Mt. Columbia from Three Elk Creek…and then the weather changed
Like many things, this hike was the result of a previous failure. Last summer, my son Will (then 13) and I attempted the Harvard and Columbia combination summit. We camped near tree line in the Horn Fork Basin and were on the top of Harvard by 0830, but the weather, even at that early hour, had turned ugly, and we turned back, leaving Columbia for another day. In all honesty, I can’t say I was terribly disappointed after reading all the trip reports about how bad the standard route descent from Columbia was, but there was still sadness in having to turn back.
Fortunately, we had another day to summit Columbia, and we did, using the east ridge route from Three Elk Creek, the hike Roach calls, “the cardinal Colorado climb,” and it certainly was. We left Westcliffe a little after 0500 and made it to the trailhead just before 0700. We took our 1998 Honda Accord up nearly all the way to the trailhead, but I probably would not do that again. The last .8 miles were hard on the very low clearance vehicle.
The trail does not have the newest signage, but I have to say that the forest service has done a very nice job cutting downed trees throughout the trail. There were many that had fallen, but the trail was cleared the entire way. Thank you.
At the trailhead
As always, there were beautiful flowers along the way.
What kind of flower is this?
The split from the logging road is marked with carins but not signed. We reached the first creek crossing very quickly at 0715 and then hit the Colorado Trail by 0755 at 1.65 miles at 10,233 ft. We passed the second creek crossing at 0810 and the third at 0830. Near tree line we passed the final creek crossing at 0900. Here is Will at one of those crossings:
A new bridge to replace the one in disrepair
At around this time, we met up another father/son duo from Illinois – Larry and Josh – who joined us on the ascent up Columbia. It was nice hiking with them, and I hope we can hike with them again. Here is a nice view of the basin as we came out of tree line at 0910.
A view of the Three Elk basin
Shortly after this picture, we veered to the right to gain the ridge.
The start of route finding
There is no trail for this ascent, and I’m not sure we took the best route. This ascent was clearly the most challenging part of the climb. It seemed like at any moment we would reach the ridge, but it took us until 1040 to get there. At that point we had climbed 4.73 miles to an elevation of 13,140 ft. Here are Will and Sadie working their way up the summit.
On the ridge heading to the summit
Here’s the great dog Sadie taking a break from the hike.
A break above tree line looking south
Taking this ridge is a long hike up with three painful false summits. We hit the first at 1055 at 4.96 and 13,140 ft, the second at 1120 at 5.34 miles and 13,685, and the final one at 1135 at 5.70 and 13,770. Finally, the final summit was in sight:
At 1200 we reached the summit. Here we are with Harvard in the background:
At the summit
And here is another picture of us at the summit. Columbia was our 15th 14er. I know we still have a long list to climb, but all we can do is take each one step by step.
Our 15th 14er
Our time on the top was short lived, however. The skies had become cloudy on our ascent, but they were light clouds that did not seem ominous. However, a storm cloud from the west swept over the summit very soon after we arrived, and I heard the crackle of electricity and felt my body tingle as the hail began to fall. All too quickly we went from tourist mode to survival mode and made a beeline off the top of the mountain. We had originally planned on hiking around the ridge of Columbia and coming down the other side of the basin, a variation of the hike Roach describes as the “Bristlecone Circle.” In fact, during our ascent we had been plotting the descent and making sure we knew the landmarks to help us find the trail once we reached tree line, but all those plans went away with the sound and feel of electricity in the air.
I learned a lesson about exposure on this hike. I had looked forward to walking around the ridge, but I had not fully considered how much exposure we would be facing, and more importantly, how to get off the mountain if the weather changed quickly (which it did). We made the decision to take the scree down as quickly as we could. The gps map will show our descent nearly straight down the mountain. I am sorry for the damage we may have caused on the mountain, but at that moment, I did not feel we had another alternative. I was more scared than I had ever been on a mountain.
The clouds quickly moved in to the basin. Here is a picture of the storm we faced:
The clouds moved in
And here is a nice view of the hail that gathered around my feet:
And then, of course, it was over. By the time we reached the basin floor, the sky was blue and we were able to enjoy our late lunch. Here is Will recording the climb in his journal:
Lunch break after the storm had passed
There are some interesting old dead trees around tree line (Photo by Will).
Cool trees at timberline
The hike down was quite nice.
On the way down
It really is a wonderful hike. Roach is correct. Our total distance, with our detour descent, was 11.69 miles with a total elevation gain for 6,012 feet. It was a full day, five hours to the summit and nearly four down.
And even in this hike there was some failure and disappointment. We didn’t make the entire ridge as we had anticipated, but there will be other days, and I look forward to making this climb again. In spite of the short burst of really bad weather, we had a great day. And we made sure to end it at K’s.
Dinner in Buena Vista
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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