Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  08/10/2009
Date Climbed:   08/08/2009
Author:  JenGa
 Columbia - Southeast Ridge route  

This is one of my favorite hikes yet. This route is beautiful and pristine, but is a long and tough hike with no real trail for most of it. Leave early and I highly recommend taking the east ridge back down as opposed to returning down the southeast ridge, and definitely don't go down the scree-slope on the western slope - you will regret it. Several hours are spent on the summit ridges, affording spectacular views of the Collegiate Peaks - just don't screw it up. Here's how it went for us:

Everyone hiking in the Collegiate Peaks Aug 9th would agree that it was a stellar day in terms of weather, which was a lucky break for us after a bad start to our hike. After driving up Cottonwood road to the Harvard Lakes trailhead (rated easy 4wd, made it easily in our 2wd Chevy Silverado, more of a clearance issue than anything else) we started up the Colorado Trail just after 7am. This was already a late start for the 6-mile hike up the southeast ridge route. The trail branches off toward the left at a place marked by a cairn and a fallen log, about 0.7 miles in. Keep a sharp eye out for the small cairn that marks the trail, as we missed it and ended up burning valuable time, energy and water on this mistake. At 9am we started on the correct trail and I had nearly given up on making the summit. We decided to press on and be prepared to turn back if the weather became unstable. The faint dirt path is marked every now and then by cairns, although eventually we lost the trail and followed the ridge up to tree line. It's a steep elevation gain and after two hours we reached timberline and made our way up toward the summit ridge. The route from treeline is obvious. We continued hiking up toward the summit ridge and at 1 pm we hiked over the top and saw the summit of Colombia. At this late hour, with still so far to go the summit seemed unattainable, except that there was still not a cloud in the sky. For the next hour we walked around the horseshoe ridge, which not too steep or difficult, just at high altitude. It's beautiful with Yale to the south, and as we walked around the horseshoe, Harvard came into view, along with the Horn Fork Basin and Bear Lake. With still not a cloud in the sky, we reached the intersection of the trail with the spur from the Harvard trail and around 2:15 . About 30 minutes later we reached the first of two false summits, and a few minutes later we hiked up the summit. We didn't dally too much, and started down at 3pm. At this point we made the choice to head down the western slope on the standard route, since we were both tired and are not crazy about walking the summit ridge again that late in the day. We thought that it would be easier to hike back down the main trail to the North Cottonwood trailhead and walk the two miles back to the truck at the Harvard Lakes trailhead. As it turns out, the rocky scree slope is a terrible choice, as it is perhaps the worst trail I have ever been on. It took us two hours to reach tree line going down the treacherously steep and slippery trail, virtually sliding down parts of the trail. It's frustrating and I hate seeing a trail in that poor condition (I'll be volunteering with CFI next summer!). Once we reached tree line it was a beautiful and easy walk out, albeit long. We reached the trailhead at nearly 7pm after hiking 12 hours; and 35-40 minutes later we made it back to the Harvard Lakes trailhead. This was a beautiful and pristine hike in, but not for those who prefer to follow an established trail. We got lucky with the weather, I recommend being on the trail by 5am at the latest, and don't mess it up by missing the cairn marker. In retrospect, a better descent is to follow the east ridge down toward the Three Elks trailhead, catching the Colorado Trail again and making a really nice ridge-loop.

 Comments or Questions

Good heads up
08/12/2009 23:52
I‘m planning on Harvard and later Columbia (next week). So, I‘m thankful for your warning and know the feeling of spending valuable time hiking the wrong way.

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