| Harvard Whiteout Thundersnow
My first trip report!!!
And so it begins
My friend Garland and I were planning to do a two-day hike of the Harvard-Columbia loop, but at the last minute, he cancelled because he “didn’t want to hike in the snow.” Wimp. After some amount of internal debate, I decided to go ahead and do the hike solo. I’m planning some solo hiking in Sweden in June, and thought I ought to practice a bit.
I left Denver around 5pm (not advisable) and by 8pm I’d gotten as close to the trailhead as I possibly could, given my 2WD Cavalier. All but the last 1/4-1/2 mile to N Cottonwood were clear of snow and ice.
Sadly, I didn’t have a hiking buddy to split gear with, so I was stuck with all my winter gear and a hefty 2-person tent. I’m pretty sure I was carrying more weight in that pack than when I hiked for a few weeks on the AT, but such is the way of things. It was slow going, due to the heavy pack, the darkness of night, the falling snow, and the fact that I really don’t like snowshoes, and try to hold out as long as possible before putting them on.
At the trail log book, I saw that no one had hiked the trail since Monday. And as expected, no one was currently on the trail. I would be appropriately alone on my solo hike.
About a mile in, I realized I’d brilliantly left my fuel bottle in the car. After weighing my options, I dropped my pack, hiked a mile back to the car, and a mile back to the pack. If you’re going to solo a 14er in pitch black while it’s snowing, might I suggest doing one with a pleasant gurgling creek to keep your temper at ease. Or that you don’t leave the fuel bottle in the car. Easy.
By the time I got back to my pack, it was around 10pm. I strapped on my snowshoes and pressed onward, finally reaching the first bridge at 1.4 miles. Oh what impressively terrible time I was making!!! I’d been planning to hike about 4 miles up to around tree line and hike from there, but it was obviously not going to happen. I continued for another hour, about half of which was spent trying to find the trail, until I was convinced I was about to collapse, and set up camp on the first flatish area of snow I could find.
The forecast said it was supposed to be in the mid-teens, but that was for 12k’, and I was much lower, so it was probably mid-twenties or so. Nbd.
I didn’t wake up until 9am the following morning, and after eating my weight in mini cini bagels, didn’t start hiking until after 10:30. I’m sooooooooo good at alpine starts.
And sooooo good at navigation. I followed the trail for awhile, but then lost it, found it, lost it, found it, and lost it permanently. I was, in fact, on the wrong side of the creek. I followed the creek for awhile, pretended like I might make an effort to find the real trail, and just plodded along until I made it above treeline. The view looked exactly like the picture on 14ers. So that was good.
View of Harvard from the basin
The skies were still clear, and I thought about how silly Garland was to bail on such a BEAUTIFUL hike. Yale to my back, Columbia to my right, Unnamed 13whocares to the left, and Harvard straight ahead. Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants, but I was pretty content to be in a big snowy hole in between them all.
I dropped the stupid snowshoes,
Snowshoes are dumb
and Upward I went, following the cairns to the ridge at 12,900.
Extremely well-maintained path to the 12900 ridge
And then the snow started. Whatever, snow. Bring it.
Things Turn Ugly
As I headed up the snowy bowl toward the final ridge to Harvard, it started snowing harder. I was facing a big white snowy bowl, which was fine, but when I turned around to look behind me, the view was exactly the same. I couldn’t see anything other than white. Shit. I’d been in borderline whiteout snow hiking Mt. Washington in December, but not solo. I traversed over to some rocks and sat down, wondering what I should do.
The answer was pretty obvious: NOT continue hiking 1000 more feet. But then the sky cleared and the snow stopped. It was a little cloudy, but the sun even peaked out, sort of. An obvious sign that I should continue. Except not really, because I should quite obviously go back down.
Big cairn and the ridge-not-taken to Columbia
So of course, I finished ascending the snowy bowl, and then wandered up the ridge. Was there a trail there? Who knows. I kept working my way towards the peak, reaching the final scramble. By then, it was snowing again, and I was blasting The Mountain Goats in my ears. Let it be known that the final 100 feet to the top of Harvard is totally sketchy when you’re alone, and it’s not only covered in snow but actively being covered in more snow.
Super sketchy drop off cliff scrambling up to the summit
But no matter. I made it to the top. I usually do a handstand on the summit of 14ers, but Harvard is not really built for that, especially on a solo hike. I just opted for some one-arm stupid-face summit photos instead.
A small rumbling
Around 4:15, I started my descent. And the snow picked up. And then there was a brightness in the sky behind me and big boom. THUNDERSNOW. Whaaaaat?! No No no no, this can’t happen. It can’t thundersnow when I’m at freaking 14,200, I thought. I was pretty convinced I was going to die.
So, I made a pact with God and started descending as quickly and safely as I could. But God didn’t care much for me, so the thundersnow continued and turned to whiteout snow, just as I reached the same big snowy bowl as before. Everything looked the same, but at least it was obvious what to do: go down. After descending a little bit, I could just barely make out a cairn, the only non-white thing in my field of vision. Woohoo.
I headed toward that, and the next one, and the next. And by the time I reached the 12900 ridge, the whiteout snow became just regular heavy snow.
Looking back up toward le ridge
And as I reached the basin, the skies freaking cleared again and I could see blue.
The sun, pretending like it's been there all along
And Yale and Harvard and Columbia and unnamed 13whocares. What?! Not fair. If my hike were offset by an hour in either direction, I’d have had badass views from the top of Harvard. Grumble.
I continued back downward, unable to find any of my snowshoe tracks since they’d been covered with snow. And, just as I was about to get back to treeline, it started snowing again. Hard. WHAT?! No matter. As before, I just walked along the creek. I followed deer tracks (maybe?) since they seemed to be doing the exact same thing I was. Occasionally they’d cross over the river and I’d curse them before instantly finding another set of tracks continuing the exact direction I was. And then I saw some BIG tracks, which were, of course, metracks.
I followed my snowshoe path down down down in just my bare boots, until I eventually post-holed into the creek, and decided it might be snowshoe time again. Grumble. I continued onward, and decided I should probably camp another night. I’d been hiking 10 hours, and the prospect of packing up my stuff, hiking another infinity hours to the car, and driving 3 hours back to Denver seemed unappealing. Also, there was a nontrivial chance my car was covered in snow. Gross.
Instead, I filled up my Nalgenes in the river, and returned to my tent at a cozy 8:30pm, just before it became reallyreally dark. I proceeded to eat everything in sight, before crashing at 9:30pm.
Tent, being all snowy
The following morning, I got up around 7, and was on the trail around 8:30 (soooo good at alpine starts). I must admit, even though my pack still weighed a bajillion pounds, it’s extremely easy to hike in the daytime compared to complete darkness and snow. I made it back to the car in just over an hour, and it had but a mere dusting of snow on top.
Ultimately, my two-day doubleheader buddy hike turned into a three-day single summit solo hike. It is rare to go 2 days without seeing or talking to another person, and quite comforting to be stuck in whiteout thundersnow when you know you're 10 miles away from any human beings. And Columbia, all I have to say to you is: whatever, you didn’t look that hard.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):