Mount Columbia trail work

Trail workers move boulders on the Mount Columbia trail. After five seasons of work by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the most critical work on the trail is complete, reducing environmental impact and, hopefully, ending Columbia’s reputation as one of the worst fourteener climbs in Colorado.

Work on the trail to the summit of Mount Columbia, long considered one of the more miserable climbs in Colorado’s repertoire of fourteeners, is nearly complete after five seasons of work, but for the time being the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative will be moving on to other projects.

“You come up through Horn Fork Basin, you take a right as you start getting to the base of Columbia and you go through a talus field, and that’s really where our work started,” said Lloyd Athearn, CFI executive director. “That’s where the old social trail used to go straight up the mountain. You were going through this loose scree-filled nightmare that was horrible for hikers and also threatened some rare and sensitive plants that are in that area.”

Thousands attempt fourteeners in the Sawatch Range’s Collegiate Peaks mountains each year, but once upon a time there were no trails, so the hikers that sought to bag these peaks had to blaze their own.

“When CFI was founded 27 years ago, there were only two planned, constructed trails built on all of the fourteeners,” Athearn said. “The vast majority were climbed by people just trying to get from the trailhead to the summit as quickly as possible, and that usually meant very direct, steep trails, not planned with any notion of sustainability.”

That resulted in the fragile plant life in the delicate ecosystem of alpine tundra (which has a short growing season, to say the least), and erosion that would be exacerbated each year with snowmelt and rain.

“The soil takes about 1,000 years per inch to create, so you’d see about 10,000 years of evolutionary process just sliding down the hill, smothering more plants,” Athearn said. “It was just an unsustainable situation, and that’s why we came into existence.”

The Mount Columbia trail project moves CFI, which works with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, closer to its goal of having at least one trail to the summit of each fourteener that is “sustainably designed and durably constructed sufficient to handle the use they’re getting and protect the amazing alpine ecosystems that we find on the fourteeners.”

For Columbia, “what we did was start in the talus field where there was a lot of build-able rock and made a hard right through the talus field and connected to that southeast ridge much lower down, and put also some different switchbacks in and built a much better aligned trail – certainly far more durably constructed, hardened route,” Athearn said.

The north-south aligned ridge that starts at roughly 13,700 feet above sea level and takes hikers up to the 14,077 summit has still not been reconstructed as a part of the Mount Columbia trail project that began in 2016.

“It is an incredibly massive amount of work,” Athearn said. “Last summer we got an email from a guy, a professional trail builder who’s worked for federal, state and local agencies, private folks building trails and he was like ‘This is the most amazing trail I’ve seen in the country.’ So we were pretty excited about that. We certainly feel that way about the route ourselves.”

Even with the new trail incomplete, that feedback is a far cry from past reviews of Columbia, the 37th-highest fourteener in the state.

Mark Obmascik, who chronicled an attempt to climb all of the fourteeners in his book “Halfway to Heaven,” claimed that “more swear words have been uttered by hikers climbing Mount Columbia than any other Colorado fourteener.”

“Nobody’s sad in any way to see the old social route go away,” Athearn said.

Funding for the Columbia trail came from a number of sources, including from a competition hosted by outdoors retailer REI.

For that fundraiser, called “Every Trail Connects,” Columbia received the maximum amount of donations for a single trail in a single day: $75,000, accrued at $5 from REI per vote.

“We had two major grants from the Colorado State Trails program. Most of the money there came from the Colorado Lottery, some of it came from some federal transportation dollars. There was funding from the National Forest Foundation,” Athearn said. “One individual fourteener enthusiast was giving us $30,000 a year for virtually all of the project.”

According to Meghan Dougherty, the communications manager for the Colorado Lottery, funds from the lottery contributed a $450,000 backbone to the nearly $1 million needed for the project.

This year, the Mount Columbia project was awarded the Colorado Lottery Starburst award for best use of lottery funds for community and conservation projects.

“It is a really steep route, and it’s incredibly dangerous doing work with large rocks. We oftentimes had to use a tool we call a tram system, and another tool called a grip hoist, which is like a mechanical raising-lowering system, and we’re dealing with rocks that could be 300, 400, 500 pounds. On a super-steep cross-slope, if those got loose it would be a bad situation,” Athearn said. “Even on most peaks, where we’d be in a situation where you might, say, get four people together and use some nylon sling material to manually move a rock very slowly from one place to another, on Columbia we’d have to secure it and move it inch by inch in a very controlled fashion … Columbia required us to hire the most skilled people we’ve ever had. It was a challenge for them.”

As with any nonprofit with limited resources and staff, CFI has to prioritize its projects. While the notorious Columbia may have once been at the top of that list, the group is now looking to other projects with greater needs, including another Chaffee County fourteener: Mount Shavano, which Athearn said CFI hopes to start work on next year.

Mount Princeton also has a planned route that CFI hopes to build in the future, he said.

“We’ve done the most important work on Columbia,” Athearn says, “as much as anything, it’s about getting the biggest resource problems tackled first.”

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