Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,073 feet
Date Posted:  04/16/2010
Date Climbed:   04/13/2010
Author:  pioletski
 An Educational Field Trip on Mt. Columbia   

The Mt. Columbia School of Navigation

Columbia (14,071') ascent via 3 Elk Creek, descent via Frenchman Creek
April 13, 2010
Ben (benners), Matt (pioletski)
11 hours, approx. 13 miles, approx. 5200' climbed and skied

This was one of those days when the word "interesting" shows up a little too frequently in conversation. Consequently I must admit that this is a slightly difficult TR to write. Ben and I got a little cocky, paid for it with a longer and harder day than anticipated, but ended up grateful for the lesson.

We met at Bongo Billy's at 5:00 am. Maybe one of these days we'll be there when they're open. At 6:00 we were on our merry way up the 3 Elk trail toward Harvard Lakes:

Starting out (pioletski)

Right off the bat we found that the snow at low elevation hadn't frozen adequately the previous night. We were punching through the surface and hearing the dreaded "whumpf" from time to time. Fortunately it was colder higher up, and our misgivings about the stability of the snow abated by the time we reached timberline. Instead we were preoccupied with the color, and the resulting change in melting/freezing:

Dirty snow in upper 3 Elk Basin (benners)

As we approached the upper basin, the clear morning was beginning to cloud over:

Weather closing in (benners)

Our intended descent route - one of the indistinct chutes on the headwall - loomed into view as the snowfall started. The summit is right of center in the photo:

Intended descent route (pioletski)

Following Dawson's description, we turned right, stripped off the skins and booted up onto the east ridge of Columbia:

Ben climbing to the east ridge (pioletski)

Meanwhile the snow got thicker:

Matt climbing, visibility decreasing (benners)

The ascent up the ridge was somewhat windy as well, but the summit was relatively calm and pleasant. We just couldn't see anything in the intermittent whiteout conditions:

Ben at summit (pioletski)

The next photo was intended to be a joke - here's our fabulous view of Harvard from the summit of Columbia. I'm including it now as a demonstration of the complete lack of visible landmarks:

Mt Harvard from summit of Columbia (pioletski)

And here are the necessary pictures of us at the summit with skis on. First Matt...

Matt ready to ski (benners)

and then Ben:

Ben ready to ski (pioletski)

And here's where things went awry. I spent a fair amount of time the next day (while soloing Shavano in perfect weather - a great setting for contemplation) thinking about the real root cause of our navigational mistake, so let me digress a little bit. I concluded that Ben and I had both become a little too comfortable with navigation, to the point where we both did a lot of it by the seat of our pants - more precisely, by looking at a map ahead of time and then following our internal images of the route. Ben carries a GPS and knows how to use it; he has topo maps of all his routes loaded onto it. I carry a map, compass and altimeter and have navigated through whiteout conditions above timberline with them. However, no navigational device does squat for you if it stays in your pocket. We were overconfident about our descent route - just ski down the south ridge, a little to the right of our ascent tracks, then drop to the left. Problem was, our ascent track had wrapped a little further around to the north than we realized (whiteout, remember), so we blithely set off down the EAST ridge without stopping to check our bearings.

The skiing off the summit was pretty good, in spite of the low visibility. Here's Matt off the summit:

Matt, off summit (benners)

and Ben:

Ben, ditto (pioletski)

and here's Matt starting down a sweet couloir, which was somehow more prominent than we were expecting (!)...

Down the ridge (benners)

and Ben making turns in pretty decent snow:

Into the couloir (pioletski)

As we reached the basin, about 2000' off the summit, we realized that we had just made a nice run... into Frenchman Creek. Ironically, when looking over at Columbia from the summit of Harvard in February, we had spotted this very chute and commented that it would be a fine ski run. I can recommend it as a ski route for Columbia, but I would suggest starting from the Frenchman Creek trailhead!

So we paused and considered our options. Re-climb 2000 feet over the ridge? No, I don't think so. Ski down to the Frenchman Creek trailhead, and then either hike or hitchhike back to the 3 Elk TH? Hmmm... no, we have no idea what that would really entail. We decided to ski down the Harvard Trail (easily found) to where it intersects the Colorado Trail, then bite the bullet and traverse back south to 3 Elk. We estimated that would add about 2.5 miles to the trip - manageable, but the soft rotten snow at low elevation made this portion a true study in perseverance:

Sinkholes on the Colorado Trail (benners)

We carried on, eventually (gratefully) taking our skis off to hike down the south-facing side of a ravine:

On dry ground (benners)

and wading to the trailhead through the last of the rotten slop.

Wading to the trailhead (benners)

By this time our shadows were growing rather long...

Long shadows... (benners)

... and we were not sorry to get back to the car.

If I have the opportunity I will add a map to this TR showing our actual and intended routes. In the meantime, let's all double-check our bearings and travel safely!

Thanks for reading!

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

02/05/2011 00:22
Reminds me of Shavano...Looks like you had fun in the blizzard!

That suck you guys went down into the wrong basin...oh well. Seems like you guys handled it nicely


Extra training vert
05/02/2011 14:23
Good of you to write this up Matt. I‘ve definitely made my share of careless navigational errors. Yesterday might have been another if you hadn't suggested I double check my proposed shortcut on the map before skiing that gully. Nice TR.


Good summary
04/22/2010 21:07
of the day Matt. Soon after graduating from the ”Columbia School of Navigation” we found ourselves enrolled in the ”Climbing Through Rot and Traversing Three Drainages Capped Off By The Worst Bushwack I‘ve Ever Had To Do School”. I think the lesson we learned on this one is pretty much burned in there. The route we accidentally skied was actually pretty cool though, at least we have that positive note to take from the day .

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