I joined 14ers.com in April 2006. When one of the site’s members, Mike, suggested a Fall 2006 Gathering to climb Mt. Harvard (14,420 ft.), I jumped at the chance. So on Friday, September 15, 2006 I flew home to Colorado after a long delay at the Philadelphia International Airport. I sat patiently for two hours on the runway while the control tower decided on the best course of action. The clouds covered the city but the rain was not severe. Yet, there were 56 planes standing on the fix gates ready to take off on the main runway; I was on the 57th aircraft. Although there were a lot of sighing and quiet frustrations, most of us sat and spoke with each other. Apollo Ono, the gold medalist speed skater in the 2006 Winter Olympic in Turin, Italy, was on board. He gave me a high-five when I echoed that it was nice seeing an Asian-American athlete in the spotlight. Most people gave him his privacy and he was humble by it. I smiled when it was finally our turn to take off. The flight was uneventful.
Trailhead: North Cottonwood (standard)
Total Round-trip Distance: 12.6 miles / 20.3 kilometers
By the time I was on the road heading west on I-70, the sky opened up and dumped an enormous amount of rain on my white Jeep Liberty. Periodically, patches of blue sky appeared above me yet the rain still came from above and from the sideways. I drove carefully to the I-70-Route-91 junction and headed south towards Buena Vista, Colorado. I called my new friend, Chris Mumaw, in Leadville to thank him for the offer to stay at his place. It was too late to disturb him and his wife so I kept driving till I reached Buena Vista. Searching for a hotel on a weekend in this tiny town was next to impossible. With a recommendation from Beverly who worked at the front desk of a local Motel 8, I found a rental place and decided to rent a guesthouse for 2 nights. This became the first time I actually slept in a trailer. The interior was nicely decorated with a western theme. The accommodation was very modern with heating system, hot water, cable television, and a nice fully stocked kitchen. The only thing that it lacked was direct high-speed access to the Internet. At 7:00 pm Mountain Time, I drove to find the trailhead. It was confusing at first but became straightforward after I had found it. The North Cottonwood Trailhead would lead me to the Horn Fork Basin on the south western side of the mountains. Its elevation is 9,880 ft. and provides access to the south side of Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia. There were a number of cars and SUVs there, including a Subaru wagon belonging to one of my climbing teammates, Scott Patterson. He and his 4-y.o. son Kessler had arrived early, hiked the 10-mile trail to a campground, and stayed the night. Little did I know that when I had arrived at the TH, Trish Conlon had just begun her hike to the campground with her grandfather and brother, Ted; Trish is a graduate of my alma mater, the University of Denver. Happy and assured that the TH was where it should be, I drove back to town. I stopped once and turned off my headlights so that I could enjoy the eerie silence of the night sky – lit up by the brilliant arm of our Milky Way galaxy. Seeing the bright band took me back to my college sophomore days at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank, West Virginia. I remember looking up at what seemed then to be old friends of the night: Cygnus, Cassiopeia, Hercules, and Orion.
I slept in the main bedroom and did so comfortably. When morning came, I rushed to shower, dress, and eat. At 5:00 am I was the only one awake in the RVs and guesthouse complex. I left the driveway and drove towards the intersection of Route 24 and Chaffee County 350; and while making a right turn, a truck honked its horns to greet me; it was Chris’ truck heading to a local gas station for a fill up.
The Gathering and the First Ascent
Chaffee County 350 twisted and turned into 361 and then 365. The latter enters the San Isabel National Forest with dirt-road roughness, huge potholes, and protruding rocks. I arrived at the North Cottonwood Trailhead around 5:40 am with Chris (Krisp
) on my tail. We introduced each other by our 14ers.com sign-in names followed by our real names. Jfox8541
(Jeff) was there munching on breakfast. Soon Speedpolka
(Josh) and Chicago Transplant
(Mike) joined us. This fall gathering was Mike’s idea. We were amazed by the reality of its fruition. More people would have joined us had the weather cooperated. Privately, I was glad that it did not get postponed. I looked up at the sky above and saw a crescent moon. The gray passing clouds covered it periodically to make it look as if the sky was in a drowsy state…falling asleep before us. The cloud mass was large enough to cover the entire Arkansas River Valley and this prevented any of us to see the stars. After waiting for others to appear at the trailhead, we decided to begin our hike at 6:05 am.
I tried my best to stick with the group but found myself lagging behind my four teammates. I knew that I did not have the required time to acclimatize properly, but I kept going with one foot in front of the other. There was a time when I ran Red Rock Amphitheater Trail and the Mount Evans Wilderness Trail without feeling breathless. The memories of which gave me the perseverance I needed to keep my teammates in my line of sight. When they turned the corner or went over an obstacle, Chris wrote in the snow on the log directing me to the correct direction. They kindly stopped from time to time to wait and rest before continuing. I told them that I felt like an Egyptian pharaoh with four strong horsemen pulling me towards our destination, the Patterson’s campground near the timberline. An hour and 45 minutes later, we spotted the tiny blue hiker bag that marked the campground and stopped by to say "Hello!" Kessler was very energetic and ready for the summit. His hooded red coat, insulated hiking pants, and boots made him look like an astronaut. Mike setup his tent and some of us stowed our belongings. I left my Australian cowboy hat and bike jacket behind. I wore my snowboarding coat over a fleece jacket and then put on two layers of gloves. Looking at my watch, the temperature read 74ºF. Obviously, I felt warm and insulated. The wind had picked up to about 20+ miles per hour and the snowflakes became larger. I munched on a raisin oatmeal bar as Jeff finished an apple. The water flowing from my Camelbak smelled funny; it was a plastic-like, stale-water scent. I drank it anyway to keep myself hydrated.
Between his grandkids is SummitPost's CFTBQ
Nearly twenty minutes after arriving at the campground, we were on the move again, but this time our trail moved us away and beyond the protection of the trees. I felt naked, chilled, and exposed. Kessler led the way and his tiny footsteps slowed us down enough to allow me to catch my breath. The bushes that lined the trail protected him from the increasingly cold harsh wind. Not long into the hike, we made a rendezvous with Trish’s group. Having been to the first summit pitch, they decided to turn back. I took the opportunity to snap a group photo as Mike gathered for information on the trail ahead. I saw Trish wearing a pair of red comfy mittens and wished I had brought mine; my finger tips began to feel cold. We then marched on and soon another Chris joined our group. I found myself rushing forward in front of everyone to get a group photo, but when I turned around my teammates huddled to say goodbye to Scott and Kessler. The cold was too much for little Kessler so Scott decided to turn back. I snapped a picture of Mike leading the remainder of our team towards the first summit pitch.
The climb began here! The cairns directed us upward towards Mount Harvard. At 14,420 feet, Mount Harvard is Colorado’s third highest peak. The wind increased its furious flow and bringing with it sideway snow. It was so cold that my sweat froze! Chris and Mike pushed on. Jeff, Josh, and I followed. The summits of Harvard and Columbia could not be seen and the ridge linking them was misty white. We could hardly see “the rabbits” that guard the ridge. They looked mean and vengeful in this whiteout storm. At around 13,200 ft., I decided to turn back. I blew my whistle once at Jeff and Josh and motioned my descent. They waved and decided to follow me down a few minutes later. I stopped to take some photos of the storm and a gust whisked my camera bag away as if night had swallowed it. Chris and Mike pushed on and we could no longer see them; they eventually reached the summit, but by that time we had rendezvoused with Scott and Kessler in the timberline. I left Mike a note saying we would have lunch at Buena Vista in case he wanted to join us.
The Chinese restaurant in Buena Vista had the worst Chinese food! My fried rice had been overcooked and smelled of burnt rice and soy sauce. There were only four adults and one kid in the restaurant, how the hell could the chef burn the fried rice. I would not go there again. I was so dissatisfied that I had to stop by a barbecue place to order bison steak to go. I retired to the trailer and took a shower.
2nd Attempt at the Summit - 09/17/2006
When a bright, blue-sky morning came to greet me, I decided that I would make a solo attempt up Mt. Harvard. If successful, it would be my 2nd solo up a 14er. I went at my own pace and saw some snow on the ground. The snow sign on the log that Chris had written directing me to the correct path had partially melted. I continued on and paused only at the creek crossing. The warm temperature had melted yesterday’s snow and the creek swelled up. I had to throw my backpack and ice axe across to the other side before doing a successful running leap. Clearing the timberline, I could see "the rabbits" – huge and dangerous pinnacles that resemble rabbit ears stand guarding the 2.2-mile Harvard-Columbia traverse – staring at me.
The "Rabbits" on the traverse.
A closer look of the "Rabbits".
At the first pitch, I spent a few minutes looking for my tiny Canon camera bag then proceeded to climb on. When I reached to the last summit pitch, I was surprised by a 20+ foot vertical prominence that I had to get over to reach the summit. This was not written about in the Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs (2nd edition). Fortunately for me, there were two other climbers and a dog that caught up to me. They led the way to the summit and we signed the log. From the top of Mount Harvard, I could see the other nearby peaks: Oxford, Belford, Missouri, Columbia, and Yale. Beyond Yale, Mount Princeton stood tall and jetting into the sky. Like Huron, Harvard has one of the best panoramic views!
The Good Deed
In my descent, I performed a random act of kindness. A husband-and-wife team slowly climbed towards the summit. I stopped to let the husband pass and then questioned the lady in her mid-30s about why she wasn’t wearing gloves. She said she had forgotten them in the car at the trailhead. Her hands were clenched under the sleeves of her jacket. She would need to set them free and use them to grab onto the larger boulders near the summit. Without hesitation, I took off my backpack and presented her a new pair of gloves; I always carry an extra pair in case the worn one got wet. She was so thankful that she had teary eyes. I wished her and her husband well as I carefully descended.
Mountain Ninja in a Cowboy Hat
I felt good the whole way down: I successfully solo-ed my 2nd 14er; did a good deed; and spent a relaxing albeit exhausting time in the Central Rockies.
For cross-referencing, these are some of the other folks' accounts of the climb up Harvard on September 16, 2006.
CFTBQ's Trip Report: CFTBQ & Grandkids
Chicago Transplant's Trip Report: Mike's Account of His Successful Climb Up Harvard