Last year I climbed Mount Harvard via this approach, but weather and fatigue chased me down before traversing to Columbia. There are shorter routes up Columbia (although 4WD can shorten this approach considerably), but it was scenic and there was a chance that I might have this side of Columbia all to myself.
I almost got a speeding ticket before I even made it out of Wyoming. The officer let me off with a warning, though. I left pretty early, so I still made it to the trailhead early enough.
It was rather warm when I started so I left the balaclava in the pack and went with a baseball cap which works well for providing support to a headlamp. But my headlamp was acting up, so I packed that, getting enough light from the waning crescent Moon and the onset of dawn. Then, I got rid of the Polartec jacket. This was my first chance to use my Leki trekking poles for something other than snowshoeing and it took me a bit to get into a good rhythm.
I reached the end of the 4WD road and the Wilderness boundary after about an hour (this is at about 10200ft; the info in Dawson's book is out-of-date). No vehicles; alright! It was considerably cooler by now so I put on my balaclava. The first snow I saw was at about 10500ft, and by 10900ft, the trail was occasionally covered by a drift. The next landmark was the remains of an old cabin where I camped last year when climbing Harvard.
The trailcut is poorly defined in places, and above the cabin, there was enough snow around that it was almost impossible to stay with the trail. The key is to stay near Frenchman Creek. Near treeline the creek passes through a notch of sorts, which was a little tricky because the shaded icy snow here was a little tough to hike. Crampons (even 4-point instep crampons) would have been useful here, but I mostly stayed to the right at the snow/dirt boundary. Past this, a trail continues on the left side of the creek. I only know this because I descended it last year. Under current conditions, you're pretty much on your own for the rest of the ascent. As I learned last year, the upper creek is a rough bushwhack for being above timber, requiring travel through stubby willows or whatever, and it's swampy as well. Thus, I immediately started contouring upward on tundra in a southwesterly direction towards the summit which was visible off and on.
After a while on tundra and occasional hiking across slick, but gentle snowfields, I reached a level place at the base of a large snow slope from about 12800-13300ft. The rib to the right of this looked rugged and loose, so the obvious line was up the snow (I enjoy snow climbing anyway, and frankly, I have enough experience with snow travel that I should always choose snow over fragile tundra or loose rock). This slope had been getting a lot of sunshine and was mushy. It was covered with suncups and/or sastrugi patterns, so in places I didn't have to kick as many steps as I might have otherwise. I ascended with axe in hand up the snow which was probably no steeper than 30 degrees (didn't bring my angle finder).
The terrain levels out at the top of this with little snow cover, leading to the last 400ft of the northeast face, which was mostly snow covered. What's neat about this was that this led directly to the summit with no false summits. I topped out at 8:59, beating my expected 5 hour time by about 10 minutes.
It was so great to be on a summit and have warm and stable weather. It's been 5 trips ago (last October) since this has been the case. And, nobody else was around. I checked the summit register which had a couple of sign-ins from May, and about 15 for June. The most interesting previous entry was the one from the "Rick & Rick" saga of last year; the two guys who were going for the speed record for climbing the 54 14ers (Columbia was #50).
I farted around on top for only about a half-hour, figuring that at any moment, someone might summit from a shorter route. Also, there were a few clouds trying to get going and I felt that I had only about one hour of 'certain' lightning safety.
I basically retraced my route, including descending about 1000ft on my butt thanks to the snow. Ya gotta love spring! I had a small audience for the descent of that last long snowfield. It was a little surprising to see other people because although this is a fairly obvious route, guidebooks don't mention this approach for Columbia. I think it was a group of four broken up into two independent groups of two, plus a group of three. I spoke to one of the pairs. They had brought snowshoes of all things, and no axes, which is sort of bass ackwards. They hadn't used the shoes yet, although they might have made use of them on the way down considering how quickly it was warming up. I told them how I had ascended and the guy asked why I went up the snow instead of the right-hand rib. I wanted to say something like: "Well, it's easier, more fun, and has less impact", but I was much more polite. I hope I don't sound like an asshole here, but they were trying to stay away from that "steep snow" (in his words), which only requires the most basic of ice axe handling skills (and I think they were intending to glissade that snow, too, which again is ass backwards).
The rest of the trip down was uneventful and in solitude. The weather never turned, and it was rather warm when I reached my car at 12:24 (elapsed time 8:16). I can't say enough about my trekking poles! This was a long route but afterwards it felt a lot shorter thanks to the poles, especially on the descent where I was able to absorb some of the pounding that my knees would otherwise take.
To the chronological trip index
To the Mount Columbia page
File last modified: 21 December 2004