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Mt. Columbia - Southwest Couloir
(WINTER) HOLD ON! If you don't have much high-elevation, winter climbing experience, be careful in your planning and take a partner. Even the "easy" 14ers (Quandary, Sherman, Grays & Torreys) can be deadly in winter.
Difficulty:Class 2, Moderate Snow
Ski: Intermediate, D4 / R3 / II
Mild exposure very close to the route. Route options may be limited but you should be able to walk past the exposure area.
Trailhead:N. Cottonwood Creek
Start:9,400 feet
Summit:14,073 feet
Total Gain:4,250 feet from Upper TH
4,800 feet from Harvard Lakes TH
5,100 feet from winter closure
RT Length:10.5 miles from Upper TH
14 miles from Harvard Lakes TH
16.5 miles from winter closure


Turn west on County Road (CR) 350 (Crossman Ave.) near the center of Buena Vista. This road is less than 1/2 mile north of the stoplight in the center of town. Continue on CR 350 for 2 miles and turn right onto CR 361. After almost 1 mile, turn left onto CR 365 (dirt). Continue on this road for over 5 miles to the trailhead at the end of the road. Turn right into the wooded parking area which loops around counter-clockwise. The trail starts on the west side of the parking area.


Since this route is recommended only as a snow climb, you may be attempting it when the road isn't open to the summer trailhead. The lowest winter closure is near 9,200' - over 3 miles below the summer trailhead. In spring and early summer, you may be able to drive to the Harvard Lakes trailhead, a bit farther to the Silver Creek TH (1.5 miles below the North Cottonwood Creek TH) or even farther. Park and hike to the upper trailhead at the end of the road.

Taken from Mt. Yale, Photo #1 shows Columbia's southwest couloir. Follow the standard trail for over 3 miles to approx. 10,950' where the summer trail (if you can see it) reaches a small stream crossing. Turn right and follow this drainage directly north through the trees. Continue another 1/2 mile to reach the large, open avalanche run-out area at the base of the southwest couloir (Photo #2). This is a good place to take a few minutes to study the terrain ahead. As you can see by the size of the run-out, this couloir can produce large slides and it's not a place to be when snow conditions are poor. Hike toward the base of the couloir (Photo #3 and Photo #4) to reach the "choke" at the base (Photo #5). The lower half of the couloir is no more than ~28° in angle and can usually be done with skis/skins or snowshoes but the upper half can reach ~32°.

After the choke (Photo #6, Photo #7 and Photo #8), continue to evaluate snow conditions and decide whether to continue in the couloir (Photo #9) or exit left and parallel the couloir on its west side (Photo #10). Climb northeast up steepening terrain as you approach the ridge above (Photo #11, Photo #12, Photo #13, Photo #14, Photo #15, Photo #16 and Photo #17). If you stayed left of the couloir, you will intersect Columbia's standard, west slopes route above 13,000'. Near 13,400', angle left to hit the ridge, west of the couloir's flat top.

Once you reach the ridge (13,600'+), the remaining hike to the summit comes into view (Photo #19). Turn left and follow the summit ridge over rock bumps and small saddles. From where you hit the ridge, it's over 1/2 mile to the summit. After a few ups and downs, cross a flat area (Photo #20) and climb the final rock pile (Photo #21) to the true summit (Photo #22).


Photos taken during two different ski descents...
Along the summit ridge: Photo #23, Photo #24, Photo #25
Entering the couloir: Photo #26, Photo #27, Photo #28, Photo #29
Fun in the couloir: Photo #30, Photo #31, Photo #32, Photo #33, Photo #34, Photo #35, Photo #36


This route should only be climbed when the couloir is holding continuous, stable snow. IMPORTANT: This route enters the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness area. Wilderness areas have special regulations and restrictions for party size, dispersed camping, campfires, etc. Also, dog owners should read the wilderness information carefully because some wilderness areas prohibit dogs to be off-leash and/or limit how close dogs can be to lakes and streams. If you have questions about the Wilderness area, please contact a U.S. Forest Service office for the National Forest(s) listed above.


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