| How to Underestimate a 14er
La Plata Peak in January
Route: Northwest Ridge, 4th class variation
Date: January 13, 2011
Length: 10 miles RT
Vertical: 4500 feet
Time: 11 hours
Ascent Party: Benners, Dancesatmoonrise
La Plata Peak, as seen from South Mount Elbert on December 28, 2010.
A Late Start
Ben Conners contacts me for a climb on Thursday, and finds me looking at a couple of hair-brained schemes in the Sangres. We decide to finalize things Wednesday morning.
Fortunately, an attack of sanity sets in and we decide to go for La Plata on the basis that it would be “something easy" since there’s a 60% chance of snow Thursday evening and
high winds during the day. We’ll shelve the fourth class fun and long grueling trench-work for another trip. (The mountain gods raise a brow...)
One of the most effective ways to underestimate a beautiful mountain is to take it on in winter, with a late start. We both know this. But we figure it’s only 10 miles round trip, and
not like it’s Spring, where you’d have to worry about a warming snowpack. How’s 7 am? 7:30? Make it 8:00. On the drive over we talk; the accelerator pedal misses its usual
attention. We’re on the trail by the crack ‘o nine. I’m a little concerned, but Ben is ok with it. Besides, this great bootable trench goes all the way to the summit, right?
The bridge over Lake Creek is an easy half mile from the TH.
A Trench that Won't Cooperate
Our great bootable trench has other ideas and decides to turn north, directly for 12601. Uh-oh. We’re pretty sure we want the east side of La Plata Gulch. Still, nothing to be done;
better to be lost with a good trench than on-route up to our thighs. Our predecessor soon relents, the trench taking us through some brutally steep bushwhacking into the drainage.
Post-holing our own line is starting to sound more appealing.
After plenty of grumbling and a few false starts up the steep east side, our trench climbs out of La Plata Gulch and gets more or less back on-route. Ben’s floatation becomes a pair of six-
foot antennae, dutifully receiving every incoming twig and branch along the way.
The trail through the flats.
Ready to Throw in the Towel
La Plata’s northwest ridge below treeline can get steep, particularly if one is a little off the best line. It’s getting late, so we don’t want to leave the trench to make our own. Ben’s
finally had enough weight-lifting for one day, so we park skis and snowshoes. Our love-hate relationship with the trench ends abruptly on a steep western flank at about 11,300. We’re in
a small clearing on the side of a steep hill, which the track crosses. I’m not so comfortable with the snowpack. Ben feels a little better about it and ventures far enough to see the
track disappear. Whether our predecessor turned around, or the tracks are blown over, he can’t tell. No matter, it doesn’t look good ahead; neither of us is interested. We turn back.
One option is to go straight up through the trees on the west aspect, where we see rock and grass sticking up through the snow, but the ridge-top might be a little further up than it
looks, and there may still be more trees and deep snow above. I take us left through the trees, attempting to contour around to the normal winter route. As we contour around, I’m
seeing big wind-loaded pillows. My sensible side comments that this doesn’t look stable. My dumb side continues another 30 seconds to crack out a pillow. Religion sets in. Ah, Ben,
back up. Please. Slowly.
Even a small slide in the trees can wrap a spleen around the nearest trunk. Beacons and shovels comprise relatively ineffective treatment for thoracoabdominal hemorrhage.
We head back over to the west side to scope out Plan B.
Starting up the steep western ridge through thinning trees and low snow, we try to stay in the rock and grass. The trees soon get thick and so does the snow, but at least there’s no
wind-loading. We’re pushing thigh-deep. It’s hard work. Of course, every time I cache floatation before a clear view into the alpine, I swear I’ll never do it again till the next time.
Our Afternoon Gets a Lot Better after we Give Up
We’ve burned our daylight and both know a summit isn’t going to happen today, but neither of us wants to discourage the other by saying so. The pressure is off; we’ve mentally thrown in
the towel. So why turn back now? The snow is stable, the angle has backed off, the sun is out, and it’s a gorgeous day. We enjoy the hard work and smile; it’s a great afternoon to be
playing in the snow. We push onward.
To our surprise the terrain becomes flat and we soon find our trench-work ending in the small meadow beneath the alpine headwall at 11,800. What a beautiful place. Photos cannot do it
justice. We stop for a break, gazing at potential lines into the alpine.
The best line at the 200’ alpine headwall is usually through the scree at center, angling up and left to the middle rock rib, exiting at left skyline.
We can take it straight up the middle, on a rock rib, through the driest line. But we’re not going to summit today, so why not have some fun? How about the fourth class line at skyline
on the left side? We go inspect. It’s dramatic, and it looks solid. The fourth class climb out of the meadow proves to be one of the stunning high points of the day. Big smiles.
We choose a fourth class variation, seen at left skyline. The rock here is solid.
Ben ascends the fourth class rib.
Looking into the bowl to our right, near the midpoint of the fourth class rib.
Near the top, the angle backs off. With a vigilant eye toward our later descent, we note a dry passageway, almost like a trail, with a rock buttress on the downhill side, leading into the
bowl to our right. From here one can see a line that takes mostly rock all the way to the talus below, and looks like an excellent descent option for the way back. On the flats above,
the views are incredible. I turn to the ridge ahead.
Ben, climbing above the fourth class section.
Starting the alpine ridge at 12,000.
La Plata is looking majestic in the mid-afternoon sun. OK, some quick calculations. Elevation: 12,000. Time: 1:45 pm. Distance: 2300 verts and 1.9 miles to go. Serious? We’d have to
bang that out in an hour. OK, maybe 1.5 hours up, and an hour down. That gets us through the headwall at sundown, barely, and still leaves the steep snow to navigate by headlamp.
I see Ben cresting the hill. Moment of truth. We’re going for it. We must move quickly at this point.
Looking up toward La Plata summit.
La Plata’s NW ridge, with Highway 82 rounding Lackawanna Peak.
The ridge is long, with many bumps. I’m impressed with the progress. We’re through the tricky stuff and now it’s a simple matter of burning through the alpine as efficiently as
possible. Ben is one solid partner. Earlier we’d discussed the balance between drive and safety in mountaineering. I feel we’re walking that tightrope right now.
Racing the shadows.
Much of the rock is covered in frost and rime.
I’m watching the clock, the altimeter, and the sun. Sometimes we’re block-hopping, other times we get hard snow. Sometimes we’re making third class moves as the most efficient
line. The partnership finds us dancing that tightrope rather elegantly this afternoon. Soon we see the “west La Plata bump” to our right, and know the summit is just up ahead.
Shadows are long. We top out. It’s 3:00 pm. I’m feeling a little tense, but gleeful to be in the alpine on such a gorgeous afternoon. Ben takes it all in stride, and chuckles as he recalls
topping out on Holy Cross last winter at 6:30 pm. OK, good point, let’s enjoy it while we’re here. The weather cooperates. We get a much-earned lunch, and plenty of photos
before packing up for the descent.
Like a kid on Christmas.
Ben on the summit of La Plata Peak.
Elbert and South Elbert looking dramatic in the late day sun.
Alpine desert: The “west La Plata bump.”
More summit photos: Huron Peak
We find the alpine snow perfect for boot-glissade. I look into the setting sun, and the long shadows. A half moon is gaining the zenith above us. The winds are calm, the late day
temps are warm. I know in my heart that La Plata is being extremely generous tonight.
Descending the ridge.
The alpine snow is soft and consistent, affording a speedy, confident descent.
Lackawanna at last light.
The ridge has a few uphill sections on the descent.
I leave my glasses on as long as possible, somehow believing that making it appear darker will motivate continued speed to the headwall. The sun sets, but we have enough light at the
passageway into the bowl. Ben takes the lead, finding a nice line down the middle rock rib. The snow is unconsolidated, sometimes over loose rock and dirt, mostly thin, no slab. We
stick to the more solid handholds on the rib through the steep section. At the base, I look back up to see the moon above the headwall, and get a photo shot I’m sure won’t come out.
Finally at the meadow below, we get headlamps out and repack. I can tell Ben has more dread for the route ahead than he lets on. I take the lead. We’re pleasantly surprised that it
goes fairly well. At the cache, we decide to carry the skis and ‘shoes.
Ben takes the lead descending the alpine headwall.
The track is firm in the cool night air. We stop to notice the faint pinkish glow of moon-shadow. It’s a gorgeous evening: quiet, warm, calm. We’ve totally lucked out. Surprisingly,
we’re not as dehydrated or exhausted as we expected. We slog back, take our time, and enjoy each others’ company. Before long, we’re at the bridge.
The work force heads home.
This trip had it all. Route-finding, trail-breaking, fourth class fun, spectacular views, a great partnership, giving up the summit bid, getting the summit, downclimbing after sundown,
and returning in quiet moonlight. Eleven hours later, we’re back at the car, where Modus and Dale’s with chips and salsa provide the fitting toast to a wonderfully challenging day on a
beautiful mountain. Best trip of the season to date; thanks Ben!
"Moonrise, La Plata, Colorado"
Thanks for reading!