Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,075 feet
Date Posted:  11/11/2019
Modified:  12/19/2020
Date Climbed:   11/09/2019
Author:  daway8
 Columbia Southeast Ridge pre-winter analysis   

This Southeast Ridge route seems to be the preferable winter route for Columbia since you can typically get closer to the trailhead (or perhaps all the way there) in winter than to the standard summer route trailhead, plus this is a ridgeline approach so you don’t really have much avalanche concern as opposed to some questionable looking terrain on the summer route.

In summer this route would be a no-brainer to follow (it’s a ridge…) but in winter there are a few things it may be good to have a heads up on. So this report will cover:

  • Repeat of trailhead status info reporting the error in trailhead location currently shown on this site.
  • Analysis of this route focusing on areas that might be of concern in the middle of winter.
  • Advantages/disadvantages dropping below the ridgeline in certain spots.
  • A photo or two looking over the traverse to Harvard.
  • Satellite imagery showing possible avalanche risk along potential shortcut.
  • My times

Pano looking back on much of the ridgeline sweeping out to the right and around.

Trailhead: Location Correction and Notes

Unless someone has since updated it, the trailhead marker on for the Harvard Lakes trailhead is WRONG! If you use the Google Map link on the trailhead page it will take you to a spot about 3/4 of a mile short of the actual trailhead and you’ll get out and look around in the dark wondering what’s up until you pop open your Gaia GPS app and see that you’re not there yet.

Posted vs. actual trailhead location for Harvard Lakes Trailhead.

An easy reference point is that this trail starts out along the Colorado Trail which shows up on a lot of maps, including Google Maps. As the snapshot shows, the spot identified on stops short of where the Colorado Trail can be seen going up the ridge. Note that this road is a bit narrow in spots and the snowier it gets the uglier it would be if you had to pass someone. Per summitpost “Plowing stops at the National Forest Boundary… expect to add up to 2.4 miles RT to this approach in winter.”

Once you get to the correct spot you’ll note that there’s not really a parking lot here – just a pullout which makes a half circle around a tree – only big enough for a few vehicles. If needed, the Silver Creek trailhead for Yale is just slightly beyond.

Harvard Lakes Trailhead pulloff.
Looking from pulloff to trailhead (just past rocks on the right).
Trailhead signs.
2nd set

Pre-winter analysis – Colorado Trail

As stated, this trail starts off along the Colorado Trail. As such, I expect this may continue to see traffic throughout the year (there was evidence of plenty of people having been over it this weekend). If that theory holds true through the winter then following the first part of the trail won’t be an issue. But even if not, I suspect it wouldn’t be hard to follow this route even if you had to break trail through heavy snow since it’s basically just a “Z” on the side of the ridge with plenty of underbrush surrounding it followed by a relatively obvious gap through the trees.

Coming up to the first switchback.
At the turn of the first switchback - note lots of underbrush would hinder any winter shortcuts.

When I initially glanced at this location on the map with the slope angles overlay turned on I wondered if there might possibly be avalanche concern right at the start of this trail since the slope angle does show some shading in the danger zone. But after looking at the surrounding tree cover and the thick underbrush all around the trail I decided the danger level here is probably negligible.

The primary “route finding” challenge, if you can even call it that, is deciding when to leave the Colorado Trail and start up the ridge (from there on out your only route options will be left, right or on top of the ridge). The Route Description suggests following the Colorado Trail to about 10k where it veers north, away from the ridge.

This is where I left the Colorado Trail at around 10k - should have stuck with ridge starting at 9,900ft.

I would suggest it makes more sense to leave the Colorado Trail as soon as it begins to drift off to the right side of the ridge – which happens around 9,900ft. This way, as soon as you get up on the ridge you just stay there for the rest of the day.

Coming back down onto Colorado Trail at the end of the day.
Looking back up - right past this cut tree is the most logical place to leave the Colorado Trail since that trail starts to dip to the right.
Waypoints show trailhead then where it makes most sense to leave the Colorado Trail followed by alternate point to leave it.

Pre-winter analysis – the lower ridgeline

At this point you might think ‘if I just follow the ridgeline the rest of the way then what is there left to say?’ In summertime there’s probably not much more that needs to be said. But I’ll highlight in this section some things which might be good to know if you’re going to tackle this route in the middle of winter.

Note that I’ve not yet done this route in the middle of winter (thus the title of this trip report) but since it’s on my list of possible peaks to do in calendar winter I’m writing this report as much for the sake of a future reference for myself as for the potential use it may have to others.

The first thing to note is that this route gets steep quick. A time or two I briefly considered putting on my snowshoes just so I could flip up the ascents but there wasn’t nearly enough snow for that to make sense (I’ve been carrying them just to stay used to having the extra weight, since I know I’ll want them later on in the winter – but I did manage to still drop my pack weight by 5lbs as compared to the last hike without sacrificing warmth or preparedness).

Some sections on the ridge were clear with an obvious trail.
Others were like being inside a game of pick up sticks.

I followed tracks through the snow where I saw them but soon wondered if the person who made them had a few too many margaritas before their hike… really never saw much of a reason to not just stay on the high point of the ridge the whole way except for a few humps here and there which you might save some effort by cutting around them.

The first significant obstacle came at about 11,400ft (roughly 1.67 miles into the hike). There is a significant rock pile right on the ridge. When dry it’s a simple little class 3 scramble to get up over it. If covered with snow/ice this could be a little dicey but most likely still easily doable if you proceed with caution. The alternative would be to make a wide sweep around on the right side through the trees but it looked like it might need to be fairly wide if you wanted to avoid all the rock pile (probably not worth it).

There is a distinctive pair of rocks on top of this mound and then it drops down slightly into a flat snowfield on the far side.

First main rock obstacle on ridge.
Distinctive pair of rocks at the top.

After this, the next obstacle comes at about 11,600ft (roughly 1.85 miles into the hike) where you encounter a pair of humps on the ridge. I bypassed the first on the left and then went straight over the second. Again, depending on snow cover, this region will be either more or less difficult but shouldn’t be too hard - just take care if the snow is deep to not plunge down between rocks.

Once again it flattens out slightly on the far side of the hump and after this you get to the dead tree hill.

Cross the next set of rock obstacles.
Far side of the rock obstacles. Dead tree hill in the distance.
Dead tree hill.
Looking back down dead tree hill.

Somewhere around this point is where you’re likely to start feeling some wind as up until now there has been a fair amount of tree coverage and that is mostly gone from here on.

Next up, around 12k is where you encounter another rocky hump. It’s most efficient to pass this on the left, going through the wild looking corpses of trees that were once burnt and now bleached white by the passage of time and weather.

Looking back down on 12k hump that can be bypassed going through burn scar.
Coming back down to the burn scar - no need to mount the hump on the left.
Bleached out trees in the burn scar.

Pre-winter analysis – transition to the upper ridgeline – possible avy danger

At about 12,150ft (roughly 2.43 miles in) you come to the primary decision point for picking your line along the ridge. Up until now it’s just been a matter of veering a handful of feet left or right if you want to avoid a handful of feet in elevation gain. Now you’re faced with the biggest hump yet with in excess of 100 feet or more of gain to be dealt with depending on your route.

As I see it you have three primary options for the route at this point, depending on conditions.

Option A: Since the ridge was mostly dry and I was undecided about the best line I just came up to the base of some rocky outcroppings and from there tried to more or less hold altitude while sweeping around below the mini-peak above. This worked ok for a little bit but soon become annoyingly steep and rocky. I eventually veered up towards the ridgeline and got there without issue but I would consider this a rather needlessly obnoxious path to tackle (plus also see concerns with option B below). Thus…

Option A starts about mid photo crossing the rock band coming down from the right and going straight for the saddle on the far side.
Looking down to option B - shelf with snow on it.

Option B: While traversing option A, I noticed or more or less flat shelf just down to the left of where I was going up. On my descent I took that shelf back and found it much easier going. The trade-off for the flat easy path around the mini-peak is that you have a steeper stint to regain the ridge at the far side of the shelf but it’s no worse than what’s already been covered on this route.

On the descent using option B.
Looking back along the lower option B taken on the descent.

However, the real kicker for both option A and B is that the slope angle for this region is in the red zone for potential avalanche activity. There is also some evidence from satellite images that this section of the ridgeline might occasionally see some small slides. So you’ll want to carefully evaluate conditions before taking options A or B. When in doubt there’s always option C.

Center of view is the crossover transition to the upper ridgeline. Note danger zone slope angles.
Closer view of section in question - note evidence of "scars" in the treelines at various places under these slopes.

Option C: If there’s heavy and potentially unstable snowpack on the side of this ridge, or if you’re just not sure and want to play it safe, you can always just stay on the top of the ridgeline. By doing so you should be completely safe but you’ll end up gaining and then forfeiting somewhere around 150 feet of elevation gain – not bad at all for avoiding a nasty ride down the slopes on an avalanche but if conditions are appropriate I think I’d just as soon take option B and avoid needless gain and loss (since this route has plenty of that still to come…). Note there was very little wind along options A and B the day I went. If that holds true through winter and you get hammered by wind on the ridge you might try dropping down just slightly below on the south side.

Starting from lower right up to first waypoint is the section involving options A-C (A and B shown by tracks, C would just stay on the ridge).

After you regain the ridgeline (or descend from the mini-peak if you did Option C) you’ll come to a a broad rolling region between you and the next major elevation gain. The most efficient route is to take the somewhat skinny lip that runs along the left edge of this region. However this does get you a little close to the steep slopes just off to your left. When dry it’s a total non-issue but if snow drifts obscure where the ridge ends you may want to opt for the other little lip just to right of the center which has slightly more up and down as you go across it.

At ~12,700ft (roughly 3.45mi in) there’s a large snow-bowl right in the middle of this flattish region with the lips on either side taking you past it up the next small hill.

Looking back at the lip along the ridgline.
Same area from a little higher up.

Pre-winter analysis – the upper ridgeline

The brief reprieve of more or less flat terrain is now over. Coming up is one of those sections steep enough to make you want to just keep your head down and push until it’s over. It’s simple, straight, smooth, easy going but it goes up and up and up. If there’s snow to break trail through, this section would be a real bear.

Very simple but painfully steep climb to the upper ridgeline.
Looking back over the route below - option B line roughly sketched in.

At the top of the hill you’ll immediately encounter 2 rocky humps. Trivial when dry, these again could add some challenge if icy/snowy. There’s a low point between these two humps at about 13,150ft – roughly 3.82mi into the hike).

Nearing the top of the climb to the upper ridgeline - Yale visible to left of the rocks.
The first two humps on the upper ridgeline.

After this it becomes a roller coaster of a ridgeline with hit and miss bypass options. The views here are equally inspiring or discouraging depending on your focus and mindset. The very useful Colorado 14ers in Winter page on summitpost refers to this route as a “long, snaking ridge.” You really see that come into play at this point.

View of drop down past 2nd hump on upper ridgeline.
View of much of the rest of the ridge.

This is a LONG RIDGE!!! Not difficult or technical and not much exposure unless you seek it out but it is really long – as in nearly 2 miles once you gain the upper ridgeline where it begins to sweep around in a wide arc.

More of the ridge - the two humps in the distance are just before the true summit.

There is one spot at around 13,550ft (roughly 4.77mi into the hike) where you come to the base of a gnarly looking rock wall which at first glance looks like it might stop your progress, but it is easily bypassed on the left. A little while after that you’ll come to where the standard summer route pops up onto the ridgeline.

The last little bit up to the summit (just behind the dual humps you’ll have been staring at for a while) is pretty rocky and had some significant snow drifts between humps the day I was there. There’s some room to swing out to the right if needed based on conditions.

The "rock wall" at 13,550ft - it looked more intimidating in person... Easy bypass on the left.
Drawing closer to the summit.
Coming up on two humps just before summit - approach along top or right side.
Final bit to the top.

Summit photo.

Here are a few photos in the reverse direction...

Some rocky sections on the return trip.
One more angle.
Slope going back up to the first two humps on the upper ridgeline - there's a more gentle path up/down on the far right.

Harvard Traverse

I’ll just briefly toss this in here. I did the Harvard – Columbia traverse in summer many years ago. It’s a good chore even then – in full on winter conditions you’d better be on top of your game if you want to try to combo these peaks.

Looking over to Harvard (far right) and nearby area.
Traverse to Harvard - very long day if you want to traverse over there...

My Times

6:19am start from Harvard Lakes Trailhead.

6:35am reach rocks at first switchback.

6:44am opposite switchback (I was moving slow to evaluate the terrain and take pictures).

6:54am Colorado Trail veering right so I veered left up to the ridge (should have left trail sooner).

8:27am significant rock pile on ridge at 11,400ft.

8:34am topping out on rock pile.

8:50am big humps at 11,600ft.

9:00am base of dead tree hill.

9:24am top of dead tree hill.

9:38am passed through burn scar on left of hump.

9:49am reaching rolling terrain at 12,150ft – veered left around mini-peak.

10:27am reached 12,600ft saddle.

10:48am passing snow-bowl at 12,700ft.

11:00am flattish spot partway up big climb.

11:20am topped out and reached low point between first 2 humps on upper ridgeline.

12:14pm reached base of gnarly looking rock climb (bypassed on left).

12:33pm pm pass spot where standard summer route joins the ridge.

1:05pm summit!!

1:28pm descend

1:57pm below gnarly looking rock face.

2:33pm back to low point between first 2 humps on upper ridgeline.

3:57pm base of dead tree hill

4:48pm rejoined Colorado Trail.

4:51pm top switchback

4:59pm back at Jeep (jogged down much of the switchbacks)

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

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 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49

Comments or Questions
Super detailed!
11/12/2019 12:34
I appreciate you taking the time to make this report. Still need Colombia and I might just tick on the traverse to add some winter conditioning. Plus I think Harvard is one of the few peaks I wouldn't mind doing twice. Cheers!


11/13/2019 08:46
Yup, the marker is wrong for the Harvard Lakes TH. However, the driving directions on the trailhead page and in the mobile app are correct and indicate the trailhead is 0.1 mile before the Silver Creek TH.

I'll fix the TH coordinates so the marker gets updated.

Nice analysis!
01/01/2020 10:57
I did this route last March and really enjoyed it! The wind was the only real difficulty. Don't be tempted to take the east ridge back for a loop. I did this and spent many hours trenching the CT back to the th.

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