Decided to take Friday off, after climbing Castle Peak the day before. Stopped in to a great BBQ place in Buena Vista around 3:00 to have lunch before packing in on the Cottonwood trail. Man, that was a great idea. Well, we hit the trailhead for the Cottonwood trail about 6:00 and were all packed up and ready to go. There was a couple of problems though. My climbing partner/girlfriend had a small pack. Just big enough to take the tent and stuff a few odds and ends in it. She had her sleeping bag strapped to the back of her pack. NO room for anything else. I on the other hand have a 6400 cu.in. pack and thus had plenty of room for stuff. Sleeping bag, food, lights, poles for the tent, misc, and we had no filter....so two gallons of water. Also, I had my camelbak day pack filled with 100 oz. of water. OK, ready to go with almost 3 gallons of water and 20 pounds of other stuff. Started up the trail, breathing hard from the heavy pack that was on my back. However, as I got into a good pace, I was surprised how strong I felt. Wow, I guess after a week I am finally acclimatized. We were making pretty good time considering the size of my pack. Within about 50 minutes we crossed the bridge over the creek and then found the fork in the trail a few minutes later. We headed right, which continued up the Cottonwood trail. From here it got a little steeper, but still not bad. About an hour later the trees started thinning and we were looking for camp sites. Somewhere between 11,300 and 11,400 we found and area that could support several tents. In fact we ran into two guys that were camping in just their sleeping bags on top of a tarp. Good thing the weather had been so nice. We made camp, a little camp fire, and got things prepared for Saturday.
The alarm went off at 6:00 and it was time to get moving. We took our time and finally hit the trail again at 6:45. We were headed towards Harvard and figured on having a pretty easy hike to the summit. We followed a great trail all the way to about 13,900'. From here, we were required to do a little route finding, but no big deal. We were headed to the saddle just west of the Harvard summit. Besides, we were lucky enough to be following another group that was finding the route for us. Hit the saddle, one rock climbing move, and then shimmy up some ledges to the summit. No big deal and hit the summit right at 10:00. We screwed around on the summit, took in the views of many 14ers, and then decided to head for Columbia. The weather was still pretty good, as it had been for weeks, and Columbia looked so close.
We started out by following two groups off of the Harvard summit. We were all heading for Columbia and were up for the long day. Unfortunately, we never did hook up with the groups ahead. We followed a pretty good trail on the rabbit ridge for about a mile. At this point the trail just kind of ended. We were faced with down climbing the steep scree or rock climbing the rabbit ridge. The groups ahead of us had down climbed the scree. It had become obvious that this was a case of the blind following the blind. My map showed where we should have come off the ridge, down into the basin, and contoured around the ridge. That step was missed along time ago. We got down the scree and then had to boulder hop a bit. From here we decided to end our trailing of the other groups. We continued down another 100' or so. Crossed a fresh stream and some small lakes. Our goal was now to join the NE trail, Frenchman Creek Trail, and then continue to the summit. At this point we decided to take stock of our water. It had now been 3:30 since we left the summit of Harvard. We decided to fill a water bottle with the fresh snow melt water. We figured it was better to get bad water than die of dehydration. Well, we hit the Frenchman Creek Trail, except there really is no trail. Started our way back up and made the summit in about 1:30. Wow, 5 hours after leaving Harvard. It had only taken 3 hours to make Harvard and now it had taken 5 hours to make the traverse.
After taking about a 15 minute rest on the summit. Another climber and his dog surprised us. He had started up from the TH late and was only doing Columbia. I was glad to see him and figured we would just follow him down the correct route off of Columbia. After another 15 minutes or so, we made our way down the ridge to about 13,700'. The guy and his dog was coming right behind us so we waited for him. He looked around and said this way looks familiar. So we followed him and then as luck would have it, we were in the scree gully. Just what I wanted to avoid. Another case of the blind following the blind. The scree made for slow going, but more so because the dog was having a tough time. We all stuck together for awhile and kept encouraging the dog to continue on. There came to a point where the terrain did not really let us stick together and we continued down. We figured it was better not to be knocking rocks down on this guy and his poor pup. It was at this point that we had to drink our unknown water. I was pretty sure that it would be fine. It had no smell, was crystal clear, and tasted better than any water I have ever had. This was the one thing we got lucky on, no ill effects as of yet from the water. Well, we rolled into camp around 6:30 completely exhausted. We decided to camp there another night and just pack out in the morning. It had been a 12 hour day and all motivation had long been used up. We had planned on doing Shavano and Tab the next day, but they would have to wait.