Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  12/20/2009
Date Climbed:   07/25/2009
Author:  djbritton
 Mt. Columbia - West slopes approach via N. Cottonwood Creek TH  

After my first experience on Elbert over the 4th of July weekend I told my "trip story" to as many people as I could in an effort to entice some company on the next adventure. And it worked! My older brother (Clay) had been hiking in RMNP (and maybe a couple other parts of CO) before, but I don't think he had been higher than, maybe 12k feet. So after him hearing about my success on Elbert, he was very interested in doing a quick weekend to see if he could get himself above 14k feet - and just enjoy PLANET EARTH!

Because I had done Elbert, I felt more confident about encountering difficult Class 2 or easy Class 3 terrain, so I gave Clay the pick of any peak he wanted to do... but here were our criteria for choosing Columbia:

1) pretty easy access from I-70
2) west slopes route offered a Class 2 approach with some exposure
3) 4,250 feet of elevation gain
4) 11.5 mile round trip, so we could descend Saturday and camp that night in the Horn Fork Basin and finish the hike out Sunday morning and drive back to KC.

so here's the report:

Clay and I took a half day off work on Thursday, July 24th so we could head out early. Other than our conversation, the drive was thoroughly uneventful... That is, until we got outside the Springs and snapped this shot of Pikes while driving:

We arrived in Buena Vista around midnight and took about 5 minutes to find the turnoff for CR 350. Once onto CR 365 (5 mile dirt road to the TH) it was only a few miles until we ran into rocky terrain that my Volvo S80 just isn't equipped to handle - of course we found that out by trying a few times and probably bumping up the undercarriage pretty good! Anyway, we turned the car around and found a place to park the car and set up the tent to go to sleep... The next morning, we woke up pretty late, around 7:30, and still had to hike a couple miles on CR 365 to get to the actual trailhead. Here's a shot of the car from where we set up camp:

We started walking the dirt road to the TH and weren't having much fun... especially because we didn't exactly know how far we needed to cover. But after 30 minutes or so, a German from Arizona pulled up in his BMW SUV and offered us a ride to the TH. Thanks a ton!!!!!

And look how crowded the TH was.. and this shot only shows maybe 1/10 of the vehicles present (luckily most of them were doing Harvard):

The Horn Fork Creek right near the TH:

Welcome to the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness:

We found our camp location right around 11k feet right near the clearing where you can see Columbia's SW shoulder. Clay sure is enjoying it:

About the make our way up what is easily the most difficult part of the hike:

Me getting a quick drink and enjoying the views of the HF Basin... Is that Yale in the background??

As Clay is climbing up towards me, it is easy to understand why inexperienced guys like us need to use our hands to help keep our balance up this incline (even though somebody who looked 40 years older blazed passed us somewhere on this stretch...)

This is when we finally get to the top of the SW shoulder... look how much blue sky there is:

Maybe 30 minutes later and you can see the rain clouds have formed across the HF Basin:

We decided that it didn't look threatening, so we would keep pushing toward the summit - but I was thinking we would turn around if it got any worse... well, it did get worse. We heard a few cracks of thunder and saw some lightning, but it happened very fast. We passed by some climbers heading down from the summit who strongly advised us to turn around and retreat. However, at that point we were so exposed up on the ridge it would have taken an hour or so to make any real progress in losing elevation. So we huddled up for 10 minutes or so to see what would happen. And it worked out for us that the weather moved quickly to the East and we made a dash for the summit only 10-15 minutes away... and here from the summit looking towards Harvard you can see it is not threatening to the NW:

Another shot from the summit looking SE and you can see the weather that moved passed:

We probably left the summit after just 10 minutes to head back down. However, right as we left, we heard somebody yelling at us from approximately 100 yards away... it sounded like he was asking us to wait and maybe they needed help. Sure enough, they had come from Harvard that day, trying to complete the Harvard/Columbia loop, and the female of the two was having really bad headaches from the altitude - and they were out of water. So we helped them out by offering up almost a full liter of H20 since we felt comfortable putting clean looking snow into our bottles and waiting for it to melt. They also needed directions from us on how to get back to the HF Basin and the N. Cottonwood Creek TH. So we showed them the way and descended with them a had a couple hours of good conversation... And, it was a pleasure for Clay and I to feel useful to a CO couple who between them was well over 100 14ers. Can you believe it?? Two Kansas Citians with three 14ers total (couting Columbia for 2 as we had just been at the summit) were giving assistance to a seasoned Colorado couple with years of experience in the mountains....

Anyway, an hour or so into the descent, it started raining pretty steady - but still no lightning. But it did get pretty muddy and slippy, so going down was really no fun at all. We just slogged along for a few hours until we made it back to the clearing. And wouldn't you believe it, that is right about when the rain finally stopped.... figures!

So we set out to make a fire, treat some water from the creek and cook dinner. Clay felt miserable - complete lack of energy, headache, etc... and we seriously considered packing up and hiking to the car immediately. But he decided to give it a few minutes, so I proceeded to get the fire started so we could warm up and get the water and food ready. After he got food in him, it wasn't more than 30 minutes before he started feeling better... just think he was malnourished and his body was shocked from expending all the energy required to get above 14k feet (despite all the snacks we had during the climb). So after that we just hung around the fire, made silly comments, laughed, and then went to bed.

The next morning it was still raining around 7am so we stayed in the tent and tried to sleep another hour or so. When it finally stopped, we packed up aqap (as quick as possible) and bolted down the trail - but it took much longer than we thought it would to get to the car, so the first thing I did when we got back was:

That was on Sunday, and the drive back was brutal!! But not as brutal as being in the office on Monday and trying to relive all the memories of a terrific weekend in the hills!

(One thing I would do different next time - start earlier in the morning to increase the odds of avoiding the rain clouds... however, this did put us in the position to offer water and directions to a couple in need, and who knows what would have happened had we not been there for that. Because we were the last ones on the mountain.)

Thanks for reading!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

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