Peak(s):  Mt. Harvard  -  14,424 feet
Date Posted:  01/29/2020
Date Climbed:   01/19/2020
Author:  supranihilest
Additional Members:   whileyh
 Graduating Before Learning To Walk   

Mount Harvard might just be one of my favorite 14ers, and I've only done it twice. I have fond memories of hiking into Horn Fork Basin for an overnight after completing Mount Massive earlier in the morning, the beauty and serenity of Horn Fork despite the summer crowds, and the final boulder crawl to the summit, all with my friend Madison. The south slopes summit pitch in particular is something that sticks in my memory. A slabby set of perfect granite boulders that felt as if they were miles off the valley floor, it just seemed so out of place in the Sawatch, which for the most part hadn't provided me much excitement to that point. Maybe I was just having a good day, but Harvard, nestled in the heart of the Sawatch and surrounded by nothing but other giants, felt like a far greater peak than any of its neighbors. In winter it's considered among the harder of the Sawatch 14ers, and considering I haven't done any of the other Collegiate Peaks in winter yet I feel a bit like I'm graduating before learning to walk...

Day 1: Saturday, January 18, 2020: Frenchman Creek Approach to Camp on Mount Harvard

When a period of settled weather came into Colorado over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend I had to take advantage and haul into a high camp. I knew doing it as a day trip wouldn't be ideal, plus I genuinely enjoy the misery of winter camping. I organized a Saturday/Sunday climb with my friend Whiley, who despises winter camping (I convinced her it would be good for her - the jury's still out on that), and her friend Kyle would join us as well. Their goals were more nebulous - Whiley cares more about 13ers than 14er snowflakes, and Kyle just didn't have a goal except to get out - whereas I was dead set on getting Harvard. The night before our approach there had been a major storm and road conditions were pretty awful, but Whiley and I still met around 10am at the bottom of the Frenchman Creek road, where there's a winter closure. Kyle had gotten stuck on 285 from Denver, which was closed, and would start up in the afternoon and meet us at camp.

With heavy packs we began hiking up the road. I think every single one of my trip reports begins with a road hike. At least this one I had an excuse for, and we wore our snowshoes from the cars. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and I was sweating within minutes. I stopped to take off my fleece and put on a sun hat. I thought this was January?

Near the start of the road.
Big friggin' tent. Photo: Whiley H.

A couple of skiers had scooted ahead of us intent on doing Columbia's east ridge with a couple of overnights, and ahead of the four of us was a filled in trench, of which the margins were barely visible. This was fortunate so we weren't breaking all new trail the entire way. Whiley and I quickly passed the skiers and took over these duties.

The old, mostly filled in trench. It prevented major postholing, at least.
Minor trailbreaking through the old trench.

We made it to the upper, 4WD trailhead, where the road ended and the trail began. No trip report on Harvard from Frenchman Creek would be complete without The Sign.

Whiley with The Sign. *queues Ace of Base*

The trail continued to slowly gain elevation as we snowshoed deeper into the drainage. It seemed based on other trip reports that the exact location of the creek crossing was a bit of an unknown, so I had created a GPS waypoint for its approximate location based on a Forest Service map. It turns out this wasn't needed since the trench took us right to the log bridge, but for the future the coordinates are 38.9243, -106.24933.


A few minutes after the bridge we met the junction of the Colorado Trail and the Frenchman Creek Trail.

Obvious is as obvious does.

The trench we had followed thus far continued north on the Colorado Trail. We wanted to continue west up Frenchman Creek, and from this point onward there was no trench, no evidence of any recent passings at all.

We'd have our work cut out for us.

Until this point Whiley and I had swapped leader trencher, each doing probably half of the mileage. I took over here and began the laborious work of building a new trench. Exhausting but rewarding work ensued as I beat a path forward through unbroken snow. Route finding in winter can be a challenge without an obvious trail to follow, but I was able to use subtle clues like sawed trees and hummocks with their sides cut off as visual aids to keep me on the right path. I quickly pulled ahead and pushed on in solitude.

Looking back with Whiley hanging back.
Solo snowshoe tracks are a beautiful thing.

I beat in a path for a couple of hours, then Whiley caught up to me, sans pack. She asked me to stop where I was and build a campsite, since the weight of her pack was hurting her hips. I had no objections and began to dig while she went back to get her pack. I dug and dug and digged and digged and dagged and dagged and other words that aren't actually words, digging for what like felt forever in the awful sugar snow which was about chest deep. I dug out the entirety of a downed tree to find where the boundaries were, which was tedious, but would provide something to anchor the tent to.

A fine photo of a tree in the snow.

When Whiley got back I asked her to drop her pack and continue trenching upwards free of the extra weight while I dug - that's what I call teamwork! She returned less than 15 minutes later and told me she'd found an open area with some much better campsites.

At the edge of the trees. Photo: Whiley H.
Pretty much a perfect place for the tent.

I laughed and had her repeat herself. Yep. A campsite that wouldn't take hours to dig out, just fifteen minutes from where I'd already dug a hole to China.

Now that's what I call a hole! Photo: Whiley H.
I'm not actually that exasperated, just posing for the camera. Whiley and I had a good laugh about this later. Photo: Whiley H.

I backfilled the hole as best as I could and then finished the remaining hike to the open area. There was a little bit of digging to be done but maybe ten minutes worth before we had a nice, flat site to pop the tent up on. By now it was just before dark, and Whiley and I were both exhausted. I had her help me setup the tent and then told her to get in and rest while I scrounged up some rocks to guy the tent to while simultaneously melting snow and boiling it for our freeze dried dinners. A headlamp started bouncing around in the dark and Kyle showed up, also exhausted. He was kind of out of it so I setup his tent for him and he promptly passed out after that. I'm not even sure he ate his dinner. Whiley wolfed hers down while I continued melting and boiling and eating, cramming probably 2,000 calories in my face for the next day. Whiley'd passed out after finishing her meal and I was left alone with just the hissing stove and howling winds, which I hoped would subside by the morning. At about 10pm, after boiling probably five liters of water for meals and for myself and Whiley, I went to bed. I set my alarm for 6am. Harvard awaited.

Day 2: January 19, 2020: Camp to Mount Harvard Summit, Return to Camp, Pack Out to Car

My alarm went off and I felt tired. Not achy like I had expected, just weary. I hit snooze, then turned my alarm off when it went off again at 6:10am. I reset it for 7am, and got another 40-50 minutes of sleep. This helped a lot and I woke up a second time feeling great. I wandered out of the tent to a bright day with low winds. My pack was basically packed already, so I ate my usual Poptart breakfast and was on the move at around 7:45am. Yeah, it was later than I would have liked, but I had all day to nab Harvard. Whiley and Kyle continued to sleep; Whiley'd be attempting Harvard's eastern, unnamed 13,374 foot neighbor, and I figured Kyle would just lounge in camp and recover.

My first order of business involved once again breaking trail, solo, but this time through willows. Just exactly what I wanted to do first thing in the morning!

Harvard's east ridge looking a little intimidating even from miles away.

I cut straight north across the willows towards the sunny southern slopes of Point 13,374, anticipating less snow in better condition than if I just took a more direct line. This proved to be just as expected, and I was able to make quick progress through the willows and back into the forest, where I weaved around deadfall and eventually hit treeline. A large, loaded, steep hill to my south gave me a slight pause but I was able to keep far enough away from it that I didn't have much cause for concern.

On the margins.
The hill in question. I skirted underneath it in the narrow drainage right of the tall tree on the right. It is indeed a terrain trap, but I stayed high on the embankment opposite the hill and didn't worry much.

From the end of the narrow section things opened up. More willows. Gee wiz. At least the snow was relatively minimal.

A long way to go.

I had essentially three options to cross the basin and gain the east ridge: go north (right) up steep and unpleasant looking scree slopes; go directly east (straight ahead) and up and down over a number of moraine-ish type protrusions, some of which were quite snowy and steep enough to slide; go east southeast (slight left) and weave underneath all the moraine things and attempt to avoid as much of the avy terrain as possible. The latter option was longest but safest and avoided annoying scree so that's what I chose.

Up the obvious drainage on the left, then curve right and go up a moderate slope until I'm under the large bump left of center. Easy enough.
The business on the Harvard-Columbia ridge with the Rabbit visible on the left. The Rabbit goes at Class 5.7 and the most common way to do the traverse is by dropping all the way into the basin, which keeps the difficulty at Class 2.

As I meandered through the willow-choked basin I got my first view of Columbia.

Closer shot of the Rabbit.

Despite the size of the basin I soon found myself under the large bump on the Harvard side of the connecting ridge, where the snow began to thin out. I dumped my snowshoes on a large rock and continued on foot towards the steep slope underneath Harvard's east ridge.

Heading towards the east ridge.
If only that was the summit!

The snow had been good pretty much all day but this final slope before the ridge kicked into the 30 degree range, perhaps low 40s. Not exactly a good place to be at that angle on an eastern aspect. I decided I'd stick to the strips of rock coming down from the point and off the snow as much as possible, and I put on my microspikes for additional traction, if necessary.

Up on rocks to the small saddle right of the bump.

When I reached the ridge crest I peered around the corner to the right. The view didn't tell the whole story, but there was a lot of steep rock on Harvard's north face.

Looking across Harvard's north face.

I scrambled up to the top of the initial point and was immediately confronted with another, which I also scrambled over.

Easy scrambling on good rock.

The first difficult scrambling of the ridge traverse came quickly: a couple of reachy, exposed moves of snow covered Class 3. The rock was good but the air below my feet was large and the cracks and crimps snowy. I didn't remember this from doing the Harvard-Columbia traverse before! That must have crossed the upper south face... I scrambled down the south face a little bit hoping to find an easier way, maybe the trail itself, and was unsurprised to find nothing but more steep, snowy rock and ugly looking gullies. The trail was hidden by the snow and I didn't like the look of the traversing so I scrambled back to the ridge crest and stayed there for the remainder of the out-and-back; there was no reason to believe the face would be better anywhere else.

The normal traverse goes lower than this on easier (when dry, anyway) terrain.

Just like before another point on the ridge popped up after completing the one I was on.

Yet another point to scramble over.
Looking back at the initial, hard point. It's bigger than it looks but was super fun.

The numerous bumps on the seemingly endless ridge all blended together. Besides the first one contained an exposed snow traverse around the north side, and another an extremely enjoyable Class 4 down climb with lots of full-body stemming. Aside from these three spots the climbing was all Class 2+ or easier and not very exposed.

Gosh, will the fun ever stop?
One of the easier bumps near the summit.

Finally the last bump appeared, and I stood on Harvard's still-familiar summit. All in all it had taken me about an hour and 20 minutes to traverse the ridge.

What is this? Could this be the final summit bump?
This looks promising...

It was nearly windless on the summit and the views were amazing. I was happy and proud to be alone on Harvard, Dean of the Collegiate Peaks.

Mount Belford (left) and Mount Oxford (right). La Plata Peak is the prominent peak in the left background.
Mount Columbia with the Harvard-Columbia ridge (foreground ridge) and Columbia's east ridge (left off the summit).
Horn Fork Basin and the southern Sawatch.
Buffalo Peaks.

It was about 12:20 in the afternoon and I had the full descent to the car to go, including packing up camp. I also wanted to get back to Whiley and Kyle to see how they were doing, since for all I knew they could still be asleep in camp. Oh, and I wanted pizza and couldn't exactly get delivery on Harvard's summit, as much as I wanted to. With baked breads and melted cheeses on my mind I began reversing the ridge, taking my exact ascent path on the way down.

Start of the long ridge back to Frenchman Creek.
Kind of gives a sense of the size of the first major bump. This is the one visible from far, far down the drainage when looking towards the summit.
Bye-bye, Harvard, thanks for the education.

The down climb went far faster than the ascent, and was just as much fun down as up.

Looking up the Class 4 section. It doesn't exactly look hard but it did take some deliberation and some full-body X-ing, stemming, and chimney technique.

An hour after departing the summit I was back at my snowshoes, which I didn't bother to put back on until I was at treeline. The snow above was, for the most part, firm enough not to necessitate the flotation.

Most of Columbia's east ridge.
This way to pizza.

As I neared camp Whiley came out and scolded me. I had apparently scared her as she'd gone up to about 13,200 feet and hadn't seen me and was wondering where I was. I told her with a wry grin that I was having a time on Harvard's summit ridge and that she was missing out. She gave me a playful whack and we rolled back into camp and began disassembling.

Artsy. Not shown: Kyle's 3-season tent. Yes. 3-season. In January. Photo: Whiley H.

We quickly tore down and packed up hoping to beat darkness back to the cars. The days were short but getting longer, fortunately. Whiley scooted ahead since she was cold and Kyle and I brought up the rear. His snowshoes were broken and he was having a lot of difficulty postholing all over the place, so I loaned him my snowshoes. I'd just boot down and eat the postholes as they came. I was still faster. Go figure. The hike out felt like it took forever, considering how long the road was. We arrived after nightfall and Kyle headed back to Denver while Whiley and I went to Leadville to get High Mountain Pies. If every one of my trip reports begins with a road then most end with High Mountain Pies. I'm glad to have one of the hard ones out of the way, as this was a big boost in confidence in my winter skills. All in all it was an excellent and tiring couple of days bagging Colorado's third highest peak, but just the beginning of my education.

Statistics and GPX

Sorry folks, no accurate stats, splits, or GPX for this one. On the deproach my GPS watch crashed and needed a factory reset and the data for both of these days was lost.

Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself), Whiley H., Kyle A.

Estimated stats:
16-18 miles, 6,000+ vertical
Approximately 4:45 from cars to camp (not including digging the hole)
4:34 from camp to summit (only segment I bothered to look at in the moment)
Approximately 1:20 from first bump on Harvard's summit ridge to the summit (based on photo timestamps)
Approximately 1:00 from summit to 13,000 feet on the return
Approximately 2 hours from 13,000 feet to camp
Approximately 2:30 from camp to cars

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51

Comments or Questions
01/30/2020 14:52
I have only done Harvard once - 40+ years ago and I did it from Frenchman Creek (an old CMC guide pamphlet listed it as a "fun" route). I found the false summits/points demoralizing and was beginning to wonder if there really was a summit or if the points were going on forever. I added Columbia on to that trip and remember being tired as hell when I got back to my truck. I can't imagine doing that route in winter. Kudos to you for getting it done! As always, a nice report, Ben.

The summit is all in your mind
01/30/2020 15:03
floats inches above the earth in Lotus position and pulsates a light glow

I felt exactly like you when I did the Harvard/Columbia traverse in 2016. I hadn't even lived in Colorado for a year and the traverse is just grueling and on awful, rocky terrain, then you have the descent off Columbia's southwest slopes which at that time didn't have a CFI trail on it and was basically like sliding down a slope of ball bearings with cacti embedded in them. What kind of evil monster created such a heinous place? So much demoralizing nonsense. All of the fun stopped the moment Madison and I stepped off Harvard's summit. We still trash talk Columbia to this day!

Whiley and I did Columbia's east ridge via Frenchman Creek a week after this Harvard climb (TR to come on that one) and while it was long it was about a thousand times better than the southwest slopes. Not a single cactus and almost no scree at all! Columbia still remains my least favorite 14er due entirely to the southwest slopes but instead of being buried in the Seventh Circle of Hell it's only in like the sixth-ish. Maybe if I climb the Rabbit someday it'll gain a little more redemption.

Thanks for reading, Jay!

Great read!
01/30/2020 15:04
You and Whilyh are animals, keep it up.

01/30/2020 15:08
@LetsGoMets: Thanks, she and I make a pretty darn good peak baggin' slay machine!

yeah this is awesome
01/30/2020 19:21
well done Ben and Whiley! You 2 should slow down so I don't have to do all these by myself someday. Also, mountain high pizza. 👊

What is "slow down"?
01/30/2020 21:04
@Dillon: I'm not sure I know the meaning of the words slow down! Come join us and have fun, none of that tax stuff which we all know is the REAL suffering in winter!

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