What a week at had been already. In just a few days, there had been pleasant trails and old mill town ruins in New Mexico. Thirteen thousand-foot peaks along the Front Range. And the day before, the old mines and high ridges of Mount Sherman with my nephew Jordan.
We were halfway through our trip into the mountains together, with one more target in mind: La Plata Peak, one of the higher points of the Sawatch Range and a commanding presence not far from Leadville and Buena Vista.
Rain greeted us shortly after leaving Mount Sherman, and lingered for much of the evening as we set out to feed ourselves and find a decent place to camp before heading out to give La Plata a try.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done anything in the Sawatch Range, but what I remember still holds true: These peaks are big, and the routes are long. They start a good 1,000 feet or more below treeline, and your generally pick up 4,500 feet or more of gain in anywhere from nine to 12 miles round trip. Bagging one of them is, for the average person, a pretty big day that requires an early start and decent conditioning.
We turned in for the night at a National Forest Service campground just off the highway. We did it with all the comforts we could cram into Jordan’s keep, which meant our tent would be posh by most tent camping standards. We owed ourselves a decent night of sleep.
As the night went along, we both slept hard. The alarm rang shortly after 4 a.m., and neither one of us was particularly urgent about getting up. I could feel it in me, that maybe this wasn’t going to be my day. At the same time, you have to break out of that mindset, get moving and pick up the task at hand.
I don’t like being turned back on mountains, but it’s something that has happened more often lately. Most of the time, it’s been because of adverse weather. Hence, the early starts before mid-day monsoon storms start forming over the Rockies. On this hike, I figured I could shake off whatever was holding me back once we got going. Summiting wasn’t that big of a deal to me that day, but I didn’t want to disappoint Jordan by costing him a bid at the mountintop.
Anyway, we got going right around dawn, hiking the road from the La Plata Trail parking lot. A small sign and a side trail marked the place where we’d turn off and start heading up the mountain.
We’d been warned that the beginning of this trail is deceiving, and that it gets steep once you’re a couple of miles in. Below treeline, I figured, would be easy enough, and would give us time to get a rhythm when the real work was set to begin.
My take on the lower part of the trail: the trail builders did an excellent job constructing this thing. Plenty of steps on the steeper parts, and then some flatter portions. But I won’t lie: those steep steps were kicking my butt. I was already in a fight early on, sweating profusely, and wondering when my body would adjust and get into gear. Nagging thoughts of this not being my day were creeping in. I was getting quiet, just slogging away, and keeping an eye on our progress.
In this position, the hike out of the trees seems to take forever. When you hit treeline, you normally have another 3,000 feet or so to go before hitting the summit. So it can be discouraging when you’re hiking through the woods, working hard, and seeing hundreds of feet of gain left before your even break treeline.
When we were close to treeline, I got a better idea of what people were saying about this trail. The trees thinned, giving way to willows up a steep slope and a long series of switchbacks that make the trail up Missouri Gulch look tame. I was stopping often here, and not talking much.
“Hey man, are you mad at me?” Jordan asked. He’d noticed my quietness.
“No man, just keeping my head down and trying to get through it. Fighting it a bit. I don’t talk much when I’m like this.”
He understood. Jordan had been hiking strong thus far, but like me, was wondering how this day might unfold. The switchbacks leading to the ridge seemed endless.
“So what do you think?” he said during a pause.
“Man, I don’t know. But let’s get up there and see how things are going,” I said, pointing to some otherwise nondescript landmark up the slope.
We repeated this process a few times, checking in with each other, catching our breath, and looking at the route ahead. We got to one point where I could see the route joining the ridge that led to the summit.
“Let’s get up to that point up there and see how things look,” I said.
When we got to the ridge, the views opened up. Spectacularly. The summit ridge was in full view, giving us a good look at the work ahead. On the other side of the mountain, La Plata’s formidable Ellingwood Ridge came into view, a long and demanding Class 3 scramble that often proved too taxing for many climbers.
By now, it was nearly midmorning. I wasn’t sweating as much, but I think that might have been due to early onset dehydration. Jordan had gone through a good chunk of his fluids already. Small puffy clouds were beginning to form and multiply. We were at 12,000 feet, and the way I was moving, it might have been at least another two hours before we climbed the remaining 2,300 feet and 1.5 miles or so that were left.
At this point, we both knew. Jordan was hiking stronger than me, but even in his superior condition, it probably wasn’t happening today. I figured we could have slogged it out, but we stood a good chance of being on the summit with storms overhead and being low on water. The previous couple of days, I’d bagged three summits. Jordan was with me on one of those, and had a particularly tough training session the day before, part of his process of getting ready for a burly obstacle race in late August. Neither of us had slept that much for the past three days.
At 12,000 feet, we decided that choice view of Ellingwood Ridge would be our summit that day.
It was a bit of a relief. Knowing that the car and a good meal weren’t but a couple of hours away, I can say the level of disappointment wasn’t that extreme.
We saw plenty of hikers going up as we descended. Many of them were young Colorado natives, powering upward in ways that could only bring me envy. And then there was a solo hiker ambling his way up with some sort of weird music playing on his smartphone. We chatted him up a bit, with him telling us he’d done Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak a couple of days earlier. We told him what we’d been up to, and got scolded: “I’d never do another 14er right after doing one the day before!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d already done the back-to-back thing, and it wasn’t that big of a deal. We let him go on his way, weird musing blaring, giving him a collective eyeroll.
It’s often on the way down when I notice how beautiful a place is. There’s no deadline now, just ticking off landmarks and getting back to the car. I will say this: The La Plata Trail is as good as advertised.
Driving away from camp and the mountain, big storms thundered overhead. At the speed we’d been going, we may have been still above treeline at that time. Or maybe not. We’ll never know. But La Plata Peak isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and it’s a place I’d gladly revisit.