An October Trek up Mount Harvard - the 370th Tallest Peak in the World
An October Trek up Mount Harvard - the 370th Tallest Peak in the World
Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada of California, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, is 85 feet higher than Mount Harvard in Colorado (14,420 ft). To put this in perspective, if the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center was on top of Mount Harvard, it would be the same height as Mount Whitney. It’s a good thing us mountain goats don’t think much about this stuff when we’re scrambling to the top of these summits. We're just generally happy to have made the summit to celebrate in our own way the experience with the spirit of mountain.
I’ve been trying to finish up the 15 highest peaks of the Sawatch Range. I had only Mounts Harvard and Columbia to go. Although October is a getting late in the season, I wanted today to be the day I finished the Sawatch.
Several friends had to back out of my invitation to attempt with me these summits via Frenchman Creek. So, I decided to attempt a solo hike via the standard route. There are distance and elevation gain advantages for choosing Frenchman Creek over the standard route. The standard route is 15 miles for both peaks; via Frenchman Creek it’s 11. The standard route is 6100 feet elevation gain, while the Frenchman Creek route is 4700. Fate would have me on the standard route with Mount Harvard as my first destination. I would take on Columbia if the conditions and timing were good.
Once again I drove up to Buena Vista after work in Denver on Friday afternoon. North Cottonwood Creek trailhead is 8 miles west of town. This was my destination for the day. I set up camp and prepared for an early rise.
Since the trailhead is in a national forest, dispersed camping is allowed. There are plenty of camping spots along the road and near the trailhead. In October it is not crowded and I had arrived 90 minutes before sunset. So I took the time to talk with the few hikers that were hiking the next day and a few that had just came down the mountain. We talked about trail conditions. We talked about our great adventures of the season. We even talked about plans for next season. It’s always a friendly bunch.
I would set my alarm for 5:30, but in spite of my ear plugs I was awoken by several hikers that were up at 3 a.m. I rolled out of my hammock by 3:45, cooked up some oatmeal, and was on the trail by 4:30.
At the trailhead I met up with a 73-year-young lady who had been hiking this trail for many years. She was the perfect trail companion for a person like me who had never been on this trail and especially since we were finding our way by headlamps. We had a nice talk about our experiences and love of the trail. We parted ways about 3 miles up the trail at an intersection marked only by cairns. One trail leads to Mount Columbia, which was her objective. I continued on the trail to Harvard. I hope when I’m 73 I will have the same positive and adventurous way about me.
A half-mile or so further, not far from tree line, I met another lady who I had talked with in the parking lot the night before when she needed some batteries for her emergency beacon. I couldn’t help her. She had camped up the trail and had plans similar to my own. We would hike most of the day together, leap-frogging each other as I had a stronger pace but stopped on occasion for my photography. It was her 33rd birthday.
It occurred to me that the mountains attract people of all ages. In just a few miles I experienced a 50-year age span. Later on I would meet someone of Asian descent. Another lady on the summit had a British accent. There was a young couple who carried their small dog in a pack; they left the Carolinas to live in Colorado. They would later help me find the bottom portion of my trekking pole that had accidently fallen off. One young hefty Spanish man stayed behind as the rest of his group continued up the mountain; he was nursing a bad back.
About the time I met the birthday girl the sun began showing itself on the peaks that surrounded us in this beautiful basin. Looking back was a nice sunrise on Mount Yale.
Looking forward was our first view of Mount Harvard.
The ridge traverse between Harvard and Columbia holds a noted land mark called the rabbits.
To our right was Mount Columbia and to our left was a series of smaller unnamed mountains. To be surrounded by such a setting was another truly spectacular Colorado moment. (Later on in the article I will have more pictures of this view)
Up the trail a little further and looking back again one can see Mount Princeton off to the left.
The basin holds several small lakes, the largest is Bear Lake. Just above Bear Lake is an unranked 13,580-foot summit. I stopped to change lenses so I could steal a closer look at the chimney rock formations that make up the peak.
Just above Bear Lake the trail flattens at near 13,000 feet. The summit from this perspective could have been any one of the rock outcroppings that form the traverse. It’s unbecoming and not obvious from this trail. I’ve marked it in the picture below:
Mount Columbia also has a summit that is deceptive from this angle. I’ve marked it in this picture too:
Near 13,600 feet we begin following the right side of the south ridge. Looking back at the ridge the rock formations are so inviting. But by now, over six miles into the climb, all I’m considering is reaching the summit; I had no energy to play on the rocks.
Horn Fork Basin and Columbia are nice from up here too.
We have one more small outcropping to maneuver before reaching the final pitch. I would classify the route shown below as a Class 3 route.
A person could also choose to go a little east along the bottom side of the ridge and then circle around to the summit; that’s the route I took. I know my capabilities. When I’m fatigued and there’s a chance for ice up a hard vertical pitch I’ll investigate other options. Either way, the summit was incredible.
It was noon by the time we decided to head back down. The option of also taking on a Columbia climb had vanished with our late arrival. The traverse is nearly 3 miles and it's rugged with patches of snow and ice. The time it would have taken to reach the summit and return would bring us back to the trailhead after dark. Since I was quite satisfied with the day and I wanted the option of taking my time on the way down I opted to save Columbia for another day.
Along the descent I took this picture of the Frenchman Creek route. The relative ease of this route shows what was mentioned earlier about the differences between these two routes.
I stopped before leaving the summit ridge to take in a full view of the southern Sawatch. Off to the far left is a plume of smoke from a fire that broke out earlier that day. By 6 pm the smoke had filled the foothill valleys all along the range.
This is Bear Lake. I was thinking it could have just as easily been called Miss Piggy Lake, but I suppose that wouldn’t be as attractive to the outdoor enthusiast.
The sun treats the basin differently in the afternoon. Here are a few pics of the return trip through Horn Fork:
The trail conditions are nice. It’s a well-groomed path.
There are also several creek crossings. This one had vibrant green moss on the rocks.
There is another intersection further down from where the trial splits between Harvard and Columbia. This is a mile and a half from the trailhead.
And lest we forget, this is a Wilderness Area with all its afforded rights and privileges.
There are several creek crossings along this trail. Some of them are easily crossed without bridges. There are two places where a bridge had been built. One shortly after the trail begins and the other near the Brown Pass/Horn Fork Basin intersection.
If a person were to take the traverse between Harvard and Columbia it would add another 1500 feet elevation and 1 mile distance to the day. But, for me, Columbia would need to be another day. This route was just under 14 miles and 5100 feet in elevation gain. That was enough for me. And it was good.
Incidentally, for the numbers people, Harvard is lower than 369 other peaks in the world. So on the world’s stage Harvard is probably not worth the trouble of comparing it to another of similar prominence. I say enjoy them all! Hike on!
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