Chaffee County Highpoint Trip Report

Mount Harvard (14,420 ft)

Date: May 22, 2004
Author: Kevin Baker

North Cottonwood Trailhead - "Death March on the Snow"

My friend Matt Williams and I departed Colorado Springs at 4 AM with hopes of conquering either Harvard or Columbia. The southeast slopes of Columbia looked pretty bare, so we decided that at least the southwest slopes would be safe as well. We would make a decision between Harvard and Columbia later. The forest road leading to the North Cottonwood trailhead was clear.

We started out just after 7 AM with a temp of 30 degrees and mostly clear skies. There were 3 other cars at the trailhead, so maybe this was a good sign that there wasn't too much snow to handle. Yeah right! The trail starts at around 9900 feet and we began to encounter intermittent snow patches over the trail but not enough to don the snowshoes. The snow was well consolidated from the storm a week before, but we were concerned that this would be a problem coming down. At around 11,000 feet, the snow covered the trail at a depth of 1-3 feet so we put on our snowshoes. Stunning views in the Horn Fork Basin opened up above tree line, as we caught our first glimpse of the impressive south slopes of Harvard. From 3 miles away, it looked like Harvard could be safely climbed without crampons as there were patches of dry rock leading to the summit. At this point, we decided to bag it since it is the 4th highest in the lower 48 and also the Chaffee County highpoint, which is another list I am working on.

At around 12,000 feet, we found the trail again and took off our snowshoes. After cresting the southeast ridge of Point 13598, it became apparent that we needed to make a decision on the avalanche danger. With my limited knowledge of the threat of an avalanche, we decided to not take any risks and skirted the snow fields by following the ridge to just below Point 13598 and then joined the south ridge of Harvard. This added some altitude gain but we both felt like the summit was within reach. On this ridge there were a few cornices that we had to watch out for that hung over the oblivion of Harvard's west slopes. After gaining the saddle at around 13,400 feet, we decided to stay off the ridge and follow the bare spots. From this vantage point, it seemed like most of the steep snow fields could be avoided.

Only 200 vertical feet from the summit, we came across a steep snow field that could not be avoided. With our limited experience, this was going to be a challenge but we proceeded with caution. The angle was probably no more than 35 degrees but you would be going for a long ride if you slipped! At one point, the snow was too hard to plunge my ice axe into, so I traversed across to the next set of rocks where the snow was softer. Harvard has some fun scrambling that gets a lot trickier when the options are limited by snow. We finally got above the snow and make it to the summit at 1:26 PM. I topped out first and gave my usual yell and Matt thought I had fallen, as he was still negotiating the snow field. The temp was 20 degrees on the summit with snow showers in the area. We were fortunate enough to have nice weather as the wind wasn't too bad and the rain/snow stayed away. We found the register and noted that nobody had signed it since late October, which probably meant it was buried all winter.

After pictures and refueling for 30 minutes, we decided to head back down. This time we wisely stayed on the ridge to avoid most of the snow down to the saddle. We toyed with the idea of glissading from the saddle where it wasn't quite so steep but the snow was very soft. We would have post-holed forever in the high basin. We followed our route on the ridge, then found our snowshoes near the trail. From this point on, it was a slow death march back to our car as the crusty snow we had enjoyed coming up turned to mush. Our snowshoes did little to help, so we plodded down at a rate of less than one mile per hour. Both of us also ran out of water just below the summit, adding to the misery. We both went through 3 quarts pretty quick, so I will remember to avoid that mistake on longer hikes. I felt pretty strong until struggling in the snow without water. We ate some snow to help out but there were many colorful flavors to be had in the basin, and not too many were vanilla!

We finally made it to tree line, and it had already taken us 5 hours! Both of us felt pretty weak at this point but we were bailed out by some campers who gave us some of their filtered water. We felt refreshed after hydrating ourselves and took off our snowshoes for good. We hiked the final 30 minutes with our headlamps, and made it back to the car at 9:12 PM, which was the first time it had taken me longer to get down than up. We must have set the record for the slowest decent of Harvard!

Hike statistics: About 13 miles round trip; 5000 feet of elevation gain;
                      6 hours 26 minutes up and 7 hours 12 minutes down.