I’m trying to catch on trip reports, it has been a crazy summer and time is quickly escaping. Back on June 18th, Cole and I took on the endurance fest of Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia, two ranked 14ers in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. There is a large draw to these 14ers because Harvard is the 3rd highest mountain in Colorado, and there is a good opportunity to get a twofer in at the same time. Climbing these peaks takes some serious commitment and a really early start. In all, over 15 miles and over 6,000 vertical feet is covered in an adventurous class 2 route.
There are a few route options available for this combo, but we chose to keep it relatively simple and climbed the standard route which is referred to as the South Slopes Traverse route. This starts at the North Cottonwood Creek TH. Directions are to make your way to Buena Vista. Turn west on CR 350, which is near the center of town. Two miles down the road the road ends in a “T” intersection, turn to the north onto CR 361. After another mile turn west onto CR365, follow this road for about 5 miles till reaching the TH. We drove over the night before and found a nice place to camp about 100 yards away from the main TH parking area.
We arrived Friday evening and set up camp. Our plan was for a 3am wake-up and a 4am start. The forecast was actually good, calling for clear skies and warm temps. This was odd, since Cole and I tend to draw in the worst weather conditions. We attempted to get some sleep, but the full moon didn’t allow for much. We got a few winks and before we knew it our alarms were going off.
Nobody likes getting up early, but when combining peaks in Colorado there is always a threat of thunderstorms even if they aren’t forecasted. The goal was to be on the summit of Harvard no later than 9am since the traverse to Columbia can be very time consuming. The second goal is to be on Columbia by noon, where a descent into the woods gives an opportunity for shelter should a storm develop. To work this schedule we left camp just before 4am. The moon was pretty much hidden at this point so we relied on headlamps for the first hour and a half or so. The trail is easy to follow in the dark, and I don’t recall hearing too many creatures going bump in the night.
In less than two hours we made our way to tree line in Horn Fork Basin. Light was starting to come over the mountains and we could see our first signs of alpenglow, which is one of my favorite experiences with these early morning climbs. The basin gets a lot of traffic, we saw multiple campsites. In our planning stage we thought about packing into the basin and camping overnight, but figured going light and fast was a better option for us. I would do it the same way if I did it again. The hike up the basin is one of the highlights of the trek, it was a beautiful area that I would like to come back to for another visit.
|Horn Fork Basin|
A way we saved weight was to pack minimal water into the top of the basin and use a filter to fill up before taking on the traverse. This was a great way to save weight and we got really cold and fresh mountain water. The downside is, I almost froze my fingers off in the ice pools filling up the water bladder. But overall, definitely worth it.
There is a trail leading through the basin and up the first boulder field. There was a large cairn and after that we were on a snowfield. Later in the summer there is probably a clear route through this section, but we chose just to hoof it straight up to the ridge line. Once on the ridge stick to it, we got a bit off the ridge and had to loop around a bit to the summit. You can see this in the gpx route. The summit is composed of very large blocks and a bit of scrambling might be required, but I would call this anymore than easy class 2+ to the summit. We summited Harvard at 8:30am, so we were a bit ahead of schedule. The summit is small and it was already crowded….damn 14ers!
Objective one is now complete. The trek to Columbia looks a lot longer from Harvard than it did in the photos online. From here if there is a hint of bad weather you bail, it was looking good so we started making our way down the ridge to start the traverse. There was one group of three that started along the ridge about the same time, but for the most part people were climbing Harvard and heading back to the TH.
|Traverse to Mount Columbia|
The ridge is pretty rocky, but there is a climber’s route that makes its way through the first mile or so. My advice is to stay on this climbing route as much as you can, but we had to get off of it a few times to avoid snow. Have a good idea of how the ridge works by researching it on Google Earth before heading out. We cut a few drops and gains by traversing boulder fields, which may or may not have been beneficial. You stay to the ridge until getting near point 13,516. From here there is a large drop through a steep gully. We took the long route around, but two of the three people in the other group near us took the gully. We made it down and around into the Frenchman Creek Basin in about the same amount of time, and our route was a safer option. Don’t descend the gully when there is a safer alternative.
There was a quite a bit of snow still in the basin, so we started to scout a route to Columbia that would avoid as much of it as we could. We took a nice break and I refilled my water bottles again with some nice fresh mountain water. Here is where we separated from the other group hanging on our heels. They decided to take a route around to the east on the grassy slopes, while we took a direct line up a boulder field that connected to the east ridge of Columbia. This was a nice stair-step ascent and in no time we made the main East Ridge. The typical route traverses higher in the basin, but routes change based on conditions.
|Relaxing on Columbia|
Once on the ridge there was a lot of huffing and puffing to gain the summit. The traverse took forever, almost 4 hours, by 12:30 we were on top. We did take a few breaks and had to lose/gain much more than the typical traverse. This summit was not as blocky as Harvard and was a lot larger which allowed us to get away from other climbers. The weather was great so we took our sweet time. I even took my boots off and I started to get too comfortable. Something worth noting is we were planning to camp this evening as well, so we were in no rush at this point. Unfortunately, we had the brutal descent of Columbia’s southwest slopes ahead of us.
The descent was awful, I would hate to call it the crux, but it probably was. This was very steep, loose pebbly rock over larger rocks…no bueno! It was a killer on our knees getting to tree line, so we just kept moving to try and get it over with. Once at tree line, the heat was pretty unbearable. I had started in my alpine pants and by now had the legs rolled up and fly down for ventilation. I got a comment or two, but everyone should be glad I didn’t strip to my undies…I was seriously considering it.
From tree line there we needed to hoof it about 3 miles down the trail to the TH. I may have broken Cole a little on the march out, but I was thinking about my Hop Stupid beer in the cooler and I was done with this heat. We were almost in a run down the trail. Both of us had burning feet, but otherwise we were doing fine. In all it took us about 12hours to do the entire trip. It felt like we were moving good the entire time, so if you’re planning on a trip I would plan on about that much time for a round trip twofer climb of these peaks.
This is one of those epic climbs in Colorado. If your skill level is solid class 2+ and you have endurance to ride the roller coasters of ups and downs hours on end I highly recommend it. It takes a lot of mental endurance but this is in my top three Colorado climbs for sure, and might even be number one. Get out there and climb those mountains!
Date: June 18, 2016
TH Elevation: 9,900 feet
Mount Harvard Summit: 14,420 feet
Mount Columbia Summit: 14,073 feet
Total Ascent: 6,341 feet
Total Distance: 15.3 miles
Moving Time: 8 hours 21 minutes
Stopped Time: 4 hour 9 minutes