Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,075 feet
Date Posted:  09/08/2011
Modified:  09/15/2011
Date Climbed:   09/03/2011
Author:  Gene913
 Redemption and More in the Sawatch   

The Third Time Is The Charm

Trailhead: Three Elk Creek (elevation 9,260 feet)
Ascent Route: East Ridge
Descent Route: Southeast Ridge
Departure Time: 6:00 a.m.
Return Time: 7:00 p.m.
Climbing Time: 13 hours
Elevation Gain: approx. 5,000 feet
Roundtrip mileage: approx. 11 miles
Climbers: Gene913, Subway, TallBob, and TunnelVision

Tried the traverse to Columbia from Harvard last summer with Chopper and AHorn but I made some serious route-finding mistakes that ultimately forced us to descend back into Horn Fork Basin without summiting Columbia.

Then a second failed attempt over Memorial Day weekend this year when I tried a solo ascent but was not prepared for the deep snow and extreme wind conditions in the Three Elk Creek basin and only made it to around 11,800 feet.

So here I was, back on Labor Day weekend, for a third attempt at Columbia that yielded redemption and more.

Try viewing this with the large photo option if you can; some of the photos turned out pretty well

Our climbing group of four got a later start than planned, not departing Kansas City until 1:30 p.m. on Friday, September 2, 2011. Stopping only for gas, we arrived at the Three Elk Creek trailhead at 11:00 p.m. We quickly put up the tent and were off to sleep for a planned wake up at 5:00 a.m.

By the time we hit the well-defined trail at 6:00 a.m., there was no need for headlamps. Making great time, we covered the first 1.5 miles to the junction with the Colorado Trail in just over an hour. Our good pace continued as we followed well-defined trail to the headwall at 11,500 feet. There are no real difficulties through this part of the route, especially when it is snow-free. But, here is what it looked like on Memorial Day weekend this year.

Looking up Columbia's east ridge from around 11,800 feet (Memorial Day 2011)

Panorama of the Three Elk Creek basin from the headwall at around 11,500 feet (Memorial Day 2011)

Looking down on the headwall from around 11,800 feet (Memorial Day 2011)

By Labor Day weekend, the scene had changed considerably. This shot was taken during the Labor Day weekend ascent. The top of the headwall is in the left center of the photo and is much different without snow cover.


After gaining the headwall, Dawson says to simply swing north and follow any likely looking route to the crest of Columbia's east ridge. Easier said then done.

As the next photos show, it is a least a 35 degree slope.

Subway on the ascent to the crest of the east ridge (with baseball cap)

TallBob taking a break on the ascent to the ridge crest; Gene913 catching up.


There is much work to do as you climb a mile plus from the headwall to the crest of the east ridge. This is probably the crux of the route.

TallBob and Subway on the ascent

Upon reaching the ridge crest at 12,600 feet, the summit is still two miles away and your next objective is the first of three false summits.

Once you get the first false summit out of the way, another one looms ahead.

Subway reclines at the first false summit and looks ahead to the next one (photo: Subway)

But the views only keep improving.

Columbia's southeast ridge as viewed from the first false summit on the east ridge; Princeton (left) and Yale (right) lur

Buena Vista and Arkansas River valley as viewed from first false summit on Columbia's east ridge (photo: Subway)

At this point, the composition of our four man climbing party changed. A couple from Breckenridge was charging up the slope at a faster pace than us, and TunnelVision hooked up with them. Subway was feeling the effects of no acclimation and made the decision to call it a day. We would not see him again until we got back to the car.

Roach's description of "a gentle ridge" with "three false summits along the way" fails to adequately describe the task ahead.

Three false summits on the east ridge as viewed from the southeast ridge

With TunnelVision out of sight and moving at a brisk clip, TallBob and I take on the second false summit.

TallBob and Gene913 moving toward second false summit (photo: Subway)

TallBob and Gene913 contouring around second false summit (photo: Subway)

After we cleared the third and final false summit and were ready to push up to the summit, TunnelVision met us on his descent. He and the couple from Breckenridge had summited and were headed back over the three false summits, intent on going down the same way they came up. We wished them well and headed up to the summit.

Your hard work is rewarded once you make the summit and look back into Three Elk Creek basin.

View of Three Elk Basin from the summit of Columbia

Panorama of Three Elk Basin with east ridge on left and southeast ridge on right

TallBob and I were not feeling particularly excited about going back over the three false summits again. We surveyed the southeast ridge from the summit and decided to give it a go on the descent.

Southeast ridge descent route from summit of Columbia

The descent down the southeast ridge was easier than the ascent up the east ridge. For most of the first mile or so, there was a well-defined path to follow. Nothing of the kind had existed on the east ridge.

Once the defined trail ceased to exist, we found easy terrain to negotiate by staying either on the ridge crest or on the descending climber's right.

The one time we veered left of the crest and ran into some small, loose talus on a steep slope, we slowly traversed across it and got back on track without incident or difficulty.

We stayed on the ridge crest until there was a grass covered slope to descend, which put us back into the basin just above the headwall at 11,500 feet.

Once we got to the headwall, it was just an easy hike down on the same well-defined trail we had used on the ascent.

It was just barely daylight when TallBob and I got back to the car at 7:00 p.m. to find that TunnelVision and Subway had already broken down the tent and were ready to go. Everyone was tired but satisfied.

Three days later, the four of us climbed Yale. I have to tell you, my favorite view of Columbia is not from either the east ridge or the southeast ridge, but from the summit of Yale.

My favorite view of Columbia - from the summit of Yale

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Comments or Questions
09/09/2011 13:55
Good job Gene!
I enjoyed this relaxing route too- far better than the standard rubble!
The last pic is classic, and perhaps your new avatar?!
Hope to hike with you all next summer

Stee Vee Dee
Glad You Bagged It
09/11/2011 01:36
Glad you bagged it. We were on Castle that day and climbed Harvard a couple days later from North Cottonwood.
I agree: the best view of Columbia is from Yale.
Have a good autumn.

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