Hiking Mount Harvard 14er from Frenchman Creek
August 15, 2016
Keep hiking: Read on for more 14er ascents from local expert Kim Fenske, including Missouri Mountain in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.
The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness stretches across 168,000 acres of central Colorado between Leadville and Buena Vista. This swath of the Sawatch Range has the highest average elevation of any designated wilderness area in the United States. There are 10 14ers in the vicinity, including: Mount Harvard (14,420 feet), Mount Columbia (14,073 feet), Mount Oxford (14,153 feet), Mount Belford (14,197 feet), Missouri Mountain (14,067 feet), Huron Peak (14,005 feet), La Plata Peak (14,336 feet), Mount Yale (14,196 feet), Mount Antero (14,269 feet) and Mount Princeton (14,197 feet).
While I have repeatedly slept beside all of these peaks on successful and thwarted attempts to seek the summits, I think that Mount Harvard is the most challenging of the collegiate peaks, and, possibly, the most rugged, massive and beautiful. The ridge of false summits is spiked with boulders, like the protective plates on the back of a Stegosaurus. The south face has intermittent layers of huge boulders and spires, interrupted with smooth, sandy, steep chutes that threaten death for anyone foolish enough to ascend them in hopes of reaching the summit. The north face is fully plated with more granite blocks that extend across the fortress wall for more than a mile. However, the gracefully sloped tundra on the east face of Mount Harvard is filled with brilliant sunflowers, the stunted stalks and massive blooms of old-man-of-the-mountain, showy blue columbine, clinging sky pilot and thickets of waist-high willows.
The approach from the Frenchman Creek watershed that lies east of Mount Harvard is my favorite. North Cottonwood Canyon is the most popular trailhead to the summits of Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia. However, I appreciate the solitude and scenic beauty that I find beside Frenchman Creek.
After driving up U.S. Forest Service Road No. 386 to the low-clearance trailhead at 9,000 feet, I threw my backpack over my shoulders and began my ascent an hour before sunset. Knowing that this is a dry approach along a dusty ridge for several miles, I carried two liters of ice-cold water and was drenched with sweat within a half-hour. I passed ponderosa pines and aspen stands with montane wildflowers at the low elevation. I reached the high-clearance trailhead 2.4 miles into my ascent at 10,300 feet as the sun dropped behind the mountains, and I soon crossed over Frenchman Creek in the darkness.
I continued along the steep remnants of a long-abandoned mining road that narrowed to a fine path near the intersection with the Colorado Trail, which lies 3.7 miles from my start at 10,900 feet. I found a through-hiker resting in a hammock at the nearby dispersed campsite and so I continued up the trail.
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I heard the rushing flow of Frenchman Creek through stands of fir, spruce and willow shrubs in the sub-alpine forest community. At 11,550 feet, five miles from the start, I broke into an open meadow where the remains of a miner's cabin rest beside the stream. I prepared my base camp, stared a moment at the thick ocean of stars surrounding the Milky Way, and quickly slipped off to sleep.
The sun broke into my tent at 7 a.m., but I was in no hurry. I devoured a package of hard salami, corn chips and an apple with a liter of coffee mixed with hot chocolate. I saved pasta with a blend of cheeses for dinner. After dripping a couple of extra liters of water through my water filter to carry on my daypack, I departed for the summit.
Soon, I broke out of the forest and crossed Frenchman Creek again at 12,000 feet to hike up into the blossoming tundra on the steep slope north of the stream. Two hours from my base camp, I approached the ridge between Mount Columbia and Mount Harvard, found 8.5 miles from the start at 13,000 feet.
I continued up a clear path ascending the lower ridge. Then, I crossed into the boulder field on the south face of Mount Harvard. Not remembering my precise approach from previous assaults, I became cliffed-out with some exposure at 14,170 feet. Three hours later, I had traced my path back to a short saddle that led me over to the north face of Mount Harvard. From there, I scrambled on handholds up a steep chute lined with small boulders to gain the upper ridge at 14,200 feet and 10.1 miles into my adventure.
On the spiny back of Mount Harvard the path was clear and nearly flat, except where the protective spines emerged and forced me to conduct further path finding among the boulders tumbling north of the ridge to reach the summit.
How to get there
The Frenchman Creek trailhead to Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia is 52 miles south of Copper Mountain. Travel south on Highway 91 from the exit 195 of Interstate 70 to Leadville. Continue south on Highway 24 from Leadville to Chaffee County Road 386 at mile marker 203. Turn right, heading west, and proceed two miles uphill until U.S. Forest Service Road No. 386 splits and becomes a high-clearance access at 9,000 feet. Park in the level dispersed campsites nearby. The high-clearance trailhead is 2.4 miles farther at 10,300 feet, near the entrance to the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.
Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails throughout Colorado. His writing includes "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties" and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," available from Amazon Kindle Books.
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