Mt Harvard, CO- Elevation 14,420- 09/03/2004
Harvard is the big dog of the Collegiate peaks, and the third highest in Colorado. This one has been on my priority list for quite a while, but since it is such a long hike and the weather has been so unpredictable this year, I had to put it off until now. Finally I've got decent weather on a Friday (my day for hiking). I even slept a couple hours later than usual which I would later regret. I left Denver at 7am and got to the North Cottonwood Creek to Horn Basin trailhead at 10am, started hiking at 10:12. This is supposedly the easiest route on Harvard and is 4500 elevation gain, 12+ miles round trip. When you finally reach Horn Basin just out of the tree line you can see Harvard but its hard to tell which one it is from that perspective. I met a couple hikers on their way down who pointed it out to me. They also pointed out Mt Columbia another 14er just to right or east of me on the trail. I had hoped to traverse the ridgeline and also bag that peak but it turned out to be much further away than I thought it would be. I met another hiker that got stuck on that ridge and had to turn around because the difficulty surpassed his skills. He said he got stuck in what was probably class 4, probably due to missing the lower class 2 route. I pressed on to what seemed like a never-ending trail. My legs were very sore from a heavy weightlifting workout Tuesday, then Mountain biking Wednesday. Usually my lungs have more problems than my legs but today my legs were like jello and that made it really difficult to press on. Near the top this hike becomes class 2 with a few difficult moves to reach the summit. Don't worry it wasn't too hard, and there are a couple different approaches. I was able to make it using just one hand and holding my trekking poles in the other.
Finally I reached the summit at 4:07 just short of 6 hours, I planned on 5. At the summit it had dropped to 40 degrees and was very windy with intermittent gusts probably around 30-40 MPH. Given the late hour and very cloudy weather I made the wise decision to not attempt Mt Columbia which would have taken at least 2-3 additional hours. I took some pictures, signed the register, then headed down after about half and hour. Shortly after starting my descent it started snowing pretty hard but let up after about 15 minutes. I kept a good pace but felt a little upset in the stomach and my legs were shot so I had to make more rest stops than I normally would on the way down. By the time I got back to the tree line it was about 7:00 and the wind really picked up along with the rain. I knew the rain was coming because I could see it really coming down over by Mt Antero which isn't far away. I put on my rain jacket and pants and wrapped the camera bag in a garbage bag for weather protection and put it in the backpack. Upon entering the trees it started pouring rain and the wind was howling through the valleys. Fortunately the trees blocked a lot of the rain but it was still really coming down and this also caused it to be a lot darker than it would be with the sun still on the horizon and the moon peaking out. I had to turn my headlamp on to see where I was going around 7:30 and started speed walking down the trail to make some time. I haven't had to hike back in the dark since Mt Elbert last year and dislike hiking alone in the dark. Its bad enough with another person but when you are alone, its raining, cold, and your dog tired it really stinks. On top of that it was pretty dark with still almost 4 miles to go. I picked up the pace and kept wondering when I would reach the sign for the Horn basin which meant I only had 1.5 miles left to go. That sign seemed to never come and I even got off trail at one point. There was a line of downed trees that looked like the trail so I followed it right into a bunch of bushes. I looked around and saw no trail at all and wondered what I would do if I lost the trail. That would be a disaster. I would have to hike back in the direction of Buena Vista which is over 10 miles away, or possibly just find a shelter and spend the night in the pitch black darkness of the Collegiate wilderness. At this point I really wish I had a dog or a gun, or both for protection, especially after hearing some grunting sounds along the trail which were probably just elk. Fortunately I was able to backtrack a few hundred feet and regain the trail after finding a sharp turn that was easy to miss in the dark. I was getting a little panicky so I told myself to calm down and slow down even if it meant hiking longer in the dark. I figured a longer slower hike wouldn't be nearly as bad as losing the trail again. About 8:30 I saw what looked like car headlights up ahead and thought I was really losing it. As I got closer I realized it was a group of three hikers with their headlamps on. I couldn't imagine why someone would start hiking up in this weather but was glad to see some people since I hadn't seen anyone since around 1pm. I met them right at the Horn Basin sign I was looking for and we talked briefly and also met a few campers who came out to see what the commotion was. I felt much better and knew I was close now with just 1.5 miles to go. I finally got back to the trailhead just after 9pm and felt a big rush of relief, now I just have to drive 3 hours back to Denver.
The road up to Harvard was not bad at all, even a 2WDR with high clearance could make it up in the summer.
The first 2/3 of the distance in this route is relatively easy with little elevation gain and through beautiful forest with some aspens. Its the last third of the route that is a killer.
I could see mountain biking this trail or even with riding a dirt bike, but hang gliding, are you kidding! You would have to be nuts to carry one of those things up here on this long hike. I'd rather have a chopper drop me off at the top if I was going to do that.
I'm getting my degree in mountain climbing.
As you get out of the trees and into Horn Basin you can see Harvard is a long ways off. In this picture it is just to the right of those clouds.
As I got a little closer I saw a red S shape on the side of Harvard which was some very red vegetation. We've had a lot of rain this year so that probably isn't there all the time.
At another crossroads, Bear lake is very close and you can see it from this sign. I took this picture with the sign pointing right at Harvard. I believe it is actually just a little to the right of that round protruding point.
Shortly after the Bear lake sign you reach this dead end. It looks like there was a rock slide that covered the trail, but this is really just the beginning of the more difficult steep elevation gain section. Still about 1500-2000 elevation to go from here. There is still a nice trail which you can catch about 20 feet up and to the right of the dead end. It is barely marked by some small cairns. I turned left and missed it on the way up, but found it on the way down. Even if you lose the trail after you get past this first ridge you reach an alpine tundra area with very large cairns marking the wide trail again.
These little Pikas are usually pretty jumpy, but this one was focused on eating some tundra just a few feet from where I was standing so I got this picture of him disguised in the rocks.
Over the first ridge you have a nice view of Bear lake, Mt Antero to the Left and in the middle is another mountain which I think is either Mt Princeton or Yale.
Here is a view of Harvard from the tundra field, still quite a ways off.
This is a view of about half of the ridge between Harvard and Columbia (another 14er), it looks much longer than I thought it was, and since you have to go down a few hundred feet under the ridge you end up adding over another 1000 elevation to your hike if you do both.
Ahh, finally the summit! Here is the same picture of Bear lake from the top. You can see now the rain was moving in but fortunately I did not hear a crack of thunder all day, probably because there was so much humidity in the air and it was a little cooler being Sept now.
The backside view to the west from Harvard.
I take some time to soak in the views, ponder some thoughts, and rest my weary legs.
Here the traverse to Mt Columbia looks much easier than it really is. Columbia is on the right in the picture.
On the way down I saw this Mountain goat, he was around 13500 feet eating some alpine vegetation. I took the time to put the 300 zoom lens on to take this close up picture.
Here is a self portrait of me with Harvard in the background. I was so glad I made it up there and didn't really care at this point that I was not able to make Columbia too. Harvard was really a workout and since it has been a month since my last 14er I was barely up for this long hike.
Shortly after my self protrait it started snowing, really hard. This is a picture of Columbia when I was still above 12,000 feet. Glad I didn't try to make it over there or I'd be spending the night up here in some cave for sure.
One of the last pictures I took before packing up the camera to protect it from rain. The picture isn't underexposed, it was really about this dark already at 7:00 and I was just reaching the tree line. I still had over 4 miles and a couple hours to go.