AscentI climbed Mt Columbia on August 26, 2006 with my sister Liz, and her roommate Kate. I had checked weather.com the day before, and they predicted partly cloudy skies, with storms in the afternoon. Our plan was to hike the standard route from the North Cottonwood Trailhead. We left Denver at about 4:45 AM. It was already overcast as we left town. As we drove south and west on Hwy 285, we could see that the road was wet. It started to rain west of Bailey, and that continued off and on 'til we reached Buena Vista.
We stopped at a coffee house in Johnson Village, and the proprietor said we might get some snow higher up. Not a good sign. We reached the trailhead around 7:30. We met up with a couple of Liz's friends, John and Stacy, and we hit the trail at about 7:45. By then it was raining steadily. All I had was a pretty flimsy poncho, worn over a light cotton jacket. Two weeks ago I hiked to the Notch Mountain Shelter in similar conditions. When I got back to Denver, I neglected to take the wet poncho out of my backpack, so when I pulled it out on this day, it smelled like spoiled milk. Wonderful. So I put up with that for a while.
After a while, the sky cleared up and the sun came out. I was thinking that maybe it would be a nice day after all. We had a brief clothing adjustment, and continued on. The good weather didn't last long, for it started to rain as we reached the treeline. So we had to put all that crap back on again. The sky cleared up again while we were on the scree field, but then more clouds rolled in as we neared the summit ridge. Liz had gotten pretty far ahead of me, while Kate was behind me, and John and Stacy were way behind. They eventually turned back, which turned out to be a very good idea.
Summit and ReturnWhen I reached the summit ridge, the clouds had really started to roll in so that it was somewhat difficult to find the way. I caught up with Liz, who had wandered around a bit in the fog. There was a break in the fog, and Kate caught up with us at that point. From there, it was a pretty straightforward march to the top. We reached the summit at noon and shared it with a few other people. It was still cloudy, so there wasn't much to see. Off to the west, there were some mean looking clouds brewing, and we could hear some distant thunder. There were a few other hikers arriving at the summit just as we were leaving. It turns out we left the summit just in time.
The wind picked up as we walked along the ridge, and as we started to head down a couloir, it began to snow. It wasn't fluffy snow, but that pelletized combination of hail and snow. You really don't want to up on a mountain, heading right into the face of wind-driven pelletized snow. It became almost impossible to see. Worse yet, the storm had rolled in, and there were a few crashes of very loud thunder. And, with all that wet scree on a very steep slope, footing became treacherous. All while trying to get down the mountain as fast as we could. We even knocked loose a few good sized stones. After awhile, the wind died down and the snow let up, and finally the sky cleared up as we got down to the treeline. There was one last episode of light rain for the last two miles of the journey. We finally got back to the parking lot at 3 PM, then we stopped to eat at K's in Buena Vista (I'll bet they get a lot of business from hikers) before heading back to Denver.
RecapI really wasn't well prepared for this hike. I had a cotton jacket and gloves, wool hat and a plastic poncho. That's usually what I hike with. I'v been pretty fortunate with weather in the past. I get an early start, reach the summit in the morning or early afternoon, and head back well before the storms brew up. I was not so lucky in this case, and I paid the price. My jacket and gloves got soaking wet, and my poncho was useless in the high wind. I will have to get some tougher clothing for future hikes.
It got a little scary on the descent. There were a few close flashes of lightning. I wasn't too worried about getting hit by lightning (we were well down from the ridge by that time) but we were still out in the open. There were a few hikers above us at the time, so who knows what it was like for them. It may well have been better to just turn back and attempt Columbia some other time. But, it was a good learning experience. I may climb it again, when the sky is clear and the views are better.