When Stiffer_from_Denver and I summitted Mount Harvard from Pine Creek a few weeks ago, I took a long look at the scree slope of Mount Columbia’s standard route and decided that it didn’t look like much fun for a summer climb. Driving through the Sawatch Range on my way to the San Juans for Independence Day, I instead ascended Columbia’s east ridge and descended its southeast ridge, fully encircling the Three Elks Creek basin. Thankfully the weather cooperated and there were no afternoon thunderstorms in the area, as I spent about 6 hours on top of the ridges above timberline.
I left Denver at 4:15 a.m. on Sunday, July 3rd and parked my car at the start of Three Elk Road at about 6:30. The road was just rough enough to convince me not to continue driving to the Three Elk trailhead in my low-clearance Chevy Cobalt, especially when the trailhead was only a mere 0.8 miles away anyway. I was at the trailhead at 6:55 and continued to follow the old 4WD road northwest toward the east ridge of Mount Columbia. At about 10,750 feet I passed an abandoned mining cabin, at which point I left the trail and bushwhacked up the south slope of the east ridge. The trees were spaced widely apart and the slope was fairly gentle, so, as 14er bushwhacks go, it was a piece of cake. By 8:50 I had passed timberline and was on top of Columbia’s east ridge. From here it was a straightforward hike up and down a few false summits to the top of Columbia, at which I arrived at 11:30. Although I was entirely alone for most of the day, I had plenty of company on the summit. There were 22 teenagers from a local summer camp there, along with a few other climbers—certainly not the serene summit experience I had hoped for. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but enjoy the youthful excitement of the campers as they experienced what for most of them was their first 14er.
Looking west toward the Three Elks Creek basin.
A closer view of the east ridge. Columbia's summit is on the far left, even though the other three false summits all look higher from this view.
The abandoned cabin at around 10,750 ft.
An easy bushwhack toward timberline on the east ridge.
At timberline, looking south toward Mount Princeton and Columbia's southeast ridge.
On top of the east ridge, looking toward the summit.
Columbia's southeast ridge.
Looking back along the initial section of the east ridge.
Mount Yale jutting out above Columbia's southeast ridge.
Columbia's north ridge leading to Mount Harvard.
On the summit, looking into the Horn Fork basin and at Mount Harvard.
The clouds were getting a bit dark, so I only spent a few minutes on the summit before continuing around the top of the Three Elk Creek basin to the southeast ridge. Compared to the east ridge, the southeast ridge was much rockier. Although the difficulty could be kept at Class 2 by sticking to the established trail (faint, but discernible), I initially kept closer to the ridge crest so I could do a bit of scrambling. When I got to Point 13,258, however, I decided to traverse around it to the south. This was a mistake; I should have either went to the north or simply climbed over it. My decision led me to a rather nasty scree slope that I couldn’t easily traverse across. I therefore had to descend about 1,200 feet before being able to climb back onto the southeast ridge. My only compensation was seeing a female elk sprint along the slope below me. Back at timberline, I bushwhacked east toward the Colorado Trail rather than following the trail along the southeast ridge, which would have taken me further south. From the Colorado Trail, it was an easy hike north past the Harvard Lakes and onto the Three Elk Trail. I was back at my car at 5:15 p.m., just in time to grab a steak at Quincy’s in Buena Vista before continuing west for an Independence Day attempt on Sunshine and Redcloud.
Looking back on the east ridge from the intersection with Columbia's standard route.
East Havard Lake.
Parting view of the Three Elk Creek basin.
At the U.S. 50/CO-149 intersection west of Gunnison, heading toward Lake City and some hiking in the San Juans.
This roughly 13-mile route took me about 10.5 hours to complete, about 6 hours of which was spent above timberline. You certainly want to have good weather for this one, as there aren’t many easy escape routes should a thunderstorm kick up. Of the two ridges, I think the east ridge is easier than the southeast ridge, both in terms of terrain and from a route-finding perspective. Were I to do this over again, I probably would ascend the southeast ridge and descend the east ridge, saving the easier ridge for later in the day.
My route (click on image to enlarge).