| Sayres Benchmark (North face couloir)
Sayres Benchmark (13,768')
RT: ~10.5 miles, 5000' elevation gain
Last year my friend Scott and I had made an attempt on Sayres Benchmark's north face couloir and found the worst snow conditions I've ever had the "joy" of wallowing in. Since then I've been itching to go back. Countless things have kept me from such an attempt varying from late soccer games to other hiking opportunities. Thankfully with the heavy snow in the Sawatch this year I thought I might still have a shot at the line.
I drove down after yet another late soccer game and parked my car at the La Plata TH at about 1:30 AM. My alarm went off 3 hours later after some restless sleep. I had forgotten my head lamp so chose to sleep for another 15 minutes. I was on the trail a little before 5:00 AM and enjoyed the nicely built La Plata trail. La Plata Creek was flowing at full bore and the roaring of the meltwater swollen creek accompanied me as the trail led up to La Plata Gulch. Soon after an open grassy area, the trail veers up to the east as it begins its ascent up La Plata Peak. I took my leave of the trail and studied the way forward.
To say that La Plata Gulch is a willow-choked mess would be an understatement. I stayed on the east side of the gulch the entire way to the head of the valley, but I'm not completely sold on this being the proper approach. I was able to follow a rough trail a bit further up the valley, but this disappeared into a tangled green sea of willows. I girded my loins for the battle, thanked my self for wearing pants and charged forward. This was willow-bashing at its finest. The mountain collected its dues tiny scratch by tiny scratch. Occasionally I would divert higher and attempt to cross large talus or a sloping icy snow slope but these breaks were few and far between.
Thankfully the wounds of the approach were salved by the wondrous sun-lit north face of Sayres Benchmark. What a gorgeous looking peak. There seem to be numerous lines on the face and I had two in mind but as I approached, the steeper more direct one seemed to be melted out in a couple places, so I changed my sights for the more mellow and wide couloir in the middle of the face. I have seen this referred to as the "Grand Central Couloir" and it seems to be a fitting moniker.
I finally broke out of the thick willows and lightly stepped my way across frozen clumps of grass interspersed between small ponds of water ringed by delicate wisps of ice. The sun had just hit the bottom of the couloir and I found a perfect rock to sit on and prepare. Some mining tailings distracted me for a few minutes and I inspected the interesting mine tunnel for just a bit before returning to my bag and putting on the crampons. The sun was out and it was beginning to get quite hot so I wanted to get started.
I started up the mellow snow slope on perfect snow. The overnight freeze combined with just a little bit of sun made for perfect cramponing. There is a large dogleg to the climber's left (east) about 2/3 of the way up and it felt like it took me forever to get there. The couloir was easy but I was stopping a lot. The snow was good except for a short section near the dogleg where I began to sink in to my waist in a couple spots. There was also a short section that had melted out completely but above this to the ridge the snow was excellent. It got a little steeper near the top, but in my limited snow-climbing career this was the easiest one I've done. Except for the exacting approach, this would be a perfect beginner snow-climb.
One of the alluring things about this climb was that it deposits you within throwing distance of the summit. The summit is home to a perfect example of government's love for detail, a benchmark labeled 1,000 feet off! I perused the sparsely used register and admired the unique view of La Plata and its SE ridge. The approach and climb had taken a lot out of me and despite the best efforts of countless pointy rocks intruding into my back, I took a 45 minute nap. I awoke and realized I should get going and began the descent of the NW ridge towards the saddle.
The hike up to 13,460 went easily and there were countless wildflowers to enjoy along the way. I especially enjoyed the alpine forget-me-nots which seemed to come in a hundred different hues of blue from light periwinkle to a deep violet. Not to be outdone by mere foliage, the ridge showed off its hydrothermically altered self, in all of its orange and red glory. There was a mining road that took me up to a subsummit to the south, and a final slightly rough, but easy ridge led to the summit of 13,460. I was delighted to find an even more rarely visited summit register here. After eating a bit, I got back up and continued along the ridge north. There is a rocky summit along this ridge that I later found out is soft ranked 13,300 but at the time I thought it was just a final impediment to my eventual descent.
The ridge off of 13,300 is steep but the talus was fairly stable and I finally found myself at the saddle between 12,601 and 13,300. I hiked up 300 feet to my final summit, an odd little 12er that almost seems accreted on to the end of the ridge. The summit had some nice views and I decided to try a direct descent back to the valley on the west side of the peak. I went a bit north to avoid some snow and started down the face. A headache that had been lingering decided to make its prescence more felt and I decided the only cure was another nap! 20 minutes later I awoke refreshed and headache free. Not sure what naps do for me, but its magic.
The descent down this west face just plain sucked. It was steep, loose, and full of both past and future avalanche debris. I finally made it down to a treed area to the south of the avalanche chute and the going was a bit easier here. I made it down to La Plata Gulch, and I was too tired to worry about finding a good crossing spot and I still had my gaiters on so instead I just walked across the creek. Back on good trail I turned on the afterburners. Those sputtered out quickly and my reserve generator had to get me back the rest of the way. It felt good to complete this route and despite the burly bushwhacking I'm inclined to think I might return someday to give one of those other lines a try!