|Peaks:||La Plata Peak - 14,336 feet|
19-21 Feb Shavano attempt called at 12,200' due to black avalanche conditions (Matt, Sean, and Micah)
28 Feb- Shavano gear recovery mission (Micah, Matt, Baz)
13 Mar- La Plata Success (Micah, Jeremy, Baz)
The plan at the beginning of this year was to bag at least 1 14er summit in every calendar month. Note the term "at least" because spring, summer, and fall will obviously be more peaks. With success and a fun trip climbing Kelso Ridge at night, camping on the summit of Torreys, and bagging Greys the next day in January, the year was off to a good start.
Then came February. Even with starting off with the first week in February, I had no success with my goal that month. It doesn't help that I have had college classes every other Sat until noon. Why go to college? All of this gear is friggin expensive and has to be paid for.
Like many times, my friend Matt and I over-aspired and decided that we wanted to conquer the coveted route of Ellingwood ridge in calendar winter. While I am confident in our abilities that we have the skills and are fully capable, our first mistake was that we attempted this on one of those weekends that I had school. We arrived at the La Plata TH at about 3:30 and were on foot by about 4:30 PM on Sat 6 Feb to find some of Matt's church friends that just finished snowshoeing at the TH. This was awesome because it wasn't planned. You must understand that along with camping gear, and winter gear, we were required to carry mountaineering ropes, harnesses and some other climbing accessories to weigh us down.
Our goal was to make treeline by dark, and the top of the ridge at about 12,700 before bedding down for a night bivy. From there we would take 1-2 days to conquer the ridge, summit La Plata and return via the standard winter Northwest Ridge route. After departing and just boot packing down the first ½ mile or so of road and ½ mile or so of trail, we arrived at the point where the standard trail took a hard right and we began to cut our own trail. For anyone that hasn't been in the Sawatch this season, the snow is super fluffy. No matter that we had snowshoes, this was one of the last pictures before the pain started.
After this, we were sinking up to our thighs trying to get to treeline under the start of Ellingwood ridge. With only 2 people to cut trail, our body temps were super high with our fast beating pulses. After a while, the darkness set in and we could see based off of our progress that we were still at least a good full hour to treeline. Because we did not meet our goal of treeline by dark, we decided to call off Ellingwood ridge. 2 good hours of hard sweating and we had to bail. We decided to go for the standard winter ridge route and instead of cutting hours of new trail, we decided to return via our freshly cut trail back to the main trail some 2 miles back. The return was easy going and we made it back in about 45 minutes. From there, with our new plans, we continued ascent on our newly cut trail looking for the flatter contour area on the ridge around 11,500'.
Eventually, we made our campsite, stomped out the area, set up the tent and built a fire. After awaking at daybreak and having some backpacker's pantry biscuits and gravy, we made our way towards treeline. You know you are getting close when you look back at the other mountains and you appear to be level with tree line over there.
Arriving at the treeline crux, there were a couple of guys with a beautiful husky that were packing up that had summited the evening before. It appeared that their route on the "crux" worked well for them so we decided to trace their line. It was a beautiful morning. We ditched our snowshoes under where it got steep and switched into crampons and we were off.
As soon as we gained the top of the crux, we were slammed with heavy 35+ MPH winds.
We did get this awesome view of our coveted Ellingwood ridge.
We pressed along this abnormally long ridge as the wind levels increased until we arrived at about 13,300'. To the north weather looked great.
Unfortunately, we didn't get any pics but the reason we turned back was because the winds picked up so strong we could barely stand and there were dark clouds appearing to be moving fast from the south west. Neither one of us felt like being stuck in a blizzard so we called it. Now 1000' from the summit and we were bailing. I can't believe it. We took some bummed out self portraits and made our hasty descent.
Fairly fast, we returned to our camp at 11,500. After a beer, we packed up.
With no success, we returned home recharged with the zen from the mountains, but a longing for redemption.
As a break from La Plata, Matt, Sean and I planned our next trip to leave Colorado springs on 19 Feb (Friday) after work. As it turns out, this was one of the biggest snow storms of the season. We leave Colorado Springs at around 7 PM on Friday and head for Buena Vista. Figuring we were already late, we decided to stop into Eddyline to see what all of the fuss has been about. Unfortunately, we were not very impressed. We were expecting a brew pub type atmosphere and we discovered a restaurant. Our next step was to order a beer. Sean and I ordered Ambers and Matt ordered the Porter. The porter had hops and you could see through it and it did not even somewhattaste like a porter. It was more like a weak IPA. Being unimpressed with the beer, we made the command decision not to stick around for an expensive pizza and risk being further disappointed. We stopped at City Market because it was the only place open after 8PM in the town and got some day old Jo Jo fries and fried chicken for dinner at a discounted price. Finally, after a long and snowy drive, we arrive at the point in the road where we can't drive any farther in my wife's Honda CR-V at 3 miles from the summer TH. We pack our gear and are ready to step off as two other guys show up in a Subaru. They decide to camp at the trailhead for a ski/ride down the angel the following day. With already 8+ fresh inches of snow we began down the road.
It was snowing so hard, having a headlamp on was blinding as the beam reflected off of the snow came down. The front man had to hike using light from behind. We hiked 2.2 miles before deciding to call it a night at .8 miles from the summer trailhead. Thank God we had my new (to me) 4 season mountain hardwear 2 man tent. The three of us setup and crashed for the night. We awoke at daybreak, made our water and oatmeal and stepped off. The other 2 dudes passed by about 20 minutes before we stepped off and we caught up to them at the summer TH. It was still snowing hard and never let up. With 5 of us to cut trail, we made our slow progress toward the top of the mountain. Once again, the snow was agonizing averaging thigh deep the entire time. By 4 PM, we made it to about 11,700 where the other 2 guys made their hasty descent and we setup camp for the night. With a fire to dry off and 2 rounds of dinner, we hit the sack with hopes for a couple of summits the next morning. Sunday we woke up, readied our equipment and stepped off.
At around 12K feet, the snow looked about like this:
If you didn't notice from my other pics, I carry a pistol on my belt. Well just before picture 14, I dropped it gun (holdster included), and did not realize it at the time. Whoops. As you can see in picture 15, it was not there
At this point, the now 14" new snow was a heavy pack on some old hoarfrost layers. There were cracks and whumphs all over and we weren't even on steep slopes yet. At about 12'200 we were running short on trees and there was a large snow slope sitting at about 25 degrees. With one large crack, we decided to begin cutting some blocks and testing the snow. After clearing the front and sides, we began to cut the back. As soon as the back was cut, the block released on its own. OUCH! At only 25 degrees, we were scared to continue on. We turned back, packed up camp and sustained the pounding snow on the way down. After reaching the ridge at about 10,000', I look down to realize that my pistol and holdster is not on my belt. OH NO! I knew that I hadn't fallen in a while so it had to be far up there. With my two hiking partners being exhausted, they set up a shelter and I dropped pack and headed back up to look. They told me I had an hour and a half and they were coming to look for me. Without a pack, I kicked butt. It took me about 45 minutes to get back to 12 K and I was looking in every awkward hole in hopes that I would spot my pistol. In no time, I reached our turn around point. I dug and scraped all of the snow away in the area and had no luck. I quickly descended back to our camp site and thoroughly searched there with no luck. From there, I made excellent time and made it back to the 10K spot with my partners in about 10 minutes. I was so distraught that I lost my pistol. We finished out the hike in the heavy snow.
After a stop at Amicas in Salida on the way home, we drove back to Colorado Springs with a blizzard for the remainder of the drive.
With a low probability for success, Matt agreed to head out with me the following weekend and take some metal detectors to search for my gun. He was brave for doing this because his wife was full term pregnant at this point. After borrowing one metal detector and purchasing another, we headed out early Sunday 28 feb from Colorado Springs at about 3 AM. I offered to rent him some Nordic skis for the 3+ mile approach to the TH and use Dancesatmoonrise's method. I have been watching that in the reports and nothing beats not sliding back to the car. This time we were only able to park the car 3 ¼ miles from the summer TH and set off from there with my mountain loving dog, Baz. Going up the road was about the same pace as snowshoes although we were able to ski the downhill sections which was a nice bonus. Although there wasn't too much new snow, it was deep off of the packed trail.
I didn't really get too many photos of this trip but all in all, we knew we didn't have to start detecting until we were between 10 and 12K because that's where I lost it. At 10K, we busted out the detectors and began our slow scan. After a while, we made it to our old camp site and had no luck. After a rest we continued on. At almost our max elevation from before just above picture 14, I found it. UNBELIEVABLE! It was buried about a foot under the trail right in the center. I was so excited. After ensuring that it was aimed in a safe direction with a safe background, I proceeded to fire it. Buried in the snow for a week, and it fired like a champ. Amazing! The search ended up taking too long to make a shot at the summit so we took another rest back at camp and headed down. Oh how nice to carry a day pack and not have to carry all of that winter camping gear.
So there I was, elated that I found my gun but saddened that I had 3 trips to the mountains with no summits. It was time for some redemption. 13 March was my day. I talked my good friend Jeremy into tagging along. It was time for him to gain a summit as well. After moving to Colorado last year, we have brought Jeremy on 3 other 14er trips and the worst things always happen and he has yet to grab a summit. At no fault to him, he has not had success. He is a great climber, partner, and winter companion but we have not had success. I think we probably need to bring him on a summer hike to a 14er at some point to show him how easy they really can be. After getting out of school on Saturday, I met Jeremy downtown Colorado Springs at the St. Patty's day 5K to watch our friend Rachel run. We left from there at about noon and arrived at the Trailhead at about 2:30 PM. I was excited and ready to go with my new Scarpa $400 boots I got on sale at Moutnain Chalet for $269 and my new 700 fill puff and new goretex pants from the REI garage sale. These items were making me feel much more confident than my older gear.
With a packed trail we stepped off at about 3:00 PM and headed out with Baz for our summit. The plan was tentatively to make it to treeline just below the crux on the ridge and assess if we would make a shot for night or chance that the storm for Sunday wouldn't be that bad. At almost treeline Baz was as energized as ever and ready to continue on.
In great time, we arrive at treeline crux of the ridge. There is definitely a good amount of new snow from a month ago.
We stomped out a good area that was a safe distance from the slide area and setup the tent. We were both feeling great and the weather was optimal so we decided to ready our packs for a summit. Shortly after, we were off. We saw some new tracks skirting around the crux to the left. I didn't want to mess with that because I knew of the potential slide danger on the side so we made our way up the crux. The last route I had didn't look as safe so we chose a slightly different line that eventually hugged the rocks. The slope was super stable and 10 minutes after dropping the snowshoes at the bottom, we were at the top. Now it was just a long long ridge walk with less wind. There were a few 20 MPH or so gusts but nothing too horrible. Now, the thing with a night hike is that you can't get great pictures. With neither one of researching the moon schedule, we kept waiting for the moon to come out and it never arrived.
I felt great still and I didn't want Jeremy to tire out so I stayed in front with Baz. There were some sections that were hard snow, some dry, and some drifts ranging from a few inches to feet. I just kept kicking steps so Jeremy could follow.
He was amazed at my ability to keep pushing and leading and cutting trail. Eventually we came off of the gentle ridge and began our true ascent. Knowing the terrain to 13,300', I was good. After that, we played the false summit game. With no moon, every section seemed like the summit block and I really didn't feel like pulling out the GPS. Eventually at probably 13,900' Jeremy was tuckered out. This is the nipple to the right and lower from the summit. There were several drifts that we had to crawl over because we were sinking waist deep. I guess we should have carried the snowshoes up from the crux. Knowing the summit was not that far off, Jeremy agreed to wait for me while I gained my redemption. I wouldn't have left him unless I felt that he was safe. There I went, thinking every ridge was the summit. Finally, about half an hour after parting from Jeremy, Baz and I arrived at the summit. There was clearly nothing higher around and it was pitch black minus the stars.
The summit register was probably buried somewhere under here
I sat down and sucked on a clif shot.
I went back to head down to Jeremy, I flashed my light and he flashed his back. He looked pretty close. After I began do descend, I quickly realized that Jeremy was much farther down than I thought. After connecting, we headed down. He was beat down physically and mentally from not getting to the summit and just followed behind me. I was tired as well but overwhelmed with my success. Eventually, we made our way back down the long long ridge and carefully descended the crux. We arrived back at our treeline camp at about 1 AM with the skies still clear. We crawled in our bags while Baz picked the iceballs from his paws. I have found that he can't manage on steep slopes with the grip-trex booties because they just don't have the traction that his crampon like paws have. We got the water boiling and cooked up some chicken a la king out of the dehydrated bag. It was so good and we were so tired. We were glad to be able to sleep in knowing that all we had to do was hit the car.
I awoke to hear howling and screaming winds and snow hitting the tent. The 4 season tent was feeling solid. Not having to climb the next day, I tried a new method of not putting my boots in my bag to keep them from freezing overnight. Sleeping in the mummy bag without boots was absolutely amazing. I peaked outside to see it snowing hard with giant flakes with a out 100' visibility. We cooked up some oatmeal and warmed up. Eventually, we ventured out into the snow. There was already 6 new inches.
Had we woken up to this and were supposed to hike, I most likely would have bailed. I was so glad we opted for the night hike.
I may look like a dork here… like always I guess, but this bended over tree has significance. A month ago on the ellingwood ridge trip to La Plata, we folded over this tree (without breaking it of course) so we would know where we turned off for Ellingwood ridge. Surprisingly, it was still there.
We made it to the car very quickly and were off and back to Buena Vista. With a quick stop at Pancho's, we were headed back to Colorado Springs with snowy roads for the 4th trip in a row. Why does it always snow on the way home?
Anyhow, thanks for reading about our journey's.
See you at the top!