| La Plata - Northwest Ridge Ski
La Plata has been on my radar all spring. I did some recon back in May when it was packed with snow and decided to wait a few more weeks. The north face of the peak is a true ski classic with its multiple aesthetic lines from the summit. Needless to say, I was excited for the prospects for the day.
I arrived to the TH a little later than I hoped. The temp was already in the 40's and it was obviously going to be a cloudless morning. I started down the trail at 7:15am and hit the first of two bridges in minutes.
There was very little snow until after the second bridge when the trail turned south and ascends La Plata gulch through thick trees. Even then, the snow drifts that crossed the trail were avoidable or sufficiently packed down by previous climbers not to cause much delay.
At around 11,000 ft., the trail up the gulch starts to break tree line and becomes easier. Here I encountered 3 other skiers and a dog making their way up the trail.
We moved together to where the trail turns east up a gully that is currently filled with snow. It was still early so the snow slope was frozen. I elected to leave the crampons in the truck, I wish I had them for this section. The gully was just steep enough to warrant a self-arrest tool in the case of a fall. I kicked my way up the first part of the gully to dry ground on climber's left. I ascended farther up the dry ground to where the gully mellows and then traversed across the snow again to regain the trail, which had little snow and gently heads south across the face of the ridge.
I think this would qualify as serious rock fall.
After several switchbacks of easy hiking, I reached a snow covered flat area at 12,300 ft. I stayed to climber's right of the snow and ascended to the crest of the Northwest Ridge at a point a few hundred feet farther up than the normal trail.
The other skiers I met earlier had elected to continue up the snow gully all the way to the ridge crest. I could now see them below me on the ridge as I picked my way through the rocks at about 13,000 ft.
Moving higher up I met snow again, this time it continued to the summit. I could have skinned up the ridge, but the snow was consolidated enough to hold my weight in all but a few cases.
Before I embarked on the deceivingly long final slope to the top, I chatted with a solo climber descending from the summit. The wind had increased as I moved higher and I could see snow swirling higher up. The solo climber confirmed that it was ripping up there.
I am guessing that nearly everyone doing this route for the first time has the same thought near this point, "this is a long climb".
At about 14,000 ft, I decided to traverse around to the west side of the ridge for a change of scenery. The climbing was easier. The wind was blowing out of the west so hard I felt like it was pushing me up to the summit on the final slope. When I reached the saddle a few feet below the summit, I thought for a moment I was going to make the first chest descent of the north face. My skis were like a kite on my back and I was forced to take a knee until it abated.
Aside from the wind, it was a perfect day.
I snapped several pics of the still snow-covered mountains.
The wind speed decreased during my 20 minutes on the summit. I couldn't decide exactly what my descent route would be so I scouted the options. I finally decided to ski down the Northwest Ridge a few hundred feet and then drop into one of the openings on the face. I skied off the top around 12:30pm.
Just below the summit, I crossed paths with the 3 skiers I had met earlier.
The snow was continuous from the summit down the ridge with the exception of two small rocky spots, both just a few feet.
I billy-goated across these spots, cut a few turns on good snow, and dropped into a wide northeast facing snowfield. Even though it was later than I would have preferred, the snow was superb! 4-5 inches of fresh, well bonded to the spring layer beneath. The slope maxed out at a moderate 40 degrees allowing for a smooth ride all the way to the basin below.
I stopped for some pics, a snack, and layered down under the north face.
The sun felt great, so I decided to enjoy a sit on a dry knoll across the basin. I also have a new camera and figured I would snap some pics of the other group descending to test it out.
I met up with the three after their descent and we skied down to tree line.
I knew the exit trail cut back across the northwest ridge and rejoined the ascent route somewhere near tree line, but the idea to follow the creek down to the Ellingwood Ridge Trail was thrown out and I went with it. They elected to take a rest and I decided to push on.
The euphoria of a great day obviously clouded my judgment. I've made this choice before and it never really pans out. If there isn't a well documented trail along a creek drainage there is probably a reason for it.
So after 3 hours of post-holing and contorting my body in yoga-like positions to get my skis through the brush, I finally came to where the forest opens and flattens. I knew I needed to head west to get back to the TH. So I found the first thing that resembled a trail and hopped on. I'm still not sure if this was an elk trail or the actual Ellingwood Ridge Trail but somehow, totally exhausted, I looked up and saw a familiar bridge. Mountain luck!
I was back at the truck in no time. It took me 5 hours to get to the summit and 5 hours to get back to the truck, with skis. Ouch! I envisioned the other group to be in the midst of a similar death march. I left a note with my email address on their cars in case they want copies of the ski pics.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):