Sunrise from Mt. Harvard
Sunrise from Mt. Harvard, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
During the spring of 2011, a relentless series of powerful snowstorms pummeled the mountains of Colorado. By June 1st, the snowpack blanketing the high peaks was 264 percent of normal. In early June, after the road to the North Cottonwood Creek trailhead melted out, I decided to try shooting sunrise from Mt. Harvard, the third highest Fourteener in the state. A day later, I'd try to shoot sunrise from nearby Mt. Columbia. At 9,900 feet, the North Cottonwood Creek trailhead is fairly low, so I planned to work out of a high camp at 11,500 feet in Horn Fork Basin to make the summit days a bit less debilitating.
The road to the trailhead was dusty dry, and I began wondering where all the snow had gone. I soon found out. After about 1 1/2 miles, the trail turned north and began climbing into Horn Fork Basin. Soon the snowpack was several feet deep. By June in a normal year, the snowpack is so well consolidated that you can walk on the surface. I had gambled that this year would be no different and left my snowshoes at home. Soon I ran into a couple of mountaineers who were descending after bagging Harvard. "You're going to need snowshoes," they warned me. "Even up high, we were breaking in." I punched in knee-deep a dozen times before I reached my high camp, and began worrying that I'd have to posthole all the way to the summit. If so, I could easily be too late to shoot sunrise. I could only hope that by starting in the middle of the night, the snowpack would be well frozen and strong enough to walk on.
Fortunately, the night was clear. With no clouds to hold in the heat, the snowpack radiated the warmth it had accumulated during the day to the black chill of space, and the crust froze hard. Following a route I created in my Topo! software, then transferred to my new GPS receiver, I was able to navigate through the snow-covered knolls, ribs and knobs of the upper Horn Fork Basin and find my way to the summit ridge. Four hours and 15 minutes after leaving camp, I found a way up the final snow-covered slabs and arrived on the summit as the dawn glow began to spill over the eastern horizon. At sunrise, a wonderful golden light bathed the massive granite boulders forming the summit and row after row of distant snowy peaks.
When the light show faded, I called Cora for an updated weather forecast for the following day. It sounded rather odd: "20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after 9 am." After 9 am? That would hardly give the sun time to heat up the atmosphere enough to kick off the usual round of convective afternoon thunderstorms. Tomorrow's ascent of Columbia might prove to be very interesting indeed.