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Mount Columbia via Frenchman Creek

Saturday & Sunday, August 10-11, 2019

I had such a nice time in the Sawatch Range a couple of weeks ago when I climbed Mount Yale that I decided to return again this weekend with Diane so we could go on an overnight backpacking trip along Frenchman Creek and climb Mount Columbia (14,073) on Sunday morning. Since we didn’t have a long hike ahead of us, we slept in later on Saturday morning before heading out on our way to the Arkansas River Valley. We stopped at K’s in Buena Vista for lunch and then from there it was a quick drive over to the Frenchman Creek Trailhead at the boundary of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. When we arrived I was pretty surprised to find that there were no other vehicles parked there, plus we would not seen anyone else on the trail all weekend. It was a little bit strange, even for a non-standard route on a 14er, especially on a weekend on this side of the mountains, but I’m not complaining!

From the trailhead we hiked up the Frenchman Creek Trail for a couple of miles and setup our camp at about 11,700 feet at the edge of a large meadow filled with wildflowers. When we started our hike we heard a few distant rumbles of thunder and we encountered a few sprinkles of rain while on the trail, but there was no threatening weather or heavy rain. It only took us about two hours to reach our campsite and we were moving at a pretty slow pace since we weren’t in a hurry.

Diane hikes ahead of me on the old road past the large ‘Road Closed to All Vehicles’ sign as we left the trailhead.

Road Closed to All Vehicles

There was a bridge across the first crossing of Frenchman Creek.

Frenchman Creek Bridge

We passed the remains of an old cabin a short way up the trail.

Cabin Remains

Soon we crossed the intersection with the Colorado Trail and continued to follow the Frenchman Creek Trail further up into the drainage.

Trail Intersection Sign

I was happy to find that the trail was in great shape and clear of all deadfall which made the hiking easy.

Frenchman Creek Trail

Our home for the night.

Frenchman Creek Camp

Nice clouds above the meadow while hanging out around camp.

Afternoon Clouds

A small cascade along Frenchman Creek.

Frenchman Creek Cascade

We could see rain off in the distance while we ate dinner, but it never came our way.

Rain

A few Mammatus Clouds formed above us before sunset.

Mammatus Clouds

Just a couple of wildflowers…

Dos

View from camp before sunset.

Camp View

There was a little color in the sky over the Buffalo Peaks for sunset.

Final Color

Since we were planning on an early start on Sunday we went to bed just after sunset. I woke up a few times during the night to hear that it was raining on our tent and hoped that the weather wouldn’t impact our hike in the morning. We woke up to my alarm at 4:30am and were on the trail by 5:00am hiking by the light of our headlamps up the remainder of the trail. Once we reached the next creek crossing we left the trail and started making our way up the ridge to Mount Columbia. Since there was no trail to follow at this point and it was still dark out, I wasn’t exactly sure which way to go, so we stopped and sat on a rock for about 20 minutes until it was light enough out that we could choose our route up the mountain. The hiking was steep but mostly easy up the alpine tundra and a rocky ridge. The only tricky part was crossing a steep rocky slope, and although there was a trail across it, part of it was washed out and sketchy in a couple of places. We hiked at a slow and steady pace and reached the summit at around 8:15am, which was just in time to see a storm coming our way from the other side of the mountain, so we didn’t stick around long.

A view of the Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia Ridge at the head of Frenchman Creek when it got light enough to start taking photos. Mount Harvard (14,420) is the mountain on the right.

Harvard - Columbia Ridge

Diane spotted a pair of ptarmigan as we climbed the ridge. As usual, they were hard to see until we were right on top of them.

Ptarmigan

Although cloud cover prevented a nice sunrise this morning, sunlight did eventually make it through a few small pockets in the clouds near the Buffalo Peaks.

Buffalo Peaks & Sunlight

Morning Sun Rays

The summit of Mount Columbia is the high point on the left.

Mount Columbia

I liked how the sun rays were highlighting the Buffalo Peaks in this scene.

Light Up the Peaks

Diane following me up the rocky ridge.

Rocky Ridge

A little bit of spotlight on Mount Harvard.

Mount Harvard Light

Looking back over the Frenchman Creek drainage below us.

View Over Frenchman Creek

Once we reached the top of the ridge above us we had a good view over to Mount Princeton (14,197) and Mount Antero (14,269).

Sawatch View

Although the sky had been a little cloudy on our way up, it didn’t appear to be threatening to me. However, once we reached the summit and looked over to the other side we saw that there was much more stormy weather on that side and it was coming our way! We didn’t stay on the summit long.

Stormy View

A quick view from the summit over to Mount Yale (14,196).

Mount Columbia Summit

Looking the other direction to Mount Harvard.

Columbia to Harvard

Looking down to Bear Lake in the Horn Fork Basin.

Bear Lake

One last shot of the incoming weather before we started racing down the mountain to try and beat the storm. Spoiler alert: We lost!

Incoming Storm

On the way down I looked back just in time to see Mount Harvard become engulfed by clouds.

Surrounding Harvard

Then the summit of Mount Columbia disappeared.

Columbia in the Clouds

A tidal wave of clouds came over the ridge and into the valley right behind us.

Tidal Wave

Trying to outrun the storm with no luck. We were soon inundated with graupel and then rain accompanied by strong winds. We got soaked quickly!

Chased By Clouds

A view through the rain to the Buffalo Peaks before we were socked in.

Buffalo Peaks Through Rain

One last view of the low clouds over the upper end of the Frenchman Creek basin.

Under Clouds

Once we reached the trail again it was easy hiking through the steady rain until we reached our campsite.

Rainy View

Frenchman Creek in the Rain

Parting Shot

When we reached camp it was still raining and we were drenched. Luckily it was only a few miles back to the trailhead so we just threw everything back into our packs and started hiking. We would worry about drying out our gear when we got home, plus we had dry clothes to change into in my Jeep. We made it back to my Jeep by 11:00am and were soon on our way home. We drove through a constant rain all the way back through Leadville to I-70, but once we were on the interstate the rain finally stopped and we had an uneventful drive the rest of the way. I must say, we both really enjoyed this route to climb Mount Columbia since it was a nice place for an overnight backpacking trip and it provided us with a lot of solitude.

>> Mount Columbia Photo Gallery

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