On the summit of Missouri Mt, I pointed out the rest of our day’s objectives to Joe. From our vantage point, the summits of Belford, Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale were all clearly visible. Joe and I both had linked up the first five summits before, but tacking on Yale at the end was uncharted territory for us, and the night before I’d even forgotten to peruse the internet for beta on its ascent.

The western basin of Missouri Mt, the day’s first climb.

“I’m pretty sure you want to aim for that northeasterly ridge on the way up, and then you’ll take the east ridge down to the Colorado Trail on the descent.”

I’d summited Yale last summer from the south, so I was familiar with its East Ridge and the most efficient descent back down to Avalanche Gulch via the basin between Yale and Mascot Peak.  Its northern slopes, however, were all foreign to me.

“Well, as long as it’s not ‘Nam getting to treeline, it should go fine”, Joe replied, employing the slang term we use to refer to bushwhacking that is the worst of the worst.

On the descent from Missouri to 13,200′ Elkhead Pass, Joe got a taste for what can happen on Nolans if you aren’t absolutely spot-on with navigation. After lagging briefly on a steep snowfield, he lost track of my line and ended up scrambling steep and loose cliffs/slopes on a slightly too high contour; as I was striding my way up the 1000′ of vert to Mt. Belford–the day’s second summit–I was shocked to look back and see that Joe was at the pass 16min after I had been. This gap had occurred on a section that had only taken me 20min to begin with.

My energy was high, though, so the jog over to Oxford (and extra 700′ of vert) was almost trivial before I began the drop into the Pine Creek drainage. After leaving Oxford’s summit, the rest of our day’s travels were basically without trail.

I nailed the descent, finding steep, grippy ribs of shortgrass and stable tongues of large talus that emptied onto an elk trail through some willows before a somewhat exposed downscramble on dusty ledges amongst steeply-angled slabs. Less than 30min after leaving Oxford’s summit I was chugging water from Pine Creek and beginning the over 3000’ march up Harvard’s majestic north ridge.

The north ridge of Harvard is daunting.

Again, my navigation, pacing, and fueling were all spot-on and this climb was textbook, even pleasant. A small herd of elk spectated my efforts casually. I took humble refuge from the blazing above-treeline sun under my BUFF’s visor and just concentrated on making every step as efficient as possible. In the slow-motion world of moving uphill at altitude, one can take the luxury to ensure that basically every step is using the least amount of energy. Tight clumps of shortgrass provide the most reliable footing, large blocks of talus next, embedded cobbles after that, and loose scree/gravel is to be avoided at all costs.

The final few hundred feet of Harvard provides some welcome variety—large talus and boulders require some 3rd Class scrambling. I pulled onto the summit exactly an hour after leaving the creek and was a bit surprised to find a group of at least a half dozen people all enjoying the mid-day sun. They were the first and last fellow outdoor enthusiasts I would see all day.

On my ascent of Harvard I spent a fair amount of time trying to decide what line I was going to use to make the traverse over to Columbia, Harvard’s sister summit. The two peaks are linked by a sharp, choppy arete called Rabbit Ridge, named for the pair of rock towers in the middle that resemble a pair of rabbit ears.  This ridge is aesthetically the most obvious way to combine the two peaks, but in addition to a lot of exposed 4th/easy-5th Class scrambling, there is a crux in the middle that—in this direction—apparently requires a 30′ 5.7 downclimb that is typically rappelled.

Last summer, I’d linked the two with the more typical route that bows by dropping to 12,800′ on the ridge’s east side before climbing back to Columbia’s summit. Today I was feeling particularly confident I guess, so I decided to give the ridge traverse a go. The Harvard half of the ridge is where all of the technical difficulties exist—after skirting the Rabbit Ears themselves I would say the scrambling eases to 3rd Class for the rest of the traverse—so things got exciting right away. While definitely exposed and a little loose, it was never very difficult to stick to the ridge proper, and I was really enjoying the change of pace, using different muscles, engaging my mind a little more purposefully.

Thirty minutes after Harvard’s summit, I dropped into a notch and was faced with a steep, slabby wall. There were a few small holds, however, and the angle eased off considerably after maybe only 15′ or so, so without much pause I stepped on, smeared, and scampered up to lower-angle terrain. It felt like maybe 5.4 to me.  A few yards later and I was on top of the tower, though, and confronted with a steep drop that I could only assume was the 5.7 bit I had read about.  A vertical face was split with a beautiful crack with a maybe 4″ ledge about half-way down. I faced in, carefully reverse-mantled onto the small ledge, and then considered my options. The crack offered a secure side-pull for my left hand, and then if I really stretched I could stem like mad with my right foot out to a 90 degree opposing wall. Eventually I had to commit, step off the ledge with my left foot and smear on the smooth face, but after only a couple of moves I was safely off the wall and scrambling up an aesthetic, kicked-back 5.easy featured slab to the final summit before skirting the Ears on the west side and resuming the tedious march over talus to Columbia’s summit.

Rabbit Ridge leading to the summit of Columbia beyond.

Beyond Columbia’s summit, the terrain was all foreign to me. I’d summited Yale from the south before, but had never spent any time in the North Cottonwood Creek drainage. The drop straight south off Columbia down to treeline was very fast on generally steep terrain, but very good footing. The whole way down, though, the giant climb to the summit of Yale was right in front of me and I was feeling pretty discouraged since I didn’t really know the way. The best option seemed to be a large avalanche gulley that led to Yale’s northeast ridge, but getting through the trees to the base of the gulley looked tricky.

Yale looming large, from the summit of Columbia.

After some mild bushwhacking, I stopped for a couple minutes to chug some water at a small side-stream before heading down to the raging torrent that was North Cottonwood Creek. I spent a minute or two trying to find the best place to cross, eventually did so 5h57min into my day on a partially submerged log, and then commenced some serious bushwhacking.

It was instantly apparent that Joe’s foreshadowed misgivings were coming to fruition. Downed trees were piled like pick-up sticks, and it was very difficult to keep a bead on the avalanche chute for which I was aiming. I simply bumbled on, though, finally started heading in a more upward direction, and crawled toward anything that resembled a gap in the thicket. Eventually it was clear that I was on the margin of the avy chute, but the terrain above me looked improbably steep, and would soon even transition into a craggy outcrop. No matter, this was actually a bit welcome so as to escape the thick underbrush, and I was at least rapidly gaining elevation according to my altimeter and my vantage back toward Mt. Columbia.

After much grunting and sweating and indecision the nearing of treeline was marked by giant slush-piles of snow that required wading before I finally broke free from the constraints and was left with only a steep tundra slope to ascend. Sweet baby jesus.

The rest of the climb to Yale’s summit was a slog up it’s undulating, talus-strewn, and interminable north/northeast ridge, but I reached it only 1h35 after crossing the creek—it had felt much longer. I lingered on the final summit of the day for a minute or two, eating a gel and half-heartedly scanning the slopes of Yale and Columbia on the very off-chance that I might catch a glimpse of Joe. As it would turn out, he was engaging in some navigational snafus of his own and was probably at least a couple hours back at that point.

After Yale, there’s more, a lot more. Left to right on the skyline: Princeton, Antero, Shavano, Tabeguache. Oy.

On the descent off Yale down to the Avalanche Gulch TH I enjoyed some surprisingly quality and continuous glissading to get to treeline and then bounded through the deadfall-laced forest with a surplus of energy; my plan of taking a conservative pace all day had actually worked for once and I reached the trailhead with a glow that went deeper than the sunburn on my nose.

Per usual, though, the day was not without its humbling effects. My confused and wayward wanderings on Yale’s northern slopes had convinced me that I will need to get to this section of the route with some daylight remaining, so I’ve amended my plans and now resolve to begin my Nolan’s attempt in the wee hours of the morning—maybe 2 or 3am—in order to give myself that chance.

And then there was the fact that, Joe—who is sharpening his high-altitude fitness for Hardrock—didn’t come straggling in until four hours after me, a testament to the vicious tax extracted for picking the wrong line while navigating.  When Joe finally arrived, the day’s efforts had clearly left an impression.

“Hardrock is a trail race”, Joe said. “At Hardrock, you walk uphill on trail, you jog downhill on trail, and you never really have to think. Here, if you’re on a piece of trail, it feels like luxury.”

“Most of the day I was just happy to see a footprint, a posthole in the snow, to just take some solace in the fact that someone else had recently been there before”, I offered. “The whole thing feels really out there, on really rugged terrain.”

“Yeah, you spend enough time out there doing this shit, you turn into a different species”, Joe replied.

Maybe not a different species, but it definitely changes your perspective, and, ultimately, on some level, probably your self.