RT Distance: 14 miles
RT Gain: 4,600′
RT Time: 6.5 hours
Climber(s): Jeff (SurfNTurf)
Mt. Harvard has crooned its siren song in my direction all summer. Of all the 14ers, it was the one I’d least-recently visited, way back in March 2011. I’d also never seen Horn Fork Basin in summer, and because I’d forgotten my camera during that March excursion, Harvard was one of the few 14ers on which I lacked a summit photo. I’ve even toyed with the idea of writing a TR for every 14er. All of those reasons are good and all, but in the end, who needs an excuse to go hiking on a gorgeous summer Saturday?
I woke up at 2:30 a.m. to meet colokeith and a few others for a climb of Kendall Mountain. I’d only managed an hour or two of sleep, and I was so tired I actually felt nauseous. An apologetic text to Keith later, I was back in bed with a new alarm set for 5 a.m. Finally getting in my car, I had no firm idea of where I was going. The I-70/C-470 junction forced me into a decision. Knowing that the forecast in the Sawatch was best, and that Harvard was near the top of my list to repeat, I chose to head down to U.S. 285 and streak toward Buena Vista.
Arriving at an overflowing parking lot at 8 a.m. is an odd feeling. I was always a stickler for starting early, and I still am when it’s warranted, but the forecast was good and the plan was to move fast (for a hiker; I don’t usually run). It actually worked out pretty well. If you want some solitude on a summer 14er, just start super early or super late. I only saw 6-7 people all day until I caught the peloton just short of the summit block.
Walking along the initial trail was like a jaunt down memory lane. Sadly, many of the friends I made that weekend of the Winter Gathering 2011 aren’t around anymore. It was the first time I hiked with James Graham (aka Fletch, now living in California), who would go on to become one of my favorite partners. Terry Mathews, Jim DiNapoli and Steve Gladbach, all three of whom I was encountering for the first time, are no longer with us. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when Steve approached our tent. I was like a 14-year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber. It was my first winter camping trip, and Harvard/Columbia were only something like Nos. 15-16 on the 14ers list for me. I was new to the game, and Steve was a legend.
Because it turned into a reflective walk, I’m going to include some of Jim’s pictures from the March 2011 trip – with credit to the talented photographer, of course.
The trail was surprisingly flat, nothing like I remembered it was we snowshoed in at dusk with 60-pound packs three years prior. The miles melted away. It would be hard to get lost on the well-marked route, but when in doubt, take a right and follow signs for Horn Fork. Campsites start to appear pretty low and continue on up to the highest reaches of treeline. There are some gorgeous spots up there, and I saw a ton of people taking advantage of it. Horn Fork Basin is definitely going on my list of places for a summer overnight. Try as I might, I couldn’t identify the exact meadow that served as base in 2011. The trail seemed to stay too far to hiker’s left.
Breaking timberline, the well-defined trail remained fairly gradual. There are some sections where you have to walk through a veritable willow tunnel, but just look over your shoulder at the stunning views of Mt. Yale every few minutes and the misery will fade.
The route finally steepens at a rocky headwall. After talus hopping for a few hundred feet, you arrive back on a dirt path in a high upper basin. The remaining trail to the blocky summit becomes obvious. There’s a short reprieve on flat ground before it gets very steep as you slog up toward the ridge. I remembered this section being a moderate avalanche concern back in 2011. We took turns sprinting up to the ridge as fast as possible, and then followed the ridge proper instead of the trail down on the face.
About 500 feet short of the summit, I caught the main body of climbers. I’d almost thought Harvard wouldn’t be crowded. Wrong! The standard summer conga line ensued. It wasn’t too bad except for a bottleneck up the Class 2+/3 section right at the base of the summit. It was much more straightforward than my previous ascent, when snow covered the obvious path and we faced a terrifyingly exposed scramble to the top.
My goal had been to top out in three hours or less, but it took me roughly 3:15. I’m still carrying a bit of surgery weight and I haven’t gotten out as much as usual this summer. Ah well. Good motivation to train harder. I lingered on the summit for 20-30 minutes, snapped the coveted #summitselfie, and started down just as graupel was beginning to fall at 11:45 a.m.
As usual, once I finally gave in and put on my rain gear, the precipitation stopped within minutes. I thought about jogging down the trail to see what kind of RT time I was capable of, but I was enjoying the hike too much. Long-forgotten memories from 2011 came flooding back. It was great to remember friends and experiences that seem a lifetime ago. Not to mention, Horn Fork Basin is a pretty special place.
I returned to the car at 2:30 p.m., roughly 6.5 hours RT with a very casual descent pace. I had to stay in the hills (not complaining) to lead a Colorado Mountain Club hike Sunday, so after a pizza and a couple beers at Eddyline, I set up camp at the free dispersed sites across from the Avalanche Gulch TH. I sipped a few Dale’s, made a small fire, and read Anatoli Boukreev’s Above the Clouds in between periods of continued reflection. I’m a social hiker and I enjoy exploring the mountains with friends, but sometimes, a little solitude can cleanse the soul.