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Leroy & Eric had gone home to New Mexico, leaving me to finish up three days in Colorado's Sawatch Range, tagging 14ers. On the menu for today were Mts. Harvard & Columbia, a combination that makes for a 13.5mi outing with 5,800ft of gain. Mt. Harvard is the third highest summit in CO, a P2K and the highpoint of Chaffee County. A bonus 13er added on the fly would beef up the mileage by about 4mi with another 400ft of gain. All in all, a pretty fun day.
The worst part of the entire outing was the drive to the North Fork TH south of Harvard & Columbia. Though only 4-5mi in length, the road is in terrible condition, the worst I've seen of all the canyon roads. A passenger car can probably make it with care, but rutted conditions would have me plenty nervous. The TH is hugely popular, too, with room for dozens of cars at three trailheads found along this road. There are primitive camping opportunities, though not as much as in some of the other canyons, and I was lucky to find a quiet spot off the main road on a Labor Day weekend. I was camped only half a mile from the North Fork TH, so it was a short drive in the morning and soon after 6a I was off and hiking.
Despite the large number of vehicles in the parking lot, I did not find the trail very busy. Because the outing to these 14ers is longer than most, some folks choose to backpack in 3-4mi and then do the combo hike the next day. The trail starts on the north side of the creek but almost immediately crosses a good bridge to the south side where it continues for a mile and a half before crossing back to the north side on another bridge. Shortly after this is a trail junction where one turns right to head up into the Horn Fork Basin. The trail climbs north into the basin, and if you just stay on the main trail, you'll end up at Mt. Harvard. The side trail to Mt. Columbia is not marked, so if you're heading there, you better know where to look for it. After about two hours the trail opens up into meadow and above treeline in the upper part of the basin. Mt. Harvard is impossible to miss, directly in front of you. Above Bear Lake (there is another unsigned trail forking left to Bear Lake), the last mile climbs steeply though boulder fields, but luckily the trail does a good job of civilizing this effort. Large cairns make it hard to miss the various turns through the rocks. I passed by a few parties in this section as everyone slowed to a pace commensurate with the steeper gradient. The trail gives out with about 50ft of gain remaining, coming dangerously close to class 3 as one makes their way through the large boulders found near the summit. It was almost 9:15a by the time I topped out.
There were two parties there before me (others had already started back down or started on the traverse to Columbia), a couple hanging out in the rocks and another solo guy who had just arrived ahead of me. I took a few summit photos for him, then took some photos of my own looking north, east>, south and west. Such fine views on a glorious Saturday morning, the last day of August. Seeing others well to the east already starting on the traverse to Columbia, I was eager to get started myself and headed off only a few minutes after I'd reached Harvard. The middle part of the connecting ridgeline is jagged and quite difficult, rated class 5 by Roach in his guidebook. The usual route goes around the east side of the ridge, dropping to around 12,800ft before climbing back up to Columbia from its north side. After a few hundred yards of boulder hopping east from Harvard's summit, a use trail appears that helps one drop down and around Pt. 13,516ft. This is a pleasant exercise for the most part, with one steep section that had a few parties wondering where to go, but overall a straightforward descent off Harvard.
As I was enjoying the use trail, I happened to notice what looked like an easy peak far to the northeast. Consulting the GPSr, this turned out to be Peak 13,374ft with more than 300ft of prominence to make it a ranked summit. It was 1.6mi from the use trail and after only a little deliberation I decided to make the detour. I was very glad I did. The 4mi detour took me a little over an hour and a half over gentle, grassy terrain. The summit had a CMC register in a PVC tube (why do these always look shredded, even when only a few years old?). On the return I made a high traverse around 12,800ft to connect me to the regular Harvard-Columbia route on the east side of Pt. 13,516ft. As I came across ducks marking at least one way along the traverse, I spotted two other parties on the route. The solo climber I had met at Harvard's summit was about ten minutes ahead of me. A party of two guys were high on Pt. 13,516ft, perhaps 20min behind me. I followed more ducks through boulder fields below the most difficult part of the ridge above. Towards the end of this section I saw another party of 4-5 with a dog ascending one of the chutes leading up to the ridgeline. Though steep and loose, the ridgeline above should be easier since it was past the difficulties. The solo climber started following them up that chute while I continued traversing south at 12,800ft. Eventually I decided to climb up another chute and used this to gain elevation towards the ridgeline. The other parties thought differently of their chute ascent, and I saw them traverse across my chute below me and further south, apparently returning to the more normal route. Once on the ridge, the going gets easy, at least until one reaches the base of Columbia on its north side. The final 600ft are steep and tedious. I spotted the two guys I'd seen earlier, now maybe ten minutes below me, having already passed the solo guy and the dog party (I never saw those parties again). The two guys were obviously very fit and wearing trail running gear. I kept up a good pace, but they were slowly gaining on me. If Columbia had been another 100-200ft higher, they would have beaten me to the summit. As it was, I reached it by 12:20p, only a few minutes ahead of them. There was a single woman at the summit who was happy to have another person to take her photo atop Columbia. She was surprised that I didn't care to have the favor returned.
When the other two guys appeared, I congratulated them on their speed. Seems they were four hours from the TH, including the traverse from Harvard. I was 6hr20min with 1hr30min diversion for the other bonus peak, so they had a pace almost an hour faster than me. Pretty damn good, I thought. The descent off Columbia goes south along the continuing ridge before turning right and dropping down the west side. There is a decent use trail the whole way. On the west side, the CFI is building a new trail with some impressive rockwork. It's scheduled to be opened next year, but it can be used now for about 2/3 of the descent down the West Slopes. The trail eventually reconnects with the Mt. Harvard Trail, though the junction is unmarked. There are, in fact, several trails to reconnect with the main trail. I missed the first obvious one, and used a second one that worked almost as well. Once back on the main trail, I still had almost 4mi to return to the trailhead. I got back by 2:36p, pretty close to the 2:30p estimate I had given myself when I was contemplating going to Peak 13,374ft hours earlier - not bad!
Following what has become a regular routine, I showered, drove back to Buena Vista, hung out at the public library until they kicked me out, then found early dinner on Main St at the Trailhead Eatery. Inspired by the buffalo I saw on my drive back to town, I had bison ravioli as the main course. Mmmmmm....
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Harvard - Mt. Columbia
This page last updated: Tue Sep 3 14:50:29 2019
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