| La Plata Ski Descent (North Face)- La Plata TH
Date: Friday, May 1, 2009
Group: BillMiddlebrook and I
Route: Northwest Ridge standard ascent and North Face ski descent (3.25mi.) from La Plata Peak TH
Stats: 9 miles; 4,400’ climbed; 3,650’ skied; 12 hrs RT
Ascent route (red) and upper ski route (blue) from CO 82:
Another more direct look at the routes (red=climb; blue=ski) from the summit of Mt. Elbert taken May 11, 2008:
Topo of the route (red=climb; blue=ski):
For some arbitrary reason, I had been dreading climbing this route on La Plata in snow conditions. I was hoping that would be proved wrong today. We attempted to ski this peak June 8th of last year but an unexpected snowstorm ceased progress at 11,300ft. Thinking I was ready to give it another go, I met Bill at the trailhead late Thursday night and quickly set up camp in my car. He was there a few hours earlier, took some photos of La Plata from higher up on CO 82, and told me we would be climbing a gully just south of the standard one to achieve the ridge. He also mentioned it was 65 degrees when he arrived at the trailhead; we could only hope for the predicted 20% chance of precipitation with mostly cloudy skies the day of, and cold temperatures overnight. We started at 5:00am Friday morning, skis on the packs. The standard trail was mostly snowpack with intermittent dry patches. We put the skis on around 10,600ft. and skinned along the creek in La Plata Gulch for about a half mile and a few hundred feet to the base of the gully we used to reach the ridge. Bill elected to ascend this gully rather than the standard gully to avoid potential rock fall; and it was more filled-in. It was also the only skinning we did all day, fortunately on nice snow.
Skinning in La Plata Gulch; the ascending couloir is marked:
After skinning about 200ft. up the small apron of the gully, we switched skis for crampons (which did not come off until the summit) and booted up the rest of it. We started on climbers' right; the gully steepened (max. slope ~42deg.) and we moved to climbers' left averaging 35 degrees. We made decent time up, and the surface granule on top of a hard base made for excellent crampon work.
Bill boots the 900ft. gully:
Me climbing the gully (with "Lackawanna" behind to the left, and Casco Peak to the right in the far distance):
Sayres BM looking good:
After a food break at 12,300ft., we headed southeast across a flat area to gain the Northwest Ridge near 12,800ft. Here, the winds picked up; the forecasted clouds had not come in yet and we were happy for the winds keeping things rather cool.
Bill crosses the flat area en route to the ridge:
Looking back down La Plata Gulch (photo taken from ~12,900ft.):
The next task was to climb a large buttress. The summer route bypasses this on the west side; we climbed directly up it.
Climbing the buttress along the Northwest Ridge:
It's really hard for me to climb with skis on my back – it slows me down tremendously and I know that I need to keep doing it to make it easier. Almost every hour I'd say, "I'm turning around." "NO, you're not. Come on," was his typical answer. For me, this climb seemed to go on forever and every time I'd ask what our elevation was, I was discouraged. But I kept moving at a rather slow pace. When I click into my skis, my mood shifts and I remember why I like to do this.
Route to the summit (photo taken from ~13,450ft.):
Final push to the summit:
We finally made the summit in record time at noon (7hrs. total including several breaks), greeted with gusty winds and great views of surrounding peaks. A 30 minute summit break entailed the usual skin-stripping, snack, and preparing to ski. The day before, Bill scoped out a couloir to ski on the North Face far skiers' left along the ascent ridge, and that's what he planned to ski provided conditions were right. And clouds finally started to trickle in. He left the summit with his infamous words to me, "Don't fall."
Bill skis off the summit:
And I followed, as we dropped a few hundred feet down the summit ridge:
Bill went to check out conditions in the intended couloir (the next couloir skiers' right of the one we ended up skiing), but wasn't completely comfortable with snow conditions. So, we skied a shorter but steeper couloir instead (entry slope angle: ~39deg.; average slope angle: ~36deg.; max. slope angle: ~40deg.). Fun!
Bill dropped in first and cut across to skiers' right side of the couloir:
On this side, we found recent blown-in creamy powder to ski in. I dropped in, traversed over, and met Bill down at a safety zone above a rock outcropping.
Looking down the couloir as Bill stands at a safety-zone. The little sub-couloir we skied in is marked:
My turn in the upper part of the couloir:
At the outcropping, we decided to ski a mini-couloir (~40deg.) skiers' right of the primary. I went first and jumped with all my weight on the snow – it wasn't going to move, and I skied more of the same cross-loaded (but stable) creamy snow down to a second safety zone just above another outcropping where it merged with the main couloir.
Looking down the main couloir (left side) and the sub-couloir (marked, right side) to the next safety zone from the first safety zone:
I ski the mini-couloir:
Middlebrook hit it next:
From the second outcropping, we traversed to another safety zone across the main couloir to avoid the fall-line and the hard, crusty snowpack in the middle of the couloir. This was skiers' left side of the couloir and the snow was a bit slushier and a little less stable from sun-hit.
Bill skied to the next safety zone – the small patch of rocks on the left side of the photo. This photo also shows the remainder of the couloir to the basin:
We made a few turns here and cut back across to skiers' left once the slope angle lessened a bit.
Me skiing from the third safety zone (top 2 photos), finishing off the couloir (middle photo), and into La Plata Basin (bottom 2 photos):
Bill finishes his North Face ski and into the basin:
Admiring the fun ski from La Plata Basin:
A closer look at the line from the basin – safety zones are labeled:
La Plata Basin is huge – the biggest basin I've seen thus far and it just keeps going. The next goal was to intersect the main trail several hundred feet about the second (log bridge) stream crossing. We contoured along the west side of the basin, staying as high as we could and skiing through dust fields until we hit the forest. Skiing definitely was a little trickier here in such soft snow so we tried to link areas of shade. It didn't help having the wax stripped off the skis from the dust layer either trying to get through post-hole heaven. Luckily the forest wasn't too thick.
Contouring the west side of the massive basin:
Around 10,700ft., we found a dry area and Bill spotted the trail 30 feet below us. It takes so much energy to get through the snow in the forest this time of year and we were exhausted. Skis came off here and another food break was mandatory. We still had about a mile to go on the main trail hoping that it wasn't similar to what we had just skied through. It actually wasn't as bad as I thought – still post-holed, but a lot of the snow was still fairly hard. Tired, we hardly cracked a word and made it back to the car at 5:00pm, 12 hours after we started. It was a good day and a fun ski, but definitely a tougher Sawatch climb (in snow conditions) in my opinion. One of the more notable things was that neither of us hit any rocks skiing down – a nice amount of snowpack this time of year. Thanks for forcing me to the summit Bill! The couloir off the direct summit would be nice to hit, but I won't be back there anytime soon though.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):