Ellingwood Ridge - La Plata Peak
Ellingwood Ridge - La Plata Peak
Ellingwood Ridge route to East La Plata and then La Plata's summit and then descent on the northwest ridge (standard) route.
Trailhead Elevation: 10,161 ft.
Ellingwood Ridge Summit: 13,220 ft.
East La Plata Summit: 14,186 ft.
La Plata Summit: 14,344 ft.
Distance: 12.30 mi.
Elevation Gain: 6111 ft.
Start Time: 7:18am
End Time: 8:13pm
Both the blessing and the curse of this ridge is that you have to make it. There's no turning back. It is quite possibly the most committing route in all the state of Colorado. There is no escape.
My brother and I had been eyeing this route for years. I had even started a KML map plotting out key points along the way about 4 years ago. The window finally opened for us to give it a try here in 2022. We loved the idea of attempting this route in September as the mountain weather is much more stable and the odds of a full day of sun and clear skies were high. Getting caught in a storm or rushing your route because of looming weather are bad ideas. We also looked forward to the prospect of hiking with the aspens in full bloom and adding to the already wonderful beauty of the mountains.
We did a massive amount of research and preparation for this route. We read almost every trip report we could find on 14ers.com. We watched a number of YouTube videos especially enjoying VirtualSherpa's video. We spent time plotting possible waypoints in my BackCountry navigator app on my phone based on the knowledge we had gained hoping to understand where the major problem points were. We also plotted a handful of GPX tracks from other climbers in my app so we could see what others did. Special compliments to "alexhenes" on 14ers.com for his GPX track. These other tracks, especially the most detailed ones, were especially helpful as you could see almost exactly where they encountered trouble and were looking back and forth, even backtracking, to find the best passage. Though one can never 100% rely on these, in *most* places we found this to be helpful. We did encounter one moment where it seemed our GPS was tracking poorly and we seemed to be all over the place and that moment was illustrative of why this is not a fully reliable method or replacement for other route-finding and mountain knowledge.
We were also fully aware of a rescue that had just occurred on the Ellingwood Ridge about 2 weeks prior involving a group that cliffed out. We knew our decision making had to be top notch so as not to place ourselves into a situation we couldn't reverse or self-rescue. It was our goal for this day to use all our skills and knowledge to keep ourselves always in the best position to both succeed and to do so as safely as possible. We each have plenty of motivations to make it home at the end of the day.
We opted for a start shortly after 7am. This was partly due to the fact that we had just put up 13 miles and 7200 feet of climbing in the Tenmile the day before (see trip report) and a full night's sleep and rest were going to be helpful. We also felt confident in the near perfect weather forecast and felt we would be fine hiking late into the day. The final thought was having to do with not covering much terrain in the dark. This would prove to be a wise choice for us.
Gearwise I was using my Osprey Stratos 24 daypack. I had a solid amount of food for the day and carried 2L water, 1L Gatorade, 1L Tailwind. We certainly brought our helmets and also had climbing gloves to protect the hands on the rock. We each had headlamps with full charges knowing we would very likely be hiking out some of the standard route in the dark. We also had other basic necessities typical on a 14er hike. For shoes I wore my old Salomon Speedcross 3 trail-runners. While they are a fine shoe when new, mine had almost 600 miles on them and the treads were worn and I even had a hole by a pinkie toe. Big mistake on my part. The worn treads would cost me effort today as I had traction concerns in several places.
On a cool late September Saturday morning we found the parking lot full at 7:10am. We had to park in front of another vehicle along CO82. We walked up the dirt road to the actual trailhead and then hiked in the first mile of the main La Plata trail to the junction in my photo. It is a fairly evident junction, and happens as the main trail begins to take a hard turn to the right (south).
|Turn left for Ellingwood Ridge|
For the most part the Ellingwood trail is present and easy to follow though it is much thinner than the main La Plata trail. It was worth paying close attention to it. It was also helpful to do it in daylight. Route descriptions describe your next major turn being after the next creek crossing and this is spot on. A quick and hard right turn after the creek puts you on a still fairly recognizable trail. After this turn the name of the game is to stick to a soon developing ridge line in the trees. You can see it on basic topo maps. Somehow we lost it temporarily after about a quarter mile. We found ourselves in the low dip between ridges and dealing with massive amounts of tree deadfall. If you encounter this you're off route. We eventually made our way back to the ridge and continued upward. Its steep and there's no switchbacking so its quite the workout. My next photo shows the kind of ridge work you should be doing and you'll know you're on route.
|Target the steep gully line left of center|
|Working up the steep dirt gully|
|Working up the easier grassy slopes from 12500 to 13000|
|More aspens to the northeast and on to Twin Lakes|
It is quite evident when the difficulties begin on the Ellingwood ridge. Two gendarmes get you warmed up and going with your route finding for the rest of the way. You'll very quickly get to know the name of the game: knowing when you can stay ridge crest, and knowing when you need to bypass. You would easily lose track of how many gendarmes and towers you could climb up the front side only to find the backside cliffs you out. If you're into climbing class 4 and 5 with high exposure you can do more of the these cliffs and stay ridge crest. We aren't that kind of party.
|The first two gendarmes, let the games begin|
|Looking up at the leap of faith|
|Mark picking a route to descend and bypass the cliff ahead|
|On the bypass around an early cliff|
|Looking back at the cliffs we bypassed|
|Classic view of La Plata from Ellingwood|
|Mark working a short class 3/4 downclimb|
|Looking back at a bypass of the massive tower at left edge of view|
|Mark working his way along a ledge just off the ridge|
|Approaching the Bunny Ears features|
|Returning to the ridge, again, through a steep scree gully|
|Descending, almost butt-sliding, very steep terrain to bypass the catwalk ridge before the buttress|
|Screenshot from a YouTube video of our climbing route on the Buttress.|
|David ascending our narrow class 3 chimney to escape the buttress|
|Looking back at Mark atop the buttress and the rest of Ellingwood|
|Mark on the ridge with a dramatic cliff nearby|
Above the buttress we did finally find the terrain ease up slightly. It became more about climbing and gaining elevation through talus slopes than climbing rock towers. We felt like we were seeing the summit of East La Plata come into sight and were hoping to top out and be near the end of the Ellingwood Ridge.
|13600 on the ridge, looking at somewhat easier talus slope towards East La Plata|
|From the summit of East La Plata looking to the Main Summit, the sun is waning|
This would be my fifth time standing atop La Plata Peak which is also the fifth highest summit in the state. We stood up top at 5:15pm after a 10:12 ascent. By far the longest ascent time of any peak we've climbed. It was an emotional summit and we let out some loud hoops and hollers. After the intense focus and stress we had on the route-finding and testing every hold and move it was a huge release to finally let go. Of all our mountain summits this was one of the most amazing efforts and emotional efforts we've had perhaps only to be topped by our finisher summit on Capitol Peak.
|Quite the happy summit photo with the mighty Ellingwood Ridge behind us.|
|Pano of the Ellingwood Ridge taken during our descent|
|The shadows lengthen on a long but fantastic day|
I have a track and waypoints from the activity all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.