14,073 Feet (Ranked 35th in CO)
West Slopes from North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead (9,900 Feet)
June 21st, 2009
11.5 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: Approximately 4,250 Feet
Mount Columbia lies in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness near Buena Vista. Its name honors Columbia University, the Ivy League university that was founded in New York City in 1754. Several nearby peaks (Mt. Harvard, Mt. Yale, and Mt. Princeton) are also named for Ivy League schools. The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness has the highest average altitude of any wilderness area in the United States.
The standard route on Mt. Columbia is commonly mentioned as the least favorite route on a fourteener. The trail along North Cottonwood Creek and Horn Fork Creek is idyllic; the upper ridge is an easy hike with excellent views. In between the scenic Horn Fork Basin and the upper ridge, though, lies a steep and miserable 2,000-foot slope that is primarily composed of loose scree. It’s enough to make a preacher curse.
GPS track of my route on Mt. Columbia (overlaid on a modified version of Bill Middlebrooks’ GPX file posted on 14ers.com)
To say that I was extremely motivated to hike Mt. Columbia would be an understatement. When my Jeep wouldn’t start at 2:30 a.m., I decided to take my Saturn coupe on the journey up the somewhat sketchy Chaffee County Rd. 365. The road was an unknown variable; some people call it a 4WD road, while others insist that it is passable by 2WD vehicles. The rocky, potholed road got my undivided attention, and I was able to make it to the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead without bumping or scraping anything.
There were quite a few vehicles at the trailhead, but I didn’t see too many people. I presumed that most of the people were either camping in the Horn Fork Basin or had gotten an early start for Mt. Harvard, which uses the same trailhead. The trail crosses North Cottonwood Creek on a sturdy bridge less than a quarter mile beyond the trailhead.
The trail seemed pretty typical for the Sawatch Range – not so different from the trails on Mt. Massive, La Plata Peak, and others. The trees and understory growth seemed lush and green compared to those in the Front Range.
The wildflowers along the trail were not so spectacular, but I saw a lot of my favorite Colorado wildflower – the western red columbine. None of my images turned out, so I’ve included an image of the western red columbine that I took on Mt. Antero last year.
The western red columbine (Aquilegia elegantula)
The trail enters the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness at about the 0.5-mile mark. Hikers are supposed to fill out a card with the number of members in their party before they enter the wilderness. I’ve never actually seen this policy being enforced.
This was an above-average year for snowfall in the Sawatch Range, and there is still plenty snow melting. Water was high in North Cottonwood Creek, and the trail was pretty muddy in spots. Some areas had stepping stones, but it was necessary to wade through a little bit of muck. Gore-Tex boots and gaiters can keep the suffering to a minimum.
At the 1.5-mile mark, I passed the junction of the Horn Fork Trail with the Kroenke Lake Trail. Staying right at this junction led me into the Horn Fork Basin.
Occasionally muddy trail conditions continued in the Horn Fork Basin. Two nominally similar wildflowers grew on and along the trail in the wet areas: the marsh marigold and the white globeflower. Both are low-growing with white flowers, and they can only be found in wetlands. The wildflowers livened up the scenery a bit.
The white globeflower (Trollius laxus ssp. albiflorus)
At about 2.75 miles, there was a small clearing with a few informal campsites. The area looked pretty exposed to the elements, and several of the larger trees had apparently snapped off in a storm. Mt. Columbia’s shoulder should have been visible from this vantage point, but low cloud cover obscured the view.
A few snowdrifts persisted on the trail above 11,000 feet. The snow was well consolidated, so I was able to step over the drifts without postholing.
Some people have complained that Mt. Columbia’s side trail off of the Horn Fork Trail is poorly marked. There was a rock cairn in the middle of the main trail, and a cairn on the right (east) side of the trail. The junction was near waypoint #102 on Bill Middlebrooks’ GPX file (downloadable from 14ers.com).
The side trail may confuse some hikers. There are two intersections in the trail, and the correct route is not really obvious. The trail crosses a trail that follows a drainage to the northeast; I crossed the trail, crossed the creek, and continued eastward on the same trail. I made a right at the next intersection, and stayed on the trail until I reached a snowfield beside a large rock formation.
The snowfield was well-consolidated, and was not difficult to cross. People had obviously been boot skiing on the slick surface. The side trail continued on the far side of the snowfield. Numerous cairns marked the route through a large talus field. Low-hanging clouds hid the upper slopes from my view.
The dreaded scree slope loomed over the talus field. The trail was easy enough to follow, but the steepness and the looseness of the footing made travel slow and exhausting. It was cold and windy, and I had to layer up to stay warm. I only had a pair of light liner gloves that were woefully inadequate. Shifting winds brought clouds in from various directions, and made it hard to get a good read on the weather. The wind was so loud that I would not have been able to hear thunder until it was dangerously close. The clouds were so thick that I would not have been able to see lightning from a distance. I was looking for excuses to bail on the route and return on another day. The long slog gave me plenty of time to contemplate the human condition. It was Father’s Day, and I couldn’t help but think about the hardships that my grandfather had faced. He was born on a farm, and attended a one-room schoolhouse in rural West Virginia. His father died when he was 12 years old, so Grandfather labored on neighboring farms to work his way through high school. He taught grade school to get through college. He eventually earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University (ergo the Father’s Day climb on Mt. Columbia), and became an internationally known botanist. Thinking about his struggles and accomplishments helped me put my tiny, tiny scree problem in perspective. The slope eased near the top, and the trail gradually became better. A cairn marked the point where the trail reached the crest of the summit ridge.
I had hoped that the clouds would lift before I reached the summit ridge, but I was not so fortunate. There was still plenty of snow on the ridge, but much of it could be avoided by staying on the western side of the drifts.
I knew that the summit was less than half a mile away, but I couldn’t see it through the clouds. I couldn’t see any of the bumps on the ridge until I was practically standing on them. I had to cross a few snowfields, but none of them were particularly deep or steep. At one point, the clouds lifted and I could see clear blue sky. Thunderstorms seemed like a remote possibility.
I was fooled by a couple of false summits, but I was relieved when I finally reached the true summit. I was surprised to see a pair of hikers already up there; they had obviously ascended by a different route. It turns out that one of the hikers was 14ers.com member Scott Hsu.
The wind was pretty nasty on the summit, and I couldn’t even see Mt. Harvard or any of the surrounding peaks. The rotten weather dampened my spirits, but I probably wouldn’t have many summits if I only hiked on clear days. With questionable weather and negligible visibility, I saw little reason to hang out on the summit. Scott Hsu was kind enough to snap my summit picture for me.
Greenhouseguy on Mt. Columbia's summit
The clouds started to lift as I descended. I could see the southeast ridge, and it looked like it would have been a fun hike. I would have to recommend the Southeast Ridge Route or the Three Elks Creek Route over Columbia’s West Slopes Route. I’ll take a gentle grassy ridge over a steep scree slope every time.
Farther down the ridge, I met a hiker named Bill who had two yellow lab hiking partners. They were having a blast. Bill had come up a gully that looked far worse than the path that I had taken. It could always be worse, couldn’t it? A cairn marks the point where the trail drops down from the ridge; it could really ruin your day if you missed this cairn and continued down the ridge.
The West Slope’s scree makes for an agonizing ascent, but the descent is only slightly better. One misstep, and you’re likely to get a scree wedgie. If all goes well, you still hammer your knee cartilage on the steep slope. I tried to double-time a section of trail, and wound up flat on the seat of my pants. The mountain always wins.
I was most of the way down the slope by 11:00. The weather had improved considerably, but the ice crystals on some of the rocks showed no sign of melting.
Bear Lake, just below Pt. 13,598, was still mostly covered with ice.
A marmot startled me with his piercing squeal. This clearly superior life form seemed unwilling to relinquish his territory, so I beat a hasty retreat.
The weather was beautiful by the time I reached treeline, so I stopped at the big rock formation to layer down and hydrate. I enjoyed a short stretch of boot skiing on the snowfield.
I only passed one hiker on the way back to the trailhead. It seemed like I had the wilderness all to myself. The muddy spots in the trail seemed even muddier in the afternoon. The roundtrip was just under seven hours.
The post-hike meal, of course, was at K’s in Buena Vista. The burgers and shakes are straight out of the 1950’s. It was a good place to relax and reflect on a great Father’s Day hike.