Sunday, July 11, 2010

Thursday, 07/08/10 La Plata Peak (14,336)

La Plata Peak (14,336)
Northwest Ridge
9 miles/4,300 vertical
Sierra and I

Splits (starting at the trail register):
Begin ascent out of La Plata Gulch: :24 minutes
Reach the NW Ridge at 12,700: :54 minutes
Summit: 1:26:59 (avg. HR 164 for the ascent)
Drop off of NW Ridge: 1:47:xx
Back at TH: 2:23:31 total (descent split 56:32/145 avg. HR)

Rick Canter and I had been talking about meeting up in the high country for several months, as he was planning to focus his annual Colorado 14er fest on the Sawatch Range with a home base in Buena Vista. Tentative plans varied as the time drew near, but I was pretty open as to what peaks we might be able to cross paths on. Though we did not necessarily plan to hike together as we had different agendas and variations in pace, we both thought it would be fun to be on the same peak and hopefully summit at/near the same time.

Sierra and I left home in Louisville at 4:40am and arrived at the trailhead off of Highway 82 around 7:15am (after 2 quick pit stops along the way). The forecast for the day was for 50% chance of storms afternoon and although crystal clear at 7am, I had a hunch that storms would be certain and probably before noon due to all the moisture in the air and just an overall feeling. I immediately recognized Rick’s rental car and knew he was on the trail ahead, but was not sure what time he had started. I took my time getting ready, as I had a good idea of how long the trip would take me and I also wanted to hopefully allow Rick to get that much closer to the summit.

We started off running at a fairly casual warm-up pace, enjoying the undulations and fresh morning air, but all too soon, the trail tilted up steeply and it was now time to dig in a bit and up the effort. I was able to run the steepest sections of trail, but opted to power hike short sections to save my legs a bit for later. Fortunately, the trail is not steep for long and before I knew it, we were cruising on very gentle terrain, with Sierra leading the charge. It was through this flattish section, after ~20 or so minutes of running that I first bumped into Rick. He had unfortunately gotten a later start than he had hoped and was a bit behind. After some chit chatting, we were off again, with the loose plan of meeting later, higher on the mountain. As I ran, I felt bad for leaving him behind, but was really enjoying what I love doing most, moving fast through high mountain trails.

Soon the trail began to climb out of the valley and the gradient for the most part was primo for running. Even the steeper switchbacks only required a few steps of hiking at their apex. My legs were feeling great, Sierra was moving fast and I was in my happy place. Once on the ridge, the summit looks tantalizingly close, but I knew from past experience that it is further than it appears and the trail to the top would not be entirely runable as it passes through some dense talus fields. I worked my way through steadily, running when I could, but often times power hiking, being careful to not slip on the occasionally snow and ice covered rocks (remnants from the previous days’ storm). Higher on the ridge, I opted to travel on a long, well consolidated snow patch that made for more efficient progress, but soon was interrupted by a melted spot near where the trail again intersects. I considered continuing on the snow that extended nearly to the summit, but several steps in, it was obvious that the snow was of much different consistency than the lower snowfield, so I cut back over to the trail instead.

As usual, my stopwatch increased in speed as my legs slowed in sync, the summit mocking me as I pushed forward. The smooth and runable trail became intermittent and footing became slippery and unstable as my desire to sprint it out for the top increased. Finally, I tagged the summit in 1:26:59 and spent a few minutes taking in the views, eating a gel and petting Sierra. I poked around for a register, but was unable to locate one, as I wanted to leave Rick a congratulatory hello.

The sky was still nice and clear a bit after 9am, but I was anxious to get back down the trail and check on Rick’s progress. Down and down I went, moving cautiously on the looser/trickier sections of trail, riding a fine line of speed/efficiency/safety. Once the trail dropped off the ridge, I spotted Rick just a few switchbacks down and stopped to chat. Clouds were beginning to form, but were not at all threatening and it appeared that we had a few more hours of decent weather. With this in mind, it was my hope to get back to the car with enough time to drive a mile up the road to the unofficial trailhead for the S. slopes route on Lackawanna, my final remaining Centennial Peak in the Sawatch Range. I gave Rick some information on what to expect higher up on La Plata and reiterated that he keep a close eye on the sky before parting ways. From the ridge back down to the car, I was able to open up my stride a bit, but still kept the pace reasonably conservative for the most part.

Back at the trailhead, in the ~30+ minutes or so since leaving Rick near the ridge, the sky had completely darkened over Lackawanna. My enthusiasm waned significantly to mild optimism. As I drove the mile West on 82, mild optimism dropped further to having no hope, as I watched bolts of lightning strike out from black clouds just a few miles away. Without letting off the gas, I continued on to the top of Independence Pass, where I would relax in the car for well over an hour, eating, reading and watching developing storms strike out in fury and cloak the surrounding summits in a coat of white.

Worried about Rick, I knew there was really nothing I could do, but wait for his return. As I drove back down the pass, the storm overhead/over La Plata continued to intensify and I watched in shock as long lasting bolts of lightning made direct strikes on the very ground I stood on hours earlier and where Rick might still be. I waited out the worst of it in the car at the trailhead and once the storm subsided, started hiking up the trail, asking several storm battered hikers about Rick’s possible whereabouts. Though we were not necessarily hiking together, I still felt somewhat guilty and responsible for leaving him up there at the mercy of the mountain gods.

Eventually, I got word that he was OK and only ¼ mile up the trail, so I continued on until we crossed paths. Turns out, he had made a friend from Nebraska who he hiked with most of the way down after reaching 14,000 feet. On the way back down to the TH, the clouds broke, revealing a bluebird afternoon. Though it was 3:15pm, I figured I would have a go at Lackawanna after all and just keep a careful eye on the sky. Less than 10 minutes and ~600 feet up the steep hillside, I started to hear distant rumbling and hoped it was a jet. After the second or third time, I turned around to see massive black clouds billowing to the South and the writing was on the wall. I was more than happy to bail in favor of going to meet Rick for dinner in Buena Vista.


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