Peak(s):  Mt. Columbia  -  14,075 feet
Date Posted:  07/13/2010
Date Climbed:   07/11/2010
Author:  KeithK
 I like you, but I really think I should climb other mountains...   

Mt. Columbia (14,073')
July 11, 2010
East Ridge from Three Elk Creek
Elevation Gain: ~5000'
Mileage: 12
Partner: Joe (SnowDevil)

"Finally, a view of the Sawatch I can appreciate... the one in the rear view mirror!" - Me, after finally finishing the Sawatch 14ers

One more. That's it. Just one more pile of loose rubble to stagger up, over and onto. Mt. Columbia had long been one of my least desirable destinations, although I had attempted it back in November with my friend Scott. Scott enjoys suffering in the dead season, but even he has distaste for those giant Sawatch peaks, especially the approaches. On that day, we were closer to the summit than we had realized, but after eight hours of wind, loose gravel and rotten snow, neither of us wanted to spend any more time on that mountain, opting to punt our way back to the car. A fourteen hour summit less round trip. Frustrating, to say the least. Perhaps that day created a vendetta of sorts, a need for me to return to Three Elk Creek and tackle the East Ridge again, to exorcise that lone remaining obstacle to completing the massive mountain range of central Colorado.

Joe asked me when I wanted to climb Columbia, as he was seeking a weekend Fourteener. There was no hesitation on my part, as I was fully hoping to find a way to get out for the third straight weekend and continue my pursuit of what has become a very real, very achievable goal. We made the drive to Buena Vista in the black of the deep morning, arriving at the rough, not necessarily four wheel drive trailhead at 5:30 a.m. sharp. Wasting little time, we were hiking along the old logging road, catching the Three Elk Creek trail only a hundred yards or so along the way. The good trail leads southwest, along and over a couple of very minor ridges and a good bridge crossing, before turning steeply west on a collision course with the Colorado Trail. True to Sawatch form, there are prolonged stretches of steep, loose trail, where every rock is the size of a softball and unattached to anything but gravity. On the other hand, there are stretches of gentler trail, following the creek at times, that provide for a very pleasant hike through the woods. A single log presents itself as tight-rope passage to the other side of the creek shortly after the Colorado Trail, as the route winds along the ridge and farther into the drainage. Creek crossing number three was once a good bridge, but has collapsed into disrepair. A couple of protruding rocks suggested a solution, though, and no boots were moistened during the endeavor. Continuous hiking would follow, as the route searches through the forest for the elusive tree line, eventually finding some openings culminating with a headwall that marks the gateway to the basin. A few modest cairns led us up and onto the headwall, where we could realize the first good view of the day's primary challenge.

Bridge #3 seems to be a bit crooked... (image by Joe)

Pleasant creek side hiking, if you're into that sort of thing... (image by Joe)

Our first look at the largest pile of gravel on Earth...

The first priority of this route is to gain the ridge, and we purveyed a couple of options. Deciding on a straight line, we turned right and proceeded towards an obvious break in the trees that looked to lead us directly uphill with little to no interference. The steep grunt over grass, sandy soil and rocks proved to be fairly trivial, and we made good time of the task, emerging onto a bench which resembled the rest of the area, dotted with the skeletal remains of a forest long since decimated by fire. Beautiful in its own unique way, the skeleton forest provides interesting contrast to the landscape, each stubborn tree standing defiantly against the elements, refusing to give in. Angling west, we sought to contour along the ridge, working efficiently to climb away from the falling valley floor. The terrain here was surprisingly gentle, but the deceptive height of the ridge made up for any over confidence we may have felt. Seemingly endless false horizons would give way to more of the same, and I began to wonder if this silly ridge actually had a crest.

Stage one of three thousand to gain the ridge...

Joe strolls through the aspen patch...

Looking down on the route from the headwall...

A spectre of the past... (image by Joe)

The hypothetical route to higher ground...

Traversing the slope of the ridge seemed to take forever, but steady progress eventually led us to the first of the false summits, and a lone ptarmigan greeted us as we arrived. It was the first time I've seen one of these birds in their summer plumage, and it was a real treat to watch it bob its way through the grassy terrain, without any sign that it cared about our presence on its mountain. With an occasional short stretch of rock hopping, we angled onto the ridge crest at last, and gazed upon the somewhat demoralizing next section of the quest. The second false summit is quite intimidating from afar, but would prove to be much more manageable than its deceiving appearance. With the simple "one foot in front of the other" philosophy, we made our way up the slope after dropping down to the saddle between the two points. Easy terrain led us higher and higher, eventually reaching the rocky apex with energy to spare. I was feeling good, stronger than I have all year, and it was becoming a foregone conclusion that we would summit this peak, even for the increasingly darker and more menacing clouds that had been building during the morning's progress.

My feathered little friend is quite confident in his ability to resemble a rock...

Joe negotiates some easy boulders...

Some 14ers to the north appear; I've already climbed them! Neaner neaner neaner!

Dropping from the second false summit, the summit ridge beckons...

As we began to pick our way along the north side of the summit ridge, we could see others enjoying the summit, and were very surprised when we met two hikers coming down the ridge. They had ascended from Frenchman Creek, and found the north side of the ridge to provide the same steep, unrelenting grunt that we had experienced on the south. Encouraged that the summit was an inevitable result, we continued, enjoying perfect temperatures with little to no wind, and I was increasingly confident that the weather was going to cooperate. The ridge becomes more and more rugged, but the occasional cairn leads the way, and upon reaching the summit block, there are trail segments mixed in for good measure. We basically just worked our way up along the path of the least resistance. Two hikers appeared to the north from the Harvard traverse, and would meet us on the summit. Taking those few last steps to the top felt great, satisfying and exciting.

Joe leads the way to the summit block...

Stepping into the sky...

All southern Sawatch 14ers present and accounted for...

Joe enjoys the summit of his sixth 14er!

A look back at what lies ahead...

A well deserved break was interrupted by random graupel, and we could see weather engulfing the Elk Range and peaks to the north. After refueling with real food, we were primed and ready for the long haul back down, hoping to beat what seemed to be imminent weather. We descended under the watchful eye of a lookout marmot, while his buddy sat on his haunches directly below us, as if begging for food. A cairn at the base of the summit block led us down a loose trail on the north side of the ridge, before we began a contour towards the green expanse of easy ground below the hulking bulge of what we would need to re-climb to achieve escape. Another ptarmigan appeared, enhancing an already satisfying day. Wildlife always makes a hike better.

Sit up!

Anyone have some honey mustard or buffalo sauce?

It's just as easy as it looks...

I think I can see Pizza Works from here...

As we began to climb the hump along the ridge, I led a traversing line to the south, trying to alleviate any unnecessary elevation gain. The terrain became rockier, then looser, and steeper. I peered down the couloir that I had climbed back in November, and I remember thinking to myself that there was no way I'd want to go down that thing. Mt. Columbia is a crumbling mass of sandy rock, barely being held together in some way, and I'm not sure how. In short time we finally reached better ground, and crossed the broad saddle before the last elevation gain of the day. The climb went by quickly, and we found ourselves pointed downhill for good at long last. Unfortunately, this might be the absolute worst part of the entire route. In hindsight I would have stayed on the ridge longer, and retraced our ascent route of the morning more, but instead I angled down sharply, eyeing a shallow, willow filled gully at the edge of the skeleton forest. Loose scree led to steep dirt, with intermittent rock beds and tundra steps mixed in for good measure. Maintaining something resembling a steady pace was all we could hope for. And not breaking any ankles.

A look back at the basin from the crumbling south slope of the East Ridge...

Glancing over my shoulder, it sure looks more solid than it is...

Joe captures a parting shot...

The relief of the valley floor was tangible, and I sat a marching pace back towards the headwall. Spotting a cairn led us onto the trail, and we quickly made our way back to the creek and into the trees, before losing the trail and improvising an easy stream crossing. Intuitively we aimed for where the trail belonged, found it, and trod downhill. It was a descent like most any other, but fortunately the shade of the forest and the lush undergrowth served to make it more pleasant. From here, it's just a stroll through the woods.

Joe negotiates the single log crossing...

The Colorado Trail junction, a couple of large campsites may be found here...

Three Elk Creek is certainly a beautiful stream...

One last bridge denotes the imminence of completion...

A fitting way to finish the Sawatch, Mt. Columbia provided a challenging, satisfying day. I was happy to find a great partner in Joe, whose passion for the Colorado mountains shows through with a genuine, honest curiosity. Thanks Joe! We had a great day all the way around, even if the trip home seemed to take twice as long as it should have. I'm happy to see those mountains in the rear view mirror now, at least for the purposes of my Fourteener quest. I'm sure I'll return someday. But for now, I have bigger fish to fry... Hmm, I wonder what's next???

Comments or Questions
Nice write-up...
07/14/2010 05:04
...As usual. But I‘m afraid it will get the route onto people‘s radar. I was hoping to keep it reasonably secret.

Buh-bye, Sawatch
07/14/2010 15:37
Congrats on ”wrapping em up”, Keith. Hiking up Sawatch talus piles is less painful than a kick in the you-know-what, but not by much. I‘ll tell you this: I got much more satisfaction reading your Columbia TR than I got standing on top of it myself.

I‘m all for getting a group together to toss talus off the summit till we make Columbia 13,999‘. You in?

You guys are too cruel
07/16/2010 00:45
Try Columbia in winter. Gosh, I really loved it. Seriously. Never saw it in summer, so can‘t say, but it was truly one of my favorite climbs last winter. Probably helped that the scree was nicely frozen into place. Truth be told, I‘m ”holding out” finishing the Sawatch - maybe to leave something for the ”dead season.” When it‘s bumper to bumper in the heat, and a parking lot full of humanity, that dead season starts looking mighty fine.

Way to blast thru that checklist, Kieth! Keep up the good work!

Thanks for the write-up!
07/22/2010 06:14
I'm going to be climbing Columbia this weekend (also my last Sawatch 14er!) and it's great to get a hold of some info on an alternate route. Your wording is very poetic!

Great hike!
02/05/2011 00:22
Nice job summing up the experience on this little known route.

My favorite quote from your report:
02/05/2011 00:22
”Finally, a view of the Sawatch I can appreciate... the one in the rear view mirror!" LOEV IT!!! That made me laugh. Way to keep ticking them off Keith!

scott goldberg
nice TR!
01/24/2013 15:47
Great job, Keith, and great photos. We were up there on July 5th, and i really enjoyed this route. We saw no one else the whole way up, and only met a thru-hiker on the Colorado trail at the intersection on the way down...otherwise, complete solitude!

   Not registered?

Caution: The information contained in this report may not be accurate and should not be the only resource used in preparation for your climb. Failure to have the necessary experience, physical conditioning, supplies or equipment can result in injury or death. and the author(s) of this report provide no warranties, either express or implied, that the information provided is accurate or reliable. By using the information provided, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless and the report author(s) with respect to any claims and demands against them, including any attorney fees and expenses. Please read the Safety and Disclaimer pages for more information.

Please respect private property: supports the rights of private landowners to determine how and by whom their land will be used. In Colorado, it is your responsibility to determine if land is private and to obtain the appropriate permission before entering the property.

© 2022®, 14ers Inc.