Colorado: Hiking Mount Harvard

Exploring the Collegiate Range

Missouri Peak, where a father and daughter died early this summer.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

The Collegiate Peaks west of Buena Vista provide many beautiful and challenging hikes within an hour of Summit County. The peaks are part of one of the ten largest wilderness areas in the U.S. Over the past several years, I have scrambled over the long boulder fields of Mount Harvard a few times. At 14,420 feet, the summit of Harvard is the third highest Fourteener in Colorado

My first ascent of Harvard on a hot August day ended with me hunkered down in a blinding snowstorm with a covey of ptarmigan among the rocks at about 13,000 feet, then drenched in a heavy rain on my retreat down Frenchman Creek.

Mount Columbia summit, 14,073 feet, from the Frenchman Creek route on the east face of Mount Harvard.

Last year, I followed a guidebook description to summit both Harvard and Columbia during a day hike from North Cottonwood trailhead. I calculated the duration of the hike from the trailhead south of Mount Harvard, while the author assumed that the day hike began from a base camp at Horn Fork Basin immediately below the summit.

I reached the summit of Harvard mid-afternoon after nervously ascending a crack along a rather smooth face immediately below. While I took photographs, a thunderstorm shattered the sky with lightning strikes on Missouri Peak. I dropped down the north side of the ridge, crossing east along the boulder field and followed a pathway to the very steep ridge connecting Harvard and Columbia.  As the sun dipped, I lost any trace of a trail and slipped a thousand feet down to Frenchman Creek on a gravel-coated chute.

A view of the North Cottonwood route to the summit of Mount Harvard.

When I reached the valley floor, I realized that I had two hours of sunlight remaining and at least a three-hour ascent of Columbia remaining, with no idea of the cliffs or hiking routes on the second peak. My tent and sleeping bag were ten miles away at North Cottonwood Trailhead. Therefore, I descended to tree-line, where I knew of a sheltered campsite where I could rest against a rock for the night. I awoke shivering with mild hypothermia at five in the morning.  A mouse was doing a technical climb up my back and scolding me for occupying his nest.

The rock I slept against last year without sleeping bag or tent, when I discovered the guidebook by Colorado Mountain Club did not start its description from North Cottonwood Trailhead, but from the base of Mount Harvard. The hike took 28 hours, including the night of hypothermia.

I reached the summit of Columbia at eight the next morning. Then, I discovered a trail, never mentioned in the guidebook, leading south from the summit to North Cottonwood Trailhead.  The dual-peak day hike was a twenty-eight hour adventure.

Based on my experience from last summer, I decided to plan an overnight trip this fall from the eastern approach at Frenchman Creek Trailhead at Chaffee County 386, twenty-eight miles south of Leadville or about eight miles north of Buena Vista. I parked at a campsite identifying the unmarked low-clearance trailhead at 8,700 feet and hiked west three miles up to the junction with the Colorado Trail. Beyond the meeting of the trails, I made my base camp at 11,000 feet in a few inches of snow.  Unlike my night of chills last year, I was comfortably warm in a down jacket and zero-degree sleeping bag.

Before slipping-off to sleep, I boiled three quarts of water and stuffed them down by my frozen feet.  Next morning, I enjoyed hot chocolate and beef jerky for breakfast before following Frenchman Creek a couple of miles west and crossed the stream at 11,940 feet to the north side of the valley. Four hours from base camp, I reached the top of the ridge between Columbia and Harvard. I spent the next three hours crossing the boulder field on the south face beneath the false summits of Harvard.  Regaining the ridge, I scrambled up the final steps to the summit, eight miles from the lower trailhead.  With a crystal-clear sky surrounding me, the views of the Collegiate Peaks were spectacular.

I reached base camp by sunset. After packing and filtering another quart of water, I turned-on my headlamp for the hike out of the wilderness and arrived at the trailhead a couple hours later.

Rock rings destroy the appearance of wilderness campsites and create islands of soil compaction that ruins plant life.
The long boulder field to the summit of Mount Harvard.
Scramble over the boulders of Mount Harvard, with Mount Columbia in the background.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

More stories by Kim Fenske:


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