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Monday, August 13, 2012

Harvard & Col-f*%#ing-umbia

Date:   August 11th & 12th, 2012
Mission:  Climb Mt. Harvard (elevation 14,420 ft.) and then traverse a long ridge to Mt. Columbia (elevation 14,073ft.)
Who:  Solo
Length:  15.5 miles
Elevation gain:  6500 ft.

The climb of Harvard is your normal, somewhat difficult, but not terrible class 2 fourteener.  After reaching the summit of Harvard, the traverse to Columbia is a very arduous undertaking which will have you questioning whether it'll ever end.  By the time you reach the summit of Columbia, you'll be feeling like a battered talus monkey.  

Then, the descent of Columbia is a steep, scree filled mess, where any step may send rocks flying down the mountain.  The descent is this way from about 13,500' to the tree line at 11,900' or so.

After descending a couple hundred feet from the summit of Harvard, the ridge route to Columbia is viewed.  Columbia is the tallest peak in the top right of the photo (about 2.75 miles away).

My tent hiding in the trees.
My adventure started Saturday afternoon around 3:00pm, with a 3.5 mile backpack into a camp near the tree line at 11,500' in the Horn Fork basin.  This was my first time backpacking into a camp on a fourteener.  I had set up camp by 6:30pm and was rocking my new Mountain Hardware Direkt 2  four season tent.

I met a nice father & daughter from Oklahoma who flew out to Colorado solely to hike Mt. Columbia and catch some of the meteor shower.  A word of advice for others from out of town.  If you come to Colorado solely to hike a fourteener, choose a mountain other than Columbia.  

After, setting up camp I hiked away from camp to cook my dinner, a bit of freeze dried chicken vindaloo.  After eating, I hung my food and trash in a bag in a tree to keep away from the bears.

I made my way back to camp and was asleep by 8:30pm.  I woke several times in the night, due to a poor choice of tent placement.  A bunch of uneven ground makes for an uncomfortable night's sleep.  

I finally got up and hit the trail around 4:30am.  

On the trail for maybe 10 minutes, I reach a creek where I fill one of my empty water bottles and treat with some iodine tablets.  I had agreed to send my wife a "OK" message on the SPOT when I started out.  So, it's at this point (about 4:45am) that I send my wife this message.  She apparently never received this message....more on this later.

Hiking up Harvard, I stop occasionally and kill the headlamp.  I just stand in the darkness looking skyward.  I only saw one meteor the whole time.

The moon and a lonely star above the Rabbit Ears on the ridge.
I move up through the silence of the night with a steady pace and by the time the sun is peaking over the ridge, I am already around 13,000 ft.

Morning is here.

I see the first hikers I've seen all day as the sun rays crest the ridge to the east.  This picture does not do this sight justice.  Myself and the hikers below me stand and just watch the sun rays fill the mountains for a couple minutes.

Sun coming over the ridge to the east.  Hikers Alan and Stacey seen below.
The views in the mountains when the sun is first rising are amazing.
The route to the top of Harvard gets more difficult above 14,000'.  The trail sort of disappears 100' below the summit and it's a rock scramble to the top.  I scramble up to the summit and just as quickly duck just below the summit to get out of a very cold wind.  

Summit views!  This picture almost looks like it was taken from a plane.
Sharing the summit with a couple of other hikers.

My wife called Chaffee County SAR

It's here, on the summit of Harvard, that I stop eat some breakfast and send my wife another SPOT message.  A few minutes later I realize that I have a cell phone signal, so I just call her.  She answers and I know immediately from her voice something's wrong. 

She tells me how worried she was that I didn't send her a SPOT message when I was starting out.  I explain that I did in fact send one around 4:45am.  Apparently it never went through.  I find out later when I got home, that she was actually on the phone with the Chaffee County sheriff's office about ready to send a SAR team looking for me when she received my SPOT message from the summit of Harvard.  Well, at least nobody was deployed.  I am glad the timing worked out like it did, but now I have questions about the reliability of my SPOT device.

The ridge over to Mt. Columbia.
Anyhow, with clear blue skies as far as the eye could see, and it only being 8:00am.  I set off on the route to traverse a 2.75 ridge which drops you close to 12,800' before re-ascending Mt. Columbia at 14,073'.

The traverse route does not really stick to the ridge proper.  It's ducks behind the ridge and drops much lower than you expect.  I won't even bother trying to describe the route.  The route is described best here.

I will say that it's tougher than I anticipated, longer than I anticipated, and there is so much talus.

This traverse is tremendously long and tiring, but offers some amazing views.

Views along the traverse.

A mountain wildflower.

The backside of the rabbit ears (seen earlier at dawn from the east).  Did I mention the talus?
Views of Bear Lake along the ridge.
On the ascent of Columbia, I thought for a while that I would not make it.  I was totally spent.  I had zero energy.  I had food and tried to force down a couple snacks, but I just wasn't hungry either.  I finally just started counting steps.  It's something I do when I am totally burnt.  1....2....3...  all the way to 20 or 30.  Rest.  1....2....3...  Repeat.

Eventually I reach the summit of Columbia.  I am 100% worn out.

Views from the summit of Mt. Columbia.
Me with Harvard in the background.  I am too tired to even stand at this point.
I spend probably 20 minutes on the summit of Columbia and send my wife the promised SPOT message again.  I meet a nice fellow named Dale on the summit of Columbia and we begin our descent together. 

A moving 500 lb boulder?

Maybe 100ft below the summit of Columbia, I go to take a steep step down from one rock to another.  There was a huge rock the size of a small coffee table up on end on the high side on my right.  I step with my left leg first, with my right hand on this huge rock.  I wasn't putting ANY weight on it, and it just starts to move.  I yell, "Holy Shit!" and immediately retrieve my left leg from the path of this huge rock while I *hold* this rock in place with my right hand.  Dale looks back at me, and I, still holding this giant rock, ask him, "What the hell should I do, this thing is going to fall if I let go?"  He shrugs.  I look around and make sure his dog is out of harms way.

I let go of the rock.  Nothing happens.




The rock falls... CRASH!  It literally shook the ground I am on when it fell.

This rock falls about 30 ft. down a gully on the back side of Columbia.  As I restart my descent, I think to myself how lucky I was to not get crushed by this huge boulder.    

Dale and I hike down the scree filled trail together sharing stories of various mountains that we've hiked.  Columbia was his 24th, likewise it was my 24th fourteener too.  

Lost hiker?

About halfway to the tree line, I hear a scream and look down the mountain and see a solo hiker waving her arms.  This is usually a sign that someone needs help, unless they are just being an idiot.  I pick up my descent pace to try and reach this person as soon as possible, thinking I may have to use the SPOT for an SOS message.

The hiker needing help is seen as a little black dot on the bottom left of this picture.
I reach this person and discover a lady who's in a bit of a panic.  She claims to be lost, even though she was standing / sitting 10 ft. away from the trail.  She says that she got separated from her group, and then she tried hiking down into the trees to look for the trail, but got lost and started hiking back up for some reason.  She starts telling me she was going to hunker down for the night beneath some rocks with her rain jacket.  

This is when I realized that the panic here is not normal.  Not to mention, the trail was very visible from where we were standing.  I assume she was having some altitude sickness which will occasionally cause one's mind to go haywire and cause panic and poor decision making.  It's a very dangerous condition if you're by yourself.  

Nobody in their right mind would talk about spending the night above the treeline with simply a rain jacket, not to mention it was only 2:30pm.

She asks if we will take her to the trail head and of course we agree.  Dale and I look at each other and don't even have to say anything.  We both know this lady needs to descend altitude more than anything right now.

We descend almost to the tree line when she stops and claims she sees her two friends descending above us.  She says that she'll wait for them, so we say our goodbyes and receive a thank you for our help, and we're on our way.

Back in the trees, Dale and I split up to go to our separate camps.  I break down my tent with quickness and I am back on the 3.5 mile backpack out by 3:30pm.  

The descent through the forest.
I ran out of water at 4:30pm, making the final mile or so of my descent through the forest even more miserable.  Reaching the truck at 5:30pm, I chug an entire Gatorade I had waiting.  I take off my boots to reveal a few blisters.  My entire body hurts, some parts more than others.  I change clothes, hit a Subway for some food,  and make the drive home in under 3 hours.  

Upon arriving at home, I realize that I have serious bruising on the inside of my right ankle.  Go figure, apparently the talus left it's mark.  



  1. Hey Adam -

    My daughter and I made it the Columbia --> Harvard direction but took a lot longer than anticipated. I think we saw you cross the traverse above us. We easily saw 100+ meteors stopping for a rest every 100' climb up the Columbia route. Made it to the peak for sunrise with about 45 minutes to spare! :)

    I enjoyed reading your report; nice job - Brad from OK

  2. Excellent report, you've got a great eye behind the camera!
    As far as keeping in touch with the wife, I carry a SPOT, phone, and a dog; and I'm not afraid to use them! I use the SPOT for work, and have also had one OK signal not go through...