned mine which was fun to explore along the way.

This portion of the hike took me forever. There is no trail and you have to traverse rocks the entire way. Once at the base of Columbia you basically climb straight up to the summit. I did consider going further to the East to climb the gentle ridge but decided the additional millage wasn't worth it. I didn't reach the summit until 3.5 hours after Harvard. It did start snowing at one point which made the rocks slick which did slow my progress. I also tested each foot placement before applying my entire weight. I'm always much more cautious while hiking alone and I don't recommend it. I just couldn't get anyone to go with me this time.

The instant I reached the top the weather came in and I heard the dreaded sound of thunder. I couldn't believe how early it came in because it was noon. Since I was in the worst possible place I spent no time on top and actually jogged down the ridge till around 13,700 feet where I descended. Don't take the first gully! I was lucky to do enough research to know to hold out till the second trail to the bottom. This trail is straight down and slick. I wish I had brought trekking poles for the decent. The knees are still a bit sore.

I arrived back at the trail head about 2:30 pm. 3.5 hours to Harvard, another 3.5 hours to Columbia and 2.5 hours to the bottom (for those considering time and weather from the top of Harvard, this is total time and does include all stops).

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