Wednesday, September 11, 2019

La Plata Peak - Southwest Ridge

Southwest Ridge Route
Trailhead Elevation: 3,923 ft.
Summit Elevation: 14,336 ft.
Distance: 8.49 mi.
Elevation Gain: 3,611 ft.
Start Time: 7:20am
End Time: 2:39pm

Trip Report:
La Plata has been my go-to warmup peak for big mountain races in Colorado. You might figure I look at it as my lucky charm for running success, but that isn't quite the case. I used La Plata in 2016 as an acclimatizing peak before I ran the Pikes Peak Marathon. It helped with the altitude training, but I nearly wrecked my quads while running down the mountain. Nonetheless, I wanted to use it again here in 2019 to help me acclimatize before the Run Rabbit Run 50. I intentionally went slow on the ascent and descent. My quads survived nicely. However, I somehow came away with a small bit of soreness in my calves from the steep climbing on the southwest ridge. Despite our battles together, I do love this mountain and regard it as one of my Colorado favorites.

Having been up La Plata's northwest ridge standard route three times now (once in winter) I decided it was time for a change. My brother and I have been making some preparations to make an attempt on the Ellingwood Ridge, but that's still another year or two away. Looking for more of a hike than a technical climb I opted to give the southwest ridge route a try. I'd heard many other hikers speak of its beauty and as a wonderful alternate route. There is generally good trail for most of the way and not hard to follow.
A look at the rockiness of the very end of the 4WD road.

I flew into Denver on a Tuesday night and arrived out in Buena Vista at about 1am. By 6am my father and I hit the road for Winfield and on to the West Winfield trailhead for this particular route. We were looking to get started shortly after sunrise. The road into West Winfield proved very tame and need good clearance but not necessarily 4WD. We parked at the typical parking area about 2 tenths of a mile before the actual end of the road. It is generally spoken that most folks don't drive that last bit of the road due to its exceptional rockiness and practically speaking, its just not necessary.

The first mile or so of the hike works its way uphill through mixed meadows and forest. It really is a pleasant mostly scenic way to begin the way. We took our time enjoying it and keeping a relaxed pace. The weather was cloudy but no threat of storms so we felt pretty good about the forecast ahead.
Early on the trail
Beginning to near treeline
The skies are opening up a bit for us
After the first mile things open up into the bowl that sits below La Plata's southwest ridge. You can't see the peak at any point this early in the hike. When you look to the northeast you see a jagged ridge which sits between you and the La Plata summit. The trail flattens a bit in the open bowl and willows begin to greet you. We suspected in May/June/July this could get pretty muddy and wet. For us in mid-September things were looking really good.

The most muddy section we encountered
We began to try and figure out the route ahead. I knew the maps pretty well so I felt like I was fairly certain where it would gain the ridge. You couldn't quite see a trail heading anywhere up to the ridge which is why it remained a bit of a question to us. But in the photo below I knew it went upwards on the slope on the lefthand side of the photo to gain the ridge. We would find out later this was correct.

Looking ahead at the route to the southwest ridge

Looking at the beauty behind us.  Huron Peak is in the clouds on the left
A look at the route to ascend to the southwest ridge. Some trail is visible in the lower half. 
The route works up through the middle of the frame into the steep dirt gully just left of center at the top.
The ascent up to the ridge became very steep. We had read of this as the "crux" of the route and would agree with that assessment. Though none of it is remotely technical, the steepness and looseness of the dirt and small rock makes for the biggest challenge. The most difficult section was between 12,500 and 12,700 feet. The saddle and the ridge were gained at 12,800 which means it was all in the very top portion of the route. There was only a minor bit of routefinding required in here with generally a clear enough trail to follow. The trail seems to segment into two paths in one part, with the leftward segment on the ascent leading toward the mine. We took the right segment and eventually the two joined up.
Lower parts of the slope to the ridge

Messy trail through small bushes on the slope

Just an example of how loose and nasty this slope can be.
Some trailwork to make this more sustainable would be of immense benefit in the future

Scoping out the mess from around 12,500 on the slope
Once on the southwest ridge we ran into the full force of the day's forecasted winds. We knew things were forecasted in the 20+ mph range and we felt that right away. From the saddle there is a clear trail heading towards the summit. This initial part of the ridge is quite straightforward and relatively flat. It is actually rather beautiful as it passes through high alpine tundra with some great color.
Looking back at Sayres Benchmark (13er) from the saddle

Looking ahead at beautiful terrain and the slope heading to Point 13870
As the clear trail began to near the slope climb up to Point 13870 the trail became less clear. It diverged into several different tracks up the slope. We would look for cairns and trail segments through here. We were also looking at a GPX track from a previous hiker as well as a track from Both diverged in this area. Eventually most of the way up the slope they converged again just below the top of this point. We found that one route was about as good as another if one exercises basic routefinding skills.

Working up the rocky slope piecing together trail segments

Atop Point 13870 looking ahead to the summit

Nearing the summit, the standard route joins the southwest ridge route in here
Once atop Point 13870 the route ahead eases up. There was still a small amount of routefinding as there never quite was one clear trail. However, the summit itself becomes obvious and so one merely needs a heading in that direction. The main challenge this day remained the wind. We figured we had gusts up towards 50mph. We were consistently getting knocked off balance and without the aid of our trekking poles would like have been knocked over a few times. We traversed over and around two more small humps on the ridge before finally gaining the summit. We had the summit entirely to ourselves when we arrived.

My father about to join me on the summit

Southeast La Plata

To the north with Ellingwood Ridge in the foreground, Mt. Elbert behind

Amazing view to the west, love the red rock on the one ridgeline
We only spent 10-15 minutes on the summit, long enough to make some communications and take a few photos. The wind chased us off before we could settle in to eat anything. We retraced our steps off the summit and down towards the southwest ridge. We ran into a couple of parties coming up from the northwest ridge standard route. We finally found a place behind some large rocks to get out of the wind for a break to eat a bit. The closer we moved back down to the saddle and exit from the ridge the more the winds began to subside. We spent some time with the Peakfinder app on my smartphone picking our the 14ers to the south like Huron, Missouri, Belford, and even Harvard.

Loved this area on the southwest ridge with the colors in the tundra grasses

And more color

Huron in the middle, Missouri and Belford behind to the left
The last obstacle of the day was to descend the steep dirt below the saddle. We took our time and used trekking poles to create some kind of 4WD. Once below the most difficult steepness around 12500 we ended up finding the mine and took a peek inside. Not much to see but darkness.

A look down the steep area below the ridge
It was smooth sailing the rest of the way out. The weather held up quite nicely for us today. There were moments we could see showers out to the west and the south but they never materialized near us. We were thankful to be out of the wind the further we made it on the descent.

Great views over the marshy meadow


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).  

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