Early June on La Plata

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jun 3, 2006
Activities Activities: Mountaineering
Seasons Season: Spring

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On short notice, my daughter Trish and I decided that we could take advantage of the early melt-out in the high country and bag another fourteener on the 3rd of June. After some consideration of the options, we settled on La Plata Peak, mostly since neither of us had yet climbed it, and it was not too far away.
Rather than guess about the road time, we decided to drive up the night before and sleep in the car at the trailhead. I had never actually done this before, but it worked out rather well: I found I could stretch out to full length (no small consideration!) in the back of the Forester with the back seats folded down. My only serious regret is that I did not just throw my sleeping bag on the ground and enjoy sleeping under the stars. The principal reason I didn’t was that the moon was still up when we crashed out, and I was just too tired and lazy to change in the middle of the night.
We awoke at just about sunrise and hit the trail just after 6 am MDT. We had parked at the last level stretch, and a few minutes of hiking brought us to the trailhead register.
The first section of the trail is a steep climbing traverse—no switchbacks!—up the northeast side of a narrow and deep creek bed. Soon, it levels out dramatically into what Roach calls a “beautiful valley,” which is certainly is. The basin floor is nearly flat, with beautiful peaks and spires rising on the west, north, and east sides. It is boggy, though. It was still mainly frozen when we made our way up, but much messier on the way back down in the afternoon sun.
After following the stream (and crossing it multiple times) through the inevitable willows, the third section of the route begins: a very steep scree climb between rock cliffs on the north side to reach the southwest ridge proper. This was slow going, with something like 600 feet of elevation gain in a tiny horizontal distance, on loose dirt and gravel all the way. We began to strip off clothing in the pleasant morning sun and general lack of wind.
At about 12,800 ft. the trail leveled out and turned distinctly to the right (northeast). However, the wind immediately came up quite a bit, and it would stay with us for the rest of the climb and back down to this same point. Needless to say, clothing quickly went back on. Our faces were the only things with any chance of getting sunburned that day.
After following the lip of the basin we had just climbed out of—with great views of it, of the ridges on either side, and also of Huron Peak and the Three Apostles across Clear Creek, we came to leg number five: the steep boulder field which takes the hiker almost to 14,000 ft. They may call this route Grade II, Class 2, but I can’t see anybody (without poles, at least) getting up this section without some use of hands. This seriously stretches the definition of “walk-up,” IMHO. It’s perfectly doable by any fit person, but putting it in the same category as, say, Mt. Elbert sounds just plain nonsensical to me. You also not only cannot see the summit, but once you launch onto this boulder field, you really can’t even see its top until virtually the moment you arrive there. The “trail” is sketchy through here, and, although there are numerous cairns, we lost track of them more than once and had to free-lance our way up on dead reckoning. There’s no real danger of getting lost, but there’s no clear ridge crest to follow, and no visual security.
We did finally, however, come upon the cairn past which we finally could see a good portion of the top of the summit ridge stretching away before us., The hard climbing and scrambling was over, and all that was left was a long series of rounded humps on the equally rounded ridge, stretched out over the last two-thirds of a mile or so to the true summit. Only the last of these false summits is big enough to make it sensible to bypass, but we didn’t discover that until after we had climbed it on the way up. We bypassed it on the north side on the way down.
We got to the top about 11:45 am, just after the only two other people we saw all day had left the summit. The mostly clear skies gave good lighting for pictures, including dynamite views of the Collegiate Peaks to the south and southwest, and the slightly more distant, and slightly snowier, Elk Range fourteeners to the west. The distinctive shapes of Castle and the Bells were easy to make out from here.
We were still all covered up against the persistent wind, but even a mediocre day on a high peak beats nearly any day in the city, and we made sure to enjoy or time on the summit in a leisurely manner. Unfortunately, we didn’t find a register, although it is possible that one was buried in the snow. I consider this unlikely however, as the stone windbreak was snow-free, and that’s where I would expect it to be. I guess even this peak is just too popular these days.
Because of the wind, though, we only snacked, waiting until we got all the way down off the ridge to eat our traditional lunch of pita sandwiches. To our pleasant surprise, we made it all the way down is barely half the time it had taken us to get up. Thus, we made it back to Colorado Springs well before sundown, for a welcome dinner of ordered-in pizza with the rest of the family. It was a great, unusual, adventure and our earliest (calendar-wise) non-winter 14er to date.


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