It was another 1am departure as Eric Internicola and I left Denver to try and tackle La Plata Peak (14, 336′) on June 3rd. This would mark my 32nd straight month skiing and for Eric, this would be his first attempt at both a 14er climb, let alone a ski descent. Needless to say he was pretty pumped, but I could tell Eric was concerned about his fitness. Eric would be the first to tell you he was moving slowly on our attempt at Notch Top which turned into a descent on Dragontail. Although I think it was more the weather than Eric’s pace that led to a plan B descent, I know Eric did not want to keep us from summiting La Plata, and I was sure he was up for the challenge.
As anyone will tell you, climbing any 14er is no small feat. When you add about 40 lbs of ski gear on your back, the challenge becomes exponentially more daunting. Couple that with the fact that Eric’s setup is not exactly light, I knew an early start and a moderate pace would be key to success on this trip.
With that in mind, we set out at 4am with our headlamps on meandering through woods that welcome a would-be climber to the La Plata trail. We had a bit of trouble seeing the trail at some spots, but as soon as the trail started gaining we could easily find our way. Soon the sun was rising and the headlamps went back in the pack.
When climbing anything, I typically don’t like to stop as I see a moderate pace a more effective strategy. Especially when trying to get a ski in, it’s important to beat the heat and summit before the snow becomes too soft and dangerous for a descent. So I was a little perturbed/sleep deprived/cranky when Eric asked to stop for a rest. I reminded him we should keep moving and that we could stop an hour in for a quick rest. Not long after, Eric was feeling fatigued and I decided to let him lead. I told him to set a pace he could sustain and it was at that point I noticed what was holding him back! It was then that I introduced Eric to the “rest step.” The rest step is a technique where a climber takes a small pause at the top of a step which allows him to essentially rest for a split second and save a great deal of energy. The rest step is particularly helpful when carrying significant weight. After a quick demonstration it was immediately apparent that the rest step was going to be Eric’s friend for the rest of the hike!
Eric was ecstatic at the change in his energy level and lead a great pace up to tree-line. We took a quick rest here and began the vertical push that is the second half of La Plata’s ascent route.
It is here the trail steepens substantially and Eric again lead a great pace as we switchbacked up the west side of La Plata. As the sun rose with us, we were treated to some magnificent views of the nearby Sawatch Mountains.
As we gained the ridge I was confronted with 2 concerns. My first concern was that the morning sun was already hot and our planned descent route was taking a direct hit. I was worried the snow would be too soft for a safe descent by the time we reached the summit. My second concern was how Eric would handle the altitude. While the rest step was helping him with his energy, there is simply no way to prepare for altitude except to be at altitude often. I remember my first 14er and the change in altitude hit me hard. Only time would tell how Eric would respond.
As we climbed higher it became apparent that the elevation was taking its toll on my partner. My main concern above 13,000 ft is dizziness and dehydration so we stopped for water more frequently and I kept tabs on Eric’s state we we rose higher. Although our pace slowed, Eric maintained that he was not feeling dizzy so we kept pressing on. Before long we were at the summit and taking in the views of the surrounding Sawatch range!
It was at this point my attention turned to our descent. I had seen a line looker’s left of the summit that looked like it might be skiable, but would require a short down-climb. As we transitioned into our ski gear a fellow climber graciously offered to scout the line from the opposite ridge. As we were tightening our ski boots he returned and told us it looked skiable and the snow was consistent all the way down. I decided to give it a go.
Eric watched from the ridge as I downclimbed into the couloir. It was immediately apparent that the quality of rock in the gully was poor and that I would be hard-pressed to find anything solid to hold on to. As my focus heightened, Eric was at the top verbally echoing my internal monologue… “this is sketchy.”
I felt if I could just get to the patch of snow I could get a solid foot hold and transition into skis. To some, it may be a surprise to find that it is much easier to ski a steep slope than to downclimb, I was hoping I could. Unfortunately, to my dismay as I reach the top of the snow patch it was obvious that it had been turned to mush in the hot morning sun. There was no way I could transition here, let alone ski this mank. My only option now was to turn back and scramble out.
After what seemed like an eternity I made my way back to the ridge and solid rock. Eric and I both agreed that it was the right call and we looked to plan B, the northwest ridge. we had seen the ridge on the way up and could see several lines that dropped off to the east, however we couldn’t tell if these lines we continuous or if they cliffed/melted out. We decided to be cautious and ski down in an attempt to have a look into the couloirs. We met at the mouth of our chosen line but were still unable to see down into the couloir . One of us would have to ski down and look. I happily volunteered to take a peak but I wasn’t sure what I would find. As I crept over the edge the couloir opened up below me, and my eyes opened with it! I saw continuous snow for at least 1800 vertical feet! We were going to ski today, and what a ski it would be!
I pointed my skis downhill and began linking turns. The snow was perfect in a sweet spot just between the hot sun and cool shadow from the rock wall to my right. My hollers echoed up the couloir to where Eric was, and he knew he was in for a treat. After I stopped, Eric followed, and I swear I could see his smile from 2000 feet down! We made our way down to the valley below and exchanged the customaary pole-clanks and high fives.
We stopped for a quick bite on a large boulder field and transitioned back into our hiking gear. For me, this was one of the best parts of the hike. You see, our descent had dumped us into a remote valley east of our ascent route. It was beautiful and quiet, and there was no trail here. We would have to make our way out with nothing but our own navigational skills. A task I was excited about.
I had read from previous trip reports that we could simply follow the creek out to the river and hike hwy 82 back up to our trailhead. This was the plan. However, we had a few obstacles to overcome first. Our first objective was to navigate the boulder field on which we had been deposited and then make our way across a marshy area filled with dense underbrush.
After some bushwhacking we came to where all the marsh streams emptied into the main valley creek and began following the creek downstream. Before long, we picked up a small animal path which made navigating easy. We figured this trail had been used by both animals and humans, but certainly not by anyone carrying skis! As we hit tree line and entered the forest we were harrased by low-hanging branches that made the trek quite arduous.
Before long, the trail seemed to split off to our left (west) towards the adjascent valley from which we had made our ascent. I figured if we headed west, the worst case scenario was that we would hit the creek in the adjascent valley, or better yet, run into the La Plata trail. We followed another faint trail west and it wasn’t long before we found some pink trail markers! These markers led us right to the stream which we crossed, and only a few steps away we hit the La Plata trail and were home free. We were both thrilled to have had such a successful trip and celebrated with beers back at the car. With a great first 14er ascent and ski behind him, Eric certainly deserved every delicious drop!
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