Peak(s):  La Plata Peak  -  14,336 feet
Date Posted:  05/05/2009
Modified:  05/06/2009
Date Climbed:   05/04/2009
Author:  pioletski
 Outside the box on La Plata (West Face)   

When I was a kid - like last week - my favorite Dr. Suess story was On Beyond Zebra, which is all about the adventures you can have with the wild things you can spell if you extend the alphabet past Z. A really nice description of why it's so much fun to do something new, or at least unusual. Hence my choice of route for this trip to La Plata.

If you look at a topo map of La Plata, you will see 3 parallel grooves on the west flank. Photos taken in late spring or early summer show them full of snow, which implies that they should be skiable. They are too obvious not to have been done before (unless there is some good reason not to ski them) - and in fact we found some old ski tracks under the most recent snow layer - but I couldn't find any description of them. So they were new to me (like Emo Phillips said about his underwear ). Bringing your own Beta always makes things more interesting, and so I decided to check these out. Our objective was the middle of the three, which almost peters out at about 13,800' but terminates in the notch between the summit and the pile o' rocks to the WSW.

Kris, my companion on Quandary, agreed to come along with the caveat that we might or might not find anything good. (I have discovered that the key to getting Kris to come along is to pick a day when his girlfriend is working and he's not.) It poured with rain the night before, and the sky was pretty leaden as we left home. Three inches of slush on Highway 24 made things interesting, especially as my car has about 2" of ground clearance. Arriving at the TH behind schedule, this is what we saw:

Great day for a hike.

We started up the standard trail in a gentle snowfall. At about 10,900' the trail departs from the creek and goes straight up the foot of the northwest ridge. We stayed parallel to the creek, which at this point enters a flatter, more open portion of La Plata Gulch:

La Plata Gulch

At timberline the gulch has a very remote feel, even if the trailhead isn't that far away. I imagine this place is gorgeous in the summer. We also got glimpses of the inviting north face of Sayres:

Upper La Plata Gulch

Given the weather, our late start, and a couple of less respectable excuses, we had decided to make this a reconnaissance, take some photos, and return on another day. We duly skinned a little way up the opposite side of the gulch to photograph the west face of the mountain:

La Plata Pk., west face, summit obscured above 13,800'. Best I could do in the snow...

*EDIT*: Our descent route marked in blue. The picture doesn't do it justice; though shallow, the couloir threads two rock bands that put some decent crags alongside. We decided that we would at least climb and ski the bottom part, just to get a taste, so we started up the couloir on skins:

Looking back down La Plata Gulch

The climb turned out to be easier along the arete on the south side of the gully. We were aiming for a point near the lower rock band, at about 13,000 feet:

At 13,000 ft.

Arriving there, we found that we were going strong and that the couloir looked pretty inviting. We decided to press on to the top of the couloir. Approaching that point, it seemed silly not to go for the summit, since we were so close. Here Mudjekiwis, the West Wind, sprung up to register his objections. With apologies to Longfellow and the Ojibwa Nation, and a wink to Seamus Heaney...

Thus Spake Mudjekiwis:

So! My name is Mudjekiwis:
Listen to my name and tremble!
Hear me roar, O worthless mortal,
Fall upon your knees and quiver!
Once I wrestled Hiawatha.
Hiawatha was a hero!
He, who slew the sturgeon, Nahma,
Won the hand of Minnehaha,
Took her then into his wigwam
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
(There they made some heavy breathing
And a smell like burning tires) -
Hiawatha wrestled naked!
Here YOU come all dressed in Gore-Tex.
Hiawatha was a hero,
You are nothing but a piss-ant!
Show me some respect, you piglet!
I, whose name is Mudjekiwis,
I, who strip the snow from mountains,
I, who take the kites from children,
I have come to close the curtains!
I have come to piss you off!

And he closed the curtains all right, which pissed us off, but we soon got over it. Evidently he did too, as he allowed us a couple of glimpses of the view from the summit:

Kris at top. Uppermost crags of Ellingwod Ridge behind.

Me at the top.

Kris ready to ski. I had about 10 seconds to grab this shot, before the curtains closed again.

We began skiing from the summit, down the northwest ridge:

Kris leaving the summit

At 13,900 feet we traversed to skier's left (south), around the corner onto the west face. Stumbling over a few rocks, we dropped down into the couloir:

Kris, in nice wind-deposited snow

Because the couloir was wind-loaded to an unknown depth, we skied from safe zone to safe zone, watching one another. It turned out that the new snow was never over about 5" deep, mostly less than that.

Kris at the throat of the couloir

At the valley floor

We then slogged through the deep softening snow back to the trailhead. (Actually deep postholing isn't bad going downhill; if it's steep and deep enough it can be kind of fun!) Returning to the trailhead, we finally got a view of La Plata:

Contrast this to the 1st picture...

So ended a highly successful reconnaissance. This route will always be overshadowed by its more extreme brethren on the north face (and I will be back to ski them someday), but it is an elegant alternative. About 2300' vertical in one swoop, angle mostly about 35 degrees with a max around 40.

Snowpack notes: Styrofoam above 13,500; consolidated below that.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

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