Harvard and Columbia
Late in the summer, after the good snow climbs have melted off, I'm usually in the Sawatch exploring some of the easier fourteeners. From the number of cars at the North Cottonwood trailhead I knew there would be plenty of company on these peaks. I don't sleep particularly well in a tent, it was a warm night, and I decided to beat the crowds and start off in the dark. I left the trailhead around 3:30 am and started a nice hike by headlamp. As I worked my way up into Horn Fork Basin I could see some of the lights from Buena Vista in the valley below. I spotted a few pairs of deer eyes in my headlight just above treeline. I continued on to the Bear Lake turnoff, still in the dark.
At this point I realized it might be possible to reach the summit of Harvard before sunrise and watch it from the top. The trail started switchbacking up the south ridge, and the pre-dawn light started to grow. I had really hoped to watch the sunrise from the summit, but I was too slow and the first rays appeared just as I made 14,000'. I stopped to take in a beautiful sight, as the sun highlighted the mountains in a way you can only see for a few moments at this time of the morning and then it's gone.
First light on a Collegiate peak, viewed from high on Harvard. Sunrise on the ridge leading south and southeast from Harvard's summit. Early morning sun accents an unidentified peak near Harvard.
The sunrise was great and I was the only one on Harvard this early. I continued the last few hundred feet, and scampered up some large rocks to the summit. The first objective was had and I started out towards Columbia. I went over some rocks at first but then the rocks stopped and there was a nice, gentle trail winding through the high tundra.
The trail leading off Harvard's summit towards Columbia.
Like most people probably do, I stayed too high around Point 13,516 and had to lose some elevation to avoid some cliffs. I ended up boot-skiing down some chutes, and found myself in grass and wildflowers contemplating my next move.
Wildflowers near the low point of the Harvard/Columbia traverse.
The route description said to stay close to the ridge, but it appeared that would take me over a very obnoxious looking rock pile. The only other option would be to head futher down towards Frenchman creek and lose even more elevation. I opted for the rocks and they weren't as bad as they looked. They were very large and didn't budge under my weight.
I reached a bench with a marshy area at around 13,200'. A large group of goats was grazing above me.
Mountain goats on Columbia's north slopes
Instead of the "standard" route, I chose an option that climbed up a steep grassy slope onto a ridge between Columbia's east ridge and the Harvard connecting ridge. After all, just because a guide book tells you to go one way, doesn't mean you can't go another. The last few hundred feet steepened and became a rock scramble. I was starting to feel the length and elevation gain required for this traverse, and the last hundred feet was pretty slow. At last I gained Columbia's summit and took a long rest.
Possible routes on the traverse and climb up to Columbia.
The descent off Columbia's west face is simply terrible. Straight down on ball-bearing scree. There is some real opportunity for trail improvements here. By now it was early afternoon and the crowds on these peaks were evident. The hike back was long but uneventful. It was more interesting than most return hikes since I had not seen the scenery in the dark on the approach hike.
This really was a strenuous hike, owing to the elevation loss between Harvard and Columbia. Almost 6,000' feet elevation gain for the day, over nearly 14 miles. It is typical Sawatch hiking with nice high-alpine tundra and wildflowers, and only one really rocky section along the traverse. The sunrise views, wildflowers, and mountain goats added to the experience and reminded me that even if I'm not front-pointing up a narrow snow couloir, there are other beautiful sights that can make straight-forward peak hiking in the Sawatch enjoyable.