Thursday, June 28, 2007

Mt. Harvard
(14,427 ft.)
and Mt. Columbia (14,079 ft.)

26 June, 2007: Back to the Sawatch! Trisha and I wanted to get one more climb in before June was history. We shelved the original idea of trying Snowmass Mtn. for two reasons: It’s a long drive, and we knew she would have only one day off. Also, another trip to Boulder to rent ice axe and crampons for her would be unfeasible, so we looked for something that wouldn’t require the snow equipment, and was closer.

The obvious solution was two of the three Sawatch fourteeners Trisha still hadn’t climbed. Harvard and Columbia are easily accessible from Buena Vista, and are close enough to one another that they are often climbed as a twofer. What’s more, Harvard is Colorado’s third highest peak, and one I’ve definitely been up for re-climbing for some time. I knew I’d be doing some repeats this year to help Trisha along with her list, and this seemed like a good time to pick up this pair.

We left home at roughly a quarter to three MDT (after intending to get off at half past...), and got to the trailhead by about 5:15—still before sunrise. The trailhead is on North Cottonwood Creek, at the end of about five miles of not-too-bad dirt access road, at about 9,900 ft. There were only two other cars at the parking lot.

We set off at 5:25 with no need for the headlamp I had brought, just in case. An hour’s hike up the good trail by the creek brought us out of the trees and into Horn Fork Basin, and revealed our first glimpse of Columbia’s southern slopes. The summit can’t be seen from the trail. The summit of Harvard, still a couple of miles away, can be seen, however, and I got a nice picture of it in the early morning light.

All along the way, we were impressed by how much water was flowing in the creek, and all of its little tributaries. Snow is still melting out of the high country at a prodigious rate! Fortunately, this trail has solidly constructed bridges—real bridges!—at the two points where it crosses North Cottonwood Creek. Once up in the basin, the few wet spots and stream crossings were no problem to negotiate.

The trail winds up through the basin, first on the east side, under Columbia’s slopes, and then crosses to the vicinity of the large lake called Bear Lake (original, huh?) on the west side. From there the serious ascent of Harvard’s southwest ridge begins. Upon reaching the vicinity of the ridge crest, at above 13,000 ft., we found that we still had a good, well-maintained and well-cairned trail. Thus, even though it got steeper and steeper, the going was relatively fast. It didn’t hurt that the morning was warming up nicely, and there was no appreciable wind. I was climbing in short sleeves long before reaching the summit.

Perhaps the most unusual discovery of the day was several quite large spiders lurking in gigantic webs spun between boulders along this part of the trail. Some of these webs were eight feet across. Still, had it not been for the slanting morning light, we might not even have seen them. I took a couple of pictures; you will have to judge how well they turned out.
The trail finally gives out at the crux of the climb: the summit block itself. It’s basically just a pile of very large boulders which require some free-lance, Class 2+ scrambling to climb the final 50 feet or so. This probably makes Harvard the toughest fourteener in the Sawatch. We paused a couple of times to consider our route carefully, and finally topped out just before
11 am. There caught up with the couple we had seen ahead of us earlier, with their dog, Willow (never did get the humans’ names…). They would turn out to be the only other people we saw all day . Willow is nine years old, and has climbed half a dozen fourteeners! We also had a visit from one of the many bold, or friendly (depending on how you want to look at it), marmots we saw that day. He’s perched on a rock right above Trisha’s shoulder in one of the summit shots I took.

The summit is small and the view is great. I did remember to take a string of pictures which I will stitch into a 360º panorama later. But clouds were already building to the west, and we still had some serious distance and climbing ahead of us, so we headed off to the east after fifteen minutes or so.

Most of the ridge is way too spiky for any but the most capable of rock climbers, and we only planned to follow it about a quarter of the way to Columbia, roughly to where it turns from east-west to a more north-south direction. After going over or around a handful of ridge points which are a lot like smaller versions of the summit block, we dropped off the east side of the ridge into the Frenchman’s Creek drainage. Roach says you only need to descend to about 12,800 ft., but we ended up going down (Is that a contradiction?) to about 12,400 before we found a good way around the rough talus at the foot of the ridge.

From there, we began working our way up Columbia’s north slopes. There are some rocky sections here, but it’s generally much easier terrain than what’s over on the Harvard side. On the way, we caught up, once again, with Willow and her humans, and we and they pretty much leap-frogged all the way to the top. All along the way, we were treated to constantly changing views of the spectacular Harvard-Columbia ridge, especially the crux section known as the “rabbits.” Hopefully some of my pictures show this well.

By the time we approached the summit, we were definitely slowing down. It took us almost five hours between the two summits. We knew we were committed, however. Indeed, we had been committed since we left the summit of Harvard, since, unless you go back down the Horn Fork Basin trail, there really is no good bail-out route to get back into North Cottonwood Creek, other than to complete the climb by going over Mt. Columbia! So, having put on all the clothing we’d stripped off in the morning, and then some more, we finally reached the top of Columbia a little after 4 pm. It had become quite windy, and we were glad to find a stone windbreak around the summit register. We quickly signed it, took a few pictures, and paused only a few minutes to enjoy the view of Harvard before setting off on the last leg of our adventure: the descent back to the trail.

My plan was to follow the southeast ridge far enough to get east of the infamous scree on Columbia’s southwest slopes, and descend down gentler terrain, to re-join the trail somewhere below timberline. Up on the cold, windy ridge, however, with the clouds threatening to unleash rain and occasional cracks of thunder audible, I let myself be convinced too early that we had reached the appropriate descent point. As a result, we ended up being funneled right onto the southwest slopes route, with all its loose rock. As a result, it took nearly two hours to re-connect with our ascent route, and it was at a point higher up the drainage than I had hoped. I’m just glad that the little spit of rain which did come didn’t last long enough to make those rocks slippery; they were bad enough when dry!

It was a slow march back down the trail to the car, as we were both tired. We had put in something like fourteen or fifteen miles and, more importantly, climbed about 6,200 ft. This is definitely the toughest twofer you can find among the fourteeners, until you get into the technical peaks of the Elks or the Sangres or the San Juans. But it was a great adventure: Peaks #25 and #26 for Trisha, and an exciting re-do for me. Harvard is one of my very favorite fourteeners, and one I’m glad to have done twice. Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!


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