28 September 2009

La Plata Peak

23 August 2003

I didn’t know a peak named La Plata existed until I bought my first 14er guidebook. La Plata is Colorado’s fifth tallest peak and was first climbed by the Hayden Survey Team on July 26, 1873. The team dubbed the peak La Plata, which means "silver" in Spanish. In 1921, mountaineering pioneer Albert Ellingwood made the first ascent – solo – of the daunting north ridge that now bears his name. He later reported dangling from a finger ledge for two full minutes.

But that’s not the route I took. I did the standard Northwest Ridge route, Class 2 with magnificent boulder hopping on top.

I had intended to be settled in my Twin Lakes camping space by 10 p.m. Friday for a 5 a.m. start up La Plata, but I had to shoot a wedding that evening, and I ended up not leaving the metro until after 10 p.m. (no regrets) I probably should have car camped or just left home at 3 a.m. Saturday morning, but I’d already paid for my camping spot. So I tucked into my sleeping bag at 2:05 a.m. and intentionally did not set my alarm.

I awoke at 6:05 and was on the trail within an hour. The nice thing about my late start is that I didn’t have to use a flashlight. I was amazed to see a tiny tint of muted yellow beginning to lace the aspens. On the trail, there were occasional flecks of gold, glistening with droplets of the previous evening’s rain.

The bridge over Lake Creek wasn’t the “three-logger” I thought I’d have to search for (obviously a more recent improvement than the printing of my trail guide) and provided a refreshing view of the murky copper-toned falls. The view of Ellingwood Ridge is stunning from atop the northwest ridge leading up to La Plata’s summit. The early morning sun hitting just slivers of a few spires atop the western edge of Ellingwood was breathtaking and awe-inspiring.

Wildflowers below treeline are beginning to suffer from cooler evening temperatures; there were very few left, and many of those already have taken on their fall attire. Fresh, fat raspberries along the trail made for a nutritious breakfast supplement, however, and twinberries also were plentiful. (I didn’t eat them.)

I enjoyed boulder hopping around the red-leafed summit (big root spring beauty???) but kept losing the braided trail, as did others, which resulted in my extra credit tagging of both false summits en route to the true summit. The wind atop the entire ridge wasn’t ferocious, but not exactly pleasant, either. Every few minutes I was feeling the need to subtract or add layers, but resisted and did not suffer any adverse consequences.

The view of Elbert, Massive, the Elk Range, the Collegiates, the Sawatch and Twin Lakes was marred only by a dark band of low clouds over the Maroon Bells Wilderness. I continually checked cloud movement to determine which direction the storm was tracking.

As I signed the summit register, a lightning bolt atop Elbert jarred the attention of everyone on La Plata’s summit. Of about 12 people on or near the summit at that point, six had just begun heading down, and another four climbers were still making their way up. Everyone in the mix-match group counted seconds – 15 – and quickly put away energy bar wrappers, snapped final summit photos, sealed the summit register and began beating feet back down, warning those still coming up of the closeness of that first bolt. That particular storm was moving in the opposite direction, but lightning doesn’t play by rules.

One of the hikers, announcing he is a geologist, pointed out the orange and red-colored slopes to the south of us. He stated the iron in those mountains, which also accounts for the murky condition of the water in Lake Creek and the countless signs warning hikers not to partake of any of the basin’s water, would draw lightning away from La Plata. Perhaps, but I in particular was not about to take any chances.

Lightning struck twice more to the south of La Plata before I reached treeline. More strikes rumbled in the valley throughout my descent, but none close. Tiny bead-sized hail assaulted me for about 10 minutes, followed by drizzle the rest of the trip down. I covered my camera in plastic, put on my raincoat and otherwise had no problems due to weather.

The trip down was a great experience because I was passing everyone, something I don’t often do, and my knee was giving me only mild twinges of pain. This was my first downclimb in two years that hasn’t left me limping the following day. Either I’ve punished my knee so much the nerve endings have gone dead, or all the training I’ve done this year has remarkably extended my threshold for pain. (big grin!)

I finished the day with a drizzly but fuchsia fireweed-lined bike ride up the Tenmile trail and back. I wish I’d brought a basket so I could collect all the gorgeous raspberries I passed!

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