La Plata Peak
Climb Date: 18 August 2007
Route: Northwest Ridge
Summit Elevation: 14,336’
Trailhead Elevation: 10,000’
Round-trip Distance: 9.50 miles
La Plata stands as the fifth highest peak in Colorado – I set my sights on solo climbing this peak due to its relative ease of access and the difficulty of the climb. This is not a simple ‘walk-up’ mountain with several difficult sections that would offer a decent challenge.
La Plata Route
I was on the trail at 5:30am under a beautiful starry sky with only my headlamp to keep me from vanishing into the quiet darkness. It rained heavily the evening before leaving the ground damp and water dripping from the low branches of the aspen trees. The approach through the woods was pleasant as I worked my way through La Plata Gulch. It was cool outside and I was glad to have my fleece.
At 11,300’ I began the climb out of the gulch on a steep gully with a series of switchbacks. This is where the climbing became more difficult and the wind really started to blow. Temperatures started to drop and I stopped to put on my shell layer and eat some dried mangos and a cliff bar. I was happy to have a new Origo altimeter strapped to my wrist to let me know how I was doing on vertical pace and to keep my eye on the weather – it told me storms were coming and so I kept moving.
Near 12,300’ I climbed a steep pitch that took me to the Northwest Ridge. Things became interesting here – most of the ridge was covered in large talus. Route finding became a chore and the extra effort to scramble over the stones became exhausting. They were often slippery and I was nervous about twisting an ankle this high up by myself. I felt strong, and the view of surrounding peaks inspired me to climb.
At 13,500’ I wondered what could have caused me to leave behind my gloves. Even in the middle of the summer these peaks are cold and the wind was biting. There were several small snow fields at this altitude. At this altitude the air was thin and breathing was difficult. The summit was now visible but I knew some steep climbing remained.
La Plata Summit
I arrived at the summit at 9:30am. I had climbed 4,000 vertical feet in four hours. I sat down and enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment as I ate and drank. I looked out on the Ellingwood Ridge and mapped out a route for a future climb. After twenty minutes on the summit I knew I needed to get off the mountain as dark clouds could be seen moving in quickly. This where my true suffering was to begin.
There is something both psychological and physiological that makes descending a mountain much more difficult than climbing it. I felt strong and could have kept climbing to much greater heights – but the moment I began descending I was in pain. My Scarpa boots (comfortable on the ascent) were now causing my feet severe pain. Scrambling down over the talus gave me a sharp pain in my left knee that would not go away for the remainder of the descent. For some reason I have an aversion to trekking poles but found my self wondering if they would be useful while descending to help support weight on down steps. I plan on looking into that.
I encountered several climbers still going toward the summit and knew they were too late. The storms were near and thunder could be heard echoing off the surrounding peaks. As we passed I hoped that they would have the sense to know when to turn back.
As I reached the tree-line the clouds opened and I was soon trekking through pouring rain. I was again glad for my shell (and being prepared). How much further? My altimeter told me I still had some good elevation to lose. I was tired and began talking to the ants during my frequent stops, amazed that my path and the path of this lone insect had crossed here on this mountain. Had any other human looked down upon this tiny life as it scurried through the pine needles or had I been the first?
I finally reached the trailhead shortly after 1:15pm. It was a good climb and I was proud to have reached the summit. I sat in the rain waiting for my ride and looked back at the summit – it was different now that I had climbed it.
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