I'm not sure why, but I didn't want to climb Harvard and Columbia via the standard route. I had heard good things about the Frenchman Creek approach from the east, but this requires a 4WD vehicle to reach a day-hikable trailhead. Thus, I decided to do an overnight backpack. This was my first backpacking trip, and I wanted to keep it simple. This was pretty easy since I don't really have much equipment.
I made my way to the start of the Frenchman Creek Road just inside the National Forest boundary at 8960ft and about 1.5 miles from US 24. There is a sign at the road actually saying that it's a 4x4 road. I gathered my stuff together and watched the weather. There were some showers in the area with some gusty winds. However, I didn't hear any thunder and decided that it would be OK. The forecasts for the area were calling for good weather Saturday night and at least the first part of Sunday.
Above and beyond what I carry in my usual climbing day-pack, I had my $35 Wal-Mart sleeping bag (rated to +25F, but rather heavy which is the price you pay for buying a cheap bag), a tarp, and a foam sleeping pad. [Remember, I was a grad student at this time and paying for gas and car maintainance just about broke me, let alone getting good gear.] For sustainance, I had several cans of spaghetti and meatballs, and a can of Sterno on which to cook it. Since I don't have a water purifier, I went ahead and carried a full gallon of water with me (I always carry Potable Aqua tablets in case of emergency). The total pack weight was about 30-35lbs (without my ice axe, I usually carry 18-20 lbs on a day hike, including the weight of the pack itself). I was able to fit everything in my 2900 cubic inch REI Tourstar pack except the sleeping bag and pad.
I really didn't have a specific location goal for my camp when I started hiking at 4:00pm. I did want to get well past the end of the 4WD road and the start of the trail. I was hoping I could average at least 800ft of gain per hour which would put me deep in the wilderness during daylight. It turned out that I was being pessimistic. Although it was a heavy load to carry, I had made it to the end of the road at about 10200ft by 5pm. I signed the trailhead register and continued up. I was taking breaks every 30 minutes, mainly to rest my legs and my back/neck/shoulders, but I was still doing pretty good. I encountered a few people coming down the first part of the trail, but it didn't take long before I was all alone.
At about 6:15, I reached an open meadow surrounded by trees at about 11500ft. There was the remains of a cabin in one corner, so I went over to investigate. It had a fire ring and had been used recently. This seemed like a good place to stop, so I did. The cabin still had it's bottom two rows of logs, except for one side that had four. The weather had improved, but one nice feature of the site was that if it rained or snowed, I could make a lean-to with my tarp and I would also be shielded from the wind somewhat.
I set up my spartan camp, unfolding my tarp and unrolling my ground pad and bag. After putting on some extra clothing and exploring the area a bit, I sat down to cook dinner, lighting the can of Sterno and plopping the spaghetti and meatballs into the cup.
By the time dinner was over, it was starting to get dark. It was a kinda eerie feeling knowing that I was here for the night The one thing I hadn't counted on was boredom and I could have used some company. It was only 8pm and I really wasn't ready to go to sleep, but I really couldn't do anything else except for some stargazing.
It was chilly and clear, but as I expected from a couple of car bivies, the sleeping bag was living up to it's temperature rating. From about midnight through sunrise, my watch read a steady temperature in the upper 20s. I was wearing my first layer of clothing just in case, though. Sometime before midnight, I fell asleep for the first time, 2000ft higher in elevation than I had ever slept before (of course, I was only about 4000ft above where I live). I ended up getting 5+ hours of sleep, but never more than an hour at a time. Around 12:30am, the 3rd quarter Moon rose and washed out the summer Milky Way.
It took until about the third alarm when I finally got up at 6:30, just before sunrise. There was frost on the top of my bag, but I was still cozy. It didn't take long to get ready, and I didn't really have much of a breakfast which was probably a mistake. I started up at 6:55. I had felt fine the night before, and felt fine this morning...until I started hiking. Suffice it to say that I was hiking considerably slower than usual; probably not much faster than the night before with twice as much pack weight.
Although I crossed Frenchman Creek roughly where I should have, I never did encounter the trail on the north side that I expected to find. Some of the going was tedious bushwhacking through short stubby, willows. The slope up to Harvard's East Ridge wasn't very steep, but it felt steep, and I was really wondering if I should keep heading for Harvard, especially because I had to pack out that afternoon. And obviously the traverse to Columbia was out. The weather was good, though, and I refused to believe that I couldn't grunt my way up to Harvard.
I reached the ridge well above the 12980ft saddle and got a brief look at the summit. As I would find out on the way down, I made the ridge a little harder than necessary, especially in the lower sections. I stayed mostly on the left (south) side, occasionally on scree, but mostly on fractured talus. I patiently made my way up and shortly before reaching the summit, I could see people on it. The last little bit before the summit is rough and requires some bouldering.
Finally, at 9:59, I reached the summit. There was a rather noisy group of kids from Colorado College. I hung around for a while hoping they would leave. After about 10 minutes, a group of two came up. Finally, the CC people left. Meanwhile, I struck up a conversation with the two guys and I found out that they had been in Minneapolis two days ago. They both had mild headaches but otherwise were no worse for the altitude. The third member of the group was still on his way up.
Unfortunately, the weather was starting to turn already. A solitary cumulus tower was building pretty much right over the Frenchman Creek side of Columbia. I was pleasantly surprised that the Minnesota contingent were also concerned with this development. At least now I had an excuse to not do the traverse to Columbia ;).
On the negative side, I had a lot of territory to cover before reaching safety from lightning. I found that there is a climbers trail along and near the ridge and followed this down as far as I reasonably could. Then I started down the tundra to try to intersect a trail on the south side of the creek. This was rather slow going and I was still a half-hour short of treeline when the snow pellets started falling. I was expecting a sharp crack of thunder at any second, but it never happened.
I found my trail, but the end of it wasn't very well constructed. The weather never got any worse, and I was back at camp at noon. I rested for a bit and then packed up as the snow pellets turned to sprinkles and then ended. Besides going downhill, I had about 6 lbs less water to carry so it went pretty easily and it only took me an hour-forty to pack out in stable weather.
Overall, I'd say that things went pretty good for a first backpacking trip. In the future, on solo trips, I think I might want to bring something with me to do after dark, especially on near-equinox trips when the nights are long. Maybe a camera tripod so I could take star trail pictures. One major thing I have to consider is if I was hiking way too fast and wore myself out. I don't really want to have that much weight in my pack on my back for any longer than necessary; maybe I should take longer breaks.
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File last modified: 01 November 2007