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On Walkabout On: Mt. Columbia via the Mt. Harvard Traverse

Basic Information

  • Name: Mt. Columbia
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Where: Buena Vista, Colorado
  • Max Elevation: 14,073 feet
  • Distance:  15 miles round-trip via Mt. Harvard
  • Elevation Gain: 6,100 feet
  • Time: 10-14 hours round-trip
  • Difficulty: EasyModerateHardDifficult
  • More Information: 14ers.com

The Traverse to Mt. Columbia

Mt. Columbia Route1

Topographic Map of the Route

Elevation Map of Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia

Narrative

After hiking up the 14,420 foot Mt. Harvard I decided to go ahead and try to complete the traverse over to the 14,073 foot Mt. Columbia.  It was now 9:30 AM and the weather reports I saw before departing for the hike forecasted possible rainstorms beginning around 2:00 PM.  Though clouds were beginning to form around Mt. Columbia I decided to trust the weather reports and attempt the traverse:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The mountain goats that had followed me up to the summit of Mt. Harvard only followed me for a short distance on the traverse.  They obviously knew better than I did that this traverse was not going to be a whole lot of fun. The traverse started out innocently enough with some easy rock scrambling across the ridgeline extending from Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is the view looking back towards the summit of Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Some of the rocks were still a bit slick from the snowfall the night prior, but it was really nothing to worry about:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

As I walked along the ridgeline I had some great views looking across the Horn Creek Basin towards the mighty peaks of the Southern Sawatch Range:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

You can read my prior trip reports from these mountains at the below links:

Up ahead of me I could see a pointy rock outcropping I was going to need to get around:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I first descended down this gully which led to the base of the rock outcropping:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

At the base of the rock outcropping I spotted another trail leading up this gully that ended up taking me around it:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a panorama from the rock outcropping looking back down into Horn Creek Basin:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

On the other side of the rock outcropping the trail turned into a beautiful walk across a high alpine meadow:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

In the distance to the Northeast I could see the Mosquito Range from the meadow:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The Mosquito Range has a collection of five 14ers which I have all hiked.  You can read about all of my prior hikes up these mountains at the below link:

Here is the view looking behind me back towards Mt. Harvard from the meadow:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The bump on the far left of the above picture is the summit of Mt. Harvard.  From the meadow I could actually see people moving around up there to include the goats.  In the below picture for those who look closely the white mountain goat can be seen:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

At this point I am thinking this traverse isn’t too bad and actually quite a nice hike.  However, ahead me I had Mt. Columbia which is where the difficulties on this traverse would begin:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

At the halfway point of the traverse the route becomes much more difficult due to the need to cross over a large section of very loose talus rock:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

This part of the traverse begins by crossing a mountain of talus known as Point 13,516:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a view from Point 13,516 looking back down on the meadow with the Mosquito Range in the distance:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The rock on the slopes of Point 13,516 was not too bad to traverse across.  However, towards the far end of the point I needed to descend to reach a gully that would be safer to continue the traverse on compared to if I just kept going straight across Point 13,516.  Descending down on this point I had to be careful because of loose rock::

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I soon reached the top of a gully that provided easier access down to the talus field below:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

From the top of this gully I had a good view of the remaining route towards Mt. Columbia:

Mt. Columbia Route2

The descent down the lower gully was a steep dirt trail, but easily managed.  The descent ended at about 12,800 feet where I then had to begin regaining elevation as I crossed the expansive talus field.  The traverse across the talus field was not a lot of fun due to all the loose rock. I took very slow and deliberate steps through all this rock to avoid turning an ankle or twisting a knee.  As crossed this section of talus, behind me I could see Point 13,516 and the gully on the upper reaches of the point that the 14ers.com route description does not recommend taking:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

As I did the traverse across the talus field I could actually here someone with a dog above me doing the technical traverse across the “Rabbit Ears” above me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I would actually run into this guy later on in the day while walking back to the trailhead and found out he had to put his dog in his backpack to do many parts of the traverse. For the non-technical traverse I was doing this is basically what I had to deal with the entire way across the talus field, piles and piles of large, loose rock:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

At one point I had a loose rock shift and roll and hit me hard in the shin and cause me to fall down on to another rock.  My shin was cut up and bruised pretty badly while my butt even two weeks later is still sore from the fall.  Here is what my shin looked like:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I always carry a first-aid kit with me so I was able to bandage it up.  However, my shin and butt remained quite sore the rest of the hike.  Anyway here is a view looking back at Point 13,516 from further across the talus field where the bottom right is the lower gully that I descended to reach the talus field:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The 14er.com route description called this section a “world of talus”.  I thought of it more as “talus hell” because that is how it felt.  Eventually I was able to climb my way out the talus hell and up to a bench below Mt. Columbia that was a mixture of rocks and grass:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The walk to the base of Mt. Columbia was a pleasant break from the talus hell that I had just experienced.  I may have been free from talus hell for now, but something else that was worrying me was the brewing storm behind Mt. Columbia:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

With Mt. Columbia blocking the view I could not tell how bad the storm behind it was.  I could not hear any thunder or see any lightning so it appeared to be safe to ascend.  Additionally it was now 12:00 PM and the weather forecast I saw said storms would not form until 2:00 PM.  Though concerned I figured I had little choice, but to continue to the summit of Mt. Columbia because there was really no other way to go to get back down into Horn Creek Basin from where I was at.  The hike up Mt. Columbia featured more loose talus that I had to ascend:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

This talus actually wasn’t as bad as what I experienced during the traverse.  However, due to my sore shin and also the exertion of the hike so far catching up with me I made slow, but steady progress up towards the summit:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Eventually though the summit came into view and with a burst of energy I powered my way to the top:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I had planned to reach the summit of Mt. Columbia in 2 hours and 30 minutes, but it ended up taking me 3 hours and 15 minutes to complete the traverse as I arrived on the summit at 12:45 PM.  So it ended up taking me 45 minutes just to complete the final summit ascent.  The summit like most of the mountain consisted of nothing more than a pile of talus rock:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Mt. Columbia like the other mountains in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is named after a famous college.  Unlike Mt. Harvard and Mt. Yale that were named in 1869 and started the naming tradition in the area; Mt. Columbia did not receives its name until 1916.  The person that named the peak was Roger Toll who was putting summit register on the Sawatch Peaks on behalf of the Colorado Mountain Club.  Toll was a 1906 graduate of Columbia University and thus why he named it Mt. Columbia.  I have to wonder if back in 1916 if Mr. Toll found himself cursing while climbing this peak like people today tend to?

Picture of Roger Toll during his time as Superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park from 1921-1929. (NPS website)

Anyway from the summit of Mt. Columbia I did have a good look back across the traverse from Mt. Harvard I had just completed:

Mt. Columbia Route3

The traverse doesn’t look that hard when looking at it from a distance, but I knew from personal experience how difficult navigating all the loose talus rock during the traverse can be.  I did end up having the summit all to myself, not counting the friendly marmot that showed up to greet me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The marmot was not as cool as hanging out with two mountain goats, but he was welcome company nonetheless:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The views from Mt. Columbia to the Northwest of Mt. Harvard are quite spectacular especially since I could see the entire route I took up Horn Creek Basin to reach its summit:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Looking towards the Northeast I could see some really nice grassy slopes that looked like a much more pleasant, but longer route to the summit of Mt. Columbia:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Looking to the East I could see the Arkansas River Valley and the small town of Buena Vista down below:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

To the Southeast I could a large storm brewing over Mt. Princeton:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a panorama photo of the view towards the East framed by Mt. Harvard on the far left and Mt. Princeton on the far right:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

To the South the views were dominated by Mt. Yale:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The views to the Southwest from Mt. Columbia were quite nice as well as I could see the Three Apostles (left) and Huron Peak (center) out in the distance:

Bear Lake as Seen from Mt. Columbia

Here is closer look at the Three Apostles and Huron Peak:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

You can read about my prior hike up the 14,003 foot Huron Peak at the below link:

Here is a panorama photo from the summit of Mt. Columbia looking South which is framed by Mt. Yale on the far left and Mt. Harvard on the far right:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I ended up spending about 20 minutes on the summit of Mt. Columbia where fortunately the storm that appeared to be brewing over it had broken up and the weather ended up being quite beautiful as I descended the mountain:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The initial descent of Mt. Columbia featured more loose talus rock, but eventually changed to a trail that crosses a grassy meadow:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The walk along the Mt. Columbia ridgeline towards the East ended up being longer than I expected:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is the view looking back towards the summit of Mt. Columbia with Mt. Harvard visible in the distance:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is another look back towards Mt. Columbia from further down the ridgeline:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

There is a section where a number of social trails descend down a steep scree gully.  I think this is where many people make the mistake of descending down the mountain this way.  That scree gully looked absolutely horrible to try and descend.  Instead I continued to follow the ridgeline trail that eventually began to lead down a less steep slope on Mt. Columbia:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is the view from the start of the descent back towards the Mt. Columbia summit:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The above picture shows that the walk along the ridgeline is about a mile long before descending.  I highly recommend not descending on an earlier social trail.  The descent down the main trail at first really wasn’t that bad.  The trail was steep, but I wasn’t slipping and sliding like I was on the descent of Mt. Bross:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The trail I also thought was pretty easy to stay on because of the cairns and markers that someone tied on to some of the rocks:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

During the descent of Mt. Columbia I had great views of Mt. Yale right in front of me the entire way down:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

During the descent I also had a good look at the Sangre de Cristo Range and was happy I decided not to hike there on this weekend because its high peaks were covered in storm clouds:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

During the descent there wasn’t a whole lot of wildflowers to be seen because of all the rocks, but occasionally I could spot a few growing along the trail:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Eventually the trail began to run parallel to the horrible scree field that the social trails I saw earlier descended down.  That scree field just looked awful to try and descend down:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Across from the scree field I could see the beautiful Bear Lake in the distance:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Looking straight down Mt. Columbia’s slopes I could also see a small lake tucked away in the trees:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a closer look at the lake:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

The further I descended the trail the more steep it became, but I found as long as I stayed on the established trail I had no problems maintaining my footing:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is another look at the beautiful Mt. Yale looming in front of me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I also now had a good look at Mt. Princeton during the descent for the first time since the storm clouds that had engulfed it had finally parted:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I was being very careful on the descent which meant I was going pretty slow so two young hikers ended up catching up with me.  We walked together for a little while, but we then reached a very steep portion of the trail where we began to roll small rocks on to each other.  I told them to go ahead and I would just sit here to get some spacing between us before descending again.  I was more worried about hitting their dog they brought with them with one of the small rocks.  So they went on ahead while I sat down  and enjoyed the views:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

I sat for about 15 minutes to get ourselves some good spacing and this big thistle plant was my companion:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is the view looking up towards Mt. Harvard from where I was sitting:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a panorama of the view directly in front of me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is a panorama view looking back up towards Mt. Columbia where to the center-right is the path I descended while the nasty looking scree field can be seen on the center-left:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Eventually the two young hikers and their dog were far enough ahead of me that I could start safely descending without kicking rocks on to them:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

This section of the trail due to the steepness and loose rock was very slippery.  My trekking poles were useful to help me descend.  Eventually though I was able to work my way down to where treeline was just ahead of me:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

It was a great feeling to be back within the trees and not have to worry about talus rock or scree again:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Here is the view from treeline looking back up towards Mt. Columbia:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

As I walked through the trees I crossed a meadow that afforded me one last opportunity to view Mt. Harvard:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

One thing to keep in mind after descending Mt. Columbia is that it is a long walk back to the trailhead.  Once back on the main trail it is a 3.5 mile walk back to the trailhead.  Fortunately the scenery is quite nice:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Eventually the trail gets engulfed in trees and there is little to see:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

On the lower sections of the trail it begins to run adjacent to the creek again.  I could only hear the creek during the early morning hours I was ascending the trail, but now I could actually see it:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

My legs were so tired and beat up from dealing with the loose rock that I could not jog back to the trailhead.  So it took me a bit longer than usual to get back, but it was a welcome feeling to see the trailhead once I did get there:

Picture from Mt. Harvard & Mt. Columbia

Conclusion

In total it took me 11 hours and 50 minutes to complete the 15 mile round-trip hike up Mt. Harvard, the traverse over to Mt. Columbia, and then the descent back to the trailhead.  So that is why I think for most people budgeting 10-14 hours for this hike is reasonable.  After having done this traverse though I would not want to do it again.  In fact I would not even want to hike up Mt. Columbia again.  That mountain is garbage.  All the loose talus rock and scree do not make for a pleasant day out in the mountains.  The only way I would recommend this mountain to anyone is if their goal is to hike all the 14ers.  For people just looking for a pleasant day hike with nice view, avoid this mountain.

On the other hand I highly recommend Mt. Harvard.  It is a long 14 mile round-trip hike that probably makes it not an ideal day hike for most people, but it is well worth the time and effort to hike up it.  Horn Creek Basin is stunning, the trail is in great shape most of the way up, the final summit approach has a fun little rock climb, and the views from the top are outstanding.  Plus there are even friendly goats willing to guide people up the mountain!  Unlike Mt. Columbia, I have nothing, but great things to say about Mt. Harvard.

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