Intro/StatsMt Harvard (14420')
Mt Columbia (14073')
via Horn Fork Basin
23 miles RT, 8100' gain
Jan 1-3, 2010
Participants: Dwight, Sarah, Dominic, Adam, & Kevin
Harvard in winter is a daunting proposition made difficult by a long approach. The most reasonable way is via the standard route with variations to avoid avy concerns, but you add a little over 6 miles round trip to the summer stats since the N. Cottonwood Creek road is not plowed beyond 9080'. With a long New Year's weekend, we decided to give it a shot.
Ken was nice enough to invite us to stay at his place n.w. of Buena Vista just minutes from our winter trailhead. We had a nice spaghetti feast and discussed the 3 route options in winter for Harvard. We decided on the Horn Fork Basin approach hoping that we would find a track for at least part of the way. Ken Nolan was nice enough to show Dwight where we could park, and Dwight did a few donuts on the road for good measure. Luckily it wasn't as slick the next morning! Ken and Jean decided to check off another grid point for La Plata and headed out New Year's morning an hour or so before us.
Day 1-New Year's Day Approach
We checked Ken's thermometer before leaving and it read -10. Surely not! It was a five minute drive to the winter trailhead and it was obvious when getting ready that Ken's thermometer was a bit off! It felt pretty warm to me, probably mid-teens. Off we went on an unknown slogfest to treeline. The road to the summer trailhead was well tracked and we knocked off the 3.1 miles pretty quickly.
We were pleasantly surprised to find ski tracks up the trail to beyond the Kroenke Lake junction other than some blown over sidehilling sections that took a bit of work. What a pleasant surprise!
The snow deepened as we got closer to treeline, but not enough for more than 2 turns of trailbreaking each for our tag team of 5. Not too bad for an approach to our camp of almost 7 miles! We found a nice flat area in the trees at 11580' near treeline and quickly excavated our tent sites for the night.
Dominic & Sarah's abode:
We made it to camp by 1:45 for a nice 5 hour pack in that was much easier than expected. Visions of 3 peaks danced in our heads. Could we possibly add 13374 & Columbia as well?
Harvard from camp:
We had plenty of time to kill, so Dominic and I dug a well about 3 feet deep to get to the creek and avoid melting water. Dinner came early and I was in my sleeping bag before 6pm! Man, I hate these winter nights because there's no way I can sleep for 12 hours in a tent! I guess I better figure out how to do that if I ever want to summit Denali. As the night dragged on, we could hear the banshees hitting the high ridges above us. What battles would await us in the morning? 40mph gust were in the forecast.
Day 2-Harvard: Dr Jekyll
6:30am wouldn't come soon enough as I tossed and turned all night. I stayed plenty warm, but couldn't quite piece together any long periods of sleep. Adam's thermometer recorded a low of 21 in the tent, so it was quite balmy for early January due mostly to the cloud cover. We set out at 7:08 and Harvard was socked in. Dwight and Dominic set a track for us the evening before, but I think most of it was blown over. Luckily the snow was firm enough to float across the willows easily and we made nice progress up the basin.
We managed to find the trail below the point where it crosses the east ridge of Pt 13598. This ridge would be our ticket to avoid avy risk on the loaded, steep south slopes of Harvard. The sun started teasing us occasionally, but did not stay out for long.
Adam crests the east ridge of 13598 as Harvard appears:
The climb up this ridge was a bit tedious with snowy talus blocks to negotiate, but it wasn't long until we were high above suspect slopes and were able to traverse over to the south ridge of Harvard.
Sarah and Dominic on the snowy east ridge of 13598:
The lower portions of the south ridge were a bit of work plowing through deep powder and unfortunately that was my time to do the trailbreaking! We dropped about 150 feet down to a saddle and once above the saddle the ridge was a bit more windscoured.
Looking back at our descent from 13598:
The wind started picking up the higher we got, and visibility started to drop. We traversed underneath a false summit and worked our way up snowy talus to the summit block area. The summit block in dry conditions is a trivial class 2+ if you pick the easiest line, but the easiest line wasn't available. I followed Adam's tracks, which pretty much followed the crest of the ridge.
Spindrift started to hammer us and I couldn't keep my goggles on as they fogged up too much with the effort I was putting forth. Snowy slabs limited the scrambling options, so a couple 4th class moves were needed to top out. Dwight and I topped out at 11:09, right at 4 hours from camp. It was now starting to snow pretty hard and the spindrift made things pretty wet. We came to a quick unanimous decision that traversing an unknown ridge to 13374 with low visibility was not a good idea, so we didn't hang around long and headed down. The wind continued to pick up as we descended, but it wasn't bad for winter standards.
Adam descending the south ridge:
The descent was uneventful, although the snow was beginning to pile up. Spindrift hammered us as the sun tried to poke through the clouds as we were nearing camp.
We were back at camp at 2pm and it was too windy and cold to socialize outside the tent for long. We endured another long night in the tent, but the winds died off quick and skies cleared. It was looking good to sneak in Columbia while the banshees took a rest day!
Columbia from camp:
Day 3-Columbia: Mr Hyde
The morning dawned, and Dwight announced a temp of -2, which would be a new winter camping record for me. 6 to 8 inches of snow had fallen, so we were glad there wouldn't be much trailbreaking on Columbia. My hands and feet were cold after gearing up, so I quickly set out at 7:26am to break some trail and warm up. We had to backtrack a bit s.e. and lost some elevation to work our way around a cliff band. It only took us 15 minutes or so to get out of deep powder and onto the largely wind scoured s.w. slopes.
We stayed to the right of a snow filled gully and were able to pick up the trail. Columbia is an unpleasant, steep scree slog on a crude trail, but most of the scree was frozen in place.
We were stoked at just how warm it felt once we climbed out of the shadows. There was hardly a trace of wind to speak of and felt like late spring instead of early winter! The winter banshees were strangely absent on the notoriously windy south ridge of Columbia.
UN 12780 across the valley:
Dwight and Harvard:
I fell a ways behind the group as I didn't really feel like pushing myself with a long pack out looming, enjoying the easy stroll with no wind. I topped out at 10:07 and everyone was itching for pizza down in Buena Vista.
Nearing the summit:
The summit was way more pleasant than my first visit on a windy November day.
Looking west from the summit:
The descent went very quick as everybody had ants in their pants for some real food. The scenery down the south ridge was exquisite.
Yale dwarfs the gang:
We were back at camp at 11:30 and tents were tore down in haste with me being the last one to leave camp as always. I got to be the caboose for a bit and managed to somehow avoid any trailbreaking on the way out. Once back at the road, everybody left me in the dust even with me going 3mph with a full pack on! We made it back to the trucks by 3pm. I'll get this winter backpacking down someday!