Kris and I had dread climbing Columbia for a while. The scree slope sounded nasty and the alternative route lacked a clearly defined trail and was a long time above treeline. Not to mention our adventure on Harvard a few years back (https://14000feetandabove.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/mt-harvard/)
We camped at the trailhead the night before so that we could get an early start on the climb. The trailhead is well marked but smaller than a lot of the other trailheads on the road, so it was a bit harder to find. We passed it and realized our mistake relatively quickly, so we turned around and headed back.
Camp was quick and easy to set up. With the tent established, we thought about starting a fire, but it had rained a good while earlier and everything was wet. Oh well, off to bed it was.
Coffee…food…hike. We we’re out of camp at 4:03 and on the trail.
Initially, you follow the Colorado Trail for the first, but around 10,000 feet you head northwest off the trail. It is not clearly marked, or marked at all for that matter, but once you find the initial movement, you can pick up segments of a trail here and there.
We worked our way through the forest. Occasionally on trail. Occasionally not. Our GPS was incredibly handy here and saved us quite a bit of exploring, especially in the dark. We had been hiking for around an hour when the sun first began to peek above the horizon, but our surroundings remained dark.
As we approached tree line, we had picked up a trail, but were met by 2 glowing eyes in our headlamp beams. We quickly turned a hard left and took another route up. I occasionally glanced over to see the eyes, watching us, but appearing to maintain their position. It wasn’t until a couple minutes later that I felt like we were safe.
As we reached tree line, we found a rock outcropping that offered an incredible view of the sunrise in the east:
As the sun rose, we approached the stand of dead trees. In the pre-dawn light, it was eery to work our through the shadows. We were able to maintain the trail, but at times, it was challenging with the variety of deadfall and the meandering nature of the trail.
As we left the trees behind, we found ourselves on decreasingly less rocky terrain. This was in reverse to your standard 14er where the rocks increase the higher you go.
We followed the ridge line and skirted the 1st peak to the south. It’s easy to dodge it. All that needs to be done is to aim for the saddle. At this time, your objective is clear. Initially, you need to find your way onto the ridge directly in front of you, and then you work your way over to Columbia, which is in view to your right.
We reached our first bump on the ridge at 12,800 feet at 6:41 AM, 2:37 into the hike. From here, the terrain becomes a mix of smooth trail and large rocks. We could see Columbia and the ridge we needed to follow so we put our heads down and worked our way across. The day was beautiful so far and the weather was calm.
We worked our way around the ridge and finally found ourselves pointing North at the summit of Columbia. It was getting a bit later in the morning, but we had only seen 4 other people on the hike. We would run into 2 of them on the summit. We assume the other 2 traversed over to Harvard as we did not see them again.
As we took aim at the summit, our morale increased. We had been above 13,000 feet for quite a while. Above tree line for even longer. I was stoked as I had the Leadville 100 MTB coming up in a few weeks and the altitude had kicked my ass back in the 50 a few weeks ago.
We picked our way through the ridge and found ourselves on the final summit approach quickly.
Around the point of the picture above, we met up with the standard route on Columbia, but still did not see any climbers. Oh well…Kris and I have gotten used to having peaks to our relative lonesome. Not a bad thing!
The approach to the summit, is a bit of scramble, but nothing beyond your standard class 2. We made relatively quickly work of it since we felt strong and found ourselves on the 14,073 foot summit just over 4 hours after leaving the trailhead.
The weather was still clear and beautiful and we had the summit to ourselves so we took some time to enjoy the view. We also refreshed our acquaintance (hatred? love?) of Harvard a few miles away.
We did have some company on the summit…
He tried to be casual…but he was not so casual…or sneaky.
We spent almost 30 minutes on the summit. We finally found the motivation to head down a little after 8:30. The ridge hike down is straightforward, but I do recommend you be willing to hit each of the points on the way back. We tried to skirt a few of them to the south and found ourselves hopping around some nasty rocks and making life much tougher on ourselves.
It’s also tough to maintain the trail as you head below the dead trees. We ended up rock hopping and bushwhacking until we found our way onto the path. Once we get past those rocks, it is smooth sailing. Kris and I were able to run our way back to the trailhead form there. It is one of those trails that is too steep to walk so you might as well just open it up and cover some ground.
At 11:40 AM we rolled back into the trailhead, 7h37m after we started. We covered 12 miles, with close to 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
We had dreaded Columbia, but walked away from it having enjoyed the experience much more than anticipated. The Southeast Ridge route offers a challenge by way of route finding and steepness. The amount of time spent above tree line raises the risk of the hike, but if you give yourself enough time to dodge the storms, it is well worth the trip.