My first attempt at Columbia came almost exactly two years ago when I set out to climb the notorious west slope. My preparation then left something to be desired: I had read Roach’s rather meager route description from the 2nd edition and knew the key to the route was finding the trail junction before treeline and taking the trail to the southwest slope of Columbia. Unfortunately, I missed the detour and plugged straight along the main trail. When the trail came out the woods and I could see Columbia to the east and the south slopes of Harvard rising steeply out of the end of the basin straight ahead, I knew I’d gone too far. Rather than retrace my path and hunt for the other trail, I decided to continue and ended up hiking to Harvard’s summit and saving Columbia for another day.
Like my hike from 2010, today’s was also a solo adventure but I had a new arrow in my quiver, so to speak, in the form of a Garmin etrex 20 that I’d acquired less than 12 hours before this hike, equipped with Middlebrook’s stellar gpx waypoint file of the route. I had also poured over multiple trip reports, the unanimous theme of all being that the west slope of Columbia was a formidable “scree-fest” and best relegated to their stash of forgettable hikes.
I arrived at the trailhead at 8:00 a.m., early by my standards, but wasn’t too concerned given the forecast for sunny skies.
N. Cottonwood Trailhead
The trail through the woods was gentle just as I’d remembered, the sunlight reflecting off the aspen leaves that were turning gold.
Aspens turning gold
The crisp morning air had a bite to it and I decided to warm up quicker by jogging through this portion which climbs less than a thousand vertical feet over the first mile and a half to the junction where the trail to Kroenke Lake veers off to the left.
Trail junction for Kroenke Lake
The trail hits some steeper sections but mostly maintains a relatively relaxed rate of ascent beyond this junction as I thought to myself, “it’s clearly saving the best for the last!”
A bit steeper
A creek crossing arrives shortly; the twin logs to the left of the large rock make for an easy passage across.
Another mile along the trail, I spotted the first sign of human life – a large group of hikers that had momentarily stopped at a clearing in the trail. It turned out that they were part of the Colorado Mountain Club that was celebrating its 100th anniversary. Their goal was the summit of Harvard but they’d stopped to admire the first view of Columbia that had just sprung to the east.
First view of Columbia
As I took the picture I noticed a faint trail heading northeast toward Columbia so I checked my gps which indicated that I needed to stay on the main trail. One of the hikers mentioned that they’d come down Columbia’s west slope on a previous outing and joined the main trail at that very spot; tempting, I thought, but decided to rely on my electronic companion and proceeded on the main route.
Sure enough, within a few minutes I arrived at the trail junction, the one that I’d somehow missed on my previous attempt; the detour to Columbia was marked with a cairn (was that there two years ago?) and a quick check of the gps confirmed that I was at Bill’s waypoint 102 and the trail to the right was the one destined for Columbia. Despite the realization that the hike was about to get real serious, I heaved a sigh of relief knowing that at least I wouldn’t get lost!
Trail junction for Columbia
The trail climbs through the woods and shortly after this junction, it splits again not once but twice, the correct route in both cases being the one to the right.
Another trail junction
As the trail crested a hill, Columbia came into view again, the foreground decorated by a craggy boulder outgrowth that struck me as the shot of the day. I made a mental note to stop at this exact spot on my descent and capture this view when the sun’s position would make for more favorable lighting.
Columbia in the background
The trail then arrives at the base of Columbia’s broad west face and I mentally mapped the route up to the ridge. I tried to mark the best route up the scree gullies in the following picture: 1 (seen in the picture) and 2 (hidden behind the rock outcropping). The trail is actually not hard to follow but, as has been pointed out, alternative routes that follow the gullies to the left are best avoided; even though they appear to offer a more direct ascent up the west face to the ridge, they’re seriously loose and steep to the point that they just wouldn’t be energy efficient.
Nearing treeline - route marked
Before embarking on this scree slog, I took a few minutes to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, feasting on Mt. Yale rising in all her majesty from the valley to the south.
View of Mt. Yale to the south
Getting to the base of the gully was quite easy and the first hundred feet of ascent does not give any indication of the nastiness of things to come.
Base of the gully
The first pitch up the gully climbs about 800 feet in what I estimated to be less than a third of a mile. For the first time on a hike that I could remember, I adjusted my hiking pole to a shorter length to dig into the scree and use as a prop. I tried to capture the steepness of this section in the next shot but it does not do it justice. The trail weaves through the rubble and loose rock and even as I fought for traction all I could think of was what this would be like on the descent!
Looking down the gully
There seemed to be a couple of options over smaller sections and I chose the gentler one in each case for obvious reasons.
On my descent, I deliberately wandered off trail to get a closer look at the loose terrain of the west slope and this can be seen in the next shot. Some of those chutes that appear to offer a more direct approach to the summit are by far worse than the recommended route, which hits the ridge about half a mile south of the summit.
Nasty scree to the left
Once I got above the first gully, the difficulties of the terrain lessened; the pitch toward the ridge can be seen in the next shot, a lone hiker on the ridge lending perspective to the magnitude of the remaining ascent.
On to greener pastures?
There was still scree to contend with but the larger rocks were stable and made for easier progress.
Scree begenis to lessen
The last segment leading to the ridge is a mix of boulders and grassy terrain and if I couldn’t spot any cairns I generally took the path of least resistance which worked out fine.
Boulders and grass
Besides me, there were three other groups of hikers making the ascent to Columbia on this day. My goal had been to make it to the summit by 11:00 p.m. but I lost precious time in stopping and chatting with these hikers (is it just me, or are hikers the nicest folks you’ve ever met? ). When I finally gained the ridge, it was 10:55 p.m. and I had nearly 500 feet of elevation left to gain to reach the summit.
Finally on the ridge
I knew my deadline was a lost cause but I broke into a jog as the remainder of the trail seemed positively sleepy in comparison to the last 2,000 feet of relentless climbing. Indeed, the ridge trail was fairly straightforward as it skirts the first hump to the right and climbs directly over the next two but skips the final false summit which I didn’t realize until I was actually atop it!
Skirting hump 1
Three more humps to go
This final bump can be avoided by skirting to its right.
Final false summit
The summit views did not disappoint; the next shot looks over to the south and captures the ridge route while Yale towers in the background. Princeton and Antero can be spotted to the left.
Mt. Yale acenter, Princeton, Antero to the left
Columbia’s higher and generally better liked big brother, Harvard, to the north:
Looking over Columbia’s gentle east ridge, the Buffalo peaks can be spotted in the distance.
East Ridge and Buffalo Peaks in the distance
I had passed the other hikers on my way so I was left to my own devices to capture my obligatory summit shot. I did manage to get Bear Lake in this picture looking over to the west.
Yours Truly - Bear lake in the background
I enjoyed the views in solitude, thankful that the weather had stayed perfect. When I set out on the descent, admittedly the only thing on my mind was negotiating that scree slope safely. There were definitely some harrowing moments but I made it about a third of the way down the gully without a fall and was beginning to get a little cocky. I stopped to take a picture and the next thing I knew my feet slid out and I parked my derriere soundly on the slope. Thankfully, the only damage done was to my ego! I had a couple of more close calls before I was through the step-slip-and-slide stuff, making this part of the descent the hardest segment of the entire hike and echoing the view of others in this regard.
But I bear no ill will against Columbia; on the contrary, it was a memorable hike for me in many ways: I enjoyed the varied scenery transitioning from the hike through the forest and into Horn Fork basin, the craggy hills at the base of the west slope and the summit itself. There was a bit of a treasure hunt feeling about the hike as well, thanks in no small part to my new hiking partner, the navigator. Of course, it certainly didn’t hurt that this marked my completion of the Collegiates and all of the 14ers in the great Sawatch range.
Besides, how can you not love this shot?
Ain't she pretty?
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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