Saturday, August 26, 2006

14er Report - La Plata Peak

14er Report
La Plata Peak – 14,336 ft
Aug 25/06

Since Fri was scheduled as a ‘rest’ day from running I figured it would be a good day to climb a 14er and hopefully assist my effort to re-acclimate to the high altitudes upon my return from the latest marathon trip to Europe. But what 14er to climb?

I decided on La Plata Peak – the 5th highest peak in Colorado at 14,336 ft – because my son Chris and I had tried to climb that peak last fall and sadly had to turn back at 13,600 ft when we ran into a severe sleet/snow storm. I remembered how steep and treacherous the trail had been so I consulted my ‘14er Guide’ and chose an alternate route described as the ‘easiest’ route up Plata Peak.

I woke at 4:30 am to get an early start since La Plata Peak is located in the Sawatch Range between Leadville and Buena Vista and the West Winfield Trailhead is located 15 miles in the remote wilderness of the Sawatch Range. I arrived at the trailhead before 7am and luckily (in hindsight) as I was leaving the trailhead at 7am I met another hiker from Denver and we agreed to team up for the climb. The ‘easy’ trail starts at 10,380 ft and climbs 3960 ft over 5 miles to the summit of La Plata Peak (14,336 ft)! The first 2 miles were easy as described in the Guide – we climbed about 1,900 ft to the tree line. But then the lies/misinformation began! The trail climbed about 200 ft over 1 mile through an Alpine Swamp/Marsh. This section of Hell was not described in the Guide? Brushes covering the trail were wet from a rain on Thu night and soaked our clothes from head to foot while the trail was ankle-deep mud that tried to suck the trail shoes off my feet! And as we tried to get through this miserable section of trail the skies started to cloud over and darken. We were not sure and concerned if the weather would hold out. However when we finally got through the marsh the sun burned through the clouds and started to dry out our clothes as we approached a couloir that ascended steeply about 800 vertical ft to a ridge. We could barely see a huge mountain peak through the clouds above the ridge and assumed that had to be La Plata Peak?

We climbed a very steep dirt trail up the couloir to the ridge at 13,200 ft. I was not looking forward to the descent back down that couloir! The Guide said that we had to hike about one mile along the ridge and up a gentle slope to the summit. Bullshit! When we reached the base of the mountain we were faced with a 1,000 ft ascent across scree/rocks and no trail. We had to pick our way up the scree using Cairns (man-made rock piles) as our only guide to the summit. I estimated that we would reach the summit about 10:30am. I was close – it was10:40am when we reached the summit. However we were surprised to discover it was a ‘false’ summit – another summit that was 300 ft higher lay about another ½ mile to the North? That must be La Plata Peak? But there was a wee problem – we had to descend 300 ft into a saddle and then ascend another 600 ft to that next summit – all down and up more scree/rock with no defined trail!

As we crested that next summit about 40 minutes later I was again surprised/dismayed to see 3 hikers descending yet another summit about 100 ft higher and another 500 ft North. We were on our 2nd ‘false’ peak – neither of which was described in the 14er Guide? Fortunately it was a short hike (across more scree) to the true summit of La Plata Peak. It was 11:30 am – 4 ½ hours to climb 5 miles and 4000 ft – and half of it scree – and that was the ‘easy’ route! As we were unpacking our lunch a 3rd hiker joined us on the summit. He and his dog had hiked up the ‘difficult’ route (the same one Chris and I had used) in 2 ½ hours! I contemplated asking him if I could hike back down the ‘difficult’ route with him and hitch a ride back to my car. But then I had an even better idea as my friend called his wife from the summit. I asked her to send a helicopter because we didn’t want to hike back down either route! However that silly notion vanished quickly as we noticed some dark/ominous clouds approaching from the west. A thunderstorm was approaching rapidly – time to get our asses off the mountain!

We didn’t think that we would have enough time to descend back down the ‘easy’ route before the storm struck so we had to hope that the storm would skirt north or south of La Plata Peak? We made it back down the saddle and had begun our ascent up the 1st false peak when the sky darkened, the temps plummeted 30 degrees and it started to sleet. – the 2nd time this mountain had greeted me with sleet? It was cold and the sleet stung every piece of exposed flesh but we were happy that there was no thunder/lightning. As we crested the summit of that false peak and began our descent across the scree the winds increased to 40 mph driving the sleet into every inch of exposed flesh. It also limited our visibility and covered the scree/rocks with sleet and ice. Shit – can it get any worse? The answer unfortunately came too soon – about half way down the descent with a FLASH –KABOOM! The center of the storm was passing directly over the mountain and the lightning was flashing all around us! We were fully exposed on a rocky mountain at 13,500 ft in the center of a violent thunder/electrical storm! We looked at each other with concern and thought, “Our chances of getting off this mountain alive are not looking too good! We had no choice but to hasten our pace/descent and increase our risk of a fall/injury on the slippery rocks covered with sleet/ice!

When we reached the bottom of that summit and the ridge at 13,000 ft the storm was still directly over us so we ran the entire ½ mile flat section of trail along the ridge to the top of the couloir. When we reached the couloir the sleet stopped. We thought things were finally looking up - until we looked down! That steep dirt trail down the couloir was covered in sleet and ice! “No way in Hell am I going down that!” I thought. But Mother Nature had a different opinion as she hurled another bolt of lightning into the mountain followed by an-almost simultaneous boom of thunder that proclaimed a bold and clear message “Move your ass or I will fry it with a million volts of electricity”!

Fear is a great motivator! I threw myself off the edge of the ridge/cliff down into the couloir! With the help of my hiking poles – those ‘blessed’ poles - and using a strange fluid motion that I thought might work – a combination of jogging and sliding – I was able to maintain my balance and managed to make that frightening 800-ft descent down that couloir in less than 20 minutes! I was so thankful that I had carried my poles because I would never have made it (safely) down that couloir without them! While I waited at the bottom for my friend the weather started to change in our favor. The storm center had passed over us and was now on the east slopes of the mountain. We could still see the lightning and hear the thunder so we knew there was still an extreme risk/danger from the lightning. I told my friend that I was going to run the entire 1-mile section of trail across the Alpine Marsh and would not stop until I reached the safety of the tree line!
I took off. He followed but did not have the stamina to keep up. However I kept my promise as I hauled ass through the wet brushes and ankle-deep sucking mud and did not stop until I reached the tree line where I finally waited for my friend! By the time he arrived at the tree line the weather had improved significantly. The storm had moved off to the east of the Sawatch Range and the sun was breaking through the clouds and it was warming up!

We finally felt relatively safe so we relaxed and changed out of our cold/wet clothes and completed the final 2 miles and 2,000 ft of descent at a more leisurely pace. When we arrived at our cars we looked at each other and nodded in silent agreement. We were sooooooooooo lucky to get off that mountain ALIVE and we were grateful that we had teamed up because each other’s company had provided a feeling of comfort and safety on that terrifying descent down the mountain!

It had taken 3 hours for the hasty/frightening descent for a total of 7 ½ hours for the trip – on the ‘easy’ route. You have probably already guessed that I have a strong recommendation for anyone planning to climb La Plata Peak:

DO NOT – under any circumstance believe that untrustworthy and lying sack-of-shit- author of the 14er Guide and - take the ‘EASY’ route! Instead – take the ‘difficult’ route. It is much easier, quicker and safer!

I also have 2nd recommendation that I am going to follow myself:

I plan to buy a new toy – a lightning detector that can detect lightning 75 miles away and track the direction of the storm. It can probably also tell you (right before you die) when your ass is going to be hit by lightning!

In spite of some scary moments I still consider the climb to be a successful adventure with many positive benefits:
a) I managed to complete an alternate workout on my rest day that was interesting- challenging- exciting – almost electrifying!
b) I had no difficulty with altitude as I climbed 3 peaks above 14,000 ft and ran faster than lightning along a ridge at 13,000 ft. Thus I am confident that I am re-acclimated to altitude.
And most importantly
c) I survived a violent thunderstorm at 14,00 ft and am alive to tell this story to my loyal readers!

I hope y’all appreciate all the effort/pain/risk/peril that Maddog submits his old bod to just to bring you these interesting stories and introduce some excitement into your boring work lives and hopefully motivate you to quit those boring/useless jobs and retire to join Maddog in future adventures. I can promise you adventures that are challenging/interesting/exciting – and maybe even electrifying! In fact I plan to climb a few more 14ers next week if anyone cares to join me!

Stay tuned for the next report!

P.S. I am sorry that I did not take any photos on the mountain during the storm with lightning/sleet/ice etc, but I was a little preoccupied. I will try to make a better effort the next time.

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