| Southeast Slope - Columbia
Mount Columbia – Southeast Ridge
January 11, 2010
Springtime in January?
My birthday was the 10th and I thought hiking Quandary with the 14ers group might be a fun day. However, my wife had different plans for me, so I was unable to join the group. I decided that I would have to celebrate alone on Monday hiking another mountain.
Dancesatmoonrise had previously attempted Columbia via Horn Fork Basin. Then on the 9th, Dancesatmoonrise completed the climb. He said the trip was 18 miles long which did not appeal to me. I've also heard unpleasant things about the scree on Columbia's West Slope such as Kevin Baker's report, "Columbia is an unpleasant, steep scree slog on a crude trail…" This didn't appeal to me either. For several weeks I had been researching the hike of Columbia's Southwest Ridge. USAKeller had one of the best trip reports for this ridge from March 2007. I decided Mount Columbia was calling my name.
The plowed road on North Cottonwood Creek ends near some houses just prior to the National Forest sign. There is limited parking here. From the parking area head west on the road. The road is hard packed snow and I used only my boots (no snowshoes or traction devices are required). I started at 6:00 am and was off to an easy start. The road had very little grade from the parking area to the start of the Colorado Trail. I left the road at the Colorado Trail (heading north). This turn north is around a mile from the parking area and is easy to spot.
Once on the Colorado Trail, the trail climbs to the north up two switchbacks. Once I topped the ridge, the trail headed back to the west along the right (north) side of the ridge. I continued on the Colorado Trail for a very short distance before it veered off to the north. I had read to continue along the ridge rather than dropping off the ridge with the Colorado Trail. I don't have any pictures because it was dark, but this area is not hard to spot. When in doubt, stay on the ridge heading west.
There was no trail through the trees (although I did see two cairns on the way up). The snow was very crusty in the morning which was great for staying on top with snowshoes. I followed the direction of trip reports, staying on top of the ridge most of the time. During the first part through the trees, I stayed just to the right (north) of the ridge to keep my snowshoes on in the consistent snow. The ridgeline was melting and there were several bare spots on top of the ridge.
Soon the ridge widened and became steeper. I moved slightly to the left (south) side of the wide ridge while gaining considerable elevation. I noticed various tracks from deer and other furry creatures as well as mountain lion tracks at one point. The snow had melted in spots but was easy to work around. The ridge soon became even wider and entered thick Lodgepole Pine. I stayed to the left enough to navigate through the trees. After the Lodgepoles, the forest opened up a bit and I was able to see Yale and Princeton peeking through a couple open spots.
I continued up the ridge, shedding layers of clothes as I went. The day was shaping up to be warm and calm. With the elevation gain and no wind, I already had two layers off. The sun was rising and I knew the snow was going to be soft on the trip down.
After breaking out of the thicker forest, the ridge continued to gain elevation (a recurring theme). Luckily, the view of the Arkansas Valley was revealing itself. As the ridge opened up from the forest, so did the snow. I found myself navigating around bare spots and rocks to keep my snowshoes on. Finally, I took off the snowshoes so I wouldn't tear them up on the bare ground.
The ridge has a spot with several dead trees that are weathered. They make for great pictures. I took some time here to enjoy the beauty of the surrounding mountains and survey the relentless ridge. These are your last trees for several miles.
I was really happy to have such a warm, calm day. The snow was very minimal above timberline which made for a faster ascent. The exposure is high and I would not recommend this route if you have any chance of a storm.
The lack of snow allowed me to pick my route along the ridge. Mostly, I stayed to the left (south) of the ridge or directly on top while above timberline. At about 12,500ft, I discovered a few hiking companions that were waiting for me. The ridge was littered with tracks and dropping, and I smelled my hiking buddies before I even got to them. After about 15 minutes of watching them, they caught sight of me and headed up the ridge. I appreciated them showing me the route that I was about to take.
The upper ridge is very easy to follow, but depressing because you can see how far Columbia actually is. The day continued to be spring-like with warm weather and no wind. I enjoyed all the wildlife footprints and the view of the Arkansas Valley.
I eventually met up with the West Slopes route as it topped the ridge from the Horn Fork Basin. I decided I had made a good route decision after looking down the steep trail to the west. I followed the ridge to the top pondering which footprints were Dancesatmoonrise from two days previous.
Gaining the summit was enjoyable. The weather was still near-perfect with no wind and no clouds. After 6 hours and 35 minutes I was on top. I stayed at the summit for around 45 minutes basking in the sun and looking at deer and elk. Of course, a froggy headstand was in order.
I considered taking the West Slopes descent into Horn Fork Basin, but decided against it after looking down the steep slope again. The descent was uneventful. I noticed a cairn along the ridge that I hadn't on the way up.
There are just a few portions of the ridge where you have to gain elevation on the return trip.
The snow in the trees had melted considerably and I found myself sliding three feet for every step I took. The bare spots through the trees were now larger but still navigable. Somehow, I missed the Colorado Trail on the trip down and continued down the ridge (probably taking too many pictures). I finally saw houses coming up and decided I had missed my switchbacks down. I opted to head straight down the ridge to the road rather than backtracking. I came out on the road about ˝ mile from the parking spot and made it back to my vehicle at 3 hours 15 minutes from the summit. I sure don't feel a year older.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):