| Mt. Columbia via Horn Fork Basin
Mt. Columbia (14073') via Horn Fork Basin, July 3, 2012
11.5 miles round-trip, 4250' of gain.
3d of 6 reports on this tour.
Mt. Columbia had been on my short list as I tried to complete the Sawatch 14ers on this tour. Based on the descriptions, I figured that the Columbia route was about as short as any we could try, minimizing the chances of altitude sickness. This also meant the hike was steeper.
We started out by headlamp at 5:20 am. I knew it was a long walk through the Horn Fork Basin and it did not disappoint. It was daylight by the time we arrived at the Columbia cutoff, but I was a bit miffed by the cutoff itself. We hiked on toward Harvard by mistake and only when I decided to use a GPS-based application on my phone did we find the true junction, which we had already passed about 15 minutes before.
Once on the correct trail, and above the trees, the trail becomes rocky, then very steep and loose. I hate this stuff, really have to slow down in it. It was brutal to my quads and I realized that I had entirely underestimated the seriousness of the Class 2 grind up the gully.
We eventually made the shoulder, then the ridgecrest. The ridge is easier, but still has tougher moments that may include some routefinding. I was in the lead as we approached the final set of boulders on the summit. I politely stopped 50' short of the actual summit, such that Dave could reach it first. This would be Dave's first 14000' peak and it became my 25th. We bonked fists in celebration, this was a great moment for the two flatlanders. It was 11:05 am. We stayed on the summit until 11:30.
On the shoulder and then on the ridge, I realized how serious the skies were. Dave entrusted me with reading the skies as I knew how fickle weather can be in Colorado's monsoon season. If I had to play "Safety Manager", I would have called on us to turn back somewhere around reaching the ridge. I did not want Dave to miss his first 14er and frankly, I did not want to have to cross that nasty loose scree any more times than necessary, so we pressed upward despite the clouds.
We paid for this decision on the way down. After returning on the ridge, the thunder clapped. I kept hoping that some darker clouds north of Mt. Harvard would just push by north of us, but they did not. The graupel started to fall and it was hard, on the head, on the arms, ugh. Then the wind and lightning with enough accumulating graupel to slow us down on the difficult steep downhill of scree.
Dave had pressed ahead and he seemed to move with relative ease down the steep gully. I really struggled and fell down often. There was a moment, much like on my graupeled LaPlata attempt, where I wondered why I do this stuff, why I allow myself to pay such a dear price in risk and discomfort for my love of mountains...then I press on.
Dave had made timberline well ahead of me, then eventually, I made it down as well, as the storm let up a bit. I was chilly and soaked, but glad to be down in the trees. I reached the trail junction recognizing that I still had three more miles to go.
Below the pines, large patches of unmelted graupel remained and the Columbia ridge had frosting above 13000' for the weather event.
I had the car keys and had to assume that Dave was ahead of me and also had to wait for me at the trailhead before we could leave. This was my motivation for pushing downhill as fast as I could. I was starting to feel woozy and weak, not just from the demanding hike, but also some altitude sickness had snuck in.
I finally made it back to the car and found Dave at 3:30 pm. While I had assumed Dave had reached the trailhead much earlier than I had, the truth is that he had only been waiting about 15 minutes for me. Dave got turned around on the web of trails near the junction and wound up bushwacking downhill for awhile. So he was very tired, wet and cold to the point of shivering, after having been lost briefly. I had mild altitude sickness with cold shivers as well. We had spent enough time outside for one day. We heated up the car and dashed down to the hotel.
After this rude introduction by Columbia to the 14ers, I was just glad that Dave did not tell me he no longer wanted to hike with me in Colorado. Dave seemed to revel in the risk and reward of the day.
Columbia was a real outdoor experience with real peril. Dave learned a lot in Colorado, but to experience such a storm on his first 14er attempt put all previous advice in perspective.
We took a rest day on July 4, taking a 2-mile stroll on Midland Hill east of Buena Vista, then planned for early starts on 14ers the rest of the week.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):