Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  08/12/2013
Date Climbed:   07/30/2013
Author:  isham

 Mt. Columbia, South East Route, Not a great day  

Mt Columbia – A Cautionary Tale
By Allen Wilson, Comments by Arlen Isham

Allen Wilson has done Mt. Rainier, Kilimanjaro, Base camp of Everest, Cayambe and Cotopaxi in Ecuador, within a hair of the summits of Chimborazo in Ecuador, and Aconcagua in Argentina and the summit of Denali (Mt. McKinley) in 2012 and over 20 of the Colorado 14’ers among other summits. Arlen Isham has summited 33 of the 54 Colorado 14’ers, some more than once. He also successfully led 13 of 15 people to summit Mt. Whitney. Included in Arlen’s extreme experience are a 100 mile trail run, ironman finish and rim to rim to rim double crossing of the Grand Canyon. This information is to give all readers of this post that even with experience, bad things can happen.

From the 14’ website for Mt. Columbia’s Southeast route: This route can be a rewarding hike, although a lengthy one. It affords more solitude and pristine terrain than the standard route, but also requires more route-finding below tree line and more vertical elevation gain (since some of the elevation gain is lost descending from points). It also involves more stable terrain than the scree-covered slopes coming up from Horn Fork Basin. (Arlen’s note: This is true if you stay on the ridge the whole way. Get off the ridge, which we did and the scree on the standard route is a piece of cake compared to being off route on the Southeast.)

General narrative of the day.

We left Pinion Court in Buena Vista, all in good spirits with two vehicles around 5:00 AM on the 30th of August. The weather was looking quite good. We arrived at the car park about 6 miles west of Buena Vista on 365 at the Colorado trail about 5:45 AM. We were elated to have such an early start. It was decided previously that we would take the other-than-normal South-East trail up Mt. Columbia so as to avoid a large scree field on the normal approach.

We began by hiking up the switchbacks of the Colorado trail before heading left (west) through the woods up the mountain. We overshot this branch of the trail by a half mile or so, overlooking the trail marker. It was a sign, a warning for the day that the trail markers would be sparse and often not obvious. We headed up through the woods as daylight arrived. Light didn’t help much and we were compelled to fan out a bit so as to find the occasional cairn or flag. Having to separate to find landmarks was a further sign of things to come. We did know the general direction was up and eventually half bushwhacked up to the tree line. “The beauty of this route is that there is no trail higher up and just a faint use path in the trees. So, this is a fun opportunity to practice route-finding.”, this from Summit Post after returning home. : ) This through-the-woods part is about 1 mile and about 1,100 ft. in elevation gain.

From here we climbed and progressed steadily in a largely westward direction following the ridgeline but paid little attention to landmarks along the way. There was no trail but we thought we could see generally where we were going. (Arlen’s note – The website said to stay on the ridge and detour around rock piles to minimize loss of altitude. ) The distance was greater and the progress was slower than we’d figured. We meandered a bit and some lack of conditioning began to surface. There were fewer trail markers than anticipated and we did separate to some degree looking for them. It was totally not apparent which hikers were on the right path to the summit but it was open territory and we were generally within sight of each other. We blew by our normally self-imposed but not collectively discussed 11 AM turn-around without much of a thought, probably in large part because the weather was not threatening. We could see the summit but the distance was an illusion. Stan was first to turn around with a game knee and Allen went ahead soloing to the summit. Later Bob, Pat and Carol turned around but Arlen and Gary plunged on. Allen waited on the peak as Arlen and Gary said by walkie talkie that they would be along shortly. This took a bit longer than expected—1 hour, it was a great time to get a nap. Allen had to fend off two fat marmots who wanted to fleece his bag when he went over to the edge to check progress. Arlen & Gary arrived at 2:50 PM, essentially 9 hours after the start. Now the fun begins. Arlen says it could be dark when we get back, yeah buddy.

As we descended the summit Gary’s fatigue began to affect his ability to stay up with the modest pace—he’d used a lot of his capacity getting to the summit. About a mile down from the summit Arlen is guiding Bob, Pat and Carol by walkie talkie. They had swerved far to the right down through the dead trees on the right slope of the ridge. If they could have gotten out this way, they would have been far from the car and would have left Stan alone waiting near the end of the ridge line—Stan was not interested in navigating the woods solo. At the same time Arlen was on the horn directing the others, Allen and Gary began a long traverse around the right side of a major rise in the ridge. This decision didn’t work out well at all as we ended up in a large scree and then later a significant rock field from which there was no easy out. Allen was lower, Arlen ultimately in the middle and Gary was up high as we descended and moved to the right. There was enough deep scree here that you could literally ski it. This was no time to be tentative, you just had to release and go with it—with some caution. It was a bad idea to be directly below anyone else as they were springing loose boulders the size of your chest, the results from this could have been very negative. About half way through this section, Gary fell, rolled about 25 feet, and broke his poles—he banged up knees and shins, was shaken but otherwise able to continue. Allen swapped poles with Gary. We had to go down, giving away altitude before we could get out by climbing back to the ridge line a quarter mile later on very loose and difficult rock field mentioned earlier. This half-mile slog probably cost us 1.5 hrs. extra while adding to the frustration and fatigue and now Gary is having some issues with maintaining the pace. The weather is still cooperating; it’s just going to be a very long day.

We trudge on another mile or so, talking to Stan on the horn, now nearing his car, about the right path. We didn’t understand his directions well enough and didn’t get to the end of the ridgeline before dropping off to the right in the dead trees somewhat beyond where Bob, Pat and Carol did likewise. This is also where not noting landmarks on the way up made a significant difference. This cost us another hour or so before we got back up on the ridgeline again. Near the low point of that mis-direction Arlen pulls out the big technology on us with his track-back GPS. We were spread out, moving and looking for cairns. We were communicating by walkie talkie but it is hard to know where someone actually is unless you can see them—a great place for a whistle. My guess is Arlen was probably the only guy who had one—in any case we didn’t try this basic technology. (Arlen’s note - Yes I had both a whistle and noise maker.) The GPS was pretty useful as the trail signs were non-existent. Now the light is fading fast and we had two flashlights between us, both Arlen’s--gear’s useless if it’s not in your pack. (Arlen’s note – Without the lights, we probably would have spent the night on the mountain.) We finally get back together as we’d been scouting for markers and Gary is working to stay up. Finally reaching the woods, we vowed to stay together regardless of any markers and try to follow the trail using the trackback feature on the GPS. This feature displayed the general trail that we followed up the mountain, the general theory being that if you just retraced your ascent your return would be fine. This worked some but it had you trying to follow a trail that didn’t really exist in a way we were used to, so we spent a lot of time zig-zagging trying to stay on a trail when we should have been going in a general direction of straight down. (Arlen’s note - I had to hold my poles in my left hand, GPS in my right hand, and keep my head light focused on the GPS, while watching for trees, rocks etc. as we dropped through the woods on the ridge.) At some point Arlen spoke with Carol and Kathy by cell telling them we were okay, traveling down with the GPS and that we’d be there—just chill. This was hard trekking through the forest over many fallen trees and rocks as the idea of a useable trail was a joke. One side note, the sky was absolutely glorious with no moon but a dazzling display of stars. We could have traveled without lights if we had to especially in the cleared areas. Fatigue and previous injury were beginning to take their toll right along here. (Arlen’s note – I was totally exhausted). Numerous stops to regroup every few minutes caused this stretch of about 1 mile to take well over two hours—this was a bit maddening. We finally reached the Colorado trail cutting down through the woods the last 50 yds. or so. Smooth sailing from there—about a half hour back to the car.

What went right, what went wrong?
What we learned or should have learned?
How everyone can improve?

There is an old saw--All's well that ends well. No, in Industrial Safety parlance, this was a near-miss, an accident that occurred where there was no serious injury or loss of property but that points to some inadequacies or failure in methods or procedures that if not addressed can lead to catastrophic results. There are too many lessons here to walk away from. There were many screw-ups and oversights, some major, some minor. All contributed to an 18hr hike instead of a 7-8 hr. hike. Prior success on literally dozens of 14er’s lead to a dangerous amount of complacency with regard to gear and preparation.

Points to ponder:
• Choice of a trail not specifically known to be well marked and well used.
• All participants not reviewing physical terrain map in advance so as to know general direction and major landmarks.
• Lack of physical conditioning – this cannot be overstated.
• Not strictly adhering to hard pre-agreed turnaround time summit or no. Allen should have not gone to the summit and not waited when he got there, Gary and Arlen should not have followed.
• Over-reliance on experienced friends—individual lack of knowledge of the terrain
• Lack of proper gear, clothing, lights, maps, compass, whistle – a backpack gear check should be minimal
• Lack of sufficient water
• Lack of route finding protocols – scouting and communication
• The track-back GPS really helped but given the terrain and lack of a usable trail, the general direction was more important than the specific trail through the woods. We should have used this great tool earlier after leaving the summit where the distance and terrain were deceptive.

Other questions to address in advance:
• How do you recognize your own limitations? Fatigue, shortness of breath, being told by more experienced people to turn back, be coachable.
• Who should call for outside help, how and when? “If you don’t return or call by x time, we’re calling the sheriff, rangers, etc.”

We were lucky, THIS TIME. This could have had very negative results.

These hikes are great opportunities to hang with like-minded souls who also wish to eliminate or forestall the days with drool on their chins. This comes from the camaraderie of training back home and the mountain adventure itself but we must be smart so that everyone comes away healthy and has a positive trip.

There should be a specific group discussion with the designated leader-of-the-day about each mountain the night before or morning of covering weather, terrain, turn-around times, health, supplies, communications, maps …

There can be significant peril in the mountains; everyone must be personally prepared so as to not endanger themselves or others. It is said that mountains have a way of enforcing humility—so true. These are fun adventures but there are strings attached and personal responsibilities to live up to, these are not in any way guided tours.

Allen Wilson


 Comments or Questions

Thanks for the wake-up call!
08/12/2013 22:15
I was planning to climb/hike Columbia via the Southeast Ridge in about two weeks, as “leisurely” altitude training for the Mountaineers Rt up Whitney in October. Columbia was going to be like any non-technical Thirteener – little trail and few cairns. Obviously, I was being way to blasé.

Clearly, you had done your homework. Who would have thought it would become such an ordeal?!? That long hike along the ridge should be enough in itself to make for a long day. And, of course, hiking though the downed timber is an ordeal by daylight -- and a nightmare by headlamp.

I particularly empathize with Gary. I picked up a lame knee prepping for the 2013 Boston Marathon and part of the reason I was focusing on Columbia was to ease back into the sky. That may not be a wise rehab plan. Kudos to Gary for turning back while the turnin’ was good! Would that I should be so smart...

In spite of the hardships, you are all to be commended for remaining calm and coordinated throughout. From your honest and forthright TR, I have learned yet another valuable lesson. None of these Fourteeners are easy -- and none should be underestimated!

Thanks for the wake-up call!

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