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 Peak(s):  La Plata Peak  -  14,336 feet
 Post Date:  10/15/2009
 Date Climbed:   10/09/2009
 Posted By:  KeithK

 A Change of Seasons   

La Plata Peak (14,336')
October 9, 2009
Southwest Ridge
Elevation Gain: 3,380'
Round Trip: 7 Miles
Self-inflicted Punishment Seekers: Chad (Bogart), Kara, Keith


Wind. My dislike for snow is well known, but it's really the wind that discourages, demoralizes and intimidates me more than anything else. At least it used to. Now there is a strange determination, more tolerance than indulgence that seems to help me fight these conditions that I once loathed with extreme prejudice. A good thing, considering the next eight months will be painted in white, and spin drift will dominate the high country.

I decided to take a Friday off to get a jump on the big Fall Gathering, and readily found an anxious partner in Kara, who has been bitten by the Fourteener bug in a big way, already finding the summit of fifteen of them since mid-summer. Chad was gracious to join us for his third foray onto La Plata Peak, which would complete all three routes for him. Swirling clouds danced along the high peaks from Copper Mountain through Leadville, and all the way to West Winfield, where Chad met Kara and I to begin our day's adventure. Temperatures were tolerable, and surprisingly not as cold as I had expected. We walked up the old road to the trailhead, signed the register and proceeded onto the decent trail that winds along the hillside into the valley, deceptively far from the nearest Fourteener. Emerging onto the flat, willow infested basin, it was readily apparent that we would be playing in the powdery fall snow for most of the way; summer is long gone at higher elevations.

The route climbs the ridge at the far end of the basin…


Spot the mountain goats…


The jet stream obscures Huron Peak and the Three Apostles…


The snow was a mere annoyance as we meandered through the willows, Kara finally finding the best line to emerge onto the grassy slope to the east of the basin. We picked up the summer trail there, and followed it all the way to the imposing cirque that marks the beginning of the true climbing on the route. The sounds of the sky above supplemented the visual clues of what we were about to get into, as snow plummeted over the edges of the ridge line, reminding me of smoke falling off of a concert stage. I know I'm really not ready for winter, but I also know that I will not be deterred from exploring the incredible heights of the Colorado Mountains.

A closer look at the route, left of center…


The rugged spires south of La Plata Peak, very un-Sawatch like…


Huron and its Apostles…


The climb up to the ridge line was straight forward, steepening near the top, as the snow and ice crystals began to make contact with exposed skin, immediately changing our strategy. Hoods went on, and the fight began, to keep moving towards our destination without being stopped dead in our tracks by increasingly heavy gusts. I've rarely experienced wind like this, even during last winter's climbs. It was going to be a challenging trek.

Kara prepares to lead us into the maelstrom…


It's like standing outside a bay at a carwash, only colder…


The crux of the route…


Tracking from cairn to cairn seemed simple enough, but they easily blended with the talus, and it didn't take long for me to stray too far to the right, losing the main trail. There is enough snow to complicate the route, and we just tried to stay on solid rock as much as possible, working straight up the slope. The conditions were far from ideal, with sugar hiding sharp rocks and filling in deep gaps, providing plenty of opportunities to be swallowed by the mountain. Yet another compelling reason to cheer for the sun!

Chad contributes to our trench…


The beautiful view to the south…


Looks warm and toasty, doesn't it?


The route ahead, a large cairn lower center…


The effort of climbing this very false summit was surprising, and it took us much longer than I would have anticipated. Wind is the great equalizer, turning a beautiful day into a test of fortitude, challenging the constitution of the summer hiker. Fortunately we were all prepared for the conditions, including Kara, who fought through the fearsome gusts like a pro, as if she'd been doing this for much longer than just three short months. I was very impressed by her will. Finally reaching the apex of the slope, the disheartening route ahead unfolded, and we were still a long way away from what we perceived to be the summit. It would be a trudge along the exposed ridge from here, with the wind firmly calling all of the shots.

Beginning easier hiking along the ridge…


A series of false summits…


Chad and Kara climb over talus only to discover yet another false summit…


Still a long way to go…


Although straight forward, the theme of the day made for a challenge, and we simply put one foot in front of the other, maintaining balance and avoiding frost bite. At times the summer trail would be discernible, and then disappear underneath ankle to knee deep snow. Gore-Tex was definitely our friend, and I wouldn't recommend anything less than good waterproof boots and gaiters for the foreseeable future. That familiar feeling of impending success began to permeate the struggles, as we crested one last false summit and could see the real deal ahead. Kara quickly moved ahead, with Chad and I not far behind. We were all ready for our reward.

Picture time!


The Elks were absolutely resplendent…


I've not seen the San Juans so well from a Sawatch peak…


The infamous 2008 Fall Gathering was held over that way…


A zoom in at the bigger boys of the Elk Range…


Snowmass and Capitol…


Mount Hope…


The gnarly Ellingwood Ridge…


We spent appreciable time on the summit, even for the weather, enjoying the unbelievably clear views and resting weary legs. The descent was sure to be less than trivial, but at least gravity would pull us towards our vehicles! Returning from the summit of a Fourteener is always bittersweet; the elation of standing at the top soon meets the reality of the effort to reach the bottom, and many parts of the body begin complaining that it's gone on for too long. Full on into the teeth of the wind, we battled our way back down the ridge; an elementary hike in summer becoming an epic in the early throes of alpine winter. At one point my right foot found the perfect space between two buried boulders, and the unnatural twist of my foot reminded me of the dangers that accompany this sport that we've chosen. Fortunately, the pain subsided quickly as we reached the low saddle, cautiously negotiating the forming cornice and dropping onto loose scree. We actually chose the wrong gully to descend, and Chad led us on a sloppy traverse over into the correct one, where the summer trail was relatively easy to reach. It was nice to be below the snow, and on flatter ground. Negotiating the willows was made easier by simply avoiding them, as we contoured along the trail until it turned into a marsh of mystery, and we chose to stay along the grassy slopes to the east of the basin, looking for a logical exit point back to the west. Meeting the good trail once again, easy hiking took over, and the gratifying sight of our vehicles at 6:00 made the day complete.

And so it begins, this season of cat and mouse; choosing weather windows, assessing avalanche conditions, preparing both mentally and physically for demanding and fluid conditions. I've transitioned to the stage of tackling Fourteeners year 'round and it's both exciting and daunting. The "easy" peaks become major challenges, and the scary peaks become impenetrable. This hobby certainly does not lack in variety. La Plata was a fitting October goal, and I couldn't have had better partners in Chad and Kara. Thank you both for a great and memorable day!

An abrupt sunset…

 


  • Comments or Questions
scottfarish


SW ridge route     2009-10-15 10:40:58
That route is challenging enough in dry conditions - I‘m sure it was compounded even more by the cold, snow, and wind. Good job on attaining the summit. Any more peaks planned over the next 6 weeks?


Bogart


Fun Times!     2009-10-15 12:32:05
That was a fun ascent of La Plata. It was great to get out with both of you! I will be back tomorrow so if you want to go somewhere else let me know. Also I have a good summit photo of all of us I will email you.


kara


Wheee...     2009-10-15 13:09:10
I thank you--that was very flattering (except maybe that butt shot!). Might not have been true winter climbing, but it‘s as close as I had come and am likely to come for awhile. Great day on the mountain with both you and Chad!


native_mntguy


Great Report...     2009-10-15 13:19:56
as usual. Really missed getting up there last weekend. I think I hate wind and snow even more than you keith. But those pics do make me want to get up there soon.


KeithK


Flattery is in the eye of the camera holder...     2009-10-15 13:22:17
Kara, it‘s not a butt shot, it‘s an ”action shot”... I greatly enjoyed hiking with you and Chad, we make a good team.
Scott, I will likely try to get out again soon enough, but don‘t have any definite plans as yet.


kimo

Quite a bit of snow up there     2009-10-15 22:26:06
much more so than Harvard the weekend before. Another well-written report and enjoyable read. Choosing weather windows, assessing conditions, asking for mid-week days off, yeah, I‘m learning all about that myself...



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