Saturday, June 18, 2011

Patience - La Plata Peak via Ellingwood Ridge

La Plata Peak (14,092') Ellingwood Ridge
12.1 miles, 5,740' gain
Climbers:  Sean

"Because it's there."  George Mallory's famous response when asked why anyone would want to climb Mt. Everest.  Surely this is a valid reason for many people to want to climb mountains; it is for me.  But to whittle someone's rationale for doing just about anything down to one motive is just plain silly. was a good day in the mountains.  For - you guessed it - many reasons.  

I've thought long and hard about many routes I'd love to do if ever the opportunities ever present themselves.  Ellingwood Ridge on La Plata Peak has been on my radar for a while - normally an extremely long and somewhat technical class 3 scramble, this is one of the very few climbs in the Sawatch that doesn't feel like a 4,000' power hike.  

Two of my friends asked if I wanted to join them for a Saturday climb. The thought of attempting Ellingwood Ridge in late spring conditions, just to add to the adventure...I'm not gonna lie.  It kind of got me excited.   Neither of them had done La Plata before, and getting them to the trailhead was no problem.  I wanted a challenge.

I got one.

I had an amazing four hour nap underneath the stars in my bivy, woke up, got ready in the dark, and was off by 3:00AM.  The route description on stresses how adequate time must be given in order to complete this ridge.  Roach says, "It's grade III for a reason," hinting at it's length.  My buddy Kris climbed it last summer, and made it up in 6 hours when it was snow-free.  Our paces are pretty similar, but I knew I'd likely be running into some interesting route-finding challenges he didn't have due to the spring conditions.  Putting all this together, I knew I wanted to give myself ample time.  My goal was to just be hitting the ridge by the time it was light enough to see well.

Part I - gaining the ridge
The route description and Kris both talked about how the faint trail was as advertised.  While many parties have had to deal with trying to follow it in the dark, I also guessed I would be the first person attempting this route (and hence walking the faint trail) this year.  I just made sure I counted my stream crossings until I could get a good look at the northern edge of the ridge.  Sure enough, deer paths were more distinct than the hiker's trail and I found myself in a bog.  No bueno.  I estimate I added between a half and full mile during this section.  All was not lost, however.  I found continuous snow from 10,600' to 12,600', giving me an excuse to strap on the points and axe.  Little did I realize just how much I'd use my axe today.

The  introduction was over, as I now got my first view of La Plata and the 1.5 mile ridge snaking its way down to me.  I was already almost three hours into my climb, and feeling quite smug for making the decision to leave so early.
Sunrise over the Mosquito Range, Twin lakes in the foreground

Parts II, III,IV, V, etc, etc, etc - the ridge
Looks like keystone cops out there!
Ellingwood Ridge, just like most ridges, offers somewhat straightforward route-finding problems.  Stay on top when you can, escape to one side or the other when the ridge proper is impassible, regain the ridge when sensible.  Almost all of the escapes on La Plata are on the climber's left (east) side. Right away, I could tell that my day was going to be much more complex than it would be in say a month or so.  Snow of varying qualities guarded much of the easy passages below the ridge's most difficult portions.

First look at the summit

Looking back at the first problem

Let me take a moment and share reason #4,243 why I love to be in the mountains.  They teach me patience.  Instead of banging my head against a wall, panicking, or complaining about the difficult section, I've gotten much better at "listening" to the mountain.  What is it giving me?  Weighing alternative solutions to a problem that has been laid out in front of me takes time, and many factors need to be taken into account.  I've found I can't force decisions...just relax, and the solution will come.

A few examples of the snow on the east side of the ridge

The ridge itself ran consistently between 13,000' and 13,200'.  La Plata's summit loomed impossibly far away in the background for much of this portion, and never seemed to get closer. Each blind corner led to yet another and another, and I really had to take care on the snow when I'd drop to the east to bypass difficulties on the ridge.  I realized how easy it would be to get discouraged, so I broke it up into small parts.  Again - patience.  I worked away at it very slowly, backtracking often to find the easiest possible way through the labyrinth.  Sadly, there was nothing notable about this stretch.  No close calls.  No easy stretches.  No new views.  Just step after step of making progress on the ridge.   

East La Plata
I would say the net effect of the snow on the ridge's east side was that I was both more willing to stay on the ridge when I otherwise wouldn't, and to also look to the ridge's west side a bit more than I otherwise would.  It also consumed a LOT of time - seven hours into my day and I was still in the midst of the ridge, wondering how long it could be until...

Suddenly, East La Plata was before me.

Part III - ridge to summit
The view up to East La Plata was admittedly daunting, but I recalled the route description saying it was actually easier scrambling than the ridge itself.  Again, I found it to be challenging given the mixed conditions.  One thought that really didn't get in my head was worry about having to turn around deep into the route - I figured if I was able to negotiate the first of many cruxes on the ridge, I'd be able to negotiate them all...I just needed a little patience.

Left?  Right?  How about up the middle?
As it turned out, some of the most challenging terrain lay on this stretch.  The snow had filled in more spots than on the ridge.  Unfortunately, many of the 'walk in the park' contours around challenging obstacles weren't there for me.  Over eight hours after I had started, though, I had reached the summit of East La Plata.  From here, I found one or two sets of footsteps from folks who had ventured over to the eastern sub-peak from the main summit earlier in the day.  I was glad to not have to expend energy on anything other than following footsteps.  The footsteps led me to the summit, where I looked at my watch - I had been going for nine hours even.  It was noon and I had the summit to myself.

On East La Plata's summit...and tired.
Part IV - descent
I made quick work to get down the mountain, spending just enough time on the summit to grab some food and water.  I followed the standard route down, looking for opportunities to glissade or plunge step on snow fields.  Unfortunately, it had softened up too much to do anything but posthole, so I kept to the rocks for the majority of the descent.  Just to get it done and over with, I broke into a jog once I got near tree line.  After a nine hour climb, it took under two hours to descend.  Go figure!

I was looking for a challenge, and Ellingwood Ridge proved to be just that.  Having successfully climbed it today brought me a great deal of satisfaction.  I'm sure there's a saying out there about great challenges offer great rewards or something.  I'll leave with that famous quote.


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