| Columbia - Southeast Ridge
Meteor and I decided to climb Mt. Columbia on Sunday, expecting the trail to be mostly free of snow this late into June. This was Meteor‘s Sawatch finisher, and we decided to try something a little different, picking a route that we thought would spice things up a bit. (The fact that the standard route on Columbia was reputed to have annoying scree helped tip the balance a bit, too).
We drove up the Cottonwood Creek 4WD road and parked at the small parking area on the left, just before the Harvard Lakes Trailhead, at about 4:15am. A brief hike up the Colorado Trail to 10,000‘, and we were off the beaten path and heading up Columbia‘s southeast ridge into the forest. We found Gerry Roach‘s description of the right spot to leave the Colorado Trail helpful. (Here‘s a photo of the departure point taken on the way back down, the trail starts up from the cairn to the large rock under the trees):
The trail up through the forest was one of the steepest portions of the hike, and staying on the faint trail in the dark proved to be a challenge. The trail was actually fairly easy to follow down in the daylight, but it looked a lot different with only our headlamps for illumination. The good news is that there were many cairns along the trail, and a few limbs and branches arranged parallel to the path here and there that helped make things much easier. Looking for branches that had been crushed under hiking boots also helped with the route finding. When we compared our GPS tracks on the way up to those on the way down, there were very few deviations. Probably the most difficult sections to stay on the path were those where trees had fallen right across the trail (one example where the path is obvious in the daylight but looked totally incorrect in the dark):
The cairns in the forest are very helpful, but there need to be a lot more of them, and someone taking a hatchet to the smaller trees that had fallen across the path would have been nice, too. Gerry Roach describes the forest as "open", and I‘d say that‘s correct for the most part--getting off trail was usually no more arduous. We found that the path dips just to the east (right) side of the center of the ridge the majority of the time, and we had great success using that rule of thumb after we spotted the trend! On the way up, we stayed too close to the center of the ridge at one spot a short distance below treeline, and encountered a small boulder field. Using the right-side rule of thumb, we headed down and quickly got back on the path, following it around the boulders and back up toward the center of the ridge.
Emerging from treeline, we found ourselves in a stand of dead trees. We took the opportunity to hang our packs, jackets, and cameras on the impromptu coat racks, and put on sunscreen for the long ridge hike above treeline. (Here‘s a look down at treeline and the dead trees later in the day. You can also get some idea of how steep the forest portion of the ridge below was):
The initial part of the climb up the ridge was also fairly steep. It was also very broad, grassy, and easy to traverse. There was no real path anywhere, just grass for the most part. There were many rocky points on the ridge, and the process of climbing up to a point, spotting the next point, climbing up to that, etc. soon became routine. However, we found that the most efficient path was quite often not directly over the highest points, but skirting around it. Here‘s one example, where staying left lost less altitude and provided a more direct path to the ridge below:
Around 12,000‘ or so, we found ourselves in some daunting wind. If I had to estimate, I‘d say it was sustained wind of 40-50mph, with gusts higher than that, but I might be wrong. It was pretty cool that early in the morning, and the wind chill was quite unwelcome. Mt. Columbia was still hidden from view by the ridges, and dealing with the constant wind and continuing to hit point after point with no sign of our eventual goal was beginning to grow tiresome. Finally, we cut across the face of another point, ascended to a short switchback around 12,800‘, and were treated to the welcome sight of the summit. (Here‘s the ascent right before the switchback):
We got our first bit of rocky scrambling as we reached a point on the ridge around 13,240‘. After hopping up on the first rock, we caught sight of a well-worn path skirting around the point on the right, which made things considerably easier:
A short distance above that, we reached Point 13,298‘, and I stopped there for a panorama of the southeast ridge to the summit:
We started down the middle of the ridge from Point 13,298‘ and soon discovered that this involved a short downclimb over some loose rocky terrain. Dropping down to the left and returning to the center of the ridge proved to be a much easier task. We didn‘t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of the "left-hand" rule of thumb. (While dropping to the right side of the ridge was the trend below treeline, dropping to the left seemed to be the general practice past Point 13,298‘.) The ridge grew steadily rockier and rockier past this, and we got into some boulder-hopping along the center of the ridge when there was no path to the left around a point. Most of the time, there was, however (such as this point near 13,750‘):
There were brief bits of exposure right along the edge of the ridge, which were made difficult by the gusting wind that day. These spots would probably have been no trouble on a normal day, however.
We had been watching out for the spot where the standard route came up and gained the ridge, and there appeared to be two likely candidates, one of which was cairned. However, I think the one which was not cairned was the true point at which we intersected the standard route, around 13,700‘:
From there, we scrambled up the standard route on the final ridge pitches to the summit, continuing to drop down on the left hand side of the ridge where it made things easier. There were a few snow fields right before the summit, and most could be avoided on the left, but there was one patch about 6 feet wide which I eventually had to cross, and I ended up postholing about 4 to 6 inches. That was all the postholing I did that day, so I‘d say our choice for a snow-free route paid off.
We were sheltered from the wind at the summit, and the weather was looking fantastic! There were almost no puffy clouds in sight, and we forecast that there would be no storm clouds all afternoon (which turned out to be correct), and found a comfortable spot to lie down at the summit, eat breakfast, and enjoy the views. Here‘s a photo of the southeast ridge from the summit:
I don‘t know if Columbia had seen very little traffic since last year, or if the summit register had been buried in snow all winter and had just emerged into daylight, but we were only the 8th and 9th people to sign the register since September, and everyone else in that interval had also signed the register that weekend. (That seems kind of sparse for Columbia to me, so I‘m going to go with the "buried in snow" theory.)
When we finally decided to head back down the southeast ridge, it took us a bit longer than we expected to reach treeline. I don‘t think we truly appreciated how long and shallow the elevation change is up high on that ridge until we started watching the clock on the way down. In retrospect, we should have left the trailhead before 4:15am to guarantee safety from lightning, given how long it took us to reach treeline up on that ridge. We fortunately didn‘t need to exercise our bailout plans (west into Horn Fork Basin or east down toward the Harvard Lakes and the Colorado Trail), but we might have had to make a dash for it if the weather hadn‘t been so nice that day!
I took advantage of the nice weather to snap a bunch of photos of the route on the way down, and we added a few cairns here and there along the path through the trees. But the desire to document and cairn soon yielded to the greater desire to lunch, and we hurried down for a visit to Coyote Cantina.
Overall, I‘d say that this was a very enjoyable hike. We found a very snow-free route, abundant solitude on a 14er, and a chance to get off the beaten path and try something different. However, it was a long day, with 4800‘ of gain and a huge percentage of the time spent above treeline, so I‘d want to watch the weather closely before trying it again.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):