Mt. Columbia Ski

Life – as it tends to do – has thrown some curve balls my way. A lot of times, that means any plans for fun and adventure go out the window. That’s happened a little these past few weeks, but I’m trying to balance that with some time in the mountains to burn off stress and keep sane. John kept trying to convince me to take off Thursday and go ski a peak. Things were semi-busy and I had a couple things I’d have to move around, but I decided I wouldn’t regret going for a good day in the mountains. The Sawatch – along with most of the state – so we settled on Columbia figuring it would be a big day but straightforward and uncomplicated.

The day started with the typical 2am alarm, forcing myself to eat breakfast, and all the usual pre-Spring 14er preparation. Less-ordinary was John getting pulled over in Leadville for accelerating past a cop to 10-over at 4:30 in the morning; fortunately the officer seemed more concerned in making sure we weren’t drunk idiots and sent us on our way with a warning.

Eventually we made it as far up the road to the trailhead as snow allowed, and were hiking at about ten after six in the morning – much later than I’m used to for this time of year.

I’d forgotten about the steep sidehilling low on the route, which was mildly annoying and made for a good hip-flexor workout.

I’d also forgotten how flat the first few miles are, with only 1500′ of elevation gain in 3.5 miles. A little less than two hours in and we found ourselves in a newly-expanded avalanche runout zone near the base of the Southwest Couloir.

My best guess for the new historic extent of the SW Couloir’s runout – likely too conservative

It was impressive to see the scope of the destruction, but worse was the damage the avalanche did to the couloir. There hasn’t been enough snow since March’s historic cycle to cover up the rock gouged out of the mountain, which tightened up portions of our ski line considerably.

The snow was firm but largely bootable, nearly-perfect for moving fast.

And move fast we did, climbing 2,500′ in an hour and fifty minutes. When you’re in the thick of a climb like that, it feels like you’re crawling. I’d move for thirty seconds, stop and let my legs and lungs recover, and repeat. John would later remind me of a famous quote by Greg LeMond – “it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.” It really is true, I’m far faster than in my younger days but the climbs still hurt as much or even more than they used to.

We hit the summit ridge at about 10am, and I lied down on some rocks to eat, drink, breathe, and let me legs recover.

Half an hour after starting to move again we were at the summit, excited for a fun, easy couloir ski but concerned about ski conditions down in the trees.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm with light winds, and it was tempting to stay on top for too long. Knowing what was ahead, we were back on our way down half an hour after topping out, at about 11am.

The descent started with a not-so-exciting but not-so-bad sidehill to get back to the top of the ski line.

Then it was time for some just-plain-fun corn skiing. I almost never smile when I’m skiing – not this time.

After picking our way through the rock-debris at the bottom of the line, we tried to bomb across the field to get over the ridge between us and the Harvard trail, but came up a little short. Skiing through the avalanche debris wasn’t as bad as expected though, and we were soon heading back down roughly on our ascent track.

The ski out was long but not too unpleasant and largely uneventful – a couple falls due to funky snow, but mostly it was a lot faster and easier to get through than I’m used to. One final hitch in the plan got us when we blew past the bridge to cross back to the trailhead without realizing it. We debated skinning back up but decided to cross the creek. I was about to wade through when I found a downed log, which wasn’t easy to get across but ultimately kept us out of the water.

We were able to ski a little more and had to start walking less than a mile from the car. All in all, a seven-hour outing (plus drive time) with 13 miles, 4,700′ of elevation gain, lots of fun skiing, and no real mishaps.

*Photos of me by John, photos not-of-me by me

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