Columbia Peak is a mountain I have tried to climb twice before this trial. The first time, I thought it could be a one-day event. On that journey, the sun fell below the horizon before I could reach the summit. I turned around determined to return and conquer. A year later I came back and spent the night to give myself more time. Half-way up Columbia peak I encountered some serious rockfall and turned back. This time I set out determined to make it. I suppose the hubris in me didn’t want to think that this mountain could win.
I started from Barlow pass and headed up to the Monte Cristo Townsite on my bike at 6:30 am with starry eyes and a determination I haven’t felt for some time. It felt comforting that I didn’t see a single other person in the parking lot. Looking forward to what I knew would be a difficult day, I started up the road to Monte Cristo. About an hour of peddling later, I arrived at the townsite. After parking my bike I changed into my climbing gear and headed for the trail for Columbia Peak. The trail begins behind the townsite. Follow the signs for poodle dog pass/twin lakes.
On the way up to Poodle Dog pass it was surprising to see only a smattering of snow. It made me ponder what the trail would look like up higher. To my pleasant surprise once I reached the pass the snow was several feet deep. The snow was devoid of signs of any other human interaction with the landscape. At this point I ran into the single person I would see until the evening. We enjoyed a short conversation about the surrounding views. Afterward I threw on my micro-spikes with a smile ready for whatever was about to come my way.
After leaving the silver lake area the snow was deep and the route finding was all my mind could focus on. At one point I ran across some Bear tracks in the snow. The thought of how fresh they appeared to be at once pulled me out of my trance. It’s often moments like these that make me realize how alone I am in places like this on my solo expeditions.
As the trail winds through the backcountry it will lead you to a prominent ridge line. If you drop down the other side of it, the trail will lead you off to Twin Lakes. To climb Columbia peak though, you will want to work your way across the ridge towards the peak. My best advice here would be to stay low on the ridge. I tried to climb over the ridge crest once in my several attempts and it did not go well.
During my traverse of the ridge line, spots of snow were melted and slushy while others were solid ice. It made for a treacherous landscape that was somewhere between blue ice and pudding. I fell repeatedly from post-holing up to my waist. Yet still I encountered places where I was more than grateful to have crampons. Be aware that during this time of year the snow conditions on Columbia Peak will be variable. Have the gear for whatever may come your way.
I was grateful once I hit the snow slopes that lead to the top of Columbia Peak. The side you will climb up is shielded from the sun in early daytime. Finally I had some solid snow to walk on. Some of these sections approach near vertical (due to snow) and were in essence more of an ice climb than a scramble. I am not sure if it’s the time of year or not, but this small section of the climb could be tough to stomach. I have read that during summer this part of the climb can be some very tough to navigate scree, so if you want to climb Columbia peak, choose your poison.
The Crux of this climb (at least for me) comes as you wrap around the north side of the mountain to meet the summit. The snow had melted enough that it created steep slopes headed for some massive cliffs. The exposure made my head spin a bit. Especially the last small section of this spot where the snow steepened to a near-vertical slope. It was nothing short of terrifying and I wished I brought my ice climbing axe along. That would have given me far better anchoring into the snow. This of course would all be different when the snow is gone during the summer.
After all the attempts my successful summit culminated in a short nap, some photos, and a lot of hollering. To all those looking to climb Columbia peak, prepare for solitude and an unbeatable view. Both of which will come at the price of a monumental test of your endurance.
After standing on the summit of Columbia Peak, I thought the day complete. To make the trail home far easier I planned to coast down the Monte-Cristo Road on my bike back to Barlow pass. About halfway down the road the back brakes on my bike went out. I was already flying downhill and attempted to slow down with the front brakes. At that point the chain broke. The whole scene ended with me flying over my handlebars and pushing my bike for the last mile and a half.
It felt like Columbia Peak was sending me a message, as in “look I still beat you”. Be careful up there. The mountain seems to have a way with dampening spirits.
For a few other great challenges in the area you can always check out Silvertip, Cadet, Kyes or Del Campo