Mount Columbia, 14073 ft, Colorado

21-22 May 2004 - by Bill Stafford

Left Denver on Friday afternoon around 2 pm, headed for Buena Vista. It was a beautiful mid-70's, blue sky day.

I drove up the fairly-well maintained jeep road (a little rough in spots, but any car can make this drive) to arrive at the 9,880-foot North Cottonwood Trailhead at about 4:30 pm. By 5:15, I was headed down the trail, with only a tee-shirt on my back.

The initial trail, up to the wood-bridge (45 minute walk, or so) runs in a westerly direction and is covered by numerous patches of snow, some 2+ feet deep. I could walk around a lot of the the patches, but occasionally had to post-hole through. (I had brought snowshoes (thankfully), but did not yet feel I needed them.

A hundred yards after crossing the bridge, the trail Y's to the north-west. At about 10,500 feet, the snow is starting to become continuous, and I find I must don my snowshoes. I find a small bare spot to pitch my tent (there aren't many) near 11,000 feet, at about 7:15 pm. After unpacking, eating, hanging my food, etc., I lay down to read a little Stephen King (Dreamcatcher). About 10 pm, I unzip the side of my single wall (Bibler Awahnee II - I love this tent) to check out the stars for a bit, and then zip up and try for sleep. If not for a couple of critters scratching at my tent during the night and the repercussions of reading Stephen King, alone in the middle of the wilderness night, I feel sure I would have slept much better.

I awoke at 6:15 am, boiled some water for an oatmeal/instant coffee breakfast, generally took my time, and left for Mount Columbia at 7:45 am. Clear blue skies with just a few wisps of clouds, no wind, and I estimate the temperature near 40 degrees.

I follow the trail north-northwest through the trees. Others have recently (a day or two ago) been through here, and I can follow their footsteps in the snow fairly easily - my GPS unit serves as partial backup. Near 11,450 feet, I climb a steep but short slope on my right, then bushwack through the trees for a bit to the east. The snow here is deep, several feet. I expect a difficult descent when it grows soft.

I come out of the trees after 5 minutes, above treeline, with a fairly clear view of my route before me. There are two large walls of rock far to the left and to the right, with a steep slope in front of me. The slope, I know, leads to a ridge I must gain in order to reach the summit. (2000 feet of gain in 4200 feet of run - WOOHOO, can't wait.) The sun has not yet peeked out from behind the ridge, but I am pretty comfortable in pants covered with thin snowpants, shirt and shell jacket.

I climb the couloir in front of me, heading east and then northeast, mostly in snow. After a bit, I leave my snowshoes in a cluster of boulders in the middle of the snowfield, and continue on a cairned trail in the snow-free scree and then talus. After a relentless grunt of a hike up this slope, I finally arrive at the 13,600-foot ridge at about 10:45 am, 3 hours after leaving my 11,000-foot camp.

The summit looms to the north, a bit less than 500 feet of elevation to go, but still 2/3rds of a mile away. There is a lot of snow on this ridge, but the cold has left it hard enough that snowshoes are (thankfully) not needed. The wind is really strong, trying to knock me over, and I pause to put on a layer. Good thing it is not snowing, for I left my ski goggles at home. (Never again.) As I make my way along the ridge, the only tracks in the snow are those of a mountain goat.

Ahhh, there's the summit, at last... but alas, it is false. Curses. A bit farther, there it is... not yet. Grrrr... Finally, victory, at 11:15 am. (This is my third attempt of Mount Columbia, the first foiled by a looming summer storm, the second failure (8 weeks ago) ending back at the saddle (so close) and resulting from lack of fuel in my tank and cold/foul weather.) I take a couple of summit pix, settle down on the east side in a cluster of boulders, and give Kristen a call to share the moment (but am resigned to simply leaving a message.) I throw down my first bit of food since breakfast.

The hike back to the tent is uneventful. I re-entered the trees, and thought I saw somebody's jacket hanging from a tree once, but then lost sight of it. As I gain the main trail that feeds both Columbia and Harvard, I note the tracks of someone else, but have not seen a soul since leaving the trailhead yesterday.

The snow is really soft now and the temperature must be 50+ degrees. I arrive back at the tent at about 2 pm. I was thinking about spending another night here, just relaxing after the exhaustion of the day, but decide to gut it out by packing up and heading out. The going is slow, with the heavy pack and the soft snow, but I finally arrive back at the trailhead at 4:45 pm, a wonderful 23.5 hours of activity behind me. Looking forward to the drive back to Denver. HA! HA!

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