Peak(s):  La Plata Peak  -  14,336 feet
Date Posted:  01/03/2012
Modified:  01/04/2012
Date Climbed:   01/02/2012
Author:  RJansen77
Additional Members:   dillonsarnelli, BenfromtheEast

 Shuffling the Seasons on La Plata - A Winter First  

A ten day holiday vacation at sea level left me congested not only with excess oxygen, but excess options. A spring or even summer like forecast, and so many choices for a climb! Yale, Antero, Lindsey, Castle and Conundrum, La Plata, maybe even an attempt at LB's west ridge??? I spent the majority of the time around New Years debating which peak to attempt over the holiday weekend.

Eventually, Dillon (dillonsarnelli) and I settled on La Plata. Niether of us had been up the peak in the past, and it would be his second winter climb while I would no longer be a virgin to the toughest climbing season. With the forecast looking beautiful, I was excited to say the least.

I picked Dillon up at 5:15am in Denver and we made our way to the La Plata trailhead. What a treat to drive straight up to a paved, plowed trailhead in winter! We geared up and were on the trail just a few minutes after 8am, both of us a bit colder than we had initially anticipated.

The trail starts out down a road before veering left into the woods at a sign. There are a large number of smaller trenches that deviate from the La Plata trail, but if you stay on the most beaten path, and have a sense of where the route goes (very little elevation gain the first half mile), you will end up following the main trench.

(All photos with date and time stamps taken by dillonsarnelli).

At the TH (photo by Benfromtheeast)

The route follows a good trench steeply through the trees

Before I lead people astray from what I believe is the proper winter route, I'll come out and say it. The well-beaten trench that climbs through the woods will deposit you at the lower end of the ridgeline that you'll use for the summit push. While this was both Dillon and my first time on La Plata, I am almost positive that you will exit the trees too high / too far left if you follow this trench. (If you look at photo #1 in the route description on the site, the trench exits the trees at lower left).

Upon exiting the trees, the relatively intimidating headwall at the bottom of the ridge rises in front of you, and tracks spread out and go left, right and straight. Knowing that the winter route deviates a bit from the summer trail, but still goes right of this initial rise in the ridge, we opted to traverse around on frozen scree to try and find an easier path to the ridge.

At treeline with the initial ridge rise ahead. See that big rock over my left shoulder? That's where the tracks go EVERYWHERE!!!

The traverse wasn't too bad in the morning as the scree was mostly solid, but it would be much more unpleasant in the afternoon.

Me beginning the sidehilling

Eventually we grew tired of the uneven terrain, and chose to climb a steep yet relatively solid gully for ~250 vertical feet so we could gain the ridge.

Looking up the gully

Upon gaining the ridge, we met forum members 2aron and JDip, who had stopped to take in the beautiful views. Guys, it was great meeting you both!

2aron and JDip on the ridge

Once we gained the ridge, it was a relatively straightforward, "dry scree and talus / occasional knee deep posthole but snowshoes not necessary" grind up to the summit. We reached the top around 12:30pm, about 4 hours 15 minutes after starting.

Looking back at 2aron and JDip on the ridge

Dillon looking up at the ridge

Dillon traversing

Me climbing a steeper section of ridgeline

Dillon climbing high on the ridge

On the summit

The views from any 14er are good, but these were particularly stunning. We easily picked out the Elk 14ers, and had fun trying to spot the various San Juans (with the exception of Uncompahgre, which was easy). I don't think we could see any Sangre 14ers from this point though, just a little too far north in the Sawatch

The views were insane

Ellingwood Ridge with Elbert

Heel-stepping the snowfields on the descent

As we started the descent down the ridge, we took advantage of the friendly snowfields and plunge-stepped our way down pretty quickly. We discussed the various options for getting off of the ridge proper, and both agreed we didn't want to descend the steep gully we had ascended. Instead, we opted to look for a dry gully (hopefully less steep than the one we ascended), that would lead us off the west side of the ridge, thereby allowing us to contour around to the trench that would take us into the trees.

Dillon contemplating the descent

Dillon descending off of the ridgeline

Dillon descending below the ridge, near the suspect snowfields

In a route-finding mistake that we realized too late, we followed the still visible summer trail off of the ridge and switchbacked our way down toward the drainage on the west side of the peak. We didn't descend all the way to the drainage though, as Dillon had stashed snowshoes along the main trail in the trees that we needed to retrieve. Instead, once we had lost considerable elevation, we contoured descenders right (north) toward the lower toe of the ridge where the trail had emerged from the trees (photo #3). This put us in an uncomfortable position, as we were forced to alternate between walking sideways on downsloping, now unfrozen scree, and snowfields. The gravity of the situation become more apparent when, upon crossing a crust-covered snowfield, I caused a rather large "whoompf" to occur. The snow didn't collapse, but there were some small shooting cracks that were generated. Needless to say we high-tailed it back to treeline while avoiding the snow whenever possible. Once back at the treeline we both breathed a large sigh of relief.

We crossed the remaining snowfields very carefully, and stuck to the rocks when possible. The trees and trench grew tantalizingly close and after lots of scree slips and off-balance steps, we reached level ground.

One of the slopes we crossed that had mixed snow and vegetation

Me with an idea of the sidehilling we went through

Finally reaching the trees and trench.

We were mighty glad to get to this spot on the descent

We were mighty glad to get to this spot on the descent

Of course, the last 50 yards before the trench provided the most unpleasant postholing (2 inches of concrete over quad-deep powder) that we experienced all day.

One last difficulty before the trench into the trees

Once we hit the trench, we put it in cruise control and quickly descended through the woods to the snowshoe stash. Not having snowshoes, I postholed maybe 8-10 inches a decent amount on the way down, which combined with my already fatigued state from the 10 previous days at sea level made me feel, well, very tired indeed. I imagine Dillon was quite exhausted too, having logged nearly 10,000' of vertical in 2 days.

The only real exposed move in the trees

If you have any questions on the route or current conditions, feel free to let me know. Thanks for reading!


Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

01/04/2012 03:31
Looks like an ideal day. No wind?

How did the microspikes hold up?


Re: Microspikes
01/04/2012 03:45
The micros held up pretty well, quite a bit of abuse on the scree though. I think snowshoes would be useful in the trees and then not needed above; I didn't mind not having a pair. Micros were very useful though, would bring them along if you plan on attempting, especially because the trail in the trees is steep.

Very little wind, maybe 20 mph on the summit but it was so warm it wasn't much of an issue.


Class 5
01/04/2012 04:01
Liars! Nice work all the same and congrats on your first winter 14er, Rob.


01/04/2012 04:45
I'll be pretty happy if I never hear that sound again EVER! My Class 5 move in that last picture was pretty incredible. Great trip Rob and excellent report. You detailed it to the tee. I think we kicked some a#s on the ascent and the views on the summit were awesome. La Plata... check - Lets not go back there anytime soon!


Great write up and solid work
01/04/2012 06:36
We waved in your general direction from a little further south that day. Glad to see you got it. Hard earned and well deserved.


01/04/2012 15:17
What boots were you all wearing? I'm interested in doing this route in the next week. I have La Sportiva Trangos.


01/04/2012 15:22
As I sit here at work it's hard not to be just a little jellous...Wonderful pics& story, thanks for sharing.


Re: Boots
01/04/2012 18:18
I wore Montrail Torre GTX's, and Dillon had the La Sportiva Trangos I believe. As long as they're waterproof and you have good gaiters, this route in present condition shouldn't be a big issue, (unless of course it gets much colder).


01/05/2012 22:23
Thanks for the TR, Rob! In case it's helpful, check out the link below with Garmin info from my partner Paige. We were just a bit slow (both getting out of cozy sleeping bags and on the trail) to keep up with Rob and Dillon, those studs! Anyway, zoom in on the loop made by our deviation in return path from ascent route, click on satellite imagery, and you'll see how we tackled the pesky section. Look at Rob's picture of the end of the trench at treeline. You can see two high points on the ridgeline. The higher is just left of the sun and obvious. The lower is closer to the camera and not as distinct. On the way up, we took a fairly direct route just to climber's right of the lower high point. On descent, we failed to descend the ridge far enough and dropped off (descender's left) before the higher of the two. The descent was awful, no fun, similar to what Rob described. But that was mostly in the traverse once we had descended the steep section. So the take home message would be to climb just to the right of the first, smaller, high point that's visible on the ridge. There is a lot of scree, but some solid rock if you pick the right line. Then be sure not to bail left too early on the way down. It's still steep and has lots of scree, but it's a fairly short section. Also, we found snowshoes very helpful up to treeline, and microspikes for many sections after that.


01/06/2012 20:21
Hey guys! Great meeting you that day. Thanks for the shout-out! I agree, that day was a wonderful day on the mountain.
Tried to make it to the Denver Gathering, but have been swamped with work . We actually followed your tracks back down, except in the snowfields that had big ol' cracks already spreading across them. I'm sure that won't be the last time we run into eachother! Cheers!

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