Standard West Slopes Up, Southeast Ridge Down--kinda
As August neared an end and September began to roll around, I mapped out the remaining 6 peaks (in 5 hikes) I wanted to accomplish so as to finish the Sawatch Range and also reach 27 summits of the ‘official’ 14ers. Mt. Columbia was still on the list and it ended up being the last one I needed to accomplish the above-stated goals, though hopefully it won’t be the last 14er I summit this summer/fall.
I had chosen to hike Harvard by itself a couple weeks prior and not attempt the traverse to Columbia, so like many, I read about the standard route up Columbia’s west slopes. As many know, Gerry Roach describes the climb up the slopes as being ‘tedious’ and Bill Middlebrook as ‘not so fun.’ Some of the other trip reports use even less pleasant language to describe this route. However, after reading rajz06’s trip report and seeing his positive attitude, I told myself I would approach it the same way.
I did my best at doing so.
Since the forecast this day was ‘sunny’, and with no chance of thunderstorms I allowed myself a later start than usual, setting out about 45 minutes before sunrise and using my headlamp for only a short while. In just the two weeks since I had been up the basin to hike Harvard, I was surprised how much past-prime the colors now were, which were excellent back on September 8th. In this photo, one can see how most the leaves are off the brush while looking at much of the south ridge to Columbia above.
As others have stated, the rock formation one encounters shortly after turning off the trail towards Columbia is impressive, though my point-and-shoot camera and the lighting in my version of it don’t do it justice (as is often the case).
As you can see, the sun hits Harvard’s face quite early-on in the day…
The all-too-familiar picture of what lies ahead on Columbia’s west slopes. rajz06 did a good job of showing the route with arrows.
Looking up: how can there be so many rocks on these mountains?
Looking down: it is pretty steep.
And more rocks ahead, but I try to keep a good attitude. Actually, my attitude was OK about the ascent, it was just imagining the descent on the way back that I was beginning to question.
Look at all those loose stones.
And there’s the basin way down there.
Harvard and its entire route in view; Harvard was really an enjoyable hike and fun summit.
A view of some of the terrain once you’ve made it up most of the west slope and are now climbing the shoulder up to the ridge—somewhere in the high 12,000’s to low/mid 13,000’s. Bill Middlebrook aptly describes this portion as being a ‘loose trail.’
Finally, atop the ridge and the summit in view.
By this time I had pretty much decided that I was not going to return the same way I came up. As it is, I tend to find the loose rocks that turn into ball-bearings under my feet and I couldn’t even imagine the effort to stay upright going down all the loose, steep terrain I had just hiked up. I had read about others (including Roach) describing the ascent to Columbia via its southeast ridge, and remembered enough of it to feel comfortable going back that way. The only drawback would be being 1-1 ½ miles away from my vehicle parked at the North Cottonwood Creek trailhead when I made it back down to the County Road near the Harvard Lakes trailhead. But I figured that would still be more enjoyable than going down the west slopes.
Atop the summit I talked to a search-and-rescue volunteer searching for an elderly couple that may have spent the night around there. Apparently they had hiked Columbia the day before, felt too tired to come down and told others they were going to “stay put” for the night. Talking to the search volunteer, he asked if I had seen anybody coming up (I hadn’t) and to please keep an eye out for them on my return down the southeast ridge—and to call 911 if I found them. He confirmed that the southeast ridge would eventually hit the Colorado Trail and then I just need to follow it south to the County Road and North Cottonwood Creek.
I set out down the long Southeast Ridge—with a renewed energy thinking I might be able to help find some lost hikers and knowing I wouldn’t be dealing with Columbia’s west slopes. Had those slopes defeated me? Was this maintaining a good attitude about them? Was I maintaining a good attitude by not descending them? Yeah. That’s it.
Here’s a look at a good deal of Columbia’s long Southeast Ridge from near where the standard route coming up meets Columbia’s south ridge. The weather was great, the day wasn’t too old, and I had plenty of water so time to go for it.
A look back at Columbia’s summit from down the Southeast Ridge a ways.
In the mid 13,000’s I came across this herd of mountain goats well below me—probably spooked by my presence as they were moving along rather quickly. In this picture they look rather indistinct, but when I zoom in on them with more pixels, I count 32 of them.
Down the ridge quite a bit, but still quite a fair amount of it in front of me.
At this point, my lack of familiarity with the route took over and I didn’t heed the SAR volunteer's words that if you go down the ridge far enough, you’ll meet up with the Colorado Trail. As it was, I had seen a trail veering off the ridge towards the old, burned and dead trees at/above timberline for some time coming down the ridge and basically set my sight on it as I neared it. Here is what it looked like. But you can see that it drops down from the ridge rather quickly. I was also lulled into thinking this would be fine since I could see on my GPS that my vehicle and the trailhead were almost directly below me. So I commenced down this trail.
I soon entered basically an old-tree graveyard above current timberline. Here is a picture of these dead trees with the final portion of the Southeast Ridge I descended behind it. Columbia’s summit is, of course, way behind what can be seen here. And I love the contrail in the picture, too.
And the remains of another old, long-dead tree...
It was an interesting area to hike through--for a while.
After descending through the rest of the dead trees and entering live timber, I quickly found myself in this kind of terrain and it was quite steep (see my GPX track). Needless to say, I ended up bush-whacking for almost the rest of my trip down. At first I thought I would stay rather level and try to work my way towards where I had intended to end up—the Harvard Lakes trailhead. But once I saw how dense the foliage was and then saw that my vehicle was now directly below me, I just decided to go pretty much straight down to it.
It made for a fair amount of work; more annoying than anything. But I knew where I was, the weather was great and I still had water so it wasn’t a real worry.
And before long, I was just a couple-tenths of a mile from the trailhead. Somewhat surprisingly, my total trip length, at least according to my GPS, was still only 10.5 miles.
So, all in all, was it worth not going down the west slopes? I’d say yes since it allowed me to hike off-trail for miles on a beautiful day, albeit in terrain that required a different kind of work than trying to stay upright while descending on loose rocks. Next time, if there is a next time on this mountain, I’ll be sure to follow the ridge all the way down and not follow some game trail down the side of a mountain.
When I arrived at the trailhead in the mid-afternoon I overheard a hiker talking to a couple of SAR people who had just arrived. Fortunately, he had come across the elderly couple near the second bridge on the route into the basin. They were quite weak and dehydrated he said, but OK. It would seem by that location that they had descended the west slopes to get down and were working their way back to the trailhead.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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