| Underestimating La Plata's Ellingwood Ridge
With the snow lingering later than usual this year and a bunch of early summer races, I haven’t had many chances to get up the high peaks. With all the scheduled obligations behind me I figured it was time to start running/scrambling/climbing some high peaks, and see what kind of shape I was in. I have a particular need to scout some new routes in the Northern Sawatch, and having never done La Plata, figured it was a good starting point, and why not go for the Ellingwood Ridge, a classic class 3 scramble by some accounts.
After volunteering at the North Fork 50 on Saturday, Sunday morning I drove from the Buffalo Creek wilderness to the La Plata trailhead along highway 82, arriving a little later than I’d hoped, 7:40am. I was soon off jogging up the road for La Plata, 8:00am. The trail starts out with a rolling traverse so set a nice jog/hike down. After crossing the log bridge over La Plata gulch creek I took the hard left onto the climbers trail toward La Plata basin. The trail was actually very pleasant, runnable at times. Once in La Plata basin I quickly located the “steep” ridge in the middle of the basin, which definitely provides the easiest, albeit steep, access to treeline.
I hiked on up quickly reaching treeline, then decided to ascend a little further into the basin before heading up the scree to the Ellingwood Ridge. I did my best to stick to grass and larger talus, but the ascent was filled with tons of gravel and small scree, not so pleasant on the steep slope. I hit the ridgeline at 9:30am, looking forward to finally getting on some rock and scrambling my way along the ridgeline. It wasn’t until I topped out on the first summit pinnacle around 13,000ft that I truly realized what lay before me. A serrated ridge of gendarmes, cliffed out notches, scree filled traverses, and countless broken ledges, some of which went no where, it was going to be a longer day than expected.
I began picking my way through the first sets of towers, not bad so far, a little scrambling, route finding wasn’t too hard. From point 13,206ft I got my first glimpse of the heart of the beast. The towers were getting steeper, the drop offs on either side sharper, and the maze of ledge traverses much harder to interpret. As I descended onto this section the dead ends multiplied, I’d climb over one pinnacle only to look straight down 20ft to the notch below. Time to back track, slide down some scree gulley, and traverse around on either gravel/scree or narrow class 3 ledges. I repeated this several times before reaching a pinnacle that seemed to be threatening to force me down 200ft to get around it. Here I came across a party of 3 who were talking about setting up a rap down a 20ft section to get around, I opted to climb a little higher and lucky found a narrow, exposed class 4 ledge that would put me right into the notch and past the difficulties.
The rock was good and the exposure just enough to keep you very alert. As I waited for the party of 3 to make the traverse I noticed to clouds starting to accumulate, nothing dangerous yet, but storms would be brewing later in the day. I decided that it was time to book it for the summit. I picked my way across the next set of pinnacles, often traversing around the East side of the ridge, but making good time. It was already after 11am, the time I had hoped to summit by (if I left closer to 7am). The difficulty began to subside as I climbed for the summit, mostly on steep scree and talus with a few short scrambles thrown in for good measure. The route finally began to level off and the summit was in view, but so were the darkening clouds all around, no time to hang out.
I pushed the last little bit to the summit, topping out at 12:05pm, about 30-45min longer that I’d thought it would take me, but a good climb. I briefly chatted with a group of 3, then as we started to walk off the summit one of them proclaimed he saw a bolt of lightning not too far away, time to get a move on. I “bolted” down hill, noticing the dark cloud looming behind me, getting closer and closer. As a light ran began to fall, a loud clap of thunder shook the air, too close for comfort, so I picked it up down the hill. It began to hail, light at first, then a good heavy pelting of pea sized hail, it stung even with a light rain jacket on. I picked up the pace to 7.5min/miles finally putting the cloud behind me as it dropped over La Plata Gulch.
The problem was that in my haste to get off the summit ridge I’d missed the trail that turns down into La Plata Gulch, and I was now sitting staring at the trail to Winfield with the choice of hiking back up the slope 1300ft or continuing down to the pass in hopes of finding some sort of a trail that would take me from the upper reaches of La Plata Gulch back to the main trail. I decided to try my luck in La Plata basin, 12:45pm.
From the pass I followed a nice little use trail that traversed across the open tundra, soon it petered out and I was left with a mix of talus hopping and tundra running. The terrain was open, so went by fairly quickly, but as I looked down toward the river I was noticing the dense willows slowly creeping up toward me. About a mile down, I had to be very conscious of my route choice in order to avoid stands of dense willows and steep scree. Finally at around 11500ft I succumbed and began to hack my way through the willows on elk paths that provided slightly easier passage. I could see tents and people on the other side of the river, but knew getting over there would be a nightmare, so continued to bash my way down river on the East side.
As I beat through the brush I would occasionally come across an old campsite, long abandoned, with a short trail leading out of it. These trails always seemed to disappear after 100ft, leading me back in dense willows and brush. Finally I reached an open spot along the river with a more obvious trail that I was actually able to jog. A little more side hilling and talus hopping put me right back on the trail, 2 hours after I’d left the summit, not quite what I’d anticipated. From there it was smooth sailing back to the trailhead on nice runnable terrain. The first several miles had taken me almost 2hours, the last few, 25min. Oh well, it was an adventure filled with lots of route finding, lots of scrambling, some up close lightning, a little hail, some willow whacking, and at last a little running. The Ellingwood ridge is a great challenge, but not something to be taken lightly, even by those experienced with class 3-5 terrain. It is unrelenting and will continue to test your route finding abilities all the way to the summit. In all, another great day in the mountains, even if it wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
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