Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,075 feet
Date Posted:  03/07/2015
Modified:  03/13/2015
Date Climbed:   03/07/2015
Author:  AnnaG22
Additional Members:   katbiette, nsaladin
 Type II Fun and Endurance Masochism; Columbia SE Ridge   

I don't know a whole lot about avalanches. I attended an avalanche information seminar but have yet to take my AIARE I, so the extent of my knowledge is essentially: ridges are good, valleys not so much, avoid slopes between 30 and 50 degrees, and that more than 6 inches of fresh snow is extra scary.

I ended up hiking Quandary's East Ridge 3 times last year. So though it is commonly regarded as the closest thing to a "gimme" winter 14er, I was fairly sick of it and wanted to look into other options that weren't beyond my own avalanche knowledge. Hmmm...not many of those.

Except Columbia. Columbia's alternate route, this mountain wildly reviled for its' considerable skree and tedious hiking conditions, a half-marathon effort whether done with Harvard or without. I thought about it. I looked at TH accessibility. Read TRs, gathered beta. It sounded like a long haul. It sounded fun.

Our first attempt was on February 7th, near the end of the ridiculous dry-spell that brought most avalanche regions in the state down to green categorization. What a perfect day that could have been- partly cloudy but no predicted precipitation, shockingly little snow for that time of winter, a big enough group of people to have several potential paces. We turned around just about 12,000 feet due to wind gusts of 70+ miles per hour, consistent wind of around 40mph. It was still a beautiful day and a pleasant hike. Call it a practice run.

One month later, 3 of us tried again. Shockingly sunny. Shockingly little wind. We started an hour earlier, just in case (5am) , and thank goodness we did. The snow below treeline was not particularly consolidated yet. This hike, given adequate time and appropriate weather, is a pretty wonderful winter hike insofar as being straightforward for determined parties. With enough snow, you also need decent navigation skills, especially during the 2/4 of the ascent. Navigation skills? But it's a ridge! But how hard could that be? Hard in the physical sense...if you let your feet follow the most gradual line, you traverse north on this very wide ridge. And north, of course, means more snow. Hang to the south side of the ridge, especially if you're not carrying a GPS. South enough to see where the side of the ridge grows steep, to have a path where the trees are thin and it's easy to see Yale all the time.

In winter or summer, I have two recommendations:
1) Take a full weekend. Hike close to the top of treeline and camp. Wake early, move to the summit, return, pack camp, and head back to your car. It's a beautiful hike with incredible views, and doing it this way will break up the loooooonnnnggg effort into something slightly more palatable.
2) Start in the middle of the night. Perhaps on a full moon. This should save you a good 6 hours of sunshine exposure, which especially in the winter can seem a bit oppressive. What a difficult choice it is- that constant reflection versus the wind or wet or cold.

on tracks
on tracks

We started out slow. I wasn't feeling 100% and we wanted to be conservative. We were happily derailed by countless animal tracks: squirrel, rabbit, coyote, maybe fox, turkey, mountain lion, mice. We joked about continuing to Harvard. It wasn't until we got to around 12,000 feet that I started feeling antsy. I was deep into that psychophysical place of wanting to turn around but also badly wanting to see the world from 14,000 feet again, to fight my mental limitations.

Human pride is such an interesting thing. "I love the mountains," we say. "I want to do a winter peak," I'd thought for months, "I want to have this further, new experience and not just be a fair-weather summer mountain fan." And hiking mountains in winter is so much more difficult than in the summer, requires more logistics and deliberation. I can only imagine how much more difficult climbing mountains is in winter. Those mind-blowing, glorious pictures of people traversing Capitol's knife-edge in February, of sections of the Matterhorn. These feats that require more than just ambition or fondness for the outdoors, more than just endurance, but immense skill AND hard knowledge AND tenacity AND a bit of insanity. And the journey it took those individuals to get there, to develop that confidence in their hands and feet and minds, to polish their faith (in whatever they choose to name: themselves, the mountains, God).
Nick with Princeton and Yale in the background

And yet for all those thoughts, they disappear in the flow. Those things vanish in the pure existence of throwing ones' body at the elements and testing its' limits. That's what we did, around 13,000 feet. Thinking about doubts and time and feeling unwell, I'd stopped again to wait for Katy and Nick after again getting carried away with finding the route, with following the cat and/or canine tracks leading ever upward, with seeing the actual peak, with discovering whether the animals lounging in the rockfields ahead were goats or sheep or elk (they were the latter). And we decided to split up and go our own paces. It was past noon. It reminded me of east coast hikes where a mile feels like an eternity, where 15 minutes can feel like an hour or a blink.
elk on high

We went. I stopped briefly every 20 minutes or so to meet my needs: drink a little, eat a little, take a pee. Glance back along the ridge to see the black dots representing Katy and Nick.
Upon reaching the summit, I looked along the route, that meandering ridge stretching out for miles to the southeast. Didn't dwell. Ate and drank a little. Snapped a few pictures. Laughed in admiration at the pika tracks in the snowed-in stone shelter.
pika with great views
And felt the way I only feel in the mountains. Pure and right and simple, where reward and consequence is tangible, where questions become less important for awhile. Began the trek down. Passed Nick and was rejoined by him about an hour later, just after sunset.
a tea bag once read "empty yourself and let the universe fill you"

The Southeast Ridge of Columbia is wonderful. It is long, and painful, not standard...and that's okay. If you have high endurance and are developing your winter skills, I highly recommend it. It will push you more than Quandary, and is more solitary to boot. It was wonderful to plan and execute my own first winter ascent, to do so successfully. I did trash my immune system by hiking with the beginning of a cold, and paid for it. But it was a great start, and I look forward to learning from other mountain folk, developing more winter skills and communing with those people and these places. After all, that's what Type II fun is all about.
day is done. hike is not.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
03/12/2015 18:08
Thanks for sharing the write–up and pics. One thing though, where are the selfies?

03/12/2015 19:35
the selfies are on Facebook, duh. there would be more pictures here but my formatting skills are weak and I can’t figure out how to display vertically oriented pictures upright instead of sideways.

03/13/2015 18:10
I know, right?? There’s another Columbia TR that would surely be overshadowed by this fine effort...if only pictures could be portrait–oriented. Maybe the Golden Surf could help me figure out my orientation issues.

(Nice work.)

03/13/2015 19:01
There’s a great Columbia TR of a different route featuring you, Ben. Quite the legend: four ski descents of Columbia in one trip. And it’s been said that video is worth 1000 pictures.

Nice photos
04/02/2015 19:45
Anna, bring back fond memories. Congrats on completing the tough ridge!

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