Mt. Columbia Trip Report
Trail: West Slopes, Class 2, 10 miles, ~ 4200 ft elevation gain
What can I say? I hate the Sawatch range 14ers. Ok La Plata has the Ellingwood Ridge (marginally interesting) and Holy Cross has the Cross Couloir with some good cliffs at it's base. Other than that these are tedious slogs with little in the way of technical climbing and are surpassed by the Elks, San Juans, Sangres, and Indian Peaks in position and scenery. The problem is I began my climbing career as a 14er peak bagger. After a short spell I realized that it was more fun to seek out routes rather than peaks and segued into technical climbing. Some part of me however always wanted to finish the 14ers one day. It is still a pretty big accomplishment and takes one to all corners of the state. If people choose to learn rather than follow it also teaches people a great deal about route finding, trip planning, snow climbing, scrambling, back packing, weather forecasting etc. So, even though I consider finishing the 14ers to be worthwhile I have to think that climbing the dull Sawatch Peaks is the painful portion.
This brings me to Columbia, it was to be my last Sawatch 14er ad I was looking forward to putting the range behind me. Jen and I headed out Friday, May 11th, and drove to the trailhead by 8:30 PM. We spent some time cooking up dinner and chatting with a fellow who was driving by. He indicated we should bring snowshoes, for future reference, when a local tells you to bring snowshoes you'd do well to listen. After finishing dinner we went to sleep in the truck. Apparently the end of North Cottonwood Trailhead sees a lot of late night traffic, never mind that it is 5 miles down a dirt road with maybe 1 mile being 4WD. There must have been 3 or 4 trucks whizing through the dirt parking lot and heading back down the road between 10 PM and 2 AM. I'm guessing it was just bored kids looking to drink and/or have sex since none of them stopped and no other hikers were around.
We awoke around 5:00 AM and made a quick meal before setting out. The trail was bare for a quarter mile or so and we ended up leaving our snowshoes.
After The First 1.5 Miles
We made decent enough time and began encountering larger amounts of snow. The snow was well packed enough so we kept on. We lost the trail briefly after the 1.5 mile mark but soon found our way back. Once we left the more densely wooded section and headed towards upwards the snow became a permanent feature and we began postholing.
A Bad Omen
The West Slopes
We eventually reached a point where the postholing was so bad that we cut off the trail and headed straight up what looked to be the safest route to the ridge. At this point it was still early but the clouds were building.
Our Chosen Route
Typical, Steep Sawatch
As much as I hate the Sawatch I have to admit they afford better views than the Ten Mile and most of the Front Range. Jen and I were both nearing the ridge but the storms looked to be on their way and I really did not want to repeat this summit so I told Jen I was going to motor on ahead and to radio me if anything cropped up. I hoped she would make it up but knew she doesn't care much about summiting and just likes getting out so I took off.
The Last Push
Storms Rolling In
The Mighty Summit And My Last Sawatch
The ridge was pretty straightforward but this was my first real peak in a few months and I was tired. I forced myself to the summit on willpower, took a few photos, then turned around and headed back. I stopped briefly to look at some wet slides that had been triggered and spent a moment listening to horrendous rockfall echo across from a wall above Horn Fork Basin. None of this bothered me. I'm at a point where I have a good deal of experience and knew that none of theses things would occur on the route I was picking back down to the trees. What did slightly bother me was that at this point I figured we had an hour before the storms would break loose. I wish Jen could have finished but didn't want to chance it and Jen agreed so we headed back. We made quick time down the slopes (after a quick meal and some electrolyte replenishing jelly beans) and soon found ourselves in the trees.
My prediction was right and the sky opened up just as we were back in the trees. At this point the whole trip turned into a nightmare. We were hailed on for most of the way out and the snow had softened considerably. The entire three mile hike out consisted of postholing up to our knees and hips. It was the most miserable, tiring posthole experience I've ever had. Sure, it was my fault for being an obstinate SOB about not bringing the shoes but it still stunk. It also made getting back to the car and leaving the Sawatch all the sweeter.
When I finished the Elk range I was pretty proud of the accomplishment, when I finished the Sawatch it felt like the end of a grueling work day. I'm glad they are over.My one big piece of advice for people planning on hitting the Sawatch when there is no one around and snow on the ground is know how to route find or go with someone who knows the way. It would be pretty easy to get lost in there for just long enough to be miserable.
Heading Back Down ASAP
A Wet Trek Out
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