The *in*famous Harvard Columbia Traverse.
First you climb to 14,420 feet on Mount Harvard (3rd highest in Colorado, 4th highest in the continental US), then a long grueling traverse over to 14,078 feet on Mount Columbia. And when you’re done with that, then you get to slip and slide down the dreaded switchbacks on Mount Columbia to reach Horn Fork Basin and hike out.
I have absolutely no idea why this sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday other than to check #24 and #25 off the 14er list after bagging Mount Princeton yesterday.
Climbs are rated by a number of things – commitment, route finding, rockfall, exposure, and difficulty.
Once you’re out there, can you bail? If something happens here, how do I get out, or how do the emergency folks get to me? Once you’re on the Traverse, the only way out is back over the peak of Harvard or Columbia. I believe that counts as commitment.
Is this a nice well-marked path, or am I eyeballing it and maybe backtracking quite a bit when I realize the route I picked cliffs out or isn’t climbable without full gear?
If you’re not very good at this, get a hiking buddy who is or you might become a statistic.
What’s the chance I’m going to get hit in the head from rocks falling down from above?
After watching 70mph missles whizzing past us down the Death Coulior on Mont Blanc when I climbed it in 2020, this is one I take very seriously.
If I slip, do I land on a nice soft mattress or plunge 3,000 feet to my death? The same exact climbing movements take on a whole new meaning when the outcome of a slip changes your chance of survival.
Garden path or vertical wall?
Handrails or handholds?
ADA-compliant or YDS rating?
The Harvard Columbia Traverse data on 14ers.com
Difficulty: Class 2
Rockfall Potential: High
STOP! Yes, this is the standard way to climb Harvard and Columbia in one day but it’s a long, strenuous hike, on rocky terrain, WITHOUT A TRAIL. If you’re a novice hiker, consider doing these peaks separately, on different days. There have been many Search and Rescue (SAR) missions on this route because of ill-prepared or inexperienced hikers.
This is a longer post than usual – feel free to skip the read and go straight to the pretty photos.
AllTrails lists the hike as 16.3 miles and 5,941 feet of elevation, but we lopped a little over 3.5 miles off of this by hiking into the Horn Fork Basin yesterday and setting up camp. It’s nice to have a night under the stars and chop some mileage off at the same time.
0430 planned departure.
It’s nice to hear rustling in Greg’s tent showing that he’s also on schedule and not a liability. If I had to wake him up on our first outing, there’s no second outing coming.
Definitely better than the 26.2 degrees when I woke up last weekend to climb Mount Yale.
0450 trail start. Being old geezers, we both moved a little slower than planned.
Still plenty dark.
Still plenty of stars.
Still plenty cold.
We opted for Harvard first for two reasons – most of our hike in the dark would be on relatively nice terrain before hitting the climb up Harvard, and then we’d be coming down the crappy Columbia switchbacks instead of slogging up them. You guys reading this and planning on doing the loop – definitely do Harvard first.
We made great time heading up Harvard, and thought that we might get sunrise at the peak but we were rewarded with a brilliant sunburst over the traverse instead.
Up Up Up
Follow the Leader
A short stay on the summit with the mandatory summit photos, then off to the traverse.
Under the Moonlight
Join the Club
As we were climbing Harvard, we saw a couple of young guys coming up the trail behind us down in the basin. We thought they could catch up to us on the summit with the way they were moving, but they were still on their way up as we exited stage right and headed for the traverse.
Serious Fall Color
Harvard Columbia Traverse
We saw the same climbers behind us as we entered the traverse, they had opted for a much higher line than we took. They scrambled down some crazy loose rock and we all ended up together among some massive rocks in the boulder field. Being older and *cough* wiser, we waited for them to go through as they were moving much faster than us and we could watch their route to make our climb easier.
I heard one of them tell the other “I really need to remember that I’m in the mountains at altitude, no big movements”. Pretty smart for young fellas…
Towards the Rabbit Ears
By this time the fatigue of doing two hard days in a row was starting to catch up, and my concentration wavered just enough – bam. Caught a hiking pole in a joint and ended up with a double knee-plant into a massive boulder, tearing my pants, skinning up the knees, swelling them both up like grapefruits. Ouch. At least I don’t have to get Leki to warranty a broken hiking pole again…
Note to Self
Glad That’s Done
Partway Done with the Harvard Columbia Traverse
The Last Push
Now it’s time for the last push up Mount Columbia. Where’s the trail? What section of rock sucks the least? Why am I about to fall off a cliff if I move to the right?
One of my biggest fears of a new climbing partner was differences in speed. Now my knees were the liability.
Luckily Greg was feeling the climb too, so we decided we’d do 100 feet of elevation at time, then rest. It sounds pretty sad if you armchair quarterback it, but feel free to walk a mile in our shoes – and please carry us old geezers up while you do it.
Finally – the last slog is done. We didn’t linger too long on the Mount Columbia summit, as we knew that the traverse had taken us much longer than our pre-climb plan had alloted. Just like diving – plan the dive, dive the plan. Mandatory summit photos with Harvard in the background, and time to head down.
Across The Basin
Speaking of down – the Columbia switchbacks are terrible. Loose steep downhill is killer on the knees, even with poles.
We were both ecstatic when we reached the lower part of the switchbacks where CFI (Colorado Fourteeners Initiative) has done an amazing job rebuilding and making the switchbacks much more manageable.
Throughout the downhill switchbacks I was definitely the weakest link, with my right knee swelling up to the point I couldn’t bend it so I had to slow stutter-step down each drop in the trail and let my hip take the impact instead of the springy knees. Add sore hips to the old-man gripe list.
After popping a few Advil and breaking down camp, the packs went back to backpacking-level heavy. Despite being downhill the entire way and walking at my normal pace due to having anti-inflammatories in my system, the hike out took us as long as the uphill hike in.
The idea of a cold beer and a burger as big as my head was sooooo tempting, but I realized that my pipe dream of climbing Mount Huron tomorrow just wasn’t happening, which means a 4-hour drive home through the mountains. A full belly and a beer aren’t conducive to driving in the dark with elk, deer, bear, and tourists to contend with, so Greg and I parted ways in Buena Vista – he did the short drive home to Denver and I settled in for the long drive home to NoCo.
Hopefully the knee is a short-term issue that the hot tub and some downtime this week gets things back to normal, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be doing any more multi-day 14ers this year.