Sunrise from Mt. Columbia
Sunrise from Mt. Columbia, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
The night was nearly calm, with abundant stars, when I emerged from my tent at 1 a.m. and started up the western flank of Mt. Columbia. It was hard to believe the weather forecast called for a "20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after 9 a.m." The waning moon was starting to set, but was still above the ridge to the west, so for a while I raced the advancing shadow up the initial gully. All too soon the terrain steepened, then steepened again, and the rising shadow beat me handily. At the crux, the footing was awful, with steep, hard-pan dirt covered with gravel and scree. You couldn't fall off the west flank of Columbia, but you sure could rip off a lot of skin.
The footing improved as the angle eased slightly. After gaining 2,000 vertical feet in less than three-quarters of a mile, I finally reached the summit ridge at 13,600 feet. It was still completely dark on a now-moonless night. I glanced to the southwest and noticed that the stars low in the sky had been blotted out by clouds. I couldn't tell how dense the clouds were, however, so without much thought I continued up the summit ridge.
As I got higher and the sky began to grow light, I could see that the clouds were rapidly thickening, spreading, and growing closer. Now the entire western sky was filled with menacing clouds, and I could see virga beginning to fall. Thick gray masses began descending over Princeton and Yale to the south, as well as the peaks to the west, and the wind picked up strongly. I reached the summit just before 5 a.m. and began debating what to do. Then I saw a single flash of cloud-to-cloud lightning to the west. That made my decision. I called Cora from my cell phone a few minutes after 5 a.m. and told her I was heading down.
I re-packed my gear and began the descent, but had only gone 50 feet when I saw that the light to the east was becoming spectacular. A ragged blue hole appeared in the clouds overhead, and I decided I had to shoot something. I surely didn't want to do this route again! I shed my pack and struggled to get set up in the fierce wind before the light faded. Streams of virga descending from dense clouds to the east were silhouetted against the golden glow along the eastern skyline just as the sun crested the horizon. Then the clouds began lighting up to the south. For 20 minutes I worked the light frantically, trying to capture the scene before the light faded off the clouds in front of me and lit up clouds somewhere else. As the sun rose into a dense cloud bank and the light show ended, I decided I'd pushed my luck as much as I cared to for one day and started down.
Snow squalls rolled over me repeatedly, and strong winds made balance difficult. At 13,000 feet, I encountered another mountaineer, who made the prudent decision to head down. Two hours after leaving the summit, with the weather still threatening, I reached my tent again and collapsed, feeling thoroughly wasted. Without even bothering to eat, I slept for an hour. When I awoke, I poked my head out of my tent and was astonished. The sky was clear, the sun was shining brightly, and the wind was calm. The stormy weather had lasted only four or five hours. I packed up and headed down. When I got home, I dug up the morning's forecast discussion on the National Weather Service website, eager to understand such rapidly changing weather, and found out that a shortwave trough had rolled through. Shortwave troughs are fast-moving disturbances in the upper air flow that cause rising motion in the air ahead of them. As the air rises, it cools. The moisture present in the air condenses, first into clouds, then into rain and snow. Once the shortwave passes, the sky can clear quickly. My deepened scientific understanding of what I had observed only heightened my awe at the spectacular display of Armageddon light I had been privileged to witness.