La Plata Peak
LA PLATA PEAK (14,336’)
The hulking mass of La Plata Peak dominates the view to the southeast from the summit of Independence Pass. The peak is easy to identify by its long and jagged northeast Ellingwood Ridge, one of the Colorado fourteeners better known "scramble" mountaineering routes. Don't let the foreboding Ellingwood Ridge give you an extreme first impression; La Plata has plenty of hike, snow climb, and ski routes. Take your pick.
ROADS AND TRAILHEADS
USGS Maps: Mount Elbert, Independence Pass, Mount Harvard
Forest Service Visitors Map: San Isabel National Forest
La Plata Gulch Trailhead
Drive Colorado State Highway 82 (see section 2 trailheads) 8.6 miles E from the Independence Pass Summit or 8 miles W from the town of Twin Lakes. Look for signs indicating the South Fork Road. Park next to the highway in an obvious parking area where the South Fork of Lake Creek Road turns off the highway. In the opinion of authors here at BackcountrySkiingCO.com, While there is a small amount of parking on the South Fork Road, it is more reliable to use the highway parking area and walk the short distance down the road to the actual trail.
Since the same approach is used for all routes from The La Plata Gulch Trailhead, the lower section of trail is described here: From parking next to Highway 82, walk the South Fork Road .3 miles to the actual trail, which leaves the road a few feet past a gate on the left (10,160’). A few signs may indicate the start of the trail. Walk the trail about 100 yards SE to a foot bridge over a small gorge. Continue up the trail to the summit, or leave the trail to access other parts of the mountain. This trail is one of the heavily improved routes built by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. It’s obvious and easy to follow, but bring a map and pay attention.
Drive US Highway 24 for 19 miles S from downtown Leadville or 14.5 miles N from Buena Vista (as in section 1.4 introduction) and turn W onto the well-signed Clear Creek Reservoir Road (Chaffee County 390). Drive the Clear Creek Reservoir Road 11 miles (from Highway 24) to the Winfield Townsite. In Winfield you'll hit a Y intersection. Take a right (N) on a road that looks somewhat like a driveway (FS Road 390A), which will lead you about 1/2 mile to 2-wheel-drive parking in the North Fork of Clear Creek drainage. If you're headed for the south La Plata Peak routes, using 4-wheel-drive to get farther is hardly worth it, since mud and rough sections block the way, and you'll save less than a mile of walking. If you do feel like driving, see the start of the directions for the La Plata South Face. (Don't confuse this trailhead with the South Fork of Clear Creek Trailhead, which is also accessed from Winfield.
La Plata Peak - Northwest Ridge
[use data block in book, ski rating Advanced D8, Lou must change lower portion of trail on map,]
Summer after snow melt-off: Park at the La Plata Gulch Trailhead on the South Fork of Lake Creek Road (section introduction). Use the trail described in the section introduction. After you cross the improved footbridge, continue to La Plata Gulch Creek. Cross La Plata Gulch creek (usually a log bridge) and follow La Plata Gulch about 2 miles. Climb E out of the gulch up the west flank of La Plata Peak to the crest of the North West ridge at about 12,640’. You'll see many possible routes up through the west flank's patchwork of scree, boulders, and snow. Unless snowcover hides it, use the improved trail built by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. As you relax on the summit, study the exciting Ellingwood Ridge. Your next climb perhaps? Descend your ascent route.
Spring snow season: Because of its low 10,000 foot start this route is best skied in the early spring. But if you're willing to dirt hike through the lower woods, it can be rewarding later. Snow climbers will probably find the best snow in early June, but conditions vary from year to year. You can evaluate the route from the summit of Independence Pass.
Winter: This may be the best winter route for La Plata. Yet Highway 82 may not be open to the trailhead. In that case, plan on a multi-day expedition or use a snowmobile for the closed highway, which is a popular snowmobile route.
Safety notes: Be sure to find the footbridge at the beginning of the route –portions South Fork Lake Creek follow a deep chasm that could be dangerous in the dark or with thick snow at the edges. The alpine part of the route is reasonably avalanche safe in winter if it's wind scoured. If not, start lower down on the ridge to avoid avalanche slopes. With spring snow, use the early start tactic. Add 3 hours to standard sunrise for sunhit.
La Plata Peak - North Face
[Lou 3-23-05, Use data block from existing book, ski rating Advanced D10]
Spring snow season: This aesthetic route yields excellent climbing and superb skiing. During this author’s formative years as an extreme skier, I made the first ski descent of this route (and likely the peak) in 1979 with Bruce Adams. We were both working for Outward Bound at the time, and had an amazing spring season of skiing –perhaps my best ever. Bruce and I made a pact to ski as many peaks as possible, and managed an average of one a day for 30 days, including descents of Mount Elbert, French Mountain, and assorted high 13ers. The weather helped: more than 30 days in a row of blue sky, cold nights, and corn snow. We’d seen the amazing view of La Plata while on top of Elbert, and noticed the North Face couloirs were loaded up with beautiful white. Leaving early from Outward Bound basecamp near Leadville, we skied the main north face couloir during yet another perfect spring day.
At a maximum of 48 degrees, La Plata’s north face is a good choice if you're just starting with extreme skiing, but want one of Colorado’s most aesthetic descents. To begin, follow the trail to La Plata Gulch Creek described in the section introduction. Continue up La Plata Gulch to about 11,100’. From there, take a climbing traverse NE up to a large step at 11,800’ on the North West Ridge of La Plata Peak.
From the aforementioned step, take a dropping traverse SW into La Plata Basin, then make your way up to the base of the North Face. Use Ellingwood Ridge to landmark the left (E) side of the face.
As you approach the North Face you'll see many snow routes to the summit. The best route is an obvious continuous gully system that starts to east (left) of center, then leads up to the beginnings of the Ellingwood ridge a few feet to the east of the summit. The ski descent takes the same route.
Safety notes: When these gullies have snow or ice they are good technical mountain routes. After they dry out, rockfall danger is severe. In the spring, sun hits the upper parts of these couloirs several hours after standard sunrise. If you're skiing, climb it first.
Historical Note: First known ski descent of this route is that of Bruce Adams and Lou Dawson, May 1980.
La Plata Peak - Ellingwood Ridge
[Lou 3-23-05 use data block from existing book, no ski or snow ratings]
Named after its first ascender, famed climbing pioneer Albert Ellingwood, Ellingwood Ridge is one of the classic fourteener ridge routes of Colorado. To climb it safely you must have good technical route finding and climbing skills. Carry a rope and small amount of rock climbing hardware.
Summer after snow melt-off: To begin, take the first section of the La Plata Peak North Face approach to about 12,000’ in La Plata Basin. Head E up any likely looking couloir to the crest of Ellingwood Ridge, then climb the ridge to the summit. With careful route finding all the arêtes on the ridge can be skirted to the side -- for value added (and photo ops) try climbing several. Be prepared to rappel if you do so. Descent is via the Northwest Ridge.
Since the route above only takes the upper part of the ridge, some climbers get a lower start. To do so stay lower in La Plata Basin, and traverse to the scree apron at timberline on the north end of the ridge. Hike up the apron to the first part of the ridge. Climbing the ridge from the beginning is much more time consuming and involves several sections of hand-and-foot climbing. You might ask why you'd access this start from La Plata Basin, when Highway 82 is just north of the scree apron. Problem is, hiking directly up from the highway means you must cross Lake Creek. You'll see several bridges in the area, but they're on private property and the river is too deep to wade.
Safety notes: Plan your climb to avoid afternoon lightning. You can escape from the ridge-crest down many scree gullies, especially on the east side of the ridge. Carry a rope and know how to use it. This route is not recommended for winter because of avalanche danger on the approach. One of the few deaths by avalanche on a fourteener occurred in 1960 when a climber was caught in a slide during his approach for a winter attempt on the ridge (he was on the apron at the start). Avalanche danger is also a problem during spring snow season because the route takes the better part of a day, thus possibly forcing an afternoon descent of dangerous thawing snow.
La Plata Peak from Winfield
[Lou 10-29-04], use existing data block, ski rating Advanced D6, Lou will change summer route on map page 65.]
As a less crowded and slightly less challenging way up La Plata, this route is a fine choice that includes pristine tundra and fine spring corn snow. It’s recently become popular for winter climbs and ski descents, possibly because it’s slightly more direct than climbing the north side routes (provided you can access Winfield with automobile or snowmobile).
Summer after snow melt-off: Drive to the Winfield Trailhead (see introduction). From parking, walk the jeep trail for about a mile W, where a spur road heads to the right (10,730’, 1.7 miles from Winfield). Continue up the spur road (rough) .1 mile to parking and signboards near a gate (10,880’). The signboards and gate are hidden behind trees and only visible from a few feet away. From the start of the foot trail take a climbing traverse upvalley 1/4 mile W into the next gulch (a little map work here will help).
Grunt 2,000 vertical feet up the gulch to a beautiful hanging basin at 12,000’. Continue climbing near the stream course. As the terrain steepens, head up near the left stream course to the left (W) shoulder of the basin. Gain the shoulder at the 12,790’ saddle between Sayers Peak and La Plata. Catch your breath, then follow the long airy ridge about 1 3/4 mile NE to the summit of La Plata. Reverse your ascent route. If you’re feeling pumped, climb Sayers on the way back to your car.
Spring snow season: The upper part of this route has good snow climbing and skiing. But in early spring the Clear Creek road may only be open up to the Rockdale vicinity, thus mandating a valley-slog up the snow covered road. Consider a high camp or snowmobile ride. The road opens to Winfield sometime in May.
For the most part, use the same route as the summer description above. From the basin you may be able to take a more direct snow line up to the main ridge. With good snowcover, it’s possible to stay in the steeper and more narrow cirque at the head of the basin (rated D8).
Safety notes: This is a long arduous route. The trailhead and approach are easy, but during the climb pay attention to your map and altimeter. Use standard sunrise time for sunhit.
GPS Log, for reference only,
La Plata Peak –South Fork Lake Creek Trailhead
Turn off 82: N 39 04.073 W 106 30.308
Trail leaves dirt road: N 39 03.835 W 106 30.243, GPS elevation 10,200’
Footbridge over gorge: N 39 03.798 W 106 30.187
La Plata Peak, Oxford, etc. Vicksburg –Winfield
Turn off Hwy 24 on County Road 390 N 39 W 01.582’ W 106 14.763
Missouri Gulch Trailhead Parking (just before Vicksburg) N 38 59.897 W 106 22.486
N 38 59.104 W 106 26.455
Right turn off FSR 390A on to spur for La Plata trailhead
N 38 59.558 W 106 28.144
Trailhead signboard, La Plata from Winfield
N 38 59.536 W 106 28.281
Pine Creek Trailhead
Hwy 24/CR-388 39 00.161 106 14.183
trailhead parking 38 59.901 106 13.826
Mount Elbert Trail Trailhead (at Lakeview Campground on Hwy 82
Turn left on HWY 82 at
N 39 05.784, W 106 20.708
Turn off to Lakeview CG
N 39 05.0934, W 106 21.704
Actual trailhead within CG
N 39 05.883 W 106 22.045
GPS elevation 9,572’
Overlook past CG
39 05.953 106 22.028
gps elevation 9,673’
End of 4x4 road
N 39 06.337 W 106 23.718
gps elevation 10,500’
Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, Half Moon Road
Hwy 24 and Hatchery Road
N 39 13.304
W 106 20.964
Hatchery Road and Lake County 11
Right turn at 1.1 miles
Half Moon Campground at 4.9 miles
Elbert Trailhead on left at 6 miles
GPS elevation 10070
Massive Trailhead on right at 6.3 miles
GPS elevation 10065