Mt. Harvard, South Face

The Ivy League Cost of Admission

Despite a few injuries after a crash at the bottom of the Silver Couloir the day before, Jacob and I planned for one last hurrah before I had to head home. It was the kind of aches and pains where typically I would have rested for a few days, but I felt like I could ski on it and at least not make it worse.

In our extensive planning around the persistent problems, Jacob had pitched the idea of skiing the South Face of Harvard and West Face of Columbia, two 14ers in the Sawatch Range. We had no idea if the West Face of Columbia was “in”, but I still liked the idea because I would get to see a new range and it would be a deeper adventure.

We were a little unsure how far we would be able to get up the Cottonwood Creek Road to the trailhead. Ultimately, we were able to drive about 1.7 miles from the summer trailhead. After a few warm days, the refreeze was getting weaker and our skis occasionally broke through, but mostly we were supported by the crust. It was nice to be out at sunrise for once.

Morning aspen.
Sunrise and moonset.

Luckily, other skiers had come before us and there was a decent skintrack along the trail up Cottonwood Creek. This allowed us to make good time all the way up to the basin beneath Columbia. It took us under 3 hours to break into the alpine.

Looking back at Mt. Yale with an old, inverted skin track.
The west slopes of Columbia looking rather rocky.

This basin was very beautiful and felt substantially more remote than anything so far on this trip. The character of the peaks and valleys around me reminded me more of the Sierra than Colorado. It was a beautiful approach towards Harvard.

Skinning straight towards Harvard.

As we got closer to Harvard, my injuries started to catch up with me. With an arm problem, my skinning muscles had been overcompensating all day to keep up with Jacob, and we had already covered a great distance. My hip flexors and quads suddenly felt exhausted. As the slopes got steeper, we switched to booting, which helped some, but my progress was still terribly slow. I had not felt this bad since Little Tahoma and Big Tahoma last June.

Getting close to the summit of Harvard.

Jacob was waiting for me out of the wind just below the summit. We left our packs and scrambled up surprisingly good rock to the summit together. The views were the best of the trip! We could see all the way from the Elks to the San Juans to the Front Range – nearly all of the mountains in Colorado.

The distant San Juans behind the Sawatch.
The Southern Sawatch.
More summit views.

Mt. Harvard is the 3rd tallest peak in Colorado, less than 20 feet below Mt. Elbert. Even though it was in the mid 80s in Denver on this day, and 70 degrees just below us in Buena Vista, it was puffy weather on the summit with a cold wind.

Jacob getting his PHD in skinning from Harvard.

Down at our packs, we ate lunch and relaxed. The West Face of Columbia was definitely not “in” this year, and I felt too tired to do another peak anyways. But I was happy to have made it to one last summit.

West Face of Columbia: not in.

When we felt ready, we put on our skis and traversed over to the start of our South Face descent. I tested it first and found an interesting snow surface. It was distinctly wintery, with remnants of sastrugi. But in certain lines, the surface was completely planar and the snow was definitely corn. I knew it was going to be good.

Jacob getting his first taste of corn for the season.

Although the run looked pretty bland on the approach, the South Face proved to be a long, excellent corn harvest. The setting above so many high peaks and desert reminded me a lot of the South Face of Ritter in the High Sierra.

Colorado or the Eastern Sierra?

After the steeper South Face, we still had miles and miles of low angle alpine bowl to zip through. Fortunately, the snow here had just softened the perfect amount, so we were able to fly across the gentle slopes. If we had been just an hour later, it would have been a mush fest. Maybe it was a blessing that Columbia was not in!

Cruising out from Harvard.

But all good things must come to an end. Once we reentered the trees, the snow got extremely grabby and mushy. But with some forceful mush skating, we were able to “ski” all the way to the creek crossing at the valley bottom.

At this point, we were only a little over three miles from the car, but we slapped skins on and knew we were in for some rough downhill trailbreaking. The snow surface had completely broken down and we were facing bottomless mushy facets – a Colorado spring specialty. The snowpack here goes all winter without ever consolidating, so once things really warm up, it can get real ugly. Jacob and I joked that this was the “Ivy League cost of admission”.

Downhill trailbreaking – yikes!

The road section was the worst; sometimes we sank past our shins on each step. But with the trip safely in the bag, Jacob and I were able to laugh about it and stay in good spirits. I promised milkshakes in Buena Vista after the finish.

And just like that, my Colorado ski trip was a wrap! Mt. Harvard was a great way to go out, even if my body had a rough day. Incredibly, it was our first ski tour longer than five hours, but that is just a testament to awesome accessibility of Colorado. I really liked the specific descent we did and the Sawatch in general. It was great to see yet another section of the Colorado Rockies and ski a fun line to finish.

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