Frenchman to Columbia
Frenchman to Columbia
I am of French descent. And so how fitting is it that I would take the Frenchman Creek route on this adventure to summit Mount Columbia? Frenchman to Columbia... it only makes sense.
This is not the standard route. The standard route is plagued with very loose and steep scree of which many have cursed and scorned. This route is trail for the first half, then the rest is finding your own way to the summit. I've done some work here with describing and illustrating the route in my photos. Enjoy! And for those who want to climb this route, I hope these notes are helpful.
I’m a little humbled. This adventure was a milestone day for me. Mount Columbia is in the Colorado Sawatch Range. There are 15 named peaks in this range that are in excess of 14,000 feet elevation. This effort marked the day I finished climbing to the top of all 15. People in the Colorado “14er” community would say that it was my Sawatch Finisher. It’s not the highest acolyte for Colorado mountain climbers, but it’s a noteworthy accomplishment for me.
During this same month 12 years ago I was scheduling my open heart surgery, which by now I can conclusively say was an astounding success. In retrospect, I could not have imagined going from that operating room to this benchmark accomplishment. But here I am, and it is an amazing feeling!
Here's how it all went down:
Again, it starts with a Friday after work drive to a camp site. I drove from Denver and turned west onto Chaffee County Road 386, 7.5 miles north of Buena Vista off of Highway 24. Just .3 miles up this road I turned right onto Forest Service road 386 and went another 1.4 miles to a split in the road at 9,300'. The split (straight/left) marks the beginning of the 4WD road to the trail head at the boundary of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area. Google surprisingly does not map this road. I set up camp where the road splits.
Those who know me well would say that I can be slow to adopt. With regard to camping, it took me a while to figure it out, in spite of being told and having studied the most effective tips of how to get a good night’s sleep in the woods. The puzzle for me was how I would go about keeping my cold feet warm. Even in my 10-degree down bag with a 25-degree liner my little piggies would often get so cold it would be painful. I've tried a lot of different things. The trick ended up being, not surprisingly, a combination of several ideas. In addition to my Western Mountaineering sleeping bag, I went barefoot (socks can constrict blood flow and retain moisture) and put on down booties (also from Western Mountaineering) which are airy and light. But the clincher was to put hot water into a Nalgene water bottle, slip the bottle into a double layer of wool socks, and place it at the foot of my bag. The double sock layer helps slowly dissipate the heat. The water stayed warm for 8 hours.
I also took a couple of Advil PM, which didn’t do much for my toes but it sure helped me get some uninterrupted sleep. And let’s not forget about ear plugs.
All this sounds like a lot of trouble but a well-rested David has much more will power to finish a summit.
Back to the story: I had arranged for my hiking partners to meet me at camp in the morning. There are several ways I go about finding hiking partners if my usual hiking partners are not available. I solicit interest from groups on Facebook (14ers.com and Adventure Addicts: Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking in the Rockies) and via the message board on 14ers.com. This can turn out to be a bit of a crapshoot in terms of compatibility with speed and endurance, temperament, and general like-mindedness. Women have other concerns about meeting and spending the day with strangers in the woods… because some guys just can’t help but be [insert your favorite expletive]. Today turned out great for me - Geoff from Colorado Springs and Boris from Leadville met me at just before 7am.
From camp we drove up the 4WD road 1.8 miles to near the trailhead in my Wrangler. I recommend a vehicle with good clearance on this road. It’s rough in several places and narrow. Also, toward the end of the road there are a couple of trees that have fallen into other trees low across the road, which makes it risky for taller vehicles to pass under – in fact, too risky for my Wrangler. I parked the Jeep in a pull off about a quarter mile from the trailhead. (pic taken from previous hike)
The only time we cross Frenchman Creek along this route is .6 miles from the trailhead. It’s an easily passible log bridge. (pic taken from previous hike)
The trail to tree line is a mild ascent, generally following the direction of the creek on the north side of the trail for 2.8 miles with a 1600’ gain.
The trail intersects with the Colorado Trail at 1.35 miles, half way to tree line.
Near a small tributary at approximately 1.6 miles up the trail is a nice flat, open space commonly used as a campsite. Take note of where you enter into this space as it is easy to lose the trail on the return trip. The trail is slightly to the left as it continues across the tributary, hopping a couple rocks and crossing a few small logs.
Probably the most coveted campsite is the meadow camp site at 2.4 miles up the trail. It's at an old log cabin site next to the creek. (pic taken from previous hike)
Tree line is a quarter mile up the trail where you will see another nice campsite above the creek.
Then we take our first steps into alpine territory.
It's just another quarter mile before the established trail ends and we begin the alpine tundra ascent.
From here a faint trail can be found that will lead through a small willow patch and then closely follow the edge of the willows with a building talus field on the left. If you can’t find the trail, simply follow the edge of the willows and try not to get too far into the talus. You will cross a small section of the talus before heading up to the left and eventually gaining the ridge.
After gaining the ridge this image shows our ascent path along the ridge.
Portions of the ridge had more rock than other portions. This shot was taken near 12,700’.
The approach to navigating the 13750’ point on the ridge should be weighed carefully. Dropping too far on the NW side looks like less gain and easy to navigate. Neither are true. The gain difference is negligible compared to the upper route. And there is a short 50-foot section that is very steep with very loose scree. One of my partners was desperately praying as he tried navigating through this. Our feet were slipping nearly uncontrollably. It would have taken only one poorly placed step to slide a couple hundred feet down the embankment. My other partner took the higher route, the smarter choice.
This is a view from the summit showing the path along the 13750’ point on the ridge with a helpful hint about the area to avoid.
Here’s a pic of our return with a line to show the way.
This is what the descent from the far side of the high point looked like on our return.
We met a few other people on the trail. Chris and his son Luke had contacted me on Friday morning letting me know they were going to be on the trail and would meet up with us at some point. We met them just below the final pitch. They were coming down; we were heading up. Chris hiked the Colorado Trail this summer. His son Luke had climbed several 14ers; he is 14 years old. What a great father-son bonding experience!
The ridge approach to the final pitch can be negotiated left, right, or center. On our ascent two of us chose the right side to help block some of the wind; I don’t think it mattered much. On the decent we chose to go down the center. Both ways were without much challenge. This was taken near 13,600’.
The final pitch to the summit is a nice scramble on mostly stable small boulders.
The views from the summit are, of course, spectacular.
Boris was a walking, talking mountain navigator who was quite good at naming all the summits from the foreground to the horizon in any direction.
Evidence of yours truly on the summit.
We also met a guy on the summit who had climbed Harvard and the traverse. He was about to finish the last few miles of his 15-mile day. That’s a long trek in this territory! He admitted as much. I may be up for it next year.
And then we begin the descent. The view from this side of the traverse between Harvard on the right and Columbia on the left is worth a long look. The debris below the traverse takes on the appearance of rock glaciers.
It is equally attractive from a little lower.
The return hike through the forest is pleasant as we make our way back to camp.
It’s always a great hike when arriving safely back at camp, but this one was extra special. Stay humble, friends. Do good and hike on!
I have not been able to find a good GPX file for this route. And since my GPS navigator app doesn’t export GPX files I created this map that lays out the general path we took. It could be a little off, but it should offer a workable guide for getting you there safely.
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