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La Plata. Yeah, I’ve thought it. Probably not this winter, but sometime soon. When Jamie called and said Scott’s looking for company in a few weeks, there’s no way the temptation could be held at bay. It shouldn’t be too bad; what’s the worst thing that could happen? Oh yeah, getting caught on its infamous avalanche slopes. Yeah, that could suck….the life outta you.
As the day drew nearer, the forecast started its normal, confusing tricks and by Thursday night I were sure it wasn’t going to happen this weekend. Friday morning brought another weather curveball, but it felt safe. Yeah, we’re in. Eric(denalibound), Bryan(Bodacious), and Scott Patterson(his screen name slips my mind momentarily) were still game. After purchasing Mike(chicago transplant) from the Avon branch of the CMC’s snowshoe slave labor camp, we were set to go.
Saturday morning’s snowy drive over Bald Mountain and Tennessee Pass brought uneasy feelings. Is this front going to hit earlier than predicted? South of Leadville it stopped and left the people driving their vehicles on Twin Lakes’ frozen surface as the only thing on our minds. And we’re the crazy ones? Keep telling yourself that.
We arrived at the La Plata Trailhead at 6:40. Well, there’s a vehicle; where is everybody? Thankfully, Bryan and Eric arrive from their camp with Scott in tow just in few minutes later.
At 7:10, we begin our trek into the Sawatch. A beautiful gorge greets us immediately along this well-beaten road. A few minutes later, we reach a trench headed for La Plata Gulch. We move quickly along the trail as it rolls gently. These downhill sections won’t be much fun later.
After crossing the small stream, there is yelling and gasping behind me. I turnaround to see that Mike has fallen off the bridge and into the creek. The ‘Oh my god’ look on Jamie’s face is priceless. Luckily, the snow has drifted over a thick layer of ice and he escapes dry as a bone.
Once we’re finished with the tomfoolery, the uphill slog begins. It hasn’t snowed too much since the last group tromped through here on January 29th, thankfully re-breaking is kept to a minimum. 10,700’ brings us to a split in the trench. Going straight takes us towards the standard summer route and into the heart of the avalanche danger, Sound like fun? Left allows us the chance for more grunt work up the steep slopes. Yeah, that sounds more like it.
As we approach treeline, the breaking gets worse. The buried track we’ve been following has disappeared. Here the fun begins! I watch as Mike breaks a trench to his waist only to discover that improving the trench isn’t much easier sinking well past your knees through ball bearing snow. To be the caboose on this train….
Treeline is here, oh thank goodness! Well, that scree slope looks interesting. Hold on a second, let’s cache these snowshoes first. Alright, what do we have here? A steep 300’ slope of small, loose rocks and scree topped off with some class three moves on top; add some ice and we’ve got a crux. This can’t be good for such a large group. Soft snow on the climber’s right bails us out on the bottom half, but as Mike and I pick our way through the top third of the slope, preventing loose rocks from raining on our companions parade becomes more arduous than the climb itself.
The predicted wind is there to meet us at the ridgecrest and a warmer layer is quickly added. Alright, where is everybody else? One, two, three and four….good, everyone still climbing is accounted for. Something about Jamie doesn’t look right. When she reaches the top, she reports an encounter with a sizeable flying rock and says her knee took the worst of it. Yes, it hurts but she’s a trooper and onward we go.
The next section, crossing the north ridge, is a relief to all. A few bumps to cross and soon we’re at the base of the final 1500’ grind to the summit we all desire today. We start scree hopping around the right side below the ridge and gain a few hundred feet. Scott stays on the ridge and seems to be moving better than us. Why don’t we join him?
Upon gaining the ridge, we start up the snowfield. Within a few minutes, we reach hard snow and decide to put on our crampons. A few people are worried about the time and we decide to set a turnaround time of 4pm, or 3:30, or….maybe that’s what led to the confusion. I don’t know.
Up the snowfield we go, a hundred steps and a breather, repeat and repeat again. Oh, it still looks far, this sucker really cranks! As we tire, the steps decrease and the breaks increase exponentially. Is that really the summit? Opinions differ and my GPS only reads 13,880’. That’s deflating!
Below the top, we angle off into a gully only to find the lower section is soft. Oh, not now, we don’t have the energy to posthole. Words of encouragement are passed around yet the feeling the exhaustion deftly scatters them. A crest is visible and that becomes the goal. Just before reaching the point, Mike comes into view again. He’s facing us and is smiling. Could it be? He informs us that the summit is only a couple dozen feet behind him. Yes! At 4:05, we collapse onto the summit cairn on La Plata. The remaining members of the group follow mere moments later. The six of us bask in the warm sunshine on this beautiful day.
But it is late, and we’re only halfway home. Time to boogie, downclimbing that crux in the dark isn’t the most pleasant of ideas. Down we go. The long snowfield greets us again and we crank downwards. Glancing over my shoulder, the strung out line of plunge steppers conveys the feeling of a real high-altitude experience.
Crampons come off for the windblown north ridge. We’re moving well, but the light is fading. The mountain gods are planning their revenge, downclimbing the crux in the dark is not a pleasant thought. Despite our best efforts, it is forthcoming….whether we like it or not.
Headlamps go on….and here we are. Scott reaches us and reports that his must have fallen out of his pack somewhere along the ridge. What now? Glancing downwards, the slope disappears into the void with only Mike and Bryan’s headlamps visible in the darkness nearing the base of the slope. A nervous Jamie wants to partner up for this section. Fortunately, Scott decides that he can downclimb the right side of the slope sans light.
Eric and Scott pick their way down the slope and we’re left here in the dark with only our thoughts. Jamie’s thoughts don’t need to be verbalized as they’re visible through the dark. Hey, we’re going to get through this together, come on. The going is slow and nerve wrecking, but atleast we’re getting there….five feet here, ten more there and forty minutes later the slope ends with a thud, as I fall on my butt and involuntarily glissade the final fifteen, snow covered feet. Whew! Anyone else glad that’s over?
Snowshoes go on as we trudge down our more than welcome trench from earlier in the day. Sugar snow is appreciated for snowshoe skiing the steep downhill sections. The same can’t be said for the seemingly never ending hills after recrossing the river. We regain the vehicles at 9:05pm, more than plenty late in my mind.
It seems that was even later to Bryan’s girlfriend seeing that she had called the Lake County Sheriff about starting a search for us.
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