Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Peak of the Week: Mount Columbia (14,073' or 4289 m)

Near the summit of Mount Columbia
Overshadowed by its taller neighbor and third highest peak in Colorado Mount Harvard, and marred by a protracted scree field through which the standard route ascends, Mount Columbia is sometimes poo-pooed by 14er climbers and other mountaineers. I have often heard the standard West Slopes route described as "the worst route on any 14er". While I won't tell you that it is my favorite route, I will say that I enjoyed my climb of it back in 2009. And if you are un-inspired by the stories you have heard of the West Slopes, consider an alternate route such as the East Ridge or spice it up by taking the direct ridge traverse (the "Rabbits") to Mount Harvard (class 5.7). Regardless of what you have heard or whatever route you choose to climb, Mt. Columbia is a worthy peak and if you allow yourself you will have a good time. Should you feel forced into the standard route and are feeling down about it, consider backpacking in to the Horn Fork Basin and staying for several days, maybe incorporating a climb of Harvard as well. I find this to be a beautiful, albeit somewhat busy, place and have never left disappointed when I have entered.


Harvard Lakes Trailhead
The Harvard Lakes Trail provides access to Columbia's eastern side and is the approach trail for the East and Southeast Ridge routes.Off Highway 24 in Buena Vista turn west (right if you are heading towards Salida) on Chaffee County 350. After 2 miles turn right on Chaffee County 361. A quarter mile farther the road turns to dirt. Half a mile farther, turn left onto Chaffee County 365. Reach the trailhead 3.5 miles farther on the north side of the road.

North Cottonwood Trailhead
North Cottonwood Trail is the best access point for the Horn Fork Basin and is the approach for the standard West Slopes route on Columbia as well as the South Slopes (standard) route on Harvard as well as the combination routes. From the Harvard Lakes Trailhead, continue for another mile and a half to a large parking area and trailhead at the end of the road.

Three Elk Trailhead
Find Chaffee County 350 off Highway 24 in Buena Vista. After 2 miles turn right onto Chaffee Countt 361. After almost 4 miles, turn west onto Chaffee County 368. After another mile, turn left onto 368A and right onto FR 368 just a little farther. The trailhead is marked three-quarters of a mile later.

West Slopes (10.5 miles; 4,250' elevation gain; class 2) 
The west slopes is the shortest and easiest route on Mount Columbia. Taking the same approach as the standard South Slopes route on Mount Harvard, you follow North Cottonwood Trail into the Horn Fork Basin. After just over 4 miles the route veers west and starts up a long slog up steep, sometimes loose scree. This gnarly slopes gains over 2,000' and is unpleasant to descend. Consider another descent route or something such as the Columbia-Harvard traverse. Once you have reached the ridge, hike a rolling half mile north to the summit.

East Ridge (12 miles; 5,300' elevation gain; class 2)
The East Ridge of Mount Columbia provides an engaging alternative to the oft-cursed West Slopes. Follow the Three Elk Trail as it winds through a beautiful forest, crossing some logging roads, dropping into a small gorge with a creek crossing, and finally reaching the end of the trail at a flat spot near  treeline. From here, climb northwest towards the east ridge. Once you have found the ridge near 12,500' follow it up and over several false summits to the actual summit.

Southeast Ridge (11 miles; 5,129' elevation gain; class 2)
The Southeast Ridge provides another alternative to the loose, gravelly slopes of the standard route. From the trailhead, follow the Harvard Lakes Trail/Colorado Trail through the forest for under a mile until it reaches the ridge proper. Leave the Colorado Trail and follow the serpentine ridge all the way to the summit, crossing Point 13,298 in the process. The last half mile joins with the West Slopes route to the summit.

Harvard/Columbia combination (14 miles; 5,900' elevation gain; class 2)
This is the easiest way to climb Columbia and Harvard together. Climb the West Slopes route on Columbia all the way to the summit. From Columbia's summit, descend north, staying well east of the connecting ridge with Harvard. Staying on the ridge proper will require class 4 and 5 climbing (see "The Rabbits"), descend to 12,800' and contour northwest until it is clear that you are past the ridge proper's pinnacles and spires. Ascend an arduous talus slope to Harvard's east ridge and follow this to the summit.

"The Rabbits" traverse (13.5 miles; 5,600' elevation gain; class 5.7)
Pinnacles on the connecting ridge with Harvard
This is the direct traverse between Harvard and Columbia. It requires some hard, exposed scrambling and one short pitch of 5.7 climbing. If you are doing the traverse from Harvard to Columbia you can rappel this pitch. It is described here from Columbia to Harvard. Follow the West Slopes of Columbia route to its summit. Descend northwest along the ridge proper. Climb or traverse around Point 13,497 with some hard scrambling. Reach a notch at the base of the Rabbits and climb the short, crux 5.7 pitch to the ridge's east side. Scramble around  the remaining pinnacles on the east side and arrive at the 13,100' saddle between the two mountains. After climbing Point 13,516 you reach Harvard East Ridge. Follow this route to the summit.

Mount Columbia is in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area and special regulations apply.

None at this time

Mount Columbia on summitpost.org

Mount Columbia on 14ers.com

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