Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  09/05/2013
Modified:  09/06/2013
Date Climbed:   08/25/2013
Author:  TimothyV

 Columbia - N Cottonwood Creek  

My three sons, their wives, two grandchildren, my wife and I arrived at the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead on August 24, 2013, a Saturday, with the intent to climb Mt. Columbia the next day. Initially, our plan was to backpack in a couple of miles before setting up camp but my wife and one daughter-in-law wanted to be closer to the cars. Two of my sons, who had arrived earlier, were not successful in finding a camping spot going up the trail so they found a spot just northwest of the trailhead. We determined we needed to get started early in the morning, no later than six. However, it rained the night before, making breakfast preparations more difficult and some of us were not comfortable with a hole in the ground and had to motor down to the trailhead below which had a privy. So, no one got started before 7:30. I was even later but I soon caught up with the group (or they waited for me at the Y where left goes to Kroenke Lake and right goes to (as listed on the sign), Harvard Lake and Horn Creek Basin. (We made a mistake back in 2007 of going left, in the dark, and being too tired to climb Mt. Harvard the next morning. That is another story.)

It was partly cloudy and promised to be a nice day, maybe even some hot sun once we reached timberline. We made good time and my oldest son made even better time, not having a wife or child to hold him back so he motored on ahead. The rest of us, along with my middle son, with his toddler son in a backpack and his Cambodian wife who had never climbed a fourteener before, got to the base of Mt. Columbia about 9:30. From there, it was slow going. We got off to the left of the trail and had to scramble over scree to get back to the trail that zigzagged up a pretty steep slope. In fact, it wasn’t clear how steep it was until we came back that way three hours later.

In the meantime, it was getting more cloudy and I remember remarking that those clouds didn’t look very favorable. But, we determined as long as there was no thunder or lightning, we would keep going. My son’s Cambodian wife kept wanting to give up but I challenged her that if someone as old as me could make it, she could, too.

When we made it to the ridge and the first false peak, it was beginning to sprinkle and the wind was on the chilly side. My youngest son and his wife are zealots for the outdoors and they were always ahead of us. I wanted to get to the top so I tried to keep up with them but, by the time I had reached the third false peak, I was getting drenched and so were the rocks, which were getting slippery and I felt it was not wise to hurry. I was also starting to feel miserable and could not say that this rain wasn’t going to continue for the rest of the day. Visibility had diminished to just 10 to 20 feet so I yelled back to my middle son that I had determined I was not going to proceed, that I was coming back. I was only 200 yards from summiting but I decided it wasn’t worth it then. So, the four of us proceeded back down. Thankfully, the rain stopped when we got off the ridge and the clouds got thin enough to warm us a little but none of us wanted to go back up so we kept going down. It would rain about every twenty minutes for about five and then stop again for the rest of our trip down. When we reached the really steep place, there were skid marks where someone had slipped down the mountain for about 10 to 20 feet. The rain had made that part impassable so I zigzagged across one side and then the other but the scree made slipping unavoidable. I fell once and my son, with my grandson on his back, fell three times. Fortunately, we didn’t fall face forward. I don’t know how many times his wife fell but none of us got out of there with clean butts.

My youngest son and his wife joined us near timberline but they were concerned because they didn’t see my oldest son and he hadn’t passed us on the way up nor joined us on the way down. We thought he would have waited for us at the top so he could get his picture but when he wasn’t found there we thought he might have used the extra time to climb Mt. Harvard. The last time we saw him was when he was waving to us from the ridge of Mt. Columbia and we thought we heard him shouting to us from there when my youngest son had summited. I thought I heard him yell from down below but it wasn’t prolonged and I couldn’t be sure it was him. We soon were relieved to find his telltale, insulting message scrawled on the trail. We reasoned he must have wanted to get back to his wife and daughter. We found later, he had taken his own trail down from the summit but had joined the main trail further down. It was he, we found out, that had made the skid marks in that muddy part of the trail.

Meanwhile, my iliotibials on my left leg had tightened up so bad I couldn’t walk very fast and it really pained me to go down any incline. I always go with walking poles and I shortened one to lean on like a cane. Still, it didn’t speed things up and the only relief was walking on fairly even ground. I told the others to keep going down and I would eventually join them. My middle son came back to help me with two miles to go but there wasn’t much he could do that was better than leaning on my cane. Leaning on him only hurt my shoulder more and, even when two men came by, putting my arms around their shoulders was even more painful. My oldest son joined us and tried a fireman’s carry but it hurt my thigh so badly I couldn’t take it. I didn’t arrive in camp until after 8 PM. My oldest son got back about four, my youngest son and his wife got back about five and my middle son, his wife and grandson got back about six.

We were all wet and tired and some disappointed we didn’t make it all the way to the top but we were happy. It hadn’t been a bad day. It could have been better and we could have made it if the 6 AM start time had been a reality. Next time, we had better try a Class 1 and a shorter trail if we want to do this as a family. We have climbed all but two of the Front and Sawatch Class 1 fourteeners but I think we could do Culebra and Handies if we get a weekend off together in the near future or next year.

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