Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,075 feet
Date Posted:  11/12/2020
Date Climbed:   01/04/2020
Author:  CaptainSuburbia
 Winter Columbia - Southeast Ridge   

Winter Columbia - Southeast Ridge


This was my second time to summit Mt Columbia by it's southeast ridge. I had climbed it the previous March, a week after calendar winter (not the smartest thing I've done), so I went back for the snowflake. This is a great winter Sawatch route with very little avalanche danger that is often overlooked. Physically, it's a relatively "easy" winter 14er to climb and the route is pretty straight forward. However, trailhead access can be an issue making it a pretty long day. Also, much of the route is highly exposed to wind adding to the challenge. Both my climbs featured high winds despite low wind forecast.

Day of Climb: January 4th, 2020

Trailhead: Harvard Lakes

Peak: Mt. Columbia

Route: Southeast Ridge

Mileage/Elevation gain: 13.3 miles and 4838 feet of gain

Walking the road to trailhead

I arrived at first light for this winter climb of Columbia and parked about a mile below the trailhead. My progress was stopped here by a steep hill that I couldn't get traction on. I saw no evidence of other vehicles making it further. The road was pretty snowy to this point, but it wasn't too difficult for my 4wd truck. A lesser vehicle probably would have had to park a couple miles lower at the beginning of the dirt road.

After gathering my gear I started hiking up the road. Boots were fine here as the road was packed down by hikers and skiers. Once reaching the trailhead the snow was deeper and less traveled on, so I put on my snowshoes and ascended Northwest up the Colorado Trail. After a couple of switchbacks I left the Colorado Trail at about 10,000 feet and continued up the spine of the Southeast ridge. There was no trail or tracks to follow so I began trenching through the forest staying mostly center ridge or slightly right.

My trench
Beginning of Southeast ridge after leaving the Colorado Trail

Route finding was easy as the forest was pretty open and bushwacking was kept to a minimum. Occasionally, I came across rock outcroppings that were easy to go over or slightly around on either side. None of these obstacles were harder than class 2. The forest thinned out more and more as I approached treeline making progress easy. Staying center ridge continued to be the best path.

Working my way up the ridge
Approaching treeline

As I neared treeline I was able to ditch the snowshoes and left them in a secure place (I didn't expect anyone else to come along though). I continued up the ridge over mostly windblown terrain. Thus far I had encountered very little wind, but it picked up here and remained strong (despite the low wind forecast) for the entire ridge.

Treeline. Upper ridge can be see in the distance.
Better view of upper ridge with the first view of the summit in the distance.

After climbing to a jumble of rocks at about 12,600 (which I skirted to the right) I came to the base of a small point that was easily bypassed on the left. I would not try to undercut the rock jumble or you'll just end up on steep, loose terrain and you need to get to the 12,600 foot contour line anyways. I continued across a flattish saddle like area before a short, steep climb to a rounded hill at 12,800 feet where the ridge turned to the west and steepened again.

Next, I easily crossed over 2 rocky outcroppings (going slightly to the right side of each) and reached the upper ridge at around 13,300 feet or so. The rest of the route could now be seen and the summit was still nearly 2 miles away. Thus far, not surprisingly (with the way the wind pounds this ridge), the ridge above treeline had been mostly windblown. This has been the norm for winter 14ers in my experience. Any snow I encountered was consolidated and easily climbed in boots. The rest of the ridge looked like more of the same.

Flattish area before climb to upper ridge. The summit is now easily seen over the hill where the ridge turns west.
Rocky point marking the start of the upper ridge.
Looking down ridge and the track I took across saddle at 12,600 feet.
Climbing to the upper ridge with a great summit view across the Three Elk Creek Basin.

Once on the upper ridge the rest of the route was a breeze. There was still a long way to go though as I traveled around the cirque with many ups and downs (with most being skirted on the left). Even with the ridge narrowing some, the terrain was mostly easy climbing the rest of the way . Strong headwinds were persistent though as I traveled along this upper section, and they became annoying crosswinds after the turn north to the summit. At times I couldn't even see the summit with snow fiercely blowing across the ridge. It was easy to see why the ridge was so windblown.

Skirting a small bump here.
Another bump here that I went to the left of.
Beginning the turn north towards summit. The Southeast ridge route joins the standard route near here.
Great view of Mt Columbia summit
More easy terrain as I get closer to the summit.
Looking back down the Southeast ridge

As I got closer to the summit there was a bit more class 2 scrambling along the ridge crest. The crosswinds were particularly bad here, and I kept a low profile to avoid getting knocked off into Three Elk Creek Basin. There's a small point just before the summit (which I skirted on the right), and then I finished the climb off with a short talus hop to the actual summit. This was my third summit of Columbia, and I always find the views of a snow covered Harvard amazing.

A closer look at summit as I make my final approach
Rocky scramble to summit
Mt Harvard from Summit
Yale to the south.
Southeast Ridge
East Ridge and Buffalo Peaks in the distance

After a short stay on the summit I started my descent back down the Southeast ridge. The winds picked up even more and were much worse on the return. I definitely reccomend climbing this route on a low wind day if you can find one. I made my vehicle just before dark. Curiously, there was a $10 bill on my windshield, and I had no idea why. I didn't complain though, stuffed it into my pocket and headed home extra happy. Halfway home though, I realized my shovel was missing from my truck bed lol. It was a $30 shovel.

On a side note, it's possible to descend the East Ridge and link back to the Southeast Ridge by the Colorado Trail. However, I wouldn't try this in the winter. I did this loop on a previous climb of Columbia, and it was a nightmare spending 3 or 4 hours trenching the Colorado Trail between ridges.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29

Comments or Questions
Have been interested...
11/12/2020 09:08 this route in winter. Thanks for the really good report and photos. (unrelated 14er... will be really interested in another report of LB west ridge direct if you go back and downclimb that someday)

$10 bill
11/12/2020 09:40
You overpaid for that shovel, no way it was worth $10, I thought I was being generous. If you'd like to buy it back let me know, I needed it to get my lowered miata up that hill.

Nice pics, this route is on my to do list this winter.

Nice report Judd
11/12/2020 10:10
Will E, I need redemption on this route! If you‘d like a friendly ‘raceŁ to the summit I challenge you! (Will most likely get my ass kicked)

Little Bear
11/12/2020 10:32
Thanks greenonion! You'll enjoy this route if you can avoid the wind...I'm hoping to get back to LB this fall before the snow piles up. Might be early summer though. Either way, I'll report back about that downclimb.

11/12/2020 10:39
Thanks Will! You'll crush this route. Lol, I knew that lowered miata had something to do with the missing shovel. Leo and I will be looking out for you this winter for my 20. Our paths are bound to cross again.

Thumbs up!
11/12/2020 14:37
Have fun and be safe!

Alternate Descent Route
11/12/2020 17:36
Having descended the East Ridge in March of 2018, linking back up to the CT and back to the trailhead I can and 2nd the recommendation of DO NOT DO THIS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. The wind was nicely shielded on the ridge for us, but once we dropped into 3 Elk Basin...I think I still have nightmares lol

Nice report!

11/13/2020 14:03
Thank you dwoodward! Yeah the east ridge looks inviting and it is nice. It's more of a primrose path though with an untracked basin and Colorado Trail waiting for you.

Nice TR
12/09/2020 09:41
I had some absolutely brutal trenching solo back in winter 2018, you photo brought back those memories. Still, an underrated Swatch winter route, and a nice route where you don't have to sweat avalanche danger too much.

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