.:Getting to the trailhead:.
From Denver, drive SW down the 285 corridor through the expansive South Park area of Colorado and all the way to Johnson's Corner and the intersection with US 24. Turn north on US24 to Buena Vista. Measure from the ONE stoplight in town, and go north from the light 0.4 miles and turn left (west) on Chaffee County 350. Follow 350 for 2 miles until you hit a "T", and then turn right (north) on Chaffee County 361. Drive 0.9 miles and take a sharp left onto Chaffee County 365, which is where the pavement ends. Follow 365 as is swings west and into the San Isabel National Forest. Go about 5.1 miles or so, until the road ends. It gets a little bumpy, but most vehicles should have no problems. There's a big turnaround at the end of the road and tons of parking.
(...continued from the Mt. Harvard trip report...)
From the summit of Mt. Harvard, my two new climbing compatriots (Kurt and Todd) and I headed off along Rabbit Ridge, the 2.2 mile connection from Harvard to Columbia. We had no intention of sticking exactly to the ridge, as it becomes a class 5 climb after about ¾ of a mile. That first stretch is a wonderful little ridge hike across not-too steep rocks and gentle saddles. Your USGS map should note a point 13,516 right about here. This is where we had to make a decision. We didn't want to drop too faSr down and lose too much elevation, but we couldn't stick too close to the ridgeline, either. Right after the 13,516 point, a cliff drove us down the east side of the ridge to the point where the boulders gave way to grassier slopes. We should've angled down the slopes a lot sooner, so the descent was a steep, slow boulder hop. Finally we leveled out below the ridgeline at 13,000 ft. Taking a breather, we tried to decide what the easiest route up Columbia would be, as there was no sign of a trail anywhere. A number of others had come down this far, then climbed back closer to the ridgeline, and were slowing making their way to Columbia across the sparse snow and rocks. We decided to try a gentler approach, and followed the grassy slopes up the north side of Columbia, eventually intersecting the northeast ridge. Columbia was an imposing yet impressive symmetric point above us.
The going was steep and a little slow, but we were actually gaining on the folks in front of us, who were trekking across much rougher ground. We finally gained the northeast ridge and left the grassy slopes, trading them for the rubble that makes up the last several hundred feet to the summit. Finally, at 1:30, we topped Columbia, tired and sore from the traverse from Harvard. I hadn't expected anything nearly so grueling and time consuming. We rested and congratulated each other, soaking in the panoramic views of Harvard and the Horn Fork Basin below us. To the south of us, Yale and Princeton sat side by side, while Antero, Shavano, and Tabagauche were getting lost in the gathering storms. To the east we could take in many miles of the Arkansas Valley and the town of Buena Vista, looking very small indeed from up here. To the west, we couldn't see anything but the gathering storms, including several flashes of lightning and rolling peals of thunder. 1:30 is pretty late to be on a 14er summit, especially in the summer, when the afternoon storms all almost as reliable as the sun rising and setting. We gobbled some sustenance and took off from Columbia, heading down the ridgeline.
The guidebooks all mention the West Slopes route of Columbia for ascent and descent, so we followed the trail as best we could. The trail follows the ridgeline south for about 1/3 ~ 1/2 mile and then drops pretty much straight down the west slope to treeline where it picks up the Horn Fork Basin trail. That's the dry description. What happened to Kurt and Todd and myself was somewhat more...colorful. As we headed down the ridge, we spied another group descending, and followed them to the point where the trail turned west and down the side of Columbia. The trail in this colouir is full of VERY loose gravel and scree. We spent about an hour scree-surfing. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, scree surfing involves descending on very loose rock and dirt, to the point where each step you take slides anywhere from several inches to several feet. It's a pretty severe exercise in balance. Lean too far back, and you'll sliding down on your butt. Too far forward, and you'll faceplant in the rocks. On several occasions, we accidentally dislodged several large rocks (always yelling "ROCK", in order to alert anyone below), which bounced down to the mountain sometimes for several hundred yards. Everyone picked a different line to follow down in order to avoid hitting anyone else. Finally, 1500 below our starting point, the slope ended and we stopped at treeline to empty the rocks from our boots. Urgh. For those of you following the trip report from the beginning, you can imagine how tired we were by now. It was 2:30 in the afternoon, and we had all been on the trail since around 6:15 in the morning. We'd climbed 2 14ers, including a grueling drop to 13,000 feet between the two, and now this extremely hairy descent. However, we still had to get back to the trailhead, and now we were racing the weather, as the clouds closed in overhead and thunder and lightning provided a continuous display of Colorado weather at its most dangerous.
After a brief rest, we threaded our way back to the main trail, passing a number of campsites. We passed a huge army-style mess tent set up by the Colorado 14er Initiative people, who were spending the week working on the Harvard trail. A couple of the volunteers were starting to prepare dinner for the ~15 volunteers. We chatted for a few minutes about the benefits of the 14er Initiative Project (designed to help soften the environmental impact caused by thousands and thousands of hikers), the really bad trail we'd just come down, and so on. Finally, it was back onto the main trail and down to the parking area. Being back on the firm, stable, mellow trail felt wonderful! It was like getting onto a paved road after off-roading all day. The final 3 miles was a little anxious, as we knew we were racing the weather. As we passed over North Cottonwood Creek with about 1.3 miles to go, the sprinkles started, and we stopped to quickly don rain gear. The last mile back had us in a steady rain shower, but considering the accomplishments of the day, I don't think any of us minded too much.
Finally, we made it back to the parking lot right at 4:30 and parted ways. I thanked Todd and Kurt for letting me tag along with them, and they thanked me for coming along with them. I ambled over to my truck and flopped down in the driver's seat, reflecting on the day. Two summits, 10 hours of hiking, 13½ miles, 5800 feet of elevation gain. No wonder my feet hurt so bad! I started the drive home, exhausted but happy with the day...hey, who wouldn't be?
One last note: I'd like to dedicate this hike to my Uncle Paul, who just yesterday went through a pental (5 part) bypass heart surgery, and although he came through it just fine, I was thinking about him a lot today, and hoping he's back to his old self soon. This one's for you, Paul!