Sunday, August 16, 2015

Colorado's 14ers: La Plata Peak Ascent


Because I am an Indiana boy who lives below 400 feet in elevation and who drives 2200-3200 roundtrip miles to climb the tallest peaks in Colorado each summer, I am a proud member of the 14er community. The term "14ers" refers to both the mountains having summits that sit above 14,000 ft in elevation and to the people who climb them with hopes of reaching all 54 of the official summits. Though many of the people I meet on the rocky slopes are 14ers who reside in Colorado, I have been fortunate enough to meet and climb with people from all over the US, and from Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. Even a few of the foreigners consider themselves 14ers because, like me, they travel yearly to climb a handful of summits.

I started climbing Colorado's 14ers in 2005 with an ascent of Longs Peak. I was immediately hooked despite the fact that the preferred serenity of a mountain trail experience was illuminated by the one hundred plus headlamps I passed in the night and despite the festival-like aura created by the dozens of triumphant climbers who joined me on the summit during my ninety-five minute stay.

Over the next five summers I managed to climb 49 different 14ers. Though I have not yet summited those last five "official" 14ers, I have reached 14er summits another 35 times. Twice I've been turned back by weather. (I don't start up if the weather is questionable) I've also climbed nineteen 13ers. Many of the initial climbs were completed using sometimes hard to find trails that ended on alpine boulder slopes that had to be negotiated in order to reach the summits. The 14ers Trails Initiative has created and maintained newer well developed single track trails leading to cairn-guided boulder paths near the summits. Most of the repeat summits were achieved by using more technical routes such as rocky ridge lines instead of trails. I used the Ellingwood Ridge route, which I accessed from Hope Pass, during my second and most adventurous ascent of La Plata in 2010.

It is worth confessing that after I caught the 14er bug on The Narrows near Long's Peak summit I became a "peak bagger." I've heard the peak bagger defined in several ways and most of them are derogatory. Worse yet, I was a peak bagger with high endurance and an even higher pain threshold. That led me to climb two or three mountains in a single morning and to climb eight to ten mountains in four or five days. It became more sport than play, adventure, or fun. (Still, what I did was nowhere near the incredible effort put out by Andrew Hamilton in July 2015 when he climbed to all 58 14er summits in less than nine days and 22 hours.)

Oh, I enjoyed myself and absorbed nature with every gasp and glimpse, but I climbed with a single mission of conquering all 58 14er summits. (Note: There are 58 summits above 14K feet, but four of them to not meet the "rules" dealing with proximity and saddle height.) My attitude changed on the morning that an irresponsible climber 800 feet above me on the steep scree descent from the Mt. Columbia summit knocked a dozen football to beachball sized stones loose. Several of those stones careened and crashed all the way down the mountainside. They reached me at 35-45 mph, passing over and around me as I dove several times to avoid being hit. A quick inventory of my bloody body was followed by the realization that I could have been killed. And that mind opener preceded a whistle, an "I'm OK" overhead wave, and an emotional double bird. The run through the valley leading to my car allowed me to assimilate a new approach to 14ering. (Ha! Now that's a word to me!)

Every climb since has been more enjoyable and rewarding. I still push myself hard sometimes, but my focus on coming to "know" the mountain I'm ascending/descending allows me to experience a relaxing nature walk - even at 95% of my maximum heart rate.

I climbed eleven mountains in five states this summer. Four of them were CO 14ers. The last mountain I climbed was scribbled onto my "must do" list when I changed my itinerary while sipping a stout at Fargo Brewing in Fargo, North Dakota. A third ascent of La Plata Peak had suddenly become an important adventure for my summer travels.

A month later I shouldered my summit pack while standing in a gravel lot next to CO 82 under a dimly lit clear blue sky just after sunrise. It was sure that rain would come as it had every day for more than a week, but that blue sky added some pep to my step as I jogged up the gravel road to the trailhead of my favorite 14er. Having carefully packed an incredibly large nutrient and energy laden cookie from the BVRoastery surely added good vibes to the ensuing walk.

Before reaching the trailhead I encountered two young ladies. I asked them if they had been on the summit at sunrise. They glanced at each other with raised eyebrows before one of them told me that they had been forced to turn around - by a damned goat! Both of the ladies carried on about how the "crazy goat" blocked the trail, snorted, and butted its head at them for fifteen minutes before they finally retreated back down the mountain. They also said that I would soon encounter two guys who were turned around by the goat.

I couldn't help but laugh along with them. Nevertheless, I found myself agitated about the prospect of an encounter with a "giant" goat which seemed to claim proprietorship of MY favorite 14er. I didn't know the behavior of goats to predict how to act, but that didn't stop me from coming up with and mentally preparing myself for a few scenarios. And I smiled thinking about the added adventure that might be standing high above me.

Several people have asked me why I like La Plata above all of the other 48 14ers I've summited. Some thought on the matter made me realize that I like this mountain climb for its varied terrain which ranges from a lush stream-side forest to numerous switchbacks up two near vertical slopes to the negotiation of a boulder field. The views of the surrounding Sawatch Mountains and ridge lines add to the lure of this mountain. Then again, perhaps it was due in part to the experience I had during my first climb of La Plata.

I used the standard route during my first ascent of La Plata ten years earlier (almost to the day of this year's climb up the same route). I found myself alone on the trail that day as it was a weekday and the weather was threatening with storms already on nearby peaks. Upon reaching the boulder field I found little evidence of a clear route, so I directed my path toward the highest point in my view.

While hopping across a gap between boulders I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. My startled adjustment nearly made me fall. Then I was pleasantly surprised again when I realized that I'd seen movement of a woman's head. She was going around the rocks I was bounding over. We exchanged hellos and I slowed to continue up with her. Honestly, I was worried about her since I had not seen anyone and quickly learned that the other car at in the trailhead lot was hers.

Before we reached the summit I also learned that she was a 78-year-old nun who had retired from teaching. She, too, was a 14er who planned to summit all 58 peaks. The woman I first saw as a fragile elderly woman turned out to be a powerful and sure-footed climber. I was in awe. Note: We took a selfie with a camera from another era but I can't find it in that giant box of photos. If/when I do find it I will digitize it to post it here and on other media,)

I did not meet a nun this year, but I did meet some interesting people. They included a retired couple who live in a motor home and write about their travels, a caregiver and his young client/friend, a couple of fellow midwestern flatlanders, and a goat. Most of us got along just fine.

It is hard to put the emotion of this hike into words. (I'd received good news from home the day before while at the BVRoastery) It is just as difficult to distill the experience into a few pictures. Below you will find my attempt to capture the aura of the experience in some of the photos I took along the trail. It was a magical day for me. Hopefully you will get a glimpse of why that was so and why I keep climbing those piles of rocks. ST

A solid bridge to cross a stream near the trailhead


A makeshift bridge to cross another smaller stream

Evidence of the 14ers Initiative
At home that heart rate is achieved with a six minute per
mile (10 mph) pace

Ah, now I see you, my friend!


The sub-alpine switchbacks
The guys who were turned back by the goat as they
descend the tree line switchbacks in the chute
Still higher on those switchbacks
Gerber can tell us which peak that is . . .
Finally topping out on those switchbacks with mouth of the narrow
chute from previous shots in the center of this one

That is not a 6x6 stone! More like 8x8.
Finally in the upper switchbacks.
See the trail as it descends to lower switchbacks? (What goat??)
Storms are a brewin'
The boulder field leading to the false summit 

Rocks . . .
A trail leading up a big ole pile of rocks!
Hmmm - I'll take the rocks at right
Getting high in Colorado - the best way!
Summit selfie of the Polar V800 - my everything computer
"He smiled, but behind him a storm was taking shape."
The damned goat. I met him as I ran the descent to escape a pending storm.
He stood tall enough on the trail to look at me eye-to-eye. When he snorted,
lowered his horns, and moved toward me I growled like a bear and ran at
him. This shot was of him turning back at me after fleeing the trail.
A shamed goat who lost at a game of chicken (Whew!)
That track is where I planted my butt and glissaded several hundred meters.
The clouds in the background are forming around La Plata's summit.
Lightning storms be damned. This is a photo op.
Running down - Do not trip. Do not trip. Do NOT trip! (Whew!)
Lightning strike victim
The BVRoastery summit cookie. There was a third one waiting in the car:)



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