Lost Creek Wilderness {November 2011}

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

La Plata Peak {14,336'}

La Plata Peak {The Silver Peak}; Sawatch Range
Elevation: 14,336’
Route: Southwest Ridge
RT distance & time: 7 miles; 6.5 hours (including photo & rest breaks, plus summit time)

Monument Plant (green gentian): flowers only once in it's 80-year lifespan
Located in the Sawatch Range between the towns of Leadville and Buena Vista, La Plata Peak is the 5th highest mountain in Colorado at 14,336 feet in elevation. Its name means ‘silver’ in Spanish, which is likely due to the silver deposits found in the area as well as the nearby silver mining ghost towns of Winfield and Hamilton. I have to say, besides sunrise on top of Mount Belford, this was my favorite fourteener hike to date. I am also happy to report that we did not encounter any navigational issues which, after Humboldt last month, made for a relaxing and stress-free climb. La Plata was #17 for me, #14 for Justin, and #2 for Kona, who just turned one year.

Since it was Fourth of July weekend, one of the busiest in the high-country, we decided to climb La Plata via the slightly less popular Southwest Ridge route. We also opted not to camp the night prior to our hike, which is unusual for us. The dirt road to the trailhead requires a high-clearance vehicle and attentive driving to avoid significant potholes, ruts, and rocks … and to arrive at the trailhead without making any wrong turns. The trail is somewhat steep at the outset as it follows a stream but, quite quickly, we reached an expansive meadow above treeline with a view of the ridge. Here, we encountered willows, snow fields, water, and a muddy mess; Kona loved it. Upon reaching the ridge ascent, we decided to follow an alternate path upwards. Though steep, our route was quick and did indeed connect us to the ridge at a point closer to our next uphill goal.

Justin in the muddy willow basin; SW ridge view
Kona in the stream that parallels the trail

As we began switchbacking and boulder hopping up the north/northeast slope, several people were heading down; one guy informed us that storms were building on the east side of the peak, and that we were still an hour and a half from the unseen summit. Justin and I looked at each other with an unspoken agreement that we would continue unless conditions became sketchy (this turned out to be an excellent judgment call). From here, it probably took us an hour to reach the summit, and skies were clear and blue above us. I could see darker clouds surrounding Huron to the south, but we were in a perfect pocket of sunshine complete with superb 360 degree views and summit solitude. 

We cheers’d (can you make that into a verb?) to cooperative weather and the serenity atop Colorado’s 5th highest peak with a Samurai rice ale compliments of Great Divide. I’m not sure anything can top the views from La Plata – we could see Elbert and Massive directly to the north; Huron, Missouri, Belford, and Oxford directly to the south (as well as Yale, Columbia, and Harvard in the distance); and even the Elks to the west. 

Just as we were preparing to depart, two guys arrived from the Northwest Ridge route. They were very friendly, and it was nice to chat with them for a few minutes; they’d begun hiking at 5:30 that morning and finally made it to the summit around 2:00pm - talk about a long day! Fortunately, the route down was uneventful for us; Justin fell on his ass twice descending the “normal” trail back into the basin, and I slid once into a dense collection of willows. Perhaps this section of trail is in need of some maintenance … Kona was excited to play in the mud once again, and the car was right where we left it when we returned. Most likely a result of climbing Half Dome two weeks ago, as well as backpacking a decent number of miles throughout Yosemite, I felt in great physical condition and my legs still have not succumbed to post-climb soreness. All in all, one of the more pleasant hikes … and undoubtedly the best views!

Alpine flowers along the ridge (Sayres Benchmark is the prominent peak)

On a more serious note: I am sincerely sad to hear about the recent deaths of Makana and Michael Von Gortler on Missouri Mountain (a 14er within a few miles of La Plata). This news is truly heartbreaking, but it’s also terrifyingly relevant to me and all other backcountry hikers. Something like this can happen to anyone at any given time on these peaks regardless of experience level … simply put, nature always wins … especially above 14,000’. Not only must we respect our own limits, but we must respect the mountain and understand that we are temporary and greatly inferior visitors. Four deaths within a week on our peaks …Rough start to the season before it’s even officially begun. Prayers and prayers.

… Hopefully I can now find motivation to write about ten days in the Sierra Nevada …

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