Trip Report – La Plata Peak (05/24/02 - 05/27/02), Elevation 14,336’ (5th Highest in Colorado)
My girlfriend and I arrived in Colorado Springs around 10 PM (05/24/02) and proceeded with our rental car on to Leadville, CO. We arrived at the local Super 8 around 1:30 AM or so. The drive over was pleasant but very tiring! We immediately went to bed and woke up around 6:30 AM (05/25/02) to start our climb of La Plata. Prior to the climb we caught some breakfast in town at Columbine Café and picked up a panoramic camera, water, and fuel at the local Safeway. Leaving Leadville we arrived at the trailhead on Hwy 82 just west of Hwy 24 around 9:00 AM and were surprised that there were only one or two other vehicles parked. For a Memorial Day weekend, the low volume of climbers on the register surprised me. After gearing up and locking up the rent-a-car we headed down the road with full gear ready to camp and climb! Hiking the road we had no trouble finding the main La Plata trail that would eventually lead us to the sturdy bridge crossing over the gorge as well as the log bridge crossing of La Plata gulch. The initial part of the trail itself was very enjoyable and scenic. There were a small amount of snow patches on the trail as well as in the surrounding woods but nothing deeper than a person’s ankle so gaitors weren’t needed. The weather for the trip was perfect! We had blue skies and enough mid-day warmth to be comfortable hiking in shorts and a T-shirt with full packs. After hiking through the lower forest we came across a grassy opening which revealed one of the shoulders of La Plata as well as a beautiful meandering stream that is evidently polluted with heavy metals from previous mining ventures in the area. (There is a posted sign on the initial road that warns not to drink the water because of heavy metals). This area is a great place to camp but likewise offered no suitable drinking water or clean snow patches for melting/boiling snow. Seeing we would need clean snow as a source of water, we decided to push on with our full packs. Climbing from the base of the creek, we began to switch back along a slope of rocks and trees to find ourselves stopping for a breather and some lunch. Looking at our steep surroundings, I became skeptical as to the availability of a flat camping spot in the area as well as higher on the trial. Talking it over with my girlfriend, I decided to scout the area above a series of tight and steep switchbacks on embankment of snow patch and loose dirt. I wanted to make sure the “investment” of carrying full packs up this embankment would “pay off” with a nice camping spot. Gaining the terrain below a low ridgeline, I found myself surrounded by switchbacks and thick patches of snow laced upon a relatively unleveled slope. I got lucky and found a snow patch that was relatively thick and decided our best bet would be to dig out and camp in this spot perched upon this slanted slope of the mountain. Arriving back down at the base of the tight switchbacks, I discussed camping higher with my girlfriend and we proceeded on. By the time we were situated with gear, etc at the location, I had traversed the section 5 times (go up and scout, go down, go up with my pack and girlfriend, go down, go up with my girlfriend’s pack). My girlfriend is an extremely strong climber but this was the first time she had seen snow so I made the decision to “de-pack” her for the mini-ascent to give her full control of her senses in the steep environment of snow, mud and lose dirt. Upon arriving at the large snow patch, a group of climbers followed behind us sporting trekking poles, mini-packs and camelbacks. We chatted for a minute or two and they informed us that if we climbed on, we would encounter a fairly flat area below the switchbacks that would lead to the main ridge. Taking their advice we proceeded higher with full gear on a more forgiving terrain of switchbacks that eventually lead us to the advised flat area. The area was perfect! We placed our tent on the edge of the terrain just below a fairly vast solid ice/snow pack overlooking Independence Pass. It was around 4 PM by the time we had secured our camp spot at around 12,500’. We were pretty tired and upon lying down on my sleeping bag my girlfriend and I soon acquired a fairly mild case of AMS. Sleeping it off, we awoke an hour or two later feeling refreshed and ready to cook dinner and melt snow for the next morning’s climb to the summit. During our initial time at camp, a few marmots tested their limits by trying to eat my camera that was lying outside on some rocks. Needless to say the Marmots were domesticated beyond belief and had no problem hanging around in close vicinity with curious intentions. Finishing off our delicious Backpacker’s Pantry Beef Stroganoff, and after discussing our wake up time for the morning’s climb, we headed off to bed around 8:00 PM setting the alarm for 3:30 AM.
My watch began to beep above my head at 3:30 AM (05/26/02). I ignored it and was too sleepy and tired to reach up and turn it off. Thirty minutes later, my girlfriend and I unzipped from our warm bags to begin preparing for the climb. Getting out of the tent, we were greeted by a crystal clear and calm night sky with mountains shimmering in the moonlight. We filled my empty backpack with items we would need. Water, first aid, rain gear, etc. After gearing all up we proceeded to the vast patch of snow above us oblivious to the series of switchbacks to the left that we discovered on the way back down! Seeing that the snow was frozen over at such an early hour, the crampons went on and I showed my girlfriend the basics of her new Grivel G-10’s. Arriving at the head of the snow patch we found ourselves back on steep talus that eventually gains the ridge overlooking the Ellingwood Ridge. After removing our crampons, we zigzagged up the remaining slope to gain the ridge and a gorgeous view of the Ellingwood Ridge crested in morning’s rising sun. Spectacular and breath taking we took a few pictures and headed up the ridgeline through impressively maintained switch backs and ridge sections. Reaching the false summit, we soon were faced with a fairly easy-moderate snow climb to the summit. If there was such a sport as “extreme snow golf”, this ridge represented the perfect “hole”…a gradual dogleg to the left with a 35-45 degree embankment that was traced with kicked steps all the way to the summit. Looking up you could have thought you were standing on a snow-crested ridge of McKinley dotted with expedition boot prints. Seeing that the snow was still fairly solid and glacier-like, the crampons and ice axe emerged. After giving my girlfriend the basics of self-arrest and ice axe usage, we were on our way to reaching the summit. Approaching the summit, the climb became a little steeper and harder. Eventually after clearing a section of hard snow spotted by boulders, I stood on top of a high point surrounded by the snow-crested peak. I questioned if this was La Plata’s summit. After careful observation and looking to my left I realized that this wasn’t the highest point so I walked over the “mini-mini-saddle” to the actual Summit of La Plata. Arriving, I found no summit registry but only a windbreak made of stones probably used for cooking at some point. My girlfriend followed closely behind me retracing my steps to the actual summit. It was around 9:30 AM when we arrived. The sky was a crisp blue and the view was amazing. This summit is by far one of the most picturesque I have ever been on. Regardless of La Plata being #5, It offered a #1 view. After taking panoramic summit photos and eating a “summit lunch” at 9:45 AM we began our descent back down to our camp overlooking Independence Pass. The descent was smooth and enjoyable. The weather remained excellent and the views were breath taking. We chatted with a few approaching climbers and gradually made our way down to the point where we gained the ridge. We avoided the talus/snow transition that we originally came up from camp and proceeded on the trail towards a series of steep switchbacks that led us almost into our camp. With a short walk across a patch of snow, we commenced a mega-nap at 12:00 PM that left us refreshed. Packing up camp around 1:30 PM, the weather began to deteriorate in the surrounding peaks. Descending down we arrived at our rent-a-car around 4:30 PM avoiding all rain on the upper mountains. Following a short drive and a shower at Super 8 in Leadville we found ourselves eating Filet Migon at Quincys. At $1/ounce we splurged on dinner followed by a good night of sleep. The next morning (05/27/02) we grabbed breakfast at Poncho’s in Buena Vista and headed back to Colorado Springs for our flight to Houston.