Friday, January 15, 2016

La Plata Peak Winter Ascent

Standing at 14,336 feet, La Plata Peak is the 5th highest summit in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains as well as the 8th highest peak in the lower 48.  Mount Elbert, the highest peak in the Rockies is only 6 miles away as the crow flies.  It's surrounded by endless mountains with a handful of other 14ers within 10 miles.

My original plan was to climb La Plata on NewYears Day.  I woke up at 4AM on New Years Day ready to head to La Plata.  After I woke up, I checked the local weather for the La Plata area.  The temperatures ranged from -13F to -27F at the local stations.  There was still several hours of darkness for the temperature to drop further.  Facing hours exposed above treeline, I decided to change my plans and ended up hiking in the lower, and generally much warmer, Wet Mountains.

Fast forward two weeks later, I was ready to make my attempt at climbing La Plata Peak on Tuesday, January 12th.  After a short four hours of sleep I woke up at 415AM.  This time I checked the weather and the temperatures were better, so I set off on the 90 minute drive to La Plata.  My car has a built in thermometer.  Leaving home, it was around 18F.  It dropped steadily and was down to 0F by the time I reached Buena Vista, less than an hour away.  As I headed north from Buena Vista, the temperature kept dropping until it reached -13F near  the hamlet of Granite.  Fortunately it started to climb from there and was a balmy -1F by the time I reached the trailhead.

La Plata near the start of the hike
After gearing up, I hit the trail about 705AM.  The trailhead sits between the village of Twin Lakes and Independence Pass at an elevation of 10,000'.  This area sits surrounded by peaks and at 705AM it was still fairly dark with numerous mountains blocking the sun.  The first 1/4 mile or so travels over a snow covered road before reaching the actual trail.  Not entirely sure what to expect after a snowfall over the weekend, I started out with snowshoes.

The hike started out fairly easy.  The road was packed by snowmobiles.  I quickly reached the actual trail.  Fortunately, the trail was well trenched out by previous hikers.  This eliminated my need to break trail and made for fairly quick travel below treeline. 

A narrow flume in La Plata Gulch
Pleasant walking in the trees early on the hike
Nice trench in place
Because of potential avalanche danger, the route in winter splits from the actual trail.  The summer route follows La Plata Gulch before switchbacking to the ridge.  Traveling under the ridge leaves hikers exposed to potentially risky snow below a steep slope.  To avoid this, the winter route traverses through the trees to the end of the ridge.  The well packed trench continued all the way to treeline.

The trench on the winter route
Up until this point I traveled wearing my snowshoes.  The snow was packed enough in the trench that I may have been able to get away with microspikes or possibly even bare boots.  The downhill side of the trench was quite soft however and I was happy with my snowshoes.  Just outside of the trench, the snow was well over knee deep.

Leaving the trees, there is a short section before the most challenging part of the route.  It was at this point that the trench disappeared.  Just ahead, a very short but steep headwall is the crux of the route. 

First look at the headwall
Leaving treeline, I caught up to a trio of hikers.  I believe they said that two of them were from Wisconsin and the other from Fort Collins.  After exchanging pleasantries, we continued to the steep headwall leading to the ridge.  At this point, I took off my snowshoes before ascending the headwall and stashed them.

Looking up La Plata Gulch
Looking north
Looking toward the ridge to the summit
I went ahead of the trio and ascended the headwall first.  Before the hike, I saw recent photos of this section.  In person, it looked more intimidating.  The steep headwall gained a few hundred vertical feet to the ridge over a mix of scree and shallow snow.  I contemplated getting my ice axe in hand, but the snow didn't seem deep enough for it to be very useful.  I scrambled and scrurried between sections of solid rock where I could, and made it to the ridge fairly quickly, keeping it to a class 2+ difficulty.

Closer look at the headwall, some of the paths are visible
(taken after descending)
Once on the ridge you are greeted with endless views.  Majority of the route to the summit is visible.  Most impressive is the Ellingwood Ridge's jagged profile, just across La Plata Basin.  Several 13ers lie on the other side of the ridge across La Plata Gulch.

View north after gaining the ridge
Looking up the Gulch toward Sayres Benchmark
Ellingwood Ridge
The route ahead
Before climbing the headwall, I added a fleece, shell, and goggles.  Climbing the headwall warmed me up quickly and I removed my fleece.  Other than the occasional gust, the wind was fairly tame.  The sun was quite bright and added some warmth.

I stuck close to the ridge crest most of the way.  I was traveling bareboot and I rarely sank more than ankle deep.  The snow wasn't hard enough to justify my microspikes.  There are several little humps along the ridge before finally intersecting the summer route further along the ridge.  Many spots were scoured by the wind and I could still see bare ground.

A rocky stretch on one of the ridge bumps
Smooth sailing along the ridge
Getting closer to the false summit
A narrower part of the ridge
 Another look at the Ellingwood Ridge
After gaining the summer route, the travel became more difficult.  Because of snow, there is no visible trail.  The route finding is straightforward without a trail for the most part.  The climbing gets steep and rocky as the ridge approaches a false summit.  Reading info prior to the trip, the route travels below the main bulk of the false summit, to the west.  I traveled lower than necessary and found myself in a nasty section of snowy boulders.  My route became scrambly.  The rocks were slick with snow.  Stepping between rocks became risky because of deep holes hidden under the snow.  I abandoned this route and climbed back to the ridge crest.  This proved to be the right move.  Back on the ridge, travel was much easier. 

Just below the false summit
One of the rockier sections of the climb where I
went off route
Sayres Benchmark up the Gulch
Ellingwood with Mt Elbert on the left
The upper part of the ridge was easier but still had some difficulties.  The upper ridge held a moderate slope that was snow covered.  There were some old footprints still partially visible.  Following the footprints didn't work so well as I tended to sink on the steep slope.  You really notice the extra work postholing at over 13,000 feet in elevation. When I could I traveled near the edge of the snow and stuck to the few rocks that were exposed.  I occasionally passed a cairn.

A better look at Elbert beyond Ellingwood
I think it's Rinker Peak and the distant Mosquito Range
I finally got above the ridge crest and traveling became easier.  Some climbing still remained but it was generally mellow.  I was able to follow more rock.  As I closed in on the summit, the wind became more steady with a few noticeable gusts.  Finally the stick on the summit came into view.  I reached the summit right around 11AM. 

View just below the summit
The summit just ahead
As expected, the summit has great views.  Perhaps most spectacular is the view down the jagged Ellingwood Ridge.  The peak is surrounded by endless alpine summits.  To the north stands Mt. Elbert, the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains and its neighbors.   Just to the south are the numerous 14ers of Missouri Gulch including Missouri, Belford, Oxford, and nearby Huron.  The rugged peaks of the Elk Range are just to the west on the other side of Independence Pass.  The Mosquito Range peaks out to the east.

Ellingwood Ridge from the summit and distant Mosquito Range
I think East La Plata with Rinker Peak  behind it
Looking south toward 14ers Belford, Oxford, and Missouri
Southwest view
Mt Elbert
Looking northwest over my route
View west
Looking toward Independence Pass and the distant Elk Range
Another look west
I enjoyed the summit views for about 15 minutes.  The steady wind made the air feel much cooler.  I covered my face with my mask while I took some photos.  While taking photos, my camera battery started to die, requiring me to take off my gloves to change it.  This caused some serious chilling in my hands.  After a few more shots with a fresh battery, I began my descent.

Summit self portrait
The descent route is the same as the climb.  From the summit, I could see my footprints nearly all the way down the ridge.  Occasionally I could see the trio that I passed by the headwall making their way along the ridge.

Distant Elk Range
Looking down the ridge at my route from the summit
Moving down the upper ridge
Mt Elbert close up
I made quick time making my way down the upper ridge.  Gravity was my friend and I boot skied short stretches when I could.  Occasionally I would cross a soft spot in the snow where I would posthole over my knee.  Postholing wasn't too common fortunately.

Making my way down the ridge
On my descent, I stuck closer to the ridge and avoided the jumble of rock that caused some difficulty on my climb.  The ridge crest down the false summit area still required careful routefinding however.  The snow was shallow, exposing loose rock, requiring careful foot placement to avoid deep holes between rocks.  There was a little bit of minor scrambling required through this section.  It was in this area, just below the false summit, that I passed the trio from earlier, making their way up the ridge.

Sayres Benchmark
The trio reaching the false summit
Making my way below the false summit
With the exception of a few small humps, the remainder of the ridge was fairly easy downhill travel.  With four sets of footprints in the snow at this point, I could see where not to step.  On one of the humps along the ridge, I stopped for a quick snack.

Close up of Ellingwood Ridge
Looking toward Independence Pass over PT 12,601
Spot where I stopped for a snack
I soon reached the headwall.  Maneuvering down the headwall was a little tricky.  Careful routefinding was required to avoid excessive sliding on the scree and snow.  Generally I was able to pick my path traveling between sections of solid rock and minimized my time on the loose stuff.

Approaching the headwall
Looking down the headwall
After I made my way down the headwall, I reached my snowshoes.  With the exception of deep snow a few hundred feet before treeline, I probably didn't need my snowshoes.  In the woods, I was back on packed trail.  I put on my snowshoes just in case since the temperature had warmed up quite a bit and the snow may have been softer.  Microspikes probably would have been sufficient.  However, I already was already wearing my snowshoes so I left them on for the remainder of the hike.

The view up the gulch toward Sayres
Close up of Sayres
I seemed to make pretty quick time traveling on the packed trail.  Once again, the downhill side of the trail was steep at places with deep snow.  Avoiding this loose snow was the only real difficulty on the trail through the woods.  I was getting hungry again by this point but kept going with the trailhead getting close.  I reached the trailhead about 145PM, by now a balmy 34F.

Dropping into the trees
Views along the trail in the trees
Trail passing through rocks
I never hiked La Plata Peak before.  With its status as the 5th highest peak in Colorado, and its trailhead's easy access from a paved road, I would guess it can get quite busy during the summer.  Climbing it in winter, on a weekday, allowed me to have this great mountain to myself apart from the brief passing of the trio.  I was also lucky enough to have a cloudless day that was relatively warm for January without too much wind.  I have to thank the groups that recently climbed La Plata for putting in a good trench in the deep snow below treeline, making my day a little easier.  In general, I had pretty good snow conditions allowing me to travel the 9-10 miles and 4500' of elevation gain in less than 7 hours.  All in all, a great day.