Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Celebrating Independence on La Plata

Happy 4th of July! I hope all of you readers out there had a safe and wonderful 4th. In the flight attendant world we don't necessarily "get" holidays off - we have to bid for it in our schedules. Lucky for me after 6 years I have enough seniority to hold holidays off which meant a 5 day weekend for this sky goddess. We celebrated our 4th a little early around here since the holiday was on a Monday and so I decided to work in a little camping trip on Sunday. I set my sights on another 14er - La Plata peak.

At 14,336 feet La Plata, which means "silver" in Spanish, is located in the Sawatch Range and is the 5th highest mountain in Colorado. It's located 6 miles south of Elbert and 11 miles south of Massive in the Collegiate Peaks wilderness area and the San Isabel National Forest. It's a class 2 hike and I chose this peak because of it's proximity to Denver. Sunday morning we packed up the car and headed out into the wilderness.

La Plata has three routes - the standard Northwest Ridge, the Southwest Ridge and Ellingwood Ridge. I chose the Southwest Ridge because it was shorter in round-trip length (7 miles as opposed to 9.5). Following directions from 14ers.com we drove from Denver to Leadville and then turned off on Chaffee County 390 road. The beginning of the drive was, for the most part, good. You pass the Missouri Mtn. trailhead and continue on a washboard dirt road until you reach Winfield. Here is where the terrain gets interesting. We made a right at the fork in the road in Winfield, per the directions, and headed up what seemed like a 4wheeler trail. The road progressively gets worse and worse, filled with rocks, stream crossing where the snow has been melting, and mud. I would not recommend this route for passenger cars. If you do not have a high clearance SUV you might as well hike La Plata from the Northwest Ridge because you'll have to park your car and walk the rest of the road to the trailhead anyway.

(just a taste of what this jeep had to take on)
There were plenty of camping spots along the dirt road up to the trailhead and we ended up driving as far as we could go (which was about a hundred yards from the actual trailhead - approximately 10,700feet) and parking our car and pitching tent at a makeshift campsite. The Magee's only need a fire pit and relatively flat ground to build camp and we ended up having a nice spot right along the river.

The alarm went off at 5:30am and we packed up camp and drive a short distance to park below the trailhead. There isn't any actual parking spots here but we found a pull off spot right off the road. It was a warm morning and, like last week, we quickly shed our layers as we headed up the trail. The trail itself is clearly defined but there are spots where it was narrow and overgrown with bushes. The first part of the trail had become a stream thanks to the snow melt but the upper part below treeline was dry. Because we started at such a high altitude, 10,950 feet, we broke through the treeline and found ourselves in a scenic valley not long after we started our hike. One of the benefits to hiking a trail from a shorter mileage route is that you spend less time in the trees which both Chad and I prefer.

Winding through the willows and wildflowers through this vast open valley was beautiful but quickly became a muddy mess. Most of the snow has melted by now but it made for slow going as we picked our way through the mud. You can see where others have gone off the trail and through the drier parts of the willows and so we tried to follow in their footsteps as much as possible. We caught up to a group of about 10 people from Texas (we saw they had signed in the register before us) an said hello as we passed them on our way up.

(heading through the valley)

(yup it's about like this all the way through the willows)
The path was easy enough to follow and after we were free from the mud pit we were greeted to a snow field. We headed northward and then traversed over the snow to the left with the Texans following behind us. A switchbacking climb starts north-northeast up the slope and it's slow going up the scree. Here is where we put a lot of distance between ourselves and the hiking party below as Chad and I just continued to move up and up. The trail tops out at about 14,000 on a saddle where you are treated to amazing views to the southwest and the valley below.

Across the saddle the trail was easy enough to follow until you hit the talus field that led you up to the false summit of La Plata (every 14er has a false summit I'm learning). You just have to look for cairns from here and stay to the center as much as possible. This part was one of the hardest to route find going up and you have to watch your step over the loose rock. It's here we ran into another group of Texans making their way up which also let us pass because they wanted to follow us. Once at the top of the false summit we made our way across a huge talus field to which there were very few cairns and we basically had to blaze our own trail. Of course there's no way you can get lost here, you just have to stay to the left and continue onward and upward.

Continuing on we saw a huge lump in the ridge and we proceed to the northwest (left) side. We had spotted a few cairns and it seemed easier to traverse to the left instead of going up and over the lump (which indeed the directions I had I later realized suggested going left as well). This turned out to be a wise choice because the snowfield we had to traverse over from the northwest side was less steep and shorter than what we would have had to contend with had we gone up and over. The southeast side apparently tends to have more persistent snowfields.

After the snowfield we met up with a group who had hiked up from the Northwest Ridge and we headed up a clear path to the summit. The day was beautiful - virtually no wind, very warm and the sky so clear you could see for miles. From the top you can see the Maroon Bells, Snowmass, Grays and Torreys, Massive and Elbert and Missouri, Ellingwood Ridge and I'm sure many more that I can't even remember. Much of the mountains are still covered with snow so it made for an even more beautiful view in my opinion.

(summit bandits! with the maroon bells and snowmass to the left behind us)

(a look at Ellingwood ridge)

(birds of paradise on the summit)
We stayed on the summit for about 15-20 minutes, eating lunch and talking with the guys from Texas who had let us pass them on the false summit (I never did see the other crowd from Texas, I'm guessing they gave up?). Then it was time to head down and head home.

(chad beginning the journey down)
Hiking up a 14er is only half the battle and you must remember to take just as much care coming down as you did going up. The false summit was steep and some of the rocks were lose and Chad and I both almost tumbled forward a few times so make sure and test your steps coming down.

(taking time to appreciate the beauty all around)

The hardest part, without a doubt, was the initial talus face that leads out of the valley. There's no easy way down this and you just have to take your time and accept you are going to slide a little. Once you get back down into the valley it's all about avoiding mud until you reach treeline again.

(back in the valley with mud and snow)
While this was a harder mountain to climb than Massive, due to near perfect conditions and amazing weather we made it to the summit in 4 hours and were back at the car at 1pm. It is slow going back down the horribly washed out road to Winfield and I think total time it took us to get back on the highway was an hour. As I said earlier the route to the Northwest Ridge is paved so if you want an easier option driving in and out (but longer hike) that would be it.

I really enjoyed the remoteness of hiking the Southwest Ridge as well as the luxury of having very few people on the trail. We also got to see where the Missouri Mtn. and Huron trailheads are so we know for when we hike them where to go. The camping back here is beautiful and there's a lake you can hike to near the trailhead of La Plata so if you are just looking for free camping and day hiking this is a great spot to go as well.

Looking forward to our next mountain adventure!

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