Mount Harvard & Mount Columbia
14,420 ' - 14,073'
August 15th, 2012
"Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more." I never thought I would make it into an Ivy League school, let alone graduate from two in the same day. I must be pretty smart after all! Well maybe not that smart (or bright?) as I keep chasing after these peaks. I was hoping to make this trip my last outing down to the Arkansas Valley to climb 14ers. It is a beautiful area, but I have grown weary of the 3.5 hour drive each way. With Doug gone climbing Mount Rainer, and Jon not up to the challenge of these two peaks in a day this year, I had to search out a new partner for this outing, as I was informed that I was not allowed to go solo on this one. Through a series of circumstances I found Dave B, the son of one of my co-workers. Young and full of energy I worried about being able to keep up with him, even though he had only done 5 14ers previously.
We left Fort Collins, late morning on Tuesday and made it down to the trail head in just under 4 hours, including a stop at Subway so we could pack in dinner rather than worry about carrying a stove and cookware. We started from the North Cottonwood trailhead at the end of CR 365. We followed the trail for about 3 miles into Horn Fork Basin where we established camp about 300 yards past the trail coming down from Mount Columbia. The trail into the basin was in great shape and mostly smooth. I pushed my usual pace on the way in, as I did not want Dave to think he had be saddle with an old , slow man for a partner. Better he wait until the second day to find that out. For the most part the approach trail followed a repeating pattern of climb, flat, climb, flat. The uphill climbs were never too steep or too long, but still I welcomed the flats sections. The last 3/4 of a mile or so became studded with baby-head sized rocks once again, slowing my pace down some. We made the 3 miles to camp in just about 2 hours. There were 3 or 4 other parties that we saw camped in the basin near us, but we were able to find a private spot for our tent, tucked into a small opening surrounded by trees, just in from of the large rock out cropping that can be seen while coming down from Columbia.
A steady rain began about 3 p.m. and kept us tent bound for an hour, during which I managed to sneak in a little nap, while Dave read. Subway turned out to be a great choice for dinner; tasty and easy to prepare. With the alarm set for 3:30 a.m. we called it a night early. Not sure how much sleep I actually got. It felt like I tossed and turned all night long. I could feel the temperature drop once the sky cleared, which was good news for our climb in the morning. I remember looking out the tent window once the alarm sounded to be greeted by a sky full of stars.
We put feet to the trail at ten minutes to four. Temperatures must have been in the mid 40's as we began out ascent; perfect for hiking. The first mile of the trail continued working its way up the basin without gaining any significant elevation. Even in the dark it was easy to follow. At the turn off for Bear Lake the trail took on a new personality. The smooth path gave way to talus, and began to climb. Several times we had to search for the correct path. As the night gave away to the gray of dawn I could see Harvard's summit much closer than I imagined. Dave past me on the way up to the saddle below the final push to the summit, as I was starting to feel the elevation.
The final push was a lot of fun as we had to work our way over some large boulders to gain the actual summit. I reached the summit at 6:10 a.m. I was surprised at how quickly we made the summit. I had estimated that it would take at least 3 hours, so I was really happy to be ahead of schedule.
I had been very conscious about eating on the way up. I did not want to have a repeat of my bonking on Shavano and Tabeguache. I was eating two shot blocks every 30 minutes, which seemed to be doing the trick to keeping me going. I had a Ritz cheese and cracker packet once on the summit, to try to put some "real" food into me. After the usual summit pics we began working our way towards Mount Columbia.
The traverse between Harvard and Columbia is about two miles. Most of the reports that I read said it took people between four to five hours to complete. I'm not that slow am I? From Harvard's summit we headed eastward along a rocky ridge. There was no one correct path so we just picked the one that seemed to work for us. Shortly after we crossed from the south side to the north side of the ridge we passed within four feet of a marmot sunning itself in the early morning light. He did not seemed to be alarmed by us, and posed for several pictures.
Having studied the traverse pictures from 14ers.com, it felt as if I had been here before as we passed each of the landmarks. My only surprise was the obstacles were much easier than they had looked from the pictures at home. Just before the ridge turns sharply southward, we began to look for a way down to the easier lower ground.
Once the ridge turns south it becomes very narrow and steep (cliff-like) on both sides; looked like class III and IV climbing. I mentioned to Dave that we wanted to drop down before we reached a loose gully. Before dropping down I was forced to stop and relieve myself, but told Dave to go on and I would catch up. By the time I caught up with him, he was already headed down the lose gully I told him we wanted to avoid. Looking back now, there was a distinct ridge line marking the start of this gully that we should have picked up on.
We quickly found out why 14ers.com said to avoid this gully. Everything was really lose. Each step held the potential for sending rocks tumbling down the gully. I had to make sure that I was not moving directly above Dave at any time. At one point a section of rocks that I had just crossed over, slid, sending several hundred pounds of lose rock avalanching downward. Luckily the mass of rocks only slid about 30 - 40 feet, before coming to rest. If you do find yourself in this gully the best route is probably along the left-hand edge (as you are heading down), near the walls, as the rock to seemed more solid there.
From the bottom of this gully, we headed southward and started my favorite section of the entire climb. Dave and I separated as we both worked our way through the large boulder field towards a sloping ramp leading up to a flat section. We were out of site of each other through most of this section as we each picked our way through the huge boulder. It was like working your way through a maze of rocks, trying not to get stuck on top of one of the larger ones, with no way off. At one point I had a washer-sized boulder roll under me just as I was stepping off onto another larger one. Nothing like a little adrenaline rush to keep me going. As I reached the bottom of the ramp leading upward I could see Dave already heading towards the second flat section above us.
Upon reaching the second flat section I could see two summits and no sign of Dave. I had to pull out my pictures to see which one was Columbia. To my surprise once again, it was the closer one, though from this location it did not look as tall as the farther summit (Point 13,298). As I made my way to the saddle between Harvard's ridge and Columbia's summit I was feeling beat. I was back into picking a goal 20 yards away and trying to get to it before I took a rest. This made for slow going. During one breather I caught a glimpse of what I thought was Dave, on his way to the summit. He had chosen that right summit. Once I reached the saddle it took me 40 minutes to gain Columbia's summit. On the way up I passed a group of four, from Fort Collins, heading down and doing our route in reverse. I did not envy them having to make the long climb back up to Harvard's summit.
I reached Columbia's summit at 10 :40 a.m. I was happy to see Dave waiting for me on the summit after being out of contact with him for almost an hour. There were four groups, including us on the summit. I talked to one guy who actually traversed the entire ridge, while his partner had dropped down like we did. He said it was faster, but sketchy in places. The weather was still holding, but there were a few fluffy clouds beginning to build that I wanted to keep my eyes on.
We dropped down off of Columbia's south ridge, towards Horn Fork Basin, too early on a false trail and ended up having to re-ascend about 250 feet of elevation to regain the correct trail. Once back on the ridge we followed two of the other parties along the ridge to the correct trail leading down. Ever since Doug told me about his trip to these two peaks last year, I have been dreading the climb down from Columbia. He described it as a lose, sliding, descent from hell. So you can imagine my excitement as I started down. I had built up so much trepidation of this descent in my mind over the past year that I was disappointed by what actually awaited me. While I found the descent to be lose, there was enough of the lose rocks that I actually sank in a little with each step getting traction, rather than skidding my way down over them. I did not set any speed records on the way down, but I never hated it. There was only one, 200 yard section, close to the bottom, that was really lose, that I slide down with each step.
I arrived back to camp at 12:45. I was happy with the nine hour round trip time, and more importantly that we have missed any storms. Once again, an early start paid off. After packing up camp, we made the three mile hike back to the vehicle in just over two hours.
I am done with the Collegiate Peaks, and only one more left in the Sawatch Range. One goal reached this year, one more to go.