The plan was to do Mt. Harvard, and take the traverse (behind a "connecting ridge") to Mt. Columbia.
Two days ago, I drove to the North Cottonwood Trailhead, outside Mt. Columbia and Mt. Harvard. I camped near the trailhead for the night, sleeping for only about six hours. I woke up promptly at 3:30 in the morning, and took about an hour to actually set out hiking.
[To the Summit of Mt. Harvard]
I hiked through the darkness, alone. The first section of the trail follows along Silver Creek, and the water flowing gently beside me was all I could hear. The trail was gentle, but I could not make any of the terrain around me out in the darkness, besides trees.
As the sun slowly began to rise another hour or so later, I found a quiet meadow to set up for morning shots. I stayed there for twenty minutes or so, trying to capture the vivid shades of orange and violet that the rising sun pierced into the sky. As I began to finish this, I spotted a small group of three other adventure seekers on the trail. We exchanged pleasantries, and I passed them, not seeing them again the entire day.
After another forty minutes of hiking, I came to a fork in the trail, where another hiker asked for my help in orienting himself. I had no map and was mainly trying to follow the trail from a few pictures I'd seen, and some broad directions, so I was of little help. My instincts told me to bear right at the fork in the trail, which ended up being a good call. The other hiker took the same route, though it did not lead where he wanted to go.
The gently inclined trail became rougher through the hours. It thinned out, and rocks were strewn across it. It became so hardly visible that carins became responsible for guiding me. As I was pausing frequently to take pictures, the other hiker grew in distance from me, and I was eventually alone once more, only occasionally getting glimpses of him in the far distance. I came to another unmarked fork in the trail, that was unmentioned in my directions. I again, went with my gut. The trail was increasingly steep, almost as if I was ascending an intricate staircase of rock. I eventually became aware that the fork would have taken me to an alpine lake named "Bear Lake", that I was now far above.
Despite my efforts of climbing, I could tell I still had quite a distance up to go - I pause for a break.
The Horn Fork Basin is stunning. Only a few drifts of snow remain, and even they, are beginning to melt in the heat of the day. Clouds are dancing right above Bear Lake, and the lake itself is a complex shade of blue. It is windy, but the water is still.
As I continue on, now rested, I can tell the slope is still getting steeper. I have already ascended over 3,500 feet in elevation. The weather is deteriorating. It goes from warm and sunny to hail in only five minutes. I seek shelter behind a boulder. The hail ceases in only a few minutes, and the storm appears to pass. As I continue ascend, I find myself hiking in the clouds. Visibility drops, yet there is a feeling of peace to be had amongst the clouds. I can tell I'm close.
I reach the final pitch, above the clouds. The pitch is easily class 3, though very short. I use my hands and feet to climb my way to the top, having my camera holstered away. I find the other hiker at the summit, and he suggests a final route.
I spend maybe ten minutes at the top, drinking water and making small talk with the other hiker. His plan was to do the traverse like me, but he was injured and feared the weather could go bad again, so he decided not to.
I have already hiked 7 miles, ascended 4,800 feet straight up, and am exhausted, but I am nowhere near finished.
[The Traverse to Mt. Columbia]
In my prior planning of the trip, I found that the traverse to Mt. Columbia was only ranked as Class 2, so I thought the route would be at least marked, and because of this, did not take the time to study the route on a map, or even look at pictures of major landmarks of the route. This was a big mistake that cost me quite a bit.
Only forty minutes into the traverse (going downhill in this first section), I stop to have a snack and to hydrate. As I am getting ready to leave again, I detect motion from the corner of my eye. Two fluffy mountain goats are slowly going up the route that I am descending, and grazing in the process. I quickly swap lenses and spend a good ten minutes taking pictures. They end up passing within arms distance from me, though they had no interest in me. Onward I go.
With no marked route, I was lost within two hours. I frantically try to use my phone to pull up pictures of the route to orient myself, and manage to pull up one before I lose service. This drains my battery from 65%-30%. I go off what I can from the reference picture, that shows a bit of a downhill close to me. I stop and access the terrain around me, and what possible routes I can take to summit Columbia. I decide to go all the way down to the valley, and hike a mile out to climb up a grassy slope that connects to a saddle to the ridge crest. This was not the real route, and ends up costing me a few additional hours, and a couple of miles. I attempt calling my emergency contacts to let them know I was very behind schedule, but there is still not enough of a signal to reach anyone. My phone dies.
As I get down to the valley, I reach roughly 12,400(+/-300 feet), and hear thunder. My adrenaline begins to rush, as I am as far away as I can be from any safety, between two mountains, miles away from the treeline that is in the opposite direction of the trailhead I set out from. Clouds make their way over the ridge towards me and the thunder draws closer. As it begins to violently hail, I can't help but to think of the several deaths I've read about that occurred in the past few weeks from lightening strikes. It dawns on me that, not only can I not contact emergency services, but I am far away enough from people that no amount of noise I could make would attract help.
I seek shelter under my rain poncho.
I am terrified. I am only barely enough equipped to be able to spend a night here. But I know that if it continues to storm, I will be drenched with no adequate fire starting materials, leaving me at high risk for hypothermia. I also know, that above the treeline, I am essentially a human lightening rod. Though I am scared, my fear is quickly swept away as my background in wilderness survival kicks in.
I stop seeking shelter in the poncho, and wrap my belongings in it instead. With all of my gear on my back, I begin to continue to my false/incorrect route through the hail.
Over time, the hail passes, but the ominous storm clouds remain. The route is very steep, but the terrain is soft. After a couple hundred feet up of climbing, I find an abandoned wheelbarrow. Intriguing.
The scene almost looks like something straight out of a Miyazaki movie. Fields of grass and wildflowers below mountains, large clouds in the sky, and a random upside down wheelbarrow in the middle of nowhere. Yep, Miyazaki was there.
Over the next couple of hours there is nothing but hills. I stop rarely for breaks. The amount of scree and talus (loose, dangerous rocks) begins to increase. I eventually reach the ridge crest. To the right of the ridge crest are huge cliffs, and to the right is an immense amount of talus. I stick to the right. I eventually find something that looks almost like a trail of sorts, but is very difficult to follow. The amount of talus is soul crushing. This continues all the way to the summit.
At the summit of Columbia, I rest. I try to find some sort of guidance as to the route down Columbia. I almost pick a mark that would have taken me down the wrong face, but realize my mistake, and adjust.
[The Descent of Mt. Columbia]
Though the initial storm clouds that surrounded Columbia were gone, more storm clouds were moving in. I packed my shit, and left. I found a carin, and started following what looked like a trail. This "trail" led me to a very very steep slope made almost entirely of scree.
The next two hours were comprised more of me slipping down the mountain than walking. It was very uncontrolled, and I fell several times. Only an hour in, it started to rain, making the already slippery scree extra slippery. My shoes became coated in mud, and I was basically slipping every step I took (as mud can be more slippery than ice). This takes a significant toll on my emotional endurance which was already very thing from being lost. I question if this was the real route.
As I get back into the treeline, the sun dives behind Mt. Yale, and everything is covered in shadow. Another twenty minutes in, I find the main trail. I run into a few people here and there. I hike for another hour or so, and the sun sets in this time. I cross the second bridge before the trailhead, about a mile and a half out from the trailhead. Available light is very low, and it begins to rain again. I take a short break, put my camera in my bag, and start jogging through the rain to the trailhead.
Once cars are in sight, I do two things. First, I let out a gigantic sigh of relief, then quickly proceed to yell "FUCKKK." I am soaked, beyond exhausted, cramped up, and still terrified.
Mt. Harvard: 7 miles and 4,800 feet elevation gain
Mt. Harvard to Mt. Columbia Traverse: 2.75(~2+) miles and 1,500(~250+) feet elevation gain.
RT Length: 19-21ish miles. 6,100(~250+) feet elevation gain.
Just wait till you see these pictures.