Mount Harvard (14,420 ft) / Mount Columbia (14,073 ft)
Distance (round-trip): 13.5 miles
elevation gain: 5,800 feet
Weather forecasts had significantly altered my plans for what would be my final mountain trip during my three year stay in Colorado. Plans finally set, I started hiking from the North Cottonwood Trailhead at two in the morning, determined to not get caught in any bad weather, as long as I could help it. By 3 a.m., a steady drizzle had wet all my clothes, but half an hour later I emerged at timberline to see the moon shining brightly and the sky clearing to the west. The air was calm, Mount Columbia was fully-illuminated by the moon, and I had Horn Fork Basin to myself... well, except for some coyotes that I heard howling near Bear Lake–always an unnerving sound when you are alone in the dark at 12,000 feet.
The trail was easy to follow by the light of my headlamp: through the trees, through the willows, up the talus, along the grassy bench, then up more rocky slopes leading to the summit. The final short scramble to the summit was surprising and fun. When I arrived at the pointy summit block (one of the best “pin-point” summits I have come across in Colorado), I was surprised to see there was still barely any light on the horizon. Looking at the time, I saw it was only 5:30!
I had not planned on watching the sunrise from Colorado’s third-highest summit, but now that I was there, why not? I huddled between two boulders just down from the summit to try to avoid the wind as much as possible. It was a very chilly hour I spent at Mount Harvard, but it was worth it for a magnificent sunrise. I was able to capture many surrounding peaks bathed in alpenglow, including Mount Yale, Mount Princeton, Mount Oxford, North Apostle, Ice Mountain, Missouri Mountain, Emerald and Iowa Peaks, and many others. To the west, the valleys were full of fog, but except for a few clouds, the skies would remain clear the rest of the day.
I had already decided I did not want to tackle the gnarly ridge directly, but I did want to get some scrambling in along this traverse. So, when the trail dropped down a steep, loose gully toward the rock glacier below, I followed it partway and then cut across onto the rocky east face below the traverse ridge.
After passing below the rock formation known as “The Rabbits,” the rock became a little more stable. I continued contouring with the slopes, following ledges through cliff bands around Point 13,597 until the terrain finally relented. I found myself at the rocky fields in the upper basin below Columbia’s north-eastern slopes, and there I stopped to take a break.
I arrived at the summit of Mount Columbia at 9:30, completing the traverse from Mount Harvard in three hours. I sat at the summit for half an hour, enjoying the Colorado mountain scenery and solitude one last time before heading back east.
I ran some of the trail back to the main trail, and from there it was a pleasant, mostly flat hike the rest of the way out to the jeep. The trail paralleled the creek, which was flowing vigorously with crystal clear water, and I found my rhythm with the sound of the rush. I returned to the trailhead at 12:15, then drove in the direction of the flowing water: east.