La Plata Peak (14,336'), Sawatch Range, July 7th, 2013

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It almost felt like returning to the Golden Years. Having gone without hiking a 14er in two years, I was growing increasingly giddy all week at the prospect of climbing a 14er again. And not just any 14er, but a “new” 14er, one of 5 left on my list of 58. And with my classic hiking buddy Tom joining me, it would feel like the good ‘ol days again. There’s something about exploring a new mountain, taking on a new challenge, and coming away with an intimate experience in learning the mountain’s “personality”.


La Plata in 14er card form

The forecast looked iffy all week, with storms predicted at a 60% chance outside the 3am-10am window for Sunday. But, given the few chances to hit the mountains (being a new dad), I was willing to give it a chance, even if meant driving 3.5hrs each way for nothing. Fortunately, the forecast improved Saturday morning, putting my spirits high as we left Fort Collins at 3pm.

On the way down, we stopped at the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative offices in Golden, were I donated 5 boxes worth of 14er products to distribute to volunteers: 144 decks of 14er playing cards, 1000+ postcards, 20 passports, 10 shirts.


Donating all sorts of 14er products at CFI headquarters in Golden, CO...

Back on the road, we passed the tunnel at Idaho Springs, and noticed eastbound traffic was backed up to Georgetown due to the tunnel expansion. It was only Saturday at 5pm, and we feared what traffic might be while returning on Sunday, on a holiday weekend no less.

We made a stop at the Downieville Conoco to drop off some 14er card samples, and then ate dinner at Subway in Leadville. Before leaving town, I left samples at the mountain shop in town, and also dropped off an order at Saturday’s Discount (one of the best gas station/store in CO!).

We drove south, gazing up at Mt Elbert as we drove by. Elbert just doesn't look like it should be the tallest peak. Kind of looks like a big mound. I think I'll save it for my last 14er.

After a stop at the Twin Lakes General Store, to meet the new owners Kim and Carl, we arrived at the La Plata Peak Trailhead where we noticed 2 cars still in the lot at ~7:15pm. Since there was still 1.5hrs of light, we drove another 15 minutes up to Independence Pass, and took photos as the low hanging sun occasionally broke through the hazy clouds to the west.


Flowers atop Independence Pass…


Tom enjoys walking in the evening light on Independence Pass…



La Plata Peak (14,336’) is lit with alpenglow. Our route would be along the ridge leading down to the bottom left corner…

After 30-40 minutes, we return down to La Plata's trailhead, where just 1 car remained. There was a small but nicely flat area near the parking lot to camp, so Tom begin setting up his bivy. I started chatting with the person in the other vehicle (NY plates), whose first words were "You doing the Ellingwood Ridge?"

Years ago, I envisioned hiking La Plata via the long and jagged Ellingwood Ridge, but this time we would just be taking the standard NW route. Turns out this guy, John, had been blazing across the 14ers lately, aiming to do as many "classic routes" (in Roach's book) as he could. The other car we saw an hour ago from from someone that took 15hr hiking La Plata via Ellingwood. Certainly a long undertaking. John was very fascinated hearing Tom and my tales of 14er experiences in CO.

Stars were starting to appear in the sky, so I decided I would sleep under the stars tonight, rather than in the trunk of my car. It looked like the rain would hold. But first I took some night photos from the trailhead. Almost convinced myself to drive back up to Independence Pass for some night pics, but decided to try to get some rest instead.


A pic of Tom in front of La Plata. A photo of Tom’s bivy lit up under the trees…


I caught an airplane moving across the late evening sky…

Turns out, I wouldn't get any sleep that night, so maybe I should have gone back up to the Pass. ~1:45am, I felt a few light sprinkles too, and again 30 minutes later. This wouldn't be the first time I'd hike a 14er on no sleep. I wasn't worried a bit. Now maybe driving back home tomorrow on no sleep and after a big hike... Nah, I've done plenty on little sleep.

I ended up waking Tom at 3:30am, ahead of our 4am alarm, to get a jump on the day. A little after 4am, we started down the dirt road donning our headlamps under a moonless sky. I could tell there were patches of thin clouds that blocked stars in portions of the sky.

In .25 miles, we found the trail to the left of the dirt road, and followed the dirt path. I led, and took a wrong turn at the creek, missing a bridge in the dark. It was just a couple of minutes to retrace our steps, and cross a sturdy bridge over the sound of gushing water.


A quick look at the milky way at 4am, before hitting the trail. 2nd pic: Early morning light in the valley ~5am...


A look up and back while climbing out of the valley...


Aiming for the ridgeline ahead…


Looking back after reaching a grassy ledge and 6x6’ boulder...


Lots of green grass on this slope...


Sunlight reaches the far side of the valley...


The grass fades as we near the ridge...


Wow, what a view! The sun, still shrouded by clouds, has crested over Ellingwood Ridge to the east...


The wind was still all morning, as we continued up the ridge...


The snow fields were easily avoidable...


Pockets of grass and yellow flowers appeared, well above 13,000’. But for the most part, the trail was rocky...


A cairn stands out against the skyline, looking west...


The summit finally comes into view...

We arrived on the summit of La Plata at 7:30am, 3.5hrs after the start of our hike. Not bad for 4,500’ of gain.


Tom takes a seat on the summit of La Plata...


A look to the south, from La Plata...

I figured there wouldn’t be anyone else reaching the summit for a long time, given our early start, and fast pace, but a short time after we reached the summit, I was shocked to see a shirtless figure making his way across the summit block.

A trail runner made it to the top in 1hr 27 minutes! He was training for the Pikes Peak ascent run. All he had on him was a shirt tied at the waist. Amazing! He started his descent after only a couple of minutes rest at the top.

It was time to take photos, and get some 14er card and passport product placement shots.


A shirtless running appeared on the summit with 10 minutes of us. I set up the cards and passports for pics...


14er cards and passports on La Plata Peak! Available at www.14ercards.com


I hauled up the 70-200mm zoom lens, since La Plata was nicely situated around many 14ers. But the hazy morning skies made photos very difficult. I ended up having to post process them a ton to get something barely useable.


Mt Elbert. Mt Massive.


Huron Peak. Snowmass Peak.


Maroon Bells. Castle/Conundrum Peak.

Wildlife was active on the summit. A marmot chirped on the north side of the summit, and a couple of brown-capped rosy-finch birds hung out with us. Made for good use of the telephoto lens.


This red part of a mountain kept attracting our eye. As did this marmot...


Marmot pics...


I caught him in mid chirp with this 2nd pic...



Pics of the brown-capped rosy-finch bird...


These birds are native only to Colorado and New Mexico, and nest in high elevations...



A few more product placement shots for www.14ercards.com...


And a token self portrait. 1st 14er self portrait in 2 years. I’m looking older...

We left the summit after hanging out for 70 minutes. On the descent, we climbed a pile of rocks that Tom thought might be East La Plata. But turns out we were on the west side of La Plata, and it was only a 30’ pile of rocks.


The trailhead is at the lowest point in the valley below...


A look back at the summit before the main descent...


Some cool cairns on the trail...


Nearly the departure from the ridge (to the left)...


One last appearance by 14er cards and Passport to the 14ers, before returning to the valley...


Some flowers along the trail...


Passport to the 14ers hangs out near some columbine flowers...


The trail was a bit slippery and slanty in parts, as it entered the forest...



Scenes from near the start of the trail...


A small waterfall and chasm at the beginning of the trail...

We returned to the car ~10:45am, about 2hrs since we left the summit. The parking lot was full of cars, as we heading back towards Twin Lakes.

We debated heading to Buena Vista, to take Route 285 back to Denver, in hopes of avoiding the potential traffic back-up on 70, but decided against it. Too bad, cause traffic was stop and go from the Eisenhower tunnel all the way to Idaho Springs, which amounted to an hour extra delay on the road. Driving stick-shift in stop and go traffic after hiking 4500’ of gain on no sleep is not ideal. Luckily I found some old Nirvana bootleg tapes in my car, and zoned out while re-living my youth.

And thus 14er #54 was in the books. Just Princeton, Elbert, Massive, and Sneffels left.


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