La Plata Peak: North Face

La Plata Peak – 14,336′
Northern Sawatch Range, Colorado
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Ascent via Northwest Ridge
Descent via North Couloirs
Crew: Adam (aka Your Narrator), Jaime (aka The Burly Dude aka The Gaff Leader), Jacob (aka The Bong Gaffer aka The Summit Toker)

This weekend was supposed to be my “graduation trip” from the CMC Ski Mountaineering course. Overall I thought the course was kind of lame (30 or so gapers yo-yoing trees on most of the trips). However, if I hadn’t had taken the class, I never would have met the Burly Dude, who also happened to be the splitboard instructor. He started the class in March with 3 students, and now he was down to the only one willing (or crazy enough) to follow him up and down the sickest lines the Rockies have to offer.We bailed out of Denver at 6 pm last Friday with plans to escape “urbanization” and have an epic Memorial Day weekend. The Sawatch Range was our destination, although we were still torn between Elbert or La Plata. The Box Creek Cirque of Elbert has the repuation of one of the all-time classic ski descents with 4,000 feet of continous corn. However, Chris Davenport’s TR of La Plata’s north face had us totally stoked for a steep couloir ride. As we made our way south of Leadville, Elbert grew more and more appealing, but we decided to head up to the La Plata trailhead to see what it was like. The Burly Dude had planned to meet The Bong Gaffer somewhere on Route 82, but without phone service, the possibility of finding the guy was getting slim. It was near dark when we reached the La Plata peak trailhead, and not soon after arriving did a dark pickup truck pull up next to us with a toked-out New Mexican at the helm with a wild Cheshire Cat-like grin.“Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be The Burly Dude?” the stranger asked. The Bong Gaffer turned out to be chilling on the side of the road when he just happened to look up to see my Silver Subaru streak by with a set of splitboards on the roof. Now that the team was assembled, we were able to put our heads together and decide what line to hit the next day. We decided to head back down the road to the Elbert Trailhead, but got quite confused by Lou Dawson’s description of the trailhead start, and since I had a misprint of Roach’s book that was missing Elbert and Massive (“when will I ever climb those two?” I contemplated at the time of buying the $5 misprint…cheap-ass), we were out of beta. It was already 10pm and after a little bit of shit-talking and debating, we finally made the decision to head back up to the La Plata trailhead and hit up the north face.

I finally got settled into my sleeping bag around 11 and set the alarm for 4am. Surprisingly, it was either a very warm night or just a warm location, because I slept well in my 15 degree down bag without getting the chills like most camping experiences. I was actually up at 3 with anticipation for the climb, and tossed and turned until the alarm finally went off.

“Yo, Burl…lets get on it!” I yelled to the motionless shape 30 yards away. He shot up and went over to the truck to rouse the Bong Gaffer, to no avail. I fired up the Jetboil and made some instant coffee and oatmeal while getting all the gear ready to go. Finally, when we were just about ready, sounds of movement came from the pickup.

“Are you guys ready to go?” The Bong Gaffer asked.
“Yeah man, we’ve been eating breakfast waiting on you.”
“Oh, cool…I’ll be ready in a second.”

The truck was silent for a second, and then I heard a recognizable percolating sound, and our third partner emerged, dressed and ready to hit the trail.

The sun was rising as we crossed over the roaring waterfall of South Fork Lake Creek. We took the standard Northwest Ridge route, so we never saw our descent line until almost to the summit. However, as we made it to treeline, it was no later than 6am and I could see the northeast face of Sayers Peak already starting to get baked. Our line on La Plata was more true north facing, but since it was almost June, I knew we had to rally to get up there before the snow got too wet.

Making our way up the northwest ridge as the sun was starting to hit.

Many people will tell you that La Plata’s standard route is a “long-ass slog”. They are not joking. The full weight of my snowboard was doing its work on my back as I scrambled up the skree and talus to the ridge. While technically a class 2 hike, it was one of the toughest climbs I can remember doing. We even got passed by some alpinists from CO Springs: G.I. Joe and his Swedish blondie companion. The Burly Dude started to contemplate some options for making the guy disappear and running off with the girl, but I reminded him that our true mission was to hit the couloir, and that pushing an American Soldier off a mountain on Memorial Day weekend would not bring good karma to our party.

Bluebird on the summit

As usual, I summited the mountain about 20 minutes later than everyone else. I found The Burly Dude playing around with his ice axe (that Swedish girl must have really gotten to him) and The Bong Gaffer looking quite content sitting in the rock wind wall.

“VIC-TORY!!!” (I’m sorry but I just had to do it!)

View of the Elk Range to the West

Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive to the North

“We’ve got the line all scoped out, you’re gonna freak,” The Burly Dude told me. The sky was bluebird and it was still a little early, so we hung out for another 30 minutes before packing it up for the descent.

We were able to descent directly from the summit (about 10 yards skier’s right of the summit is the entrance to the couloir). Amazingly, the entire upper section was full of winter-like powder! The couloir extended about 1500 feet before opening up to a nice corn apron. We took turns at the lead, ensuring each rider a substantial amount of virgin snow to carve up. There were some tricky sections, but nothing extremely steep or tight. I would rate this couloir as a definite classic.

The Burly Dude starting the descent

The Bong Gaffer (this crazy bastard took a standing leap over a rock straight into the gut of the couloir…he called in an “ollie”)

“Don’t gaff out!”

Our lines from the upper section

Complete descent line in red

During the hike out to camp is when things started to get bad. To get out of the La Plata basin, we had to traverse over the northwest ridge back to the South Fork Lake Creek gulch. This was not easy, especially in the wet nasty snow. As we made our way across one of the very steep drainages, I lost my footing (I was first on skins, then in boots) and slid down a very steep face about 100 feet before I could self arrest. Without radios, I tried to yell up to my partners who had already crossed over to the western drainage.

“Get up here!” I could barely hear The Burly Dude yelling from somewhere above.
“I fell!” I responded.
“Stop…fuck….climb…fuck….fucking!” was basically all I could make out from the echo of his yelling (isn’t it amazing how even in the worst conditions you can still recognize the word “fuck” over most other mumblings?) , but it was obvious to me that he was getting upset.

I tried to climb back up the steep slope, but the snow was already melted and just postholed to nothingness, and couldn’t even find the solid ground to push myself up on. Skinning wasn’t an option: it was too steep to grab an edge. The only chance I had was to ride the snowboard on a hard traverse and make it out to the western drainage (which I knew was dry), somewhere below my companions, and hike back up. That did not work out as I planned. Even though I picked the most direct line, I got deeper and deeper into the woods. Finally I had no choice but to pack the board and bushwack my way out. I spent the next three hours climbing over downed trees in the La Plata basin drainage. I had a map and compass, and the view of Ellingwood Ridge to my right, but nothing but dense forests to my left. I figured that if I just kept heading left (west), I would eventually cross over the ridge and find the standard route trail, which would take me over the wooden bridge and back to camp.

I never found the trail. I ended up all the way at the river drainage. It was almost 5pm and the sun was beginning to go down in the western sky. I kept stumbling across lightly worn trails, and I would follow them, but then they would disappear. My boots were soaking wet. At this point I was really starting to freak out, and the possibility of spending the night in the wilderness was becoming real. I did a mental check of my condition. I didn’t have a sleeping bag or pad to stay insulated through the night, but
I knew I had a lighter and some paper, and there was more than enough dead wood lying about to make a fire to keep warm.

As I was making my way up the South Fork Lake Creek, repeating Hail Marys and wishing I hadn’t laughed so much at Bear Gryll’s antics on TV, I spotted something I thought I’d never be so excited to see: the bridge we had crossed during the early light twelve hours before. I screamed in excitement and ran for the bridge, bounded up and over the last remaining hill and saw the welcoming sight of my car and the other truck.

“Whoop whoop!” I yelled, expecting to see my two companions, but I only saw The Bong Gaffer. Apparently The Burly Dude had waited up top for me to climb up. I was informed that he was going to wait two hours and then eventually hike down. After hearing about the selfless actions of the group leader and class instructor, I felt even worse, but there was nothing I coulud do but sit around at with the spaced-out New Mexican and his plastic Graffix and wait.

Not more than 20 minutes after my return, our last party member made his way down to the trailhead. Expecting to get reamed out…I immediatly reached in the cooler for an ice cold one and offered it to the grim face before me. But there was no reaming.

“I’m glad you’re here” he said.
“I’m glad you’re here” I replied.

As freaked out as I was while lost in the woods, I could tell he was even more freaked out at a failed responsibility. But now that the crew was together again, we were finally able to relax and resume the shit-talking about hitting up more lines the next day.

After debating the possibility of hitting Elbert the next day, we decided to save it for next year and stick with plan A: return to the front range and hit up Mt. Evans now that the road was open to summit lake.

On the way out, we stopped in the tiny town of Twin Lakes. While in the car waiting for the Bong Gaffer at the Liqour Store, we were looking at a nice little log cabin on the side of the road.

“Man, I’d love to live that life,” The Burly Dude said, in reference to the simple cabin life. While staring at the cabin, its tenant emerged. He was a bearded looking gentleman with a hunters vest and a big belt buckle. He stopped and stared back at us…saying nothing.

“We’re just checking out your cabin” I said in a friendly tone (no need to upset the locals on our way out)
“Oh…its very nice…gets cold sometimes” he said in a very boring and dry tone. He stopped there and kept on staring. “You boys look familiar…”
“We’ve been in a few movies,” I fibbed, hoping to catch the townie off guard.
“Extreme skiing…” The Burly Dude played along with my game
“That’s right….Chris, right?” The Townie responded (directing towards The Burly Dude as if they were old friends. “How is the skiing quest going? Still have the website?”

I almost lost my composure at this point. Was this really happening? This Twin Lakes local believes that the ski bum sitting next to me is Chris Davenport?! The Burly Dude caught on right away, and took the opportunity to keep it going.

“Website is looking great…you should check it out. We just skiied La Plata today” he said.
“Oh, we’ll we’re glad you boys are here!” at this point the man was right next to my window.

On the other side of the car, The Bong Gaffer emerged and was confronted by the townie. Apparently I should have never judged this book by its cover (or belt buckle), but this guy turned out to have some excellent beta on Mt. Evans, our destination for the next day. He even told us a wild story about how he “had to haul two dogs up the route using some webbing…” The following video is a little amateur but great for a laugh.
Finally, we had to part ways with our new friend (who no doubt was on his way to the local pub to let everyone know that ‘Chris’ had stopped by again) and head back up north for tomorrow’s adventure.

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