|Early December climb of Northwest Ridge of La Plata|
I arrived at the La Plata trailhead off of Highway 82 at shortly before 7am on Sunday December 5 and waited for a partner I met through 14ers.com Climbing Connection. He showed up at about 7:15am and we were soon on the trail.
The weather was surprisingly calm and mild as we started along the trail and I ending up shedding a lay about 10 minutes into the hike. The trail was was fairly well packed and easy to follow up to treeline. Given that the winter route up to the Northwest Ridge winds for a long stretch through dense trees, I would highly recommend a GPS. We made steady progress up toward the base of the ridge but I eventually decided to put on my crampons since the trail pretty much went straight up the steep hillside and I got tired a slipping. About a quarter of a mile before treeline the snow got much deeper. I wish I had brought my snowshoes for this stretch for I was postholing to the mid-thigh and the going was both slow and tiring.
We reached the base of talus slope just above tree line shortly before 10am. After a quick breather, we started the slog up to the top of the ridge line. It was not as difficult as it looked but it was important to fan out since several large rocks did get knocked down the slope. Once on the exposed ridge top, it got colder and windier but nothing too daunting. We were rewarded with some beautiful views.
The next mile on the ridge was pretty gentle and had mostly good footing. However, once we reached the point where the standard summer route reached the to of the ridge, then the route steepened considerably. We were able to follow the summer route for the most part, but we sometimes deviated from the route when snow or ice on the trail left better options off-trail. There were also spots where the trail was lost entirely due to large snow drifts. We were still able to spot the occasional cairn to basically keep us on route. The ridge was fairly wind-scoured though it was certainly not free of snow. We did out best to stay on the rocks, which made it easier but we still had to battle some sections with deep snow. The last half mile to the summit was pretty slow. We were pretty tired from the climb.
We summited at about 12:45pm. The wind wasn't too bad so we actually spent about 20-30 minutes resting, hydrating and snacking on the summit. The weather looked like it was starting to turn so we started our descent. Given the snow and ice, the descent was much more tiring and slow than the typical summer descent. We were fortunate to have the weather clear again once we reached the spot where summer trail leaves the ridge for the valley below. It was a beautiful walk back down along the ridge and the views of Elbert and the Ellingwood Ridge were breathtaking.
The descent through the trees seemed to take forever. I was very relieved when we finally got back to the trailhead at 4:30pm. This was just about the most exhausting 14er climb I'd ever experienced. This was much harder than your typical summer climb. Nonetheless, it was very rewarding and worthwhile.