Its taken me a while to sit down and write the entry for Mt. Harvard. Frankly, it has taken me this long to digest the adventure that this hike became. It was Kris’ birthday weekend, so we had rather ambitious plans of a Harvard/Columbia summit on Saturday followed by a Bierstadt/Evans summit on Sunday. We would not be making it beyond Harvard.
None of us could get off of work early on Friday, so we arrived at the TH late Friday night and found it quite crowded so we decided to hike in a good ways as it wasn’t snowy and we had heard that there wasn’t too much snow higher up. Mistake #1.
We pack up our bags and start hiking in. The trail is relatively clear and our headlamps easily light the way. We planned on hiking about 3 miles in as we had read there was good camping in that area. Our clear trail quickly deteriorated into a snow-covered forest. Since it was late at night (11 PM) the snow was relatively frozen and we were able to hike without snowshoes.
After a little bit of detour where we followed the wrong set of foot prints and ended up in a snow-melt creek, we were back on trail and arrived at our campsite, a little more than 2 hours out from TH.
We set up camp and quickly went to bed. We had been fortunate enough to find two nooks where the snow had melted down to the ground just enough for our tents.
Knowing that we had already hiked in a good ways, we were not too concerned about getting up terribly early. We rolled out of our tents a bit after sunrise. As we were putting the finishing touches on our day-packs, it started to snow…on June 11. I thought to myself, well this tops Mom’s “It snowed on my birthday story.”
After a brief debate, Christine and I decided to leave our snowshoes in the tent while Amanda and Kris brought theirs. We thought we would be able to make the summit while the snow was still frozen from the night before. Mistake #2.
There was a clear set of foot prints through the trees that we followed up into the clearing and then to tree-line. When we emerged from treeline, we had veered a bit to the west and were on the bottom slopes of Colombia, Harvard’s neighboring 14er. Not a huge deal as we were able to climb over a small ridge to access the basin at the foot of Harvard.
Once over the ridge, we gradually worked our way down the slopes in a track breakline style. We could see footsteps on the trail to our left and the incline we were on wasn’t too steep so we just took a slow angle down to it. Plus the slopes we were on weren’t too snowy so it was actually easier.
We regained the trail just south of Bear Lake. From here on out, we would regret not having snowshoes. The remainder of the hike up until the summit approach was a post-holing mess. It was now getting a bit later in the morning and the snow was spottily softening up. We would walk 100 yards on top of firm, frozen snow and then our slope angle would change slightly and WHAM! knee deep snow.
We took some solace in the fact that Amanda and Kris were still postholing even in their snow shoes. Hell, Casey, Christine’s brown lab, a hiking machine, was postholing as well. We trudged on, each having our own moments of frustration as we dug a foot out yet again. As we got above Bear Lake, we eye the summit approach. It was steep and it was snowy. It wasn’t gonna be easy.
After taking a short rest at the foot of the summit approach to regroup, we began to climb. Thankfully the snow was still firm, but just soft enough to make steps and switchbacks on. We would walk 10 steps and rest. It was exhausting and nerve wracking. A fall here would be unlikely to hurt as there was nothing but snow below us, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be terrifying. The slope also felt steep enough to slide so we kept a very watchful eye on that as well.
We reached the ridge after an hour or so of climbing. From here, we were right around 14,000 feet so we knew we were getting close. We began to push towards the summit, enjoying being on solid rock again, but still carefully checking our boot placement with every step.
Quite quickly Christine and I were on the summit. Amanda and Kris were not far behind. It was around 1:00 PM…the latest we had ever been on a 14er summit.
We had planned on traversing across to Columbia as well. This was obviously out of the question now. After taking the requisite summit pictures we headed down.
The steep slope that had taken an hour to ascend took less than a minute to descend as we had a nice long glissade. Christine and Amanda were quite skeptical of descending 500+ feet on their butts with only trekking poles to stop themselves. They of course loved it by the time they arrived safely at the bottom.
We took the summer trail back to our camp by following the creek which had iced up some of the snow making it easy to follow. We arrived back at camp tired but motivated not to spend another night in the snow.
We slowly broke town our tents and then headed out of camp following a previous path of footprints. Mistake #3.
We followed Horn Fork Creek down for a good ways, beginning to suspect that we were not on the correct trail. However, we brushed it off by saying we had hiked in during the night last night and that we wouldn’t recognize it anyway. Mistake #4.
Eventually, we reached a junction at the bottom of Horn Fork Basin where the creek lost its banks and we were able to pick up another trail. However, after some brief exploration, we decided that this was not the trail we had come in on last night so we turned around and retraced our steps.
We now knew that we were lost. Thankfully, we knew where our camp had been the night before and we had both our footsteps and the creek to lead us back to it. We started to head back up in hopes that we would run into the two people we had passed earlier in the day before the sun went down as it was pushing 5:30 PM.
Luckily, we did.
Upon running into them, we learned that we had followed the wrong set of footsteps out of our camp site. They had decided to follow ours because the path we chose had more snow (great) and they were on skis and snowshoes. We learned that our best option was to continue down to where the Horn Fork Creek had left its banks and then take the trail we had seen. While it wasn’t the trail we took in, it would eventually merge with a good ways down.
Thankful to have some sort of plan and destination, we trudged through our footsteps a third time back down to the the trail. We followed the trail and eventually found the sign marking the merger that we had taken note of the previous night. Around the sign, the trailed cleared of snow for the most part as well. Thrilled to truely know our surroundings again and have a snow-free trail our pace picked up (probably minimally due to our exhaustion) and we arrived back at the TH around 8:15 PM…22 hours after we had started our hike.
1. Study maps thoroughly…especially when there is snow involved…and a lot of below treeline hiking.
2. Bring snowshoes
3. Clif Bars and Trail-mix get old quickly when you’re lost
4. When you make the decision to leave snowshoes standing on 4 feet of snow…it’s the wrong one
5. If you find a clear trail…take it.
Mt. Harvard Stats:
Total Time: 16 hours
Moving Time: 3:23 ascent only (out of 7:15 total time…we did not stop that much, but this illustrates how slow we were moving…GPS thought we were)
Elevation: 4,705 feet