Middle Mtn (13100’)
14 miles, 3300’ gain
Via NW Face/North Ridge
From La Plata TH (10160’)
The winter kind of fizzled out for me when I tore my bicep and pec muscles trying to act like I was still 25 on the bench press in late Feb. I had only been above treeline once since mid-Feb, so it was time to get out. Overlooked 13er Middle Mountain in the central Sawatch near La Plata has been on my short list as a winter conditions hike, but it kept getting put off this winter. I sent out quite a few invites, but ultimately didn’t get any takers. Normally a long, solo alpine hike on a warm day in March or April is a recipe for a possible postholathon. I forget my camera, so Iphone shots will have to do today. I hope Darin Baker doesn't mind the Iphone pics, but I did do an Instagram for him!
The avy risk had dropped off dramatically during the week with some freeze/thaw going on, so maybe there would be consolidated snow on the road walk. I was stubborn and gave it a shot. I set off from the La Plata trailhead at 7:40 and enjoy a skin track all the way to the turnoff for Sayres Gulch. I don snowshoes just beyond entering the national forest and the postholing is minimal. The day is warming up fast though and I’m already down to a base layer in an hour! I am already dreading how bad of a horror show this is going to be on the way out. My only saving grace is it is not a pristine bluebird day as light snow is in the forecast later on. Clouds will be my only hope today to keep the snowpack cool!
Smooth sailing so far
I get my first view of Middle’s north ridge and it doesn’t exactly look promising from a distance. There must be a reason why nobody has logged this summit in March on LOJ! It is a well guarded summit with snow indeed. As I approach the ridge, it looks like the ridge is too loaded around treeline to access safely and it would be a monumental slog getting out of the trees on a north facing slope solo.
Middle's north ridge
Loaded slopes that I stayed wide left of
I decide to continue up Peakaboo Gulch to the northwest side of the peak to see if I could find wind scoured slopes. The postholing starts to become more consistent, but there’s still short sections of firmer snow to give me a break. The road cuts right across steep s.e. facing slopes as the drainage tightens. I take a conservative line as far away from the line of fire as I can. I only hear one whoomph all day and it’s enough to spook me all the way down to the creek. The tougher route following the creek leads to safety today, so I don’t mind wallowing. I exit the creek and cross a willow infested meadow that isn’t too bad up to a ramp in the trees that eventually takes me to treeline. The final wallow out of the trees is tough.
At one point I fall in some sugar and struggle to get back up! I get a good look at the northwest slopes and it holds more snow than expected.
Nothing promising yet
I take the angle of least resistance as there are some sections of wind slab to avoid. I put crampons for the last bit to the ridge as it gets pretty steep and I finally crest the ridge at 12400’ with still a long ways to go to the summit. The wind picks up a bit and it starts to snow, but it is still very warm as I feel fine with just glove liners!
I stay wide right for a safe line to the ridge.
The ridge is pretty snowy and progress is slow as I posthole my way up. An initial tower is passed on the left and the ridge narrows up in spots, but there luckily isn’t a whole lot of scrambling as I just want to get this knocked out!
Finally on the north ridge
The ridge mellows for a bit
I crest a false summit and the view of the summit is intimidating. It looks like the ridge proper is going to be at least 4th class right below the summit. I’m not confident I can get up it with a bum arm.
Summit in sight, not sure if it goes!
I get to the step in the ridge and it indeed looks too stiff for me to try injured with snow, so I contour on loose junk below it to an exposed notch. Luckily the notch provides passage to a 3rd class gully that will take me back up to the ridge.
Traverse to the notch right of the snow.
I top out on a surprisingly small summit at 3pm! I hang around long enough to sign the register as I know the descent is going to be rough. The views are pretty cool with the sun coming in and out of the clouds.
Exposed downclimb right before the summit
Looking back at the climb back up to the ridge near the summit.
The descent of the ridge goes pretty quick and I’m back at my snowshoe cache where I refuel for the long slog out. I am encouraged that my track has setup some initially until I get to the wide open sections. The snow in the trees is actually in better shape than the open sections, which is the opposite of a few hours ago. My fears are realized and the snow is in horrible shape. I have to go pretty slow as I never know where the next trap door is.
Solo postholing is more mentally exhausting than anything else, because it seems to never end and you don’t know when it will stop! There were plenty of little uphill south facing sections on the road that where I postholed every step. It was a solid 3 hours of postholing until I reached the skin track at Sayres Gulch, already after dark. Many Nazarene f-bombs rang out across the valley.
I finally reached the skin track, but there was still some postholing for another half mile or so until I was finally in the clear. Solo hiking after dark has spooked me ever since I was stalked by a mountain lion a few years ago. I keep my headlamp low so I don’t see beady eyes and make plenty of noise with the snowshoes. I finally hit the truck at 10:45, so the descent was 30 minutes longer than the ascent! The temp is still 28 degrees. Middle is one tough cookie in spring snow!