Descent Route: East Ridge To South Face
East Ridge to South Face
Wednesday May 17, 2006
Ski Descent #43
Now that my extended road trip through Colorado to ski peaks is over, I can leave from my home for ?day trips? to ski peaks that are closer to where I live. Mt. Columbia is one such peak. Columbia lies in the central Sawatch Range, above the town of Buena Vista, and right next to its higher neighbor, Mt. Harvard. Columbia has a really broad and steep West Face, but it was totally blown dry on my trip into Harvard (it has been dry all winter). So I had to make a return trip to Columbia to attempt the eastern side from a different trailhead, the Three Elk Creek drainage. This approach, although somewhat long, is technically easy, and has a nice wilderness feel to it.
I let my home in Old Snowmass at 4:10 a.m. and drove to Avon to pick up Chris Anthony. For those of you who have seen Warren Miller films, you will recognize Chris, as he has been in almost every one over the last decade. We have spent some great times together skiing all over the world, and I was hoping we would get to ski a peak or two together on my project. Chris was fresh back from a two-week heli trip in Alaska where he was guiding some clients, followed by a week on the beach in Mexico. He was fired up to try a fourteener and we headed out of Avon, through Leadville, and into Buena Vista. Had Independence Pass been open this drive would have been half the time. From Buena Vista we followed a myriad of county roads towards the mountains, eventually parking at the Three Elk Creek trailhead. The sun was already high in the sky as we began our approach in hiking shoes. It was a warm morning, and I wondered as we left the truck if we were already to late. Chris is super-fit and we made fast progress up to tree line in the basin, where we took a short break. Another mile up the valley we switched hiking shoes for ski boots and began a fun but challenging climb up the South Face. The angle was perfect for kicking steps in the snow, but the sun had already cooked the snowpack, and we often found ourselves breaking though to out waists. I was keen to get off this slope before it got any warmer, so we pushed through to the top in good time.
Having only seen Mt. Columbia?s east side from the valley I was unsure if it really had enough snow on it for a complete ski descent. As we crested the South Face and saw the summit for the first time, my heart sank, for there were only patches running towards us. With resolve we continued to the top, and as my luck this season would have it, I noticed a nice snowfield on the north east side that I could not see from our ascent route. This snow descended from the exact summit and wrapped around the peak towards our intended route down the South Face. So the route would go! This situation seems to be happening to me a lot lately. On Bierstadt, Pikes, and now Columbia, I thought the mountains would not be skiable, but then the summit reveals enough snow for pretty good descents. So after enjoying some nice time with Chris on the summit, I stepped in to my skis and began the descent. At the top of the South Face, Chris went first. As I mentioned when discussing our climb, the snow was already baked and on the verge of being unstable. We skied quickly and deliberately down the face, stopping only in safe zones to shoot photos and video. This face is about 1200? long and is a great ski. Out the bottom Chris and I cruised down snow gullies as far as the snow would allow. We finally had to stop and switch back to hiking boots for the walk out.
The hike out was long but it flew by because Chris, a master storyteller, told me long tales about a couple of his recent relationships. I always enjoy listening to Chris? stories on long drives or hikes. It is a terrific way to pass the time. So thanks again to Chris for joining me on Columbia. Now I?m back home again, doing some projects around the house. I am frustrated at the hot, dry spring we have had in Colorado. We have received little or no precipitation in the state since early April, and the snow is melting fast. On a good snow year I would still be skiing peaks every day or every other day, and am sure that I could finish this project no problem. But Mother Nature is having none of that, so here I sit, waiting for some snow so that I can get on with my passion, skiing the peaks of my dreams!
Take care, I?ll report back early next week!
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