4,000 meters is an unrecognized altitude threshold within the United States. However, it is as well known where the metric system is used, as 14,000 feet is known in the US. This page is dedicated to climbing those peaks in Colorado that rise above 4,000 meters (13,123 feet)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mount Columbia South East Ridge - Finale

I am amazed how much the mountains can still surprise me. This was my 34th new Colorado 14er and I was still not quite prepared for what this route offered.

Mount Columbia via the South East Ridge is a scenic and unique hike. It is also a long, long slog from 9,400 feet to the summit at 14,073 feet. On paper it looked as though it should take us about five hours from trailhead to the top. In fact, it took us seven hours to the summit in what seemed like a never ending ridge-rollercoaster trek up and down a long steep and curving shoulder of this great mountain. There was nothing particularly technical about the climb but it did require concentration and perseverance.

Add to this another fours hours down via the “standard” route directly down into Cottonwood Creek. This descent route, we theorized correctly, would be a faster and easier route than our ascent. All in all this was nearly thirteen miles of tough, long, and mentally challenging hiking. It took us about 11 hour total time.

All this is true. But Mt. Columbia also delivers some amazing and unique terrain with areas of open woods, unusual and surreal forests stands of dead pines, and rugged expansive views of the surrounding great peaks.

On Friday, Sept 12 the team headed out of Denver towards Buena Vista where we stopped for Dinner at Jan’s at the behest of a service station worker. We had stopped to ask him where we could get some good Italian food. He said Jan’s right across the street. So that’s where we went…Jan’s.

The place was nice enough. Although at 4:30 it seemed more tuned to the geriatric crowd and other persons who may typically make it an early evening. We sat down and had a look at the menu. There was not one single Italian meal listed. Nothing. Not even close. We stayed and actually did have a decent meal consisting of typical continental American fare including roast turkey and dressing, burgers, chicken fingers, and the like.

We were then off to find a camp site near the trailhead. And that is exactly what we found. For the South East Ridge approach to Mt. Columbia one drives to precisely where the CO Trail crosses CO Route 365. There is a large camping area right at the trailhead that is flat and quite nice excepting a preponderance of various wild animal pooh. This pooh was however easily avoided and we set up camp.

We completed the normal camp chores and turned in around 9ish. The next morning we woke up a bit late; around 5:25. By 6:30 we were off and climbing the Colorado Trail to where it forks off to the Columbia Route with me in the lead. Unfortunately I missed the unmarked fork but realized it relatively quickly. From here we just charged up a hill directly to the approximate location of the Columbia Trail at the ridge top. This part of the trail was a well-wooded ridge hike to tree line, where the hike started to get more interesting. Up till now we had hiked through pine forest occasionally scrambling over a rocky out crop. At tree line the scenery opened up into a very unique and very surreal landscape of dead standing pines.

A Surreal Landscape of Dead Pines

Looking back Down the Ridge Towards Buena Vista

From here the team began grinding its way out of 12,000 feet and into the teens. We skirted to the left (South) of the ridge following faint trail segments. Eventually we made our way up to our first 13er; Point 13,298.

The Team Climbs to the Top of the Ridge with Point 13,298 in the Background

The Team Summits Point 13,298

At the top of Point 13,298 we got our first look at Columbia. Prior to getting to this point we had assumed, wrongly, that the actual summit lay close behind Point 13,298 and that after attaining this “crux” we would have a short jaunt over an easy ridge to Columbia’s fine summit. Unfortunately this was not the case. In fact, it was not nearly the case. We were still miles away. This is the view that greeted us on top of Point 13,298.

The First Look at Mt. Columbia and its Long SE Ridge

Mt. Columbia is the high point way way on over to the right in this image. We still had to follow nearly two miles of arcing up and down ridgeline at altitude before we could stand on the summit. It was already about 11 AM. Usually our team is leaving a summit at 11AM. But this day, we still had two hours of hiking/climbing to go. But as can be seen above, the weather was Blue Bird so off we went.

Up and down, up and down we hiked as we tried to pick the best line along the ridge. There were some faint trail segments here and there but they were rather faint until we intercepted the standard route as it joined up on the ridge. Below you can see that this hike is a roller-coaster ridge with many ups and downs.

Traversing the Final Miles of the Ridge with Mt. Columbia far Right

Snow had fallen the previous day as a cold front came through. Mostly the snow was just a few inches deep but there was one point I post-holed to my knees in an area where it had drifted below the ridge top. The snow was not really a factor in this climb.

At about a half mile from the summit we intercepted the standard route trail and began to see other human life. People here and there. Coming and going, to and from the summit. We had not seen a single person up until this time. We now had a more definite trail to follow, which we did through rock and snow.

After climbing over the last prominence we were within a relatively short stretch to the summit consisting of a rather pleasant level area of high-alpine tundra.

The Relatively Level Tundra Leading to the Short Final Summit Push

We crossed the tundra and were greeted with an array of chaotically placed boulders that required some easy scrambling. It was at this point that I heard what I thought was a distant rumble of thunder. Whenever one hears thunder at this altitude it can be a rather scary affair to say the least. In fact it can cause nearly instant incontinence. Fortunately, this day, it did not do that and the sound was not thunder. It was merely another hiker who had sidled up behind me and dislodged a rock, which only sounded like thunder. On I climbed.

The picture below shows to smallish points. One climbs up between these points and then has a short upward hike to the final, and surprisingly small, summit.

Two Small Points Hiding Columbia's Summit

We were all on the summit by around 1PM. It took seven hours of dedicated and sometimes frustrating climbing to get us from trail head at 9,400 feet to summit at 14,073 feet. The weather was still great. We still had blue skies with just a few non-threatening fair-weather cumulus clouds. The temp was probably in the mid 40s. It did get rather cold on the summit when clouds finally blocked the sun and we decided to make the long trip back. We knew we still had a very long hike ahead particular, and wisely, as we had decided to return via the standard route.

I had brought my tripod as I typically do but was helped out by a fellow summiteer to take the team summit shot. We all posed with Mt. Harvard in the background far right.

The Summit Shot

The team split up at this point as Mike and Erin pulled out ahead on the return followed by Sara, and finally Don and me.

Let me say this now. After down hiking the standard route I have no idea what insane person or group thought it was a good idea to put this route in were it is located. It appears that this trail may have been recently constructed, or formalized, by the CFI as I saw several trail “whiskers” and other evidence of recent trail building.

To call this portion of the hike a trail is somewhat misleading. After analyzing data from my GPS and National Geographic Topo! I determined that on the steepest portion of this trail section one must negotiate themselves from 13,550 feet down to 11,600 feet in the length of about ¾ of a mile. This measured out to be a 50% grade, or a 45 degree slope that drops the unfortunate hiker nearly 2,000 feet in less than a mile! There is another geographic term for this sort of “slope.” Its called a cliff. Below is a look down this section.

The Incredibly Steep Descent into Cottonwood Creek

The picture pretty much tells the story. There are no switch backs to speak of. The path pretty much bores down the slop with little relief and a uninspired meander here and there. On the plus side you dump altitude rather quickly. Looking back up the trail I thought who the hell would climb UP this thing. I mean really. I have climbed many many Colorado peaks but I have never seen anything quite like this. This trail segment presents the hiker with 2,000 nearly vertical feet from Cottonwood Creek to Columbia’s ridge. As unpleasant as it was to descend, it would be positively miserable to climb.

Don and I stopped a few times on this slope as the light snow that had fallen and the lighting made for some amazing views of Columbia’s neighbors, Mt. Harvard and Bear Lake.

A View of Mt. Harvard (far right) and Bear lake (center)

We continued to take in the views as we rapidly descended the slope down into Cottonwood Creek. On this return hike we covered about six miles in four hours and finally arrived back at camp around 5:30.

This was a miserable and rewarding hike. It was tough mentally and physically but did present the hiker with incredible views, challenge, and uniqueness. Just make sure you have a long day to do this route with cooperative weather. I would not want to repeat this hike but I do have satisfaction that I have completed it.

GPS Track for Mt. Columbia, Saturday, Sept. 13.

Red is Ascent Route, Blue is Descent Route

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Square Top Mountain - Better than Bierstadt

I have climbed Mt. Bierstadt many times. It is a favorite of mine and the Platinum Team's for early season training due to its relative ease of climb and close proximity to Denver. For more than a couple of years however I have looked across Guanella Pass towards Square Top Mt. and wanted to see what that peak held. The past couple of seasons the Platinum Team has put this 13er on the list of peaks "to do" (and by "do" I mean climb) when we were not otherwise engaged with climbing 14ers.

Also, as a fluke of how my company computes leave, I found that I had to burn about 40 hours of flex-time before the end of Sept. So, I thought I would take every Friday off in Sept. I knew that Mike, as a lifer at his company also was taking many Fridays off this summer as well. So literally, at the last minute, Mike and I were able to put a climb together for Sept. 5th. Don was out of town and Erin will not be able to take another vacation day until she is 80.

Mike and I both arrived at the west side parking area on Guanella Pass around 6:45am. There was not a single car in the west lot. There were about 8 cars in the East lot presumably to climb Bierstadt. We both geared up and set out.

We were planning to climb Square Top via its Eastern ridge. There is an excellent trail from where it begins, as it were, from behind the out-house. We trundled along the trail and down a bit until we began to parallel the ridge. There is a trail junction that cuts off towards the North to gain the ridge. However it is now marked "Trail Closed." Wanting to climb via this route, and not wanting to cause undo damage we followed a faint trail North up towards the ridge. The trail rapidly petered out and we separated a bit and made our way along the hillside. I had plotted the route in my GPS from a Summitpost route description, so we generally followed these way points up the steep hillside towards the ridge top.

We could clearly see a gully along our route and consulting the map it appeared that we would need to climb the gully by its left shoulder. The gully is quite a bit larger than it appears in the image below.

The gully as it appears from below on the hillside. The best way up is to ascend via the gully's left shoulder.

Mike and I made our way up this shoulder with no problems. We topped out and got our first view of the summit of Square Top in some interesting terrain at the top of the gully.

Square Top Peaks up in the Distance from the Top of the Gully

The terrain was very interesting along this entire hike. The gully consisted of fractured volcanic and columnar rock. There was a lot of white milky quartz mixed in with black fined grained rock as well.

Mike and I made our way arcing upwards steadily along the ridge towards a prominent saddle just before the going gets real steep. The wind began to pick up as we made the ridge top and meandered our way around a few high points. I am guessing the wind was blowing from around 15 to 25 MPH from a generally Northerly direction. Therefore, the right side of our faces were getting blasted. But the skies were very clear. Not at all what was forecast.

Mike and I made our way along a prominent high point and gauged our elevation in order to catch the saddle without having to gain or loose altitude.

We Stopped to take a Picture in the Great Morning Light with Square Top now Prominent in our View

We caught the saddle and began the steep climb up toward the summit. While steep, there is nothing particularly difficult about this part of the climb. The trail is all solid rocky tundra and rock out crops. There is nothing greater than perhaps a Class 2+ in some of the steeper rocky portions.

Mike and I zig-zagged our way up the slope stopping now and then so I could breath and to fine tune our route. The "crux" of the route came near the top of the ridge and consisted of a large rounded rock outcrop. We pondered as to whether we should skirt the outcrop but in the end we took a rather obvious line directly up its center.

The Author makes his way up the Crux of the Ridge Route (photo: Mike O'Hearn)

At the Top of the Outcrop I Turned and Grabbed this Image of Mike Climbing Up with the Remaining Ridge Stretching Beyond

A short time later Mike and I stood upon the ridge top with about one half mile of nearly level walking to the actual summit of Square Top. This was a really cool walk. Not particularly hard, but it was cold and windy. The interesting geology and the great views really made this part of the hike fantastic.

The Pleasant Route along the Ridge Top to Square Top's Summit

Mike and I arrived at Square Top's summit around 9:45. About 2:45 minutes after we had departed the trail head. We took in the views for a short time then retreated below the summit to get out of the wind and have some food. After eating and resting a bit we walked back to the summit for pictures. I brought my tripod for a summit shot but it was so windy I worried that my camera would be blown over so we just took pictures of each other at the summit as our fingers grew colder and more numb.

The Author at the Summit (Grays and Torrey's in the background)

Mike at the Summit

A Broad View of the Surrounding Mountains with Grays and Torreys in the Center

We made our way down from the top to take the more gentle Southeastern route back to the trail head. We carved a gentle descent along Square Top's Southeastern face. We descended rapidly but we could not find any hint of a trail. It turns out that there must have been some relatively recent trail realignment. We made our way down some steep slopes towards Square Top lakes. We could see the road that makes its way from the trail head to the lakes and we knew the hiking trail broke from this road and made its way up the Southeastern face to the summit.

We finally found the "new' trail near the where it breaks from the road close to the lakes. It appears to have been realigned to offer a much more gentle ascent of the mountain. The new trail now cuts further South in order to gain Square Top's Southern shoulder.

Mike and I were back at the cars around noon. We drove down into completely obscured skies into Idaho Springs for our traditional lunch at Tommy Knockers.

This was a really great climb. Easy logistics, very scenic and we did not see one other person during the entire hike. We had the summit to ourselves. The hike is in many ways better than Bierstadt. The terrain and geology are fascinating. The views incredible. And the route interesting. Next time I do this hike I will take the new route in order to avoid the closed portion and to simply tool along a more gentle ascent of this great peak.

A Tarn near the Trail Head with Bierstadt and the Saw Tooth in the Distance

GPS Track of the route up and return to Guanella pass appears below.

Next up...Columbia Peak via the East Ridge.