"Winter" La Plata Peak Climb

Route Name: Northwest Ridge (with winter variation) from La Plata Trailhead
Trailhead Elevation: 10,148 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,336 ft.
Distance: 9.89 mi.
Elevation Gain: 4,191 ft.
Start Time: 5:40am
Summit Time: 11:55am (7 minutes on top)
End Time: 3:46pm

Trip Report:

Basic Technical Info
This was our sixth year of heading out to Colorado for a "winter" 14er ascent.  As with last year, we are stretching the technical definition of "winter" ascent beyond calendar winter to absolutely "winter" conditions.  Our list of easy and safe winter 14ers is starting to get thinner but La Plata has been one on my radar for years, for both summer and winter.  I still can't quite pinpoint precisely what is drawing me to this peak but I was pleased to see it this year.  The experience we had this day only confirmed my draw.  The aesthetics of the trail and the views and the summit approach made for an awesome climb.  


We were fortunate as usual to find some good beta before heading up there.  A gentleman had just climbed it a week or so prior and could vouch for their being a good snowshoe trench all the way up to the headwall.  This let us know that following the bushwhacked winter variation through the trees wasn't going to be a route finding nightmare.  The bigger concern we would have was how much recent snow had fallen.  We had spent three days prior skiing Monarch and Cooper and we knew at Cooper they had 6+ new inches.  This left us wondering what we would find on La Plata.  

In our research on La Plata in winter we were confident that we could keep the avy concerns to a minimum which is usually priority number one for us.  The reports say there is one slope near the summit that could slide under unusual conditions, but otherwise the winter route stays safe.  This is primarily because the winter route gains La Plata's northwest ridge earlier than the summer trail.

We had originally planned on tackling this peak on Thursday March 31 but the weather reports just weren't favorable.  Possibility of morning snow showers with increasing chances in the afternoon with winds didn't entice us.  Friday, however, had strong chance of a sunny day with highs reaching near 26°.  This led us to push our plans to Friday.

In following the hourly weather reports we knew it was going to be a terribly cold start.  In fact, it was right around 2° according to the rental car at the trailhead.  We wanted to ensure warmth during our dark trek in the woods, yet not overdo it.  I've learned from a handful of winter hikes now that as cold as it is while you stand by that car in the dark, you still don't want too many layers on.  Once you get the body working on the trail you quickly warm the core up.  Thus I started with only a polypro top, long-sleeve capilene shirt and my blue gore-tex jacket.  I carried along my grey fleece layer as a just-in-case.  On the bottom I had a pair of shorts under my Mountain Hardwear winter mountaineering pants and that was it, no long underwear on bottom.  This had me a little cool to start but as anticipated, I warmed up after a quarter mile of hiking.  I had my thin tech gloves to start and quickly added on my thicker winter gloves.  I had a good pair of merino wool socks, but not the heavy winter ones and my feet went pretty well.

Telling the Tale

We left the Trout Creek Pass area about 4:15am, made a gas stop in Buena Vista, and were at the trailhead at 5:30am.  US24 had had some snow on it so we made cautious driving til we got to BV.  We tried to be ready as possible before leaving the cabin so that our time spent at the trailhead would be minimal.  We found the TH parking lot empty of cars and somewhat plowed with a mush layer of 6 inches still there. Our rental van carefully made its way through the mess and we parked in a spot that would allow us easily to depart.

The initial trail was clearly matted from various foot and snowmobile traffic.  We donned our snowshoes immediately knowing they would be used heavily today.  The trail on the road was quite easy to follow and it wasn't long and we happened to notice the signage on the left where the La Plata trail leaves the road and heads east.  Within a 1/10 of a mile we hit the foot bridge which passes over at least a 30 foot ravine of South Fork Lake Creek.  The bridge had about 3 feet of compacted snow on it which rose up almost to the handrails.  We passed over it very carefully.  The picture below is from our descent when going over the foot bridge.




After the bridge we were impressed how well the trail wound its way through the woods.  We had to wonder how the original winter hiker found their way through the snow in the woods so well.  After a half mile from the trail the trail heads now to the south towards La Plata.  We were curious if we would see any tracks heading off towards Ellingwood Ridge, as I had read at least a pair of guys tackling that this winter, but none were to be seen.



As the trail began to climb we were surprised at the number of times we found ourselves on a steepening slope.  We even found ourselves using our snowshoes to partly kick steps into the snow to help protect against falls.  Don't get me wrong, it was never technical but there were areas where we certainly would liked to have avoided a fall.  At one such spot the trench passed a tree and quickly dropped about 3 feet on some icy snow on a slope.  I really didn't like the looks of it and so started my own track above it to manage the slope.



At another spot the trench wound around a large boulder that was impinging on the track and I literally had to hug the boulder as I passed around it awkwardly.  On the descent I had to duck down to my knees to crawl around it so as my pack wouldn't push me down the slope. That boulder section is picture in the photo below.



Thankfully the trench was always easy to follow up to this point.  We were an hour and 26 minutes in and 1.6 miles when we started on the winter variation.  The summer trail was nowhere to be seen which meant anyone and everyone climbing on La Plata at this point went the winter direction.  This was nice to know as we didn't want to "miss the turn" here and found that simply not to be a concern at all.



The winter variation began to climb steadily in the trees.  We made a quick "breakfast" stop for some Gu and granola bars.  We found that by this time our hydration hoses had frozen and so we were drinking now from Gatorade bottles.  I had kept one on the outside of my pack with a nalgene thermal on the outside.  This went well for about half the climb until I noticed it was starting to slush up.  When my hydration hose froze I detached it from the bladder and carried the hose next to my chest for an hour and that helped it.  Dad figured out a good method on his of keeping the mouth of the hose tucked into the top of his jacket and that proved to worked pretty well.



The early parts of the winter variation remained an easy trench to follow.  We could see where the previous climbers had worked some switch backs into the deep snow.  As we moved higher, perhaps in the 11,500 range we found more areas where we really had to look to find the trench.  The recent snow and wind had really filled in the trench.  One had to look for the slight imperfections in the snow to figure out where the trench had gone.  

Talking about finding the trench in the deep snow and taking in the views

Around 11,700 the trail started to mellow out on its climb.  We enjoyed the easier hiking for a bit as the trees began to thin out.  When we finally hit tree-line it was just before the headwall and we were greeted to a beautiful meadow full of pristine, perfect snow.  Couldn't help but stop and take a number of pictures including the Photosphere below.




Dad walking our beautiful track in this perfect snow meadow
Stitched panorama from the area below the headwall. Just amazing.



From the meadow was a 30 foot slope or so that we had to cut a switchback into and then this led into a relatively short approach to the headwall.  We were constantly eyeing it to lay out our climb.  We opted to drop snowshoes at the base of the headwall and to put on our microspikes.  We were sure we had a good line for the climb.  The hope was to meander through the obvious loose rock low on the slope and then switchback once or twice through the small snow field up to the rocks near the top.  As we started into this we were shocked to find out how loose the rocks were, even in the midst of the snow.  We were forced to move slowly and easily through most of the slope because of the loose nature of it all.  We could certainly see why many consider this the crux of the climb (Not to mention the most awful).

On the left is the headwall, on the right is Sayres Benchmark

At the top of the headwall was a steep and firm snow slope that curled to the south a bit.  The snow was quite firm in here and so we were cautious in our traction as the run out below us seemed to head off a cliff. Now on the ridge crest we quickly ran into a couple of bumps with a narrow saddle.  In a few places there would be 3-4 foot snow drifts that we would plow through.  Early on the snow on the ridge was quite manageable with the microspikes with just a few places of postholing.

Looking down the upper part of the headwall
Along the ridge the views were spectacular and made the whole hike worth it.  When we hit about 12,750 on the ridge we were just under 5 hours in and Dad was deciding he was ready to call it.  We had spent a good amount of energy hiking up through the trees and fighting snow and cold all the way.  He encouraged me to go on if I was feeling it.  I gave a look at the massive summit still ahead and gave it a thought both ways.  In the end, I just couldn't say no to pressing on.  We had brought radios along which also made this an easier decision and Dad decided with the sun out and mild wind he would be fine staying warm while I pressed on.
We have a long ways to go on the NW ridge
In scouting out the route ahead there was still plenty of snow to be dealt with.  It was forming rather large snowfields that all hugged the east side of the ridge likely with cornices.  The west side of the ridge was showing some rock and so I resolved this could all work if I hugged close to the rock. 

A vast snowfield to the right, interesting how the snow has melted out near the rocks
I pressed on trying to make a little speed here on the ridge.  I found we were just about 2/10 of a mile from where the summer trail picks things up.  I made good speed for about 20 minutes until the trail began to ascend up and around the buttress on the NW ridge. As I worked my way through rock on the west side of the buttress it began to be more of a talus field.  


Here is where I made my big mistake on the ascent.  The summer trail after moving around the face of the buttress switchbacks back on to the ridge crest.  I didn't really notice this and kept working the west side of the ridge.  This began to be very slow going and very tiresome.  Between all of the talus the snow had filled in gaps and I was postholing frequently with little trail to follow.  I worked and worked and finally made it back to the ridge crest around 13,500. 

The upper part of this mountain is just fantastic

Dad and I had been in radio contact the entire way.  Around 13700 we had one more conversation.  I had been hoping to be just an hour to ascend but clearly had vastly underestimated.  Now I was just over an hour with nearly 600 feet of vertical to go.  From Dad's vantage point I asked him how much further it looked like and he said "a ways".  I asked him how he was doing and he said he was very well actually, staying warm, and enjoying the views.  I said I was 50/50 for proceeding.  I was feeling the workout and I really feel guilty when I make others wait on me.  I said I would go 10 minutes further to see how things went.  Well, in fact, I had probably said 5 more minutes several times over the radio which is usually how this sort of thing goes.


The terrain never eased up completely and I was always battling some snow. At 14,100 the trail does finally hit a bit of a plateau that marks the end of the NW ridge and begins the summit ridge.  I knew there was a big left turn here (to the east) and then a push upward.  At this point I knew I would make it it was just a matter of pushing the legs onward.  I thought I was seeing the summit here and Dad was also watching my progress from down below.  He was pretty sure that the hump I was seeing was not the summit and indeed he was correct.  It was a bit of a false summit, or really, simply a place where the summit ridge begins to plateau before the true summit.  I made this hump and saw the real summit just a stone's throw away.  I pushed on over there quickly and with a big shout of "hoorah" I made it.  I said as much over the radio to Dad and said I'd be quick on top as the wind had picked up and it was freezing cold.

On the summit looking over at East La Plata

I probably only spent 7 or 8 minutes on top, just long enough to fire off a few quick "I'm okay" texts and calls and then began the descent.  While I felt like I had really exerted my cardio and my quads on the ascent near to their limit, I knew the descent would ease things up.  I made real quick work on the descent nearly cutting time in half.  At 13,500 I realized the mistake I had made on the ascent.  While there was a lot of snow ahead I decided to attempt the summit route on the descent of the buttress.  I worked my way out reaching the east side of the ridge for the first time and seeing enough boulders jutting out I felt comfortable I wasn't nearing a cornice.  I even radioed Dad to see if he could scout me from below but I was just over a rise and out of sight.  I followed the GPS with BCN on my phone and stayed somewhat true to the summer route.  I near the top of the face of the buttress and then found where the summer switchbacks went.  I was able to follow this through moderately easy terrain and back down to the saddle where the summer route departs.

Obligatory summit photos. I was a little frozen in my self shot on the right

It was at this point Dad and I agreed he would start the descent with me working to catch up. This worked perfectly. I was moving back along the ridge, griping at every uphill as my legs really whined at me.  I even began to deal with a bit of cramping in the muscles behind my left knee which I worked to solve with some gatorade. I reached the spot at 12,700 where Dad had stayed and really worked well now along the ridge.  Where I fought the snow for every inch on the ascent it actually helped on the descent as I could make strides twice as long using gravity to my advantage.  The one real danger I had to watch was not going too fast and then postholing in between rocks where I could snap my leg.  I nearly did this once gaining a good bruise and cut on my right shin.




I finally caught Dad in the flats around 12,200 and we worked carefully back to the top of the headwall.  The descent was as slow as the ascent but we carefully worked our way down through the loose rock in full class 3 mode and were joyfully back to our snowshoes.  We grabbed some refreshments here and geared up for the long walk out. 

In the midst of the first few bumps early on the NW ridge
Carefully descending the headwall

A look back up the headwall. We dropped snowshoes at the bottom of all the rock that is showing.
We carefully ascended upwards and to the left in the rock, and then switchbacked through the snow 2/3 of the
way up to gain the higher rocks towards the upper left. You can barely see our snow tracks in the upper middle
of the photo.

The snow was starting to get a little slushy on the surface throughout the walk out and we were glad to still have our snowshoes.  There was easily several feet of snow remaining in most of the trees.  We were careful not to let down our guard throughout the slopes that were back on the summer section down low.  I was disheartened to remember the ups and downs that the last 3/4 has when the trail works west in the flat spots before joining the road.  We finally made it back to the car to find the parking area mostly melted out at just after 3:45pm.  In total we were out just over 10 hours.





Taken from the foot bridge looking down at the "ravine" below

Taken from the road bridge looking at the creek all snowed over

Taken from the road bridge on the descent
In hindsight, this was a summit I was really proud to have.  I wish my Dad could have also made it but I was supremely thankful for his sacrifice of being willing to wait for me and keep an eye on me.  We are always firm believers that being solo in this terrain for too long is never a good thing and we like to keep an eye out for one another.  I find myself desiring to now make a return to La Plata in the summer, possibly soon, to see this great climb without 4 feet of snow covering it.  I've also tossed the idea to my brother of trying out Ellingwood Ridge someday which is truly a Colorado classic.  


Ellingwood Ridge. Just fantastic.

Track:

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk).  On the map, the light blue track is our ascent route.  The orange track is our descent route.

My Tracks 


























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