Located on the continental divide at the head of the Athabasca River Valley southwest of Columbia Glacier;. Winston Churchill Range, Jasper Park, Alberta/BC border. Major headwaters Athabasca & Columbia rivers.
Photo: Mount Columbia from the east (courtesy Rienk Lakeman)
"Chisel shaped at the head, covered with glaciers and snow...I at once recognized the great peak I was in search of." Norman Collie thought at the time that he had found the legendary Mount Brown or Mount Hooker and was undoubtedly disappointed to learn later that he had not. However he had become one of the first to see the magnificent peak that he named Mount Columbia.
The highest point in Alberta and second only to Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Columbia lies on the northern edge of the Columbia Icefield, 9.7 km southwest of Snow Dome that may be seen from Highway #93 at the Icefields Centre on Sunwapta Pass.
From the upper Athabasca River Valley to the north there is a huge difference of relief (2300 m) and this, together with the beautiful symmetry of the mountain, makes for one of the most awesome views in the Canadian Rockies. The opposite side of the peak is quite different, as the Columbia Icefield rises a more modest 700 metres above the icefield to the summit to form the relatively gentle, southern and eastern slopes.
In 1901 Jean Habel journeyed as far north as present day Jasper National Park, becoming the first to reach the headwaters of the Athabasca River and see the north face of Mount Columbia. Unfortunately this trip, like his explorations in the Yoho Valley in 1897, was plagued by poor weather and he was unable to attempt to climb the mountain. He also explored what is now known as Habel Creek in Jasper National Park. Jean Habel referred to the mountain as, "Gamma."
Like many others, he became fascinated with Mount Columbia and during the following winter contracted with Tom Wilson to take him on an extended expedition to the peak via the Columbia River. However, Jean Habel died suddenly before he could return to the Canadian Rockies and attempt to climb its second highest peak.
Approaching the mountain from the Columbia Icefield, James Outram, together with guide Christian Kaufmann, made the first ascent of Mount Columbia in 1902 describing the view from the summit as "simply marvelous." He later wrote, "The vast extent of these mountain-tops is extremely striking, especially in such untrodden regions as the Canadian Rockies freely offer. The charm of the unknown is mingled with the pleasures of recognition."
A much more challenging climb, technically, was completed in 1970 by C. Jones and G. Thompson when they spent two and one half days climbing the north face.
Although not a panoramic type of view, all mountain enthusiasts travelling the Icefield Parkway will want to stop at Ranger Creek in order to get a glimpse of the highest mountain in Alberta. It can be seen through the trees from the highway just south of the creek but little effort is required to reach a fine, unobstructed viewpoint. From here we see the north-facing slopes of Mount Columbia that rise to the pointed summit almost 2300 metres above the head of the Athabasca River. As well, the edge of the icefield may be seen draping over the eastern slopes.
Ranger Creek is 2.6 kilometres north of the Ranger Hill Viewpoint. Walk about twenty-five metres up the south side of the creek and then climb another twenty metres to the top of the scarred area above the highway. An unknown "lover of mountains" has built a small cairn to mark this very special spot.
Mount Columbia takes its name from the river that loops through British Columbia before entering the United States.