| The route less traveled - a tribute to fallen climbers
Route: Columbia's East Ridge from Three Elk Creek TH
Climbers: scottfarish, flintster
Total miles: ~11 miles
RT time: 8.5 hours
... It's been a tough week here for the 14ers.com community. As we said goodbye to one friend and brother who lost his life on Hagerman Peak, we were soon dealt another blow by losing a fellow climber on Crestone Peak. I cannot claim to have ever met Rob Jansen or Chris Gray... I most likely saw their pictures on other trip reports or came across their names mentioned in forum posts. But their deaths, followed by the outpouring of tributes and support from this 14ers community, have suddenly made me feel like I knew them in spirit all along. The week has caused me to reflect a lot on life, and the reasons why I get up early in the morning to trudge up thousands of vertical feet only to (hopefully) claim a victory that will probably only be important to me. It may sound cliche, but Rob and Chris both left this world while engaging in their passion. When they left their respective houses that morning, neither man assumed that the worst would happen. We all enter these high-altitude portals knowing the risks, but we accept the risk because the feelings and experiences we enjoy in the high-country squash any feelings of self-doubt or remorse for never even trying. This trip report is dedicated not only to Rob and Chris, but to all the fallen climbers who have left this world while doing what feeds their souls.
On to the report...
Flintster and I originally had other plans to hike Bierstadt with some friends on Friday, but plans fell through for just about everyone except the two of us. I suggested that we hit Columbia instead, and that we take a lesser-traveled route up the east ridge. I had done this same route 7 years ago, and I figured that the trail would probably still be discernible. I have not done the standard route on Columbia, but the route description and stories of its nasty loose west slopes were enough to convince us to seek an alternate route. The parking lot is easy to find using Roach's guide for directions, and it's a surprisingly short distance from the center of Buena Vista. The only drawback to this is that you start hiking at 9,260 feet. The road is a little rough, but any 4WD vehicle should have no problem getting to the trail head. The TH is marked by a beat-up sign for the "Three Elk Creek Trail Head". You start hiking a logging road for about 200 yards before you come to the following junction - at this point, veer left onto the trail:
left onto the trail
This trail is very well-defined, even as you cross the Colorado Trail after ~1.5 miles
Continue across the Colorado Trail
The trail begins to fade a little after the CT, and it crosses 3 Elk Creek several times. By the time you get to tree line, route finding will be at your best guess. The trail fades completely right about here...
a clear view of the 3 Elk Creek basin and Columbia in the distance
With the trail faded, and no clear route to the summit, Flintster and I made a hard right turn and ascended the mild slopes to the east ridge. The best route was to hug the line of dead trees and until the gain the ridge. This is the view you see of the basin as you gain the ridge:
Once we gained the ridge, it was a gradual ascent to the summit. All joking aside though... it is still a LONG way to Columbia on this ridge. The route takes you over several false summits until you finally get a view of Mount Columbia
Flintster in front of yet another false summit
We reached the summit after a 5 hour ascent. The weather seemed to be holding for the moment, so we toasted to Rob and Chris and took a few pictures of the surrounding peaks.
A toast to Rob and Chris
Bear Lake in the Horn Fork Basin
For the descent, we decided to skip the east ridge with all its false summits, and decided to drop directly down into 3 Elk Creek basin. This descent is good, for the most part, because of solid grassy slopes. There was a 400/500 foot section that was rather loose, and we didn't particularly enjoy that part. But we regained gentle grassy slopes around 13,000 feet and stayed in the basin all the way until we regained the original trail at tree line.
I loved this east ridge route. We did not see a single other person all day, save for one solo climber at the summit who came up the standard route. Roach describes the east ridge as the "cardinal Colorado climb", and I would have to agree. It provides you with solitude and scenery that you normally don't get in the Collegiate Range. It was a great day to hike with my buddy, Flintster, and the solitude of this area provided the opportunity to contemplate life and how fragile it really is.
Peace to you, Rob Jansen and Chris Gray... you will always be remembered in this 14er community.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):