PrologueMountains: Ellingwood Ridge (13,220’) and La Plata Peak (14,336’)
Route: Started at the Lake Creek TH on Independence Pass road (CO 82) and climbed Ellingwood Ridge to LaPlata summit. Descended standard NW ridge route.
Elevation Gain - 6200’ (approx including 300 or so off route)
Roundtrip Mileage - 10 miles (approx)
I’m so out of touch that I didn’t realize there already was a route description
and recent trip report
for this route on 14ers.com. Hopefully the pictures and description here will add some value for local mountaineers. However for more route-finding fun, stop reading this report right now. I flipped through the old Gatorade stained Roach 14ers book (2nd ed.) while hanging out with some friends at the Tennessee Pass restaurant in Leadville, Friday night. My plan was to climb something in the neighborhood while they did the Silver Rush 50 mile MTB ride and return for their post-race celebration. My fingers rested on the description for Ellingwood Ridge. I’d heard so much of its reputation for being a route-finding challenge and I’d been long intrigued… mad props to Roach for being so concise and accurate in his description with exception to finding the turn-off to La Plata basin gulch.
I slept in my Jeep at the trailhead for a few hours and was up at 4:15AM. I wanted some daylight for route finding in the trees since Roach warns of bushwhacking and faint trails in the trees which could be tough under lamplight. On this fine morning I carried Roach’s 14er bible, my ever-faithful jetboil, fairly elaborate first aid kit with sam splints and all, helmet and other essentials apart from plenty to bite and ‘bibe (2 packs of ramen, several power bars and trailmix, fruit rollups, 2L water and 1.5L Gatorade).
I hit the trail at ~5AM and reached La Plata gulch creek soon enough. Following Roach’s directions I headed 100 feet north from the bridge into the undergrowth looking for the trail to La Plata basin gulch but couldn’t find squat. I wasted some time here and was preparing to Bushwhack due East trail or no trail when someone came up the trail in trail runners and told me about the recent 14ers.com beta. He was also heading up the same route and I learned from his register entry later that his time was 5.5 hours (if that was his round-trip time then I am unworthy). Here’s a picture of the turnoff from later in the day… follow the standard trail for about 40-50 feet after the creek crossing and look for a faint overgrown trail to your left.
Trail turn off for Ellingwood Ridge
After the turnoff the trail was unreliable, fading from time to time but it wasn’t very hard to stay on. Just diligently bushwhack and head due east until the La Plata basin gulch creek crossing.
Trail in the dark
I crossed the creek and following Roach’s advice did not bother looking for a trail on the east side of the creek. I began bushwhacking due South. Here I saw Taylor for the last time. We must have taken slightly different paths through the trees and up to the ridge. Through the trees I saw the Northern end of Ellingwood ridge and decided to bushwhack up to it.
Ridge behind the trees
I grumbled my way up talus to the Northern end of the ridge… I felt lucky that I didn’t decide to do this hike in my VFFs as was the original plan. My feet aren’t adequately talus-conditioned this season and VFFs may not have been adequate protection yet. Near the top of the talus slope I decided to brew up some ramen and took a relaxed 30 minute break. The weather was supposed to hold good all day and I didn’t feel rushed (CO 82 is seen below).
Talus slope from my 1st ramen perch
At the top of the ridge I almost walked into a Ptarmigan nest and mama held her wings up and rushed at me, threatening to bludgeon me to death with them. I emitted a high-pitched shriek, not much unlike a skittish herbivore in close view of a marauding saber-tooth’s molar. I quickly altered course and got a couple pictures of her victorious stance in the aftermath of this highly dramatic, blood-curdling scenario.
Victorious mama ptarmigan
The Twin lakes looked fantastic in the backdrop of this high-alpine meadow. I don’t blame the ptarmigan for nesting there. Quite a view…
I picked up the book to read more of Roach’s words of wisdom… “The introduction is over, a 2-mile stretch of rugged ridge separates you from the summit (you foolish child)”. Like a castigated young lad (one that was caught with his paws in the jam jar) I ceased dawdling, stashed the book and ran to do Roach’s bidding lest he reach for his cane and lay it sharply across my bottom. Here’s the other possible view from the Ptarmigan’s nest.
A little further you may see this gendarme (am I using the word correctly? I don’t mean a French policeman)…
First tower on Ellingwood Ridge
Now most of these obstacles on the ridge are highly climbable and I might have if I’d had a partner but decided to stay safe on a solo outing. Most of these towers have low 5th class downclimbs or rappels on the far side. The first mile of the ridge is easy with only 3-4 easy third class moves. It gets a little trickier from a climbing and route-finding perspective during the second mile.
Circumventing the first tower on Ellingwood Ridge
Here’s looking back at the first couple towers on the ridge. I stayed halfway between the ridge crest and the grassy base of the cliffs. This entailed some third to low-4th downclimbing and traversing…
Looking back at preliminary difficulties on Ellingwood Ridge
…which looked like this from up close… the exposure is minimal though… probably a 15 foot fall on to grass / boulders.
This is what the East side of the ridge crest looks like after the first few towers… I believe I was near the top of pt. 13,206’ (I don’t carry a GPS… so it’s hard to tell) when I took this picture…? The red caricature’s route is a fairly accurate representation of my own. I avoided drawing some of the less lengthy off-route excursions that happened.
Route taken on initial parts of Ellingwood Ridge
At the point marked “WTF??”, don’t cross over to the west side of the ridge like I did. I descended 200 feet down a dirt gully looking for ledges to use to navigate around a tower. It was fruitless and I spent some time down-climbing and re-climbing 4th class terrain. I enjoyed exploring the area but if I’d gone with partners they may have sided up with Roach in disapprovingly shaking their heads from side to side at my silliness.
From near the grassy summit in the previous pic I looked back at some of the terrain I’d descended…
Looking back at initial parts of Ellingwood Ridge
Looking ahead I found this…
Second half of Ellingwood Ridge
Somehow I found myself up here…
Descent off tower
and downclimbed this…
3rd class downclimb
Minimal exposure below 3rd class downclimb
As you can see from the sequence of three pics above, if you stay on the east side of the ridge crest you may find the occasional 3rd-4th class move above minimal exposure. At one point in his description (past the grassy Pt. 13,140’) Roach begins describing that you must surmount a series of small dirt benches atop ‘ribs’. Here’s what I think he was referring to (and what I did… red line)…
Route around tower
If my memory serves me right there were 2 iterations (maybe three) of surmounting dirt benches and descending into loose gullies afterward before I arrived at the base of this talus slope that Roach describes, and did this…
Route up Talus field to base of tower
This is a close-up of my goal (top of talus gully) in the above pic.
Top of talus gully
Once at my goal, I was made aware that I needed to circumnavigate the buttress. I once again stayed on the east side and found the “long east-facing talus slope” that Roach describes. This was the first time that I was happy to see a 1000 foot long talus slope. It was a sign that I’d successfully solved the worst of the problems on the route and could finally gain meaningful elevation.
Bottom of second talus gully
On my way up the slope I saw this guy… he was curious and nimble.
Mt. Goat on second talus gully
Atop the talus slope I saw these east-facing slabs and went straight up them to Pt. 14,180’.
East facing slabs leading to the top of Pt. 14,180'
From the top of Pt. 14,180' I could see the crowded summit.
Before the last series of difficulties
This was not the end of the up and down however since I saw more towers. I found passage by descending down the left (South side) of these towers. A few minutes later I regained the ridge again and found this view of the ridge that I’d worked on for the past few hours...
Looking back at Ellingwood Ridge from 14,200' approx
Summit and Descent
There was more dirt, scree and snow to be descended, traversed across and climbed to regain the ridge around the last couple towers. This was the last difficulty however and I was finally within earshot of other summitters. Here are some summit shots…
Ellingwood Ridge up La Plata Peak
NW Ridge up La Plata Peak
I have no proof I was on summit except for this brown hand holding a jetboil full of ramen. I’d run out of water barring 8oz Gatorade for the return. This ramen was brewed from a strip of snow I was lucky to find below the summit block.
Ramen on summit of La Plata Peak
I shared a couple cups with a ravenous youngster from Dallas who was backpacking the Colorado trail in sandals. He was glad to see the Roach book and was able to use it to plan his route to Winfield. I hadn’t previously known that La Plata could be accessed from there. I spent 45 minutes on summit brewing ramen, recharging and chatting with him about his trip. The return journey was uneventful. Cairns on the descent were such a culture shock. I had fun chatting with a few people still heading up the standard route.
Cairn on descent of standard route on La Plata
I found no cairns on Ellingwood and left it that way since I felt like the most fun on this route is had from the route-finding problems. Have fun and take Roach’s book along if you lack discipline like I do. His stern words will get you right back in line. Bring tons of food and water and enjoy yourself, but watch the clouds’ behavior and loose rock (on 3rd/4th class sections) closely.