La Plata Peak trip report


This trip got off to a rather gruesome start. An hour into the drive, just north of Walden, a rabbit ran out in front of me and I only had time to realize I was going to straddle it, then THUMP-thump. Eeewwww. So much for low-impact mountaineering.

The rest of the drive was uneventful and I arrived at the restored Winfield townsite at about 3:15. You're supposed to be able to drive a car 0.6 miles past Winfield. As I had observed a month ago, the very first part of the road was very rutted and rocky and marginal. Thus I had planned to start hiking from Winfield. This only adds 1.2 miles round trip and less than 200ft of gain, so it's no big deal. If you think you can get past the first 30 feet of the road, the next 0.6 miles past this is fine to where the guidebooks say you can park a car. With 4WD you can shorten the hike even more.

The guidebooks weren't very clear about how good the trail was, so I decided to wait until about 4am to start in case a headlamp wasn't sufficient for route-finding. I did some star-gazing and took my time gearing up. Finally, at 4:10 I started up the road under magnificent clear skies with a temperature just above freezing.

It was just starting to get light when I reached the trailhead register. The batteries in my headlamp weren't fresh and in the cold air they pretty much crapped out when I was trying to sign in. I started up the trail at a little after 5am with new batteries. The trail turns out to be excellent and consistantly moderately steep.

Eventually, you reach the more level upper basin which sits at the base of a large, beautiful cirque. The trail above treeline winds through stubby willows and I was having flashbacks of the infamous willow fields below Mount Bierstadt. The willows here were much tamer, though. I wasn't paying much attention to my map and could see pieces of a trail to the top of the cirque. The trail I was on connected to this just fine, crossing a small swampy area.

Well, by the time I was about 200ft above this area, I took a break and got out the map. Hmmmm. The main trail given on the Trails Illustrated map is the same route that is depicted in both Dawson's and Roach's guidebooks. However, I was on the left branch of the route, which abruptly ends on the map. Oh well, I continued up and climbed last couple hundred feet of this slope on a steep, heavily eroded, slick trail. This hits La Plata's southwest ridge at the low point between La Plata and Sayres Benchmark, a high 13er. This is at about 12800ft. The first part of the SW ridge from here is a gentle walk on gravel and tundra. At about 13200ft, the ridge loses it's definition and becomes more of a face. The climb up this was very tedious on talus of all sizes. The footing is mostly good, but even some of the larger blocks were a little less stationary than I would have liked.

Based upon my altimeter and map, I knew this slope had to lead to a false summit. But the ridge to the right of this was very impressively rugged and could easily be confused with the famous Ellingwood Ridge which starts from the summit. And like all false summits, it sure looks like the real summit, thus it was hard to totally convince myself what I knew was logically true. You gotta love those mind games!

I reached the 13960+ false summit (actually a very, very minor saddle just below it) at about 7:30. This is about a half-mile from the real summit and I could see a minor, skirtable false summit and what I thought might be the real thing. It was mostly cloudy by now, and I could see some light snow falling from a few clouds. Yes, snow, the temperature was in the low 40s, plenty cold enough for flurries to form a couple thousand feet above me and not melt on the way down. Fortunately, as they were moving in, I could tell that the clouds were very 'flat' so I wasn't worried about lightning.

The terrain from here to the summit was less steep and thus easier. I skirted the visible false summit, and hiked over another minor false summit before reaching the real thing at 7:58am. You get a good look at the Ellingwood Ridge from here and while it looked pretty heinous, it didn't look as bad as that section of ridge earlier that could be confused for the real thing. I also noted sunlight reflected off the tops of some stratus clouds down in the Arkansas River valley about 10 miles east. Highway 82, where most people start their climb of La Plata from the north was also visible. The heaviest snow shower was passing over the lower part of Ellingwood Ridge only about a mile away. The snow was reaching down to about 13500ft before sublimating or melting/evaporating. If the cloud trajectory would have been ever-so-slightly farther south, I might have gotten snowed on (I haven't seen falling snow since Memorial Day weekend, and that was from my front porch; it's been that kind of summer).

The summit register was freshly placed on Sunday and had maybe 3 dozen entries, mostly from Sunday. There was an entry from one of the "Climbing Smiths", logging 14er ascent number 500-and- something. The summit has a couple of rock wind shelters. Again, the weather was OK, but not great, so I only spent about 20 minutes on top.

The trip down the steep talus slope was just as tedious as coming up, but much less lung-intensive. From above, I carefully looked for some hint of a trail up the route that the map and all the guidebooks give, but didn't see anything. I also noted that the ridge route up Sayres Benchmark from the saddle looked very interesting; probably Class 3, with maybe some exposure. The descent of the 'trail' down from the saddle was very slick, but short. By now the weather had cleared a lot, but with some new clouds starting to move in.

Once through the willows, I was back at the steep part of the trail, and still hadn't seen another person. This was the first test of a pair of hiking shoes I bought and they were performing very well. By 10:30 I was back at the trailhead register to start the slog down the 4WD road. I hadn't seen it on the way up, but about a half-mile from Winfield, there is a sign for the old cemetary, circa 1885.

I wasn't really paying that much attention to the weather as I was walking the road, reaching the car at 11:02. I was doing the usual clothes-changing routine and stuff, when I heard a loud clap of thunder to the northeast. Hmmmm. I drove out through this storm and it was electrically hot, with lots of cloud-to-ground lightning. This storm would have missed all the 14ers in the area, but probably gave someone a good scare!

Oh yeah, to complete an earlier thought, I didn't see a single person or vehicle on the entire route until I reached Winfield on the way down! I had the entire south side of the mountain all to myself, and given the time and the weather, there was very little chance of anyone summitting later from the south. What a coup! This isn't something for Ripley's, considering that the north side is much more easily accessible and it was a weekday, but it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless.

I made it back to Leadville just in time for noon rush at Wild Bill's. Nothing like a greasy burger and onion rings after peak bagging! The rest of the drive home was notable for the remarkably high idiot factor on the roads, especially for a Thursday. I'm especially thankful for that one wide shoulder and my quick reflexes. Grrrrrr...

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File last modified: 21 December 2004

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