La Plata Peak

La Plata Peak (Sawatch Range) – Northwest Approach (Class 2)

  • Attempted 6/28/15
  • 9.25 miles round trip
  • 3.75 hrs to summit and 2.75 hrs to return to TH (6.5 hrs hiking time)
  • Moderate 14er (Class 2)
    • Standard NW Approach
  • +4,500′ net elevation gain to peak (14,336′)
  • Equipment:
    • sunblock (at that elevation, you’ll feel the sun)
    • tech shell (you will want a shell to protect you from the wind)
    • Nanopuff jacket (always layer when attempting a 14er)
    • headlamp (you’ll have to be starting this hike earlier than most 14ers)
    • light gloves
    • hiking poles (makes the descent easier on the knees)
    • Lunch and lots of snacks
    • Lots of water (I went through 2L of water even before we reached the summit)

We left Arvada at 2:45a and arrived at the TH around 5:15a.  We didn’t realize that the off road trail (on the NW approach) was for the unnamed 13ers near La Plata and not La Plata so we ended up going a fair ways down there.  The TH for La Plata was just off highway 82 and only had a handful of spots, so be sure to get there early.  At the summit, we found that the vast majority of the people came up the SW approach (which they claimed was about 8 miles).  That road, however, requires a 4wd vehicle (although I heard that an outback with 8.4″ of clearance could make it alright).  We made it up the offroading trail by the NW TH, so hopefully that gives you an idea.

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Don't drive across the bridge, there isn't any parking, walk across.
Don’t drive across the bridge, there isn’t any parking, walk across

After we returned to the correct TH for the NW approach, we began hiking around 5:30a or so.  You’ll pass 3 bridges: the first being stable enough to hold a car, the second strong enough to hold a whole group of hikers, the final only strong enough for one person to cross at a time.  The third bridge is a slippery set of logs that go across a river.  We found crouching down and holding one of the logs to cross was the best way to get across.

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You’ll hike in the trees for a spell until you reach a section I took to calling “Stairway to Heaven.”  It is steep but over quickly.  It is, however, a royal pain in the butt to descend at the end of the day.

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For note, I took this picture about half way up the stairs. It goes on for a fair distance.

You’ll just keep trekking along until you get into the basin.  We were still in the shadows when we hiked through here and we saw a group of campers here.  This is where you will begin to see the \beautiful mountains in the valley.  It won’t be long, however, until you have another section of steep elevation gain.

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The sun just beginning to hit the 13er in the back (I think it is West Apostle, but I am unsure)
The sun just beginning to hit the unnamed 13er in the back 
Yup, it is nasty from above
Yup, it is nasty from above
And even worse from below
And even worse from below

This hike is filled with lots of flatter sections followed by a handful of sections where you gain a ton of elevation.  At the top of this, you’ll have a few switchbacks and some snow to cross before you take the first ridge of La Plata.

A view just below the ridge
A view just below the ridge
A view of much of the remaining route
A view of much of the remaining route
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“First ridge”

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We were the first group hiking along the NW approach at this point, we had passed the other groups just below the ridge.  We began to hike up the rocky ridge towards the summit.

There is a huge section of snow bypassing this rocky section; however, even at 7:30a or 8a it was too soft.  Kevin is getting out of his post hole here!
There is a huge section of snow bypassing this rocky section; however, even at 7:30a or 8a it was too soft. Kevin is getting out of his post hole here!

Yes, we were hiking along the trail and many times we would see cairns at either side of a “fork” in the trail, so we chose to go right at these forks when really choosing left will keep you on the trail.  We stayed on the trail on our descent and it is much easier, definitely just a class 2.  If you stay too far right (west) like we did, it becomes loose rocks and scree sections that make the trail more like a difficult class 2 (even some class 3 climbing if you find some of the larger rocks to climb up over – totally optional though).  We found it to be super fun, but very unintentional and accidental.  It did, however, add about a half hour onto our trip we predict, as we spent a lot of time climbing scree slowly and having to stop to try and find a line/remnants of what we thought was a trail.

A difficult class 2 or class 3 variation that we accidentally found ourselves in - it was super fun!
A difficult class 2 or class 3 variation that we accidentally found ourselves in – it was super fun!
This was a false summit from our modified approach
This was a false summit from our modified approach
If your view looks like this, you have likely gone too far west and have missed the trail.  Just go straight up the scree/loose rock sections for a difficult class 2 approach.
If your view looks like this, you have likely gone too far west and have missed the trail. Just go straight up the scree/loose rock sections for a difficult class 2 approach.

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There is another false summit once you are at about 14,000 ft, but the true summit is only a couple of minutes past this point.  All the snow that had to be passed getting here either has deep solid post-holes that can be walked in without difficulty or can be avoided.  We didn’t bring gaitors, microspikes, or snowshoes – didn’t need them either.  Nylon pants were nice to have to glissade down the snow patches, though!

A solid snowman at the top.  It won't be there for long, though...
A solid snowman at the top. It won’t be there for long, though…

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The sign, so our summit is made official.  Peak number 8 for me, number 17 for Kevin.
The sign, so our summit is made official. Peak number 8 for me, number 17 for Kevin.

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The pano shot messed up a bit, as it was very hard to stand above everyone on the summit and rotate my body... I plan to take the class 3 approach to La Plata in the future anyway!
The pano shot messed up a bit, as it was very hard to stand above everyone on the summit and rotate my body… I plan to take the class 3 approach to La Plata in the future anyway!

While at the summit we met some pretty cool people!  One guy had thirty-five 14ers, others were from CU (whoo!), and almost everyone sang along to our summit songs!  Hikers are pretty awesome like that, it was a chill time at the summit!  Spent just under an hour up top.

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The descent takes 2 hours 45 minutes as mentioned at the top.  The snow gets soft but still manageable to go down (hiking poles helped stabilize us a TON).  We were able to follow the trail much easier on our descent too.  It is pretty hard on the knees going down such steep sections, so hiking poles also helped a ton there.  We found a lot of people coming up late and pointed them to observing the weather, as it appeared rain was coming in (which it did, right as we started driving off).  You can see the weather once you take the first ridge (in the picture labeled “first ridge”).  Know that it took us about an hour and a half to summit from this ridge, and we took a longer route.  We told people to expect to summit in about the same time from the ridge, though, since we were hiking very quickly (we didn’t see anyone at the summit from the NW approach we passed until we were about to leave the summit).  So, if the weather looks like you don’t have 2 hours to spare, I wouldn’t attempt the summit, since you’ll be very exposed.  At least you can see the weather with so much of the route remaining and make the best judgement call you can.

A sweet glissade section that is packed-down so you won't sink, even when soft.
A sweet glissade section that is packed-down so you won’t sink, even when soft.

I believe these are the three apostles (North Apostle, Ice Mountain, and West Apostle)

Overall, I would say that this hike was the prettiest APPROACH I have had on a 14er thus far, but Mt. Sneffels still takes crown as the prettiest SUMMIT of the 14ers I have done.  I plan to do the class 3 approach in the future (Ellingwood Ridge Approach) to prepare myself for exposure on Capitol Peak (which I do plan to conquer, one day in the future).  A less popular peak than ones like Mt. Elbert or Mt. Bierstadt, but not quite as quiet as Mt. Sneffels.  A long hike, so I would definitely suggest the SW approach to save yourself a little over a mile of hiking.  Although, we did love the steep rock scramble that we had to do (accidentally) on the NW approach.  Great mountain – number 8!

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