Head northwest from the Cottonwood Creek 4WD road on the Colorado Trail toward the Harvard Lakes. This trail climbs up through a couple of switchbacks to Mt. Columbia's southeast ridge, and follows the ridge for a short distance. Around 10,000', the Colorado Trail begins heading north, down from the ridge center toward the Harvard Lakes. Leave the Colorado Trail and continue up the ridge center into the forest. The departure point is marked by a cairn (Photo #1).
Gerry Roach describes the forest along the southeast ridge as "open". The trail through the forest is somewhat faint, and is relatively easy to find in daylight, but can be difficult to follow in the dark. There are many small cairns (usually made of three to four stones) and branches arranged along the edge of the trail to guide your way in places. Unfortunately, there are also many trees that have fallen across the path that make the path harder to follow in the dark, but these trees are easily climbed over or walked around. The majority of the hike through the trees is spent just below the right side of the ridge center, with occasional ascents up to the middle to take advantage of a clear section along the ridge (Photo #2, Photo #3). The trail grows rockier as you approach treeline. There is even a small boulder field a short distance below treeline, but (as usual) it can be avoided by dropping to the right of the ridge center and skirting around it (Photo #4).
When you emerge from treeline around 11,500', you are greeted by a stand of dead trees and an obvious ridge ascent ahead of you. Make your way up the middle of the ridge through the fallen trees and across the rocky "points" (Photo #5). The rocky terrain becomes more grassy before too long, and you can see the ridge in the distance ahead of you begin to turn to the west. The most efficient path here is often not across the top of the ridge points, but cutting across their left faces, avoiding unnecessary elevation gain as you ascend to the top of the points that you will only lose as you descend the other side (Photo #7).
Around 12,800', you should encounter a switchback on the ridge (Photo #9). From the switchback, you are afforded the first really unobstructed view of Columbia's summit on the other side of Three Elk Creek Basin. When you reach a rocky point near 13,240', the easiest way across is to climb up onto the rocks and look for a well-worn path around the point on the right (Photo #11) that will lead you back to the ridge center on the other side (Photo #12). At the top of Point 13,298', the remainder of the route still between you and the summit comes into view. After descending from Point 13,298' the ridge ascend becomes steadily narrower and rockier. Occasionally when traversing points on the ridge, the only real path is scrambling up and over the point, but in almost every case there is an easier, less-exposed path to the left of the points (Photo #15, Photo #16).
The remaining path from the intersection of the standard route from Horn Fork Basin to the summit involves more scrambling, but is very well-traveled. Continue along the center of the ridge, dropping to the left where it makes things easier, and you will soon encounter a broad, grassy expanse with Columbia's summit points clearly in view (Photo #18). The summit is the farther of the two points from where you stand (this is easier to see from the other side of Three Elk Creek Basin). Climb up and skirt around the first point on its right, and then scramble up to Columbia's summit as it comes into view.