Climbing while we still can

We have had some pretty good weather lately. Most of the week it was warm and sunny, although in the middle of the week a cold front did come through the area. At higher elevations this meant snow, but here in the valley it was only rain. There was still some snow lingering at higher elevations when I went hiking this weekend, mostly above about 13,400’. There really wasn’t that much, maybe about 2 or 3 inches, and it was pretty well packed down from other hikers. I was planning on hiking a thirteener near Leadville, but for some reason the trailhead was marked as “area closed” and there was a forest service truck parked across the road. I instead kept going down the road to the trailhead for the fourteener La Plata Peak, Colorado’s fifth highest. I was limited in my choices for a back up plan because of the map I was carrying. The first section is relatively flat, and crosses two creeks on good bridges before following the second creek up La Plata gulch to start the climb. There is one steep section of trail in this section, but it is made easier by some nice log steps. Above this section the trail briefly flattens out before leaving the creek’s side and beginning the ascent to La Plata’s northwest ridge. These slopes are the steepest part of the hike, but several switchbacks in the trail help to make progress easier. Above treeline the trail briefly angles below some cliffs, before steeply switching back up to the ridge at around 12,760’. From here there is still a good mile to the summit and over 1500 feet of climbing, but this small flat area offers a nice place to catch your breath before continuing on. The views across the basin to the east towards Ellingwood Ridge are fantastic. The Ellingwood Ridge is La Plata’s northeast ridge, and is a long class 3 scramble route. The route is relatively flat, but has several rugged rock towers to negotiate around. It looks like a lot of fun, and my friend Ben and I talked about checking it out next season. After this brief contemplation it was on towards the final section of trail to the summit. After an initial easy pitch, the trail started to steepen a little. Here there was a little bit of snow, mostly light and well packed, before a gully with some deeper snow. This gully seemed to have collected a lot of the wind blown snow from above, and was more like 6 inches deep with some icy patches. It was easy enough to negotiate, but just goes to show that at this time of year the occasional snow field cannot be ruled out as we get closer to winter. The 14,336’ summit itself was calm, clear, and surprisingly warm. I hung out there with 3 other climbers and a dog and had some lunch while enjoying the very expansive view. We could see Uncompaghre Peak, over 80 miles away! It was a really enjoyable outing, and the weather was just perfect the whole day.

Unfortunately not all of the news from the weekend was good, the previous weekend a hiker had gone missing on Mt of the Holy Cross, near where I live. Searchers spent the entire week combing an approximately 50 square mile area surrounding the peak but never found any traces of her. I put my name on the list to help them on Saturday, but they said they were looking for people with more of a backcountry search and rescue and first aid background and never called. They had 200 volunteers from all over the state combing the area they thought her most likely to be. They walked shoulder to shoulder across the rocky slopes and still found nothing. She was hiking with trekking poles, which if she had fallen would have probably been left behind. They decided to call off the search Saturday, and her family made a statement conceding to the mountain that it had taken their loved one. Maybe someday the mountain will “give her back” as one rescuer stated, but for now her disappearance remains a mystery and a reminder that these mountains can be dangerous.