Mountain Hiking

by Harold Sears

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Mt. Columbia 

Mt. Columbia is one of Colorado's fourteeners (barely, at 14,073), but it is not at all the lowest of them. Columbia ranks 36 out of the 54 fourteeners in the state. We have mountains at 14,005, 14,003, and even 14,001 (Don't take any rocks from the peak as souvenirs.) 

I drove into the North Cottonwood Trailhead, at an altitude of 9,880, at 5:30 a.m. Driving during the small hours, into the mountains of Pike and then San Isabel National Forests, I passed a fox and then a small bear foraging along the road—they and the darkness helped to set a mood of solitude and escape into the wilderness. 

From the trailhead, I walked west into a pre-dawn, woodsy valley. Dusky gloom reached among dark firs and spruce back to the music of tumbling Cottonwood Creek. Overhead, there were bright stars, then gray, and then gray-blue in the growing daylight. A crescent moon lingered up high. 

Mt. Harvard

Mt. Harvard, massive and a bit to the right of center. (click any thumbnail for larger image) (close-up)

I turned north into Horn Fork Basin. The sun was rising above the slopes of Mt. Columbia to the east and lighting the rugged western wall of the valley, bright and sunny against the clear blue sky and almost black trees below. I climbed to the tree line, where the firs were short, twisted, and scattered, with open areas of grasses between. A wide view of Mt. Harvard (14,420 ft.) opened to the west, it too, bright and sunny, though the valley floor was still in shadow.

I had climbed Mt. Harvard back in 2000. I remember a cloudy, foggy day on this very trail. I had climbed high into the valley, onto a ridge, up and up the ridge. I remember wondering at the total lack of a trail and the absence of fellow hikers. I had climbed about 20 other 14ers over the previous 20 years, and I knew these mountains were popular. There should be social trails. There should be other hikers. I reached the top, found no cairns, no communally constructed windbreaks, no peak register to sign. Finally, the clouds lifted and I could look to the north. There it was—a higher peak and with people on it. I'd climbed the wrong mountain. I scrambled down to the saddle and up to where I should have been, but I had used up my time. I would not be able to cross to Mt. Columbia's north ridge and so collect the two peaks in one day. 

Columbia's south ridge

A look up to Columbia's south ridge.

Climbing Columbia's south ridge

So, here I was again. I turned off the North Cottonwood Trail, wandered among clearings and campsites, around a great spine of rock, and began to climb to Columbia's south ridge. This was tedious. The slope was about as steep as it could be and still remain in place—loose dirt, pebbles, and rocks. I stepped up a foot and slid down a half. I stepped on some surfaces that slid under me in a sheet. I stepped off that conveyer belt and onto the next. A boulder as big as an easy chair sloughed off and slid down, fortunately beside me, not on top of me. We need some switchbacks here. The whole experience made me appreciate trail builders. Well, the trip back down would be quicker—sort of like alpine skiing. I was glad I had my trekking/ski poles.

On top of the ridge, I found gentle slopes and colorful wildflowers and lichens. There were a few false summits before the true peak appeared, but the views were wide and open. Isolated rainstorms were forming in adjacent valleys, but the air was soft and easy. 

Fir Cones

Looking west toward Columbia's peak

On the south ridge, looking west toward the peak.

On south ridge looking east

On the same ridge, looking back east.

On top, I found the register and signed in. I studied Mt. Harvard to the north and tried to remember more of that hike of eight years ago. Thunder started to sound around me. My guidebook had made it clear that "the slopes directly below the summit are steep and unpleasant," so I couldn't drop out of harm's way immediately. I looked down the long exposed ridge I had come up and decided there was no time for a leisurely lunch or long, admiring views of the world. I retreated from the peak and hustled back down.

On top of Mt. Columbia

On Mt. Columbia, looking west toward Mt. Harvard.


Getting There

From Denver, drive west on 285 and 24 to Buena Vista. Turn west on county road 350 (Crossman Ave.). Drive 2.1 miles to a T-intersection and turn right on 361. At mile 3.0 turn left onto 365. Enter San Isabel National Forest at mile 5.4, pass Harvard Lakes Trailhead at mile 6.6, Silver Creek Trailhead at mile 6.7, and reach North Cottonwood Trailhead at the end of the road at mile 8.2.

This hike is strenuous — 10 miles, round trip, with an elevation gain of 4,200 ft.


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Cautionary Note -- If any of the hikes described on this site sound like something you would like to do yourself, please use good judgment and prepare yourself according to your skills, your interests, and the season. What was fun for me under one set of circumstances might not be fun or even safe for another under other circumstances. Do not consider these descriptions to be unqualified recommendations.


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© Harold and Meredith Sears, Boulder, CO, harold@mountainhike.net. All rights reserved.

This page was last modified on 8/16/09