Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  07/03/2013
Date Climbed:   06/30/2013
Author:  Allagash
 Perfect Day, imperfect slope for first time up Columbia  

With glorious climbing weather (cool, clear skies & minimal wind), we set off from Cottonwood TH at 5:45 a.m. Chuck took off jogging up to Harvard, then took the lower trail just below the Class 3/4 ridge as part of the 'Combo' hike with intent to meet me on Columbia's summit. Don't get lulled by the solitude of the rolling and wooded trails to think this is an easy 14'er to capture. Oh sure, until treeline, it's an amazing hike. However, the Gerry Roach 14'er book doesn't provide enough detail for the West Slope ascent and how sloppy it could be. A few patches of snow...but easy to walk around.

About 3.5 to 4 miles in, there are two forks on the trail separated by maybe 150 yards. I labor over this point because 3 other hikers also pondered with me on which trail to take...and even with Roach's map in hand, we weren't sure. Each decision point has a trail leading North (towards Harvard) and a right turn (East) towards Columbia. Each time, take the East / right turn. It's really not complicated and in hindsight, I almost didn't want to share this but figured if 4 hikers were confused, someone else could be too. At the 2nd fork, you'll be in a clearing with view up the HF Basin to Harvard and a look up the Columbia face. It's this 2nd fork called out in the book. There's a cairn at the fork with a smaller one across the stream leading towards Columbia. Took about 2 hours to get to this spot.

But, it was Roach's comment that "the slopes directly below the summit are unpleasant" that caused us more confusion. Behind the rock mass you can see what a first-timer might think is the summit (pic 1) though we later discovered Columbia is one of the reigning champs of false summits. We thought "that looks like the summit...and it's pretty steep, certainly seems unpleasant....this must be the face he's suggesting we avoid". As we looked towards Harvard and saw additional slopes "below the summit" we again said "well, they look near impossible w/out tech gear...beyond "unpleasant", it seems he's saying "head down valley to find the 'easier terrain'." We figured the trail (see pic 1 again, where the trail heads into the woods) would lead to that "easier terrain". Instead, it led to "unpleasant"...ugh.

The trail wraps around to the right of the 'mass' and looking up is that "easier" terrain he mentions (note: he's obviously a skilled climber so this IS easy in his mind :-). Be mindful that about 200 yds up the talus, there IS a trail that breaks right and parallels the couloir but heads towards the rocky / grassy notch you see uphill to the right. You guessed it...we missed that turn! Heading straight up the gut for about an hour, 2 of us said "this can't be's not only unpleasant, but this slip and slide certainly would have been called out". So, we cut laterally to the grassy/rocky outcropping and found the trail.'s a trail but there was sand, scree & talus as we re-lived the Bruce Springsteen song: "2 steps up (then slide) one step back". See pic 2 for sense of steepness (mind you, this is about 1/4 way down {on the correct trail}...there's much more to enjoy).

We reached the first plateau, saw another (the gentle ridge he mentions) then saw another...then 2 rocky towers...but nope, go past the second tower...4 or 5 false-alarms in all. 5 hours for me. Of course, Chuck arrived within 15 minutes of, it's all relative how much distance someone can cover.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions
Bill Morrison

Try the SE ridge
07/04/2013 01:13
I know that it's a longer hike, but I've done the SE ridge twice and found it MUCH better than the standard route.

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