Saturday, September 22, 2018
Yipeeeeeeee! I finally climbed La Plata Peak! 14,336 ft, 9 ½ miles, 4500 ft. altitude gain. It’s not the tallest mountain in Colorado, or even the most challenging climb, but La Plata is special to me.
I started out trying to reach the summit of La Plata over ten years ago. I can’t remember now why I chose it, but I remember that it was after I had climbed all the mountains near Denver, as well as Long’s Peak, a much tougher climb, supposedly.
I remember driving over to the trailhead for the first time. It’s between Buena Vista and Leadville, about a two hour drive from Denver. I was pretty experienced by then, and knew I had to get started on the trail early to get off the summit by noon, when the clouds build up enough charge to produce lightning. So I took off down the road leading to the trail, but got confused. The trail goes left as the road curves to the right. I turned left alright, and somehow ended up in a marshy area, wading through a thicket of willows that eventually led back toward the road. I eventually got back on the trail, but by the time I reached the tree line I didn’t have enough energy left to go to the summit.
Now, I want you to realize that climbing a 14er is a big deal. I only try it about once a year. There’s a lot of preparation involved, checking routes, finding maps, trail descriptions, photos; getting gear together; making sure I have extra batteries, camera; checking the weather forecast. That’s in addition to running, hiking, training to get into peak condition for a major effort. Failing to reach the summit is like wasting a year.
It was a couple of years later that I attempted La Plata again. I wanted to be sure I got there early so I rented a room in Buena Vista to make sure I got an early start. This time when I showed up at the parking lot I met a young man from New York. He was a teacher, and said that every year he comes to Colorado to visit his sister, and while he’s here he goes on as many hikes as he can. He had already climbed Mt. Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado, and wanted to summit another 14er during his stay. He got me talking about my family, which distracted us both, and before we realized it, we had been walking on the road for almost an hour, and hadn’t seen the turn off. When we got back to the La Plata trail, it was almost noon, and my new friend decided to give up and go back to his sister’s house. Frustrated by failing the second time, I headed up the trail anyway, hoping to get as far as I could. Actually I got further along than the first time, but headed back down about 4 PM, not wanting to get caught on the trail after dark.
Ellingsworth Ridge, taken from Southwest Route to La Plata in 2009 where I gave up on my second try.
Some people actually climb to La Plata on that ridge.
Now I need to say something about the La Plata trail. It’s very steep. There’s a 4500 ft altitude gain over only 4 ½ miles, which means you’re climbing at about a 30% incline for most of the hike. Also there’s a lot of slippery gravel and for about the last mile there’s no clear trail, just talus, big rocks, with only an occasional cairn, or rocks stacked on each other as a marker, to indicate the general direction you should go. Anyway, all this makes for a more difficult climb.
So here’s what happened on year three. This time I rented a camp site by Twin Lakes, even closer to the La Plata trailhead, and camped there the night before. Next morning I was on the trail by day break. I got to the tree line by mid-morning and was right on schedule to reach the summit by noon, but, climbing over the boulders I started to feel a tightness in my legs. It got worse and worse until finally both my legs cramped up so badly that I had to lie down on the rocks. I couldn’t go any further. I could see the summit from there. It’s hard to estimate distance on a mountain, but I think it was still about 500 feet above me, a long way still. So again, down I went.
La Plata Peak, 2010. That brown spot up ahead
is where my legs cramped up, with an hour’s
worth of climbing left.
Another note about hiking in the mountains. It’s a lot harder going up than down. That sounds obvious, but the difference is dramatic. It must have to do with the difference in energy required. You can feel it immediately. When I’m climbing above 12000 ft. or so, I can only take one or two steps, and then I have to catch my breath. On that hike up La Plata, I got to the point that I literally couldn’t take another step, but once I turned around, I had no trouble walking the 4 ½ miles down to the trail head.
Anyway, that was about eight years ago. Since then I’ve climbed other 14ers, but steered clear of La Plata. I said to myself. “I’ve been almost to the top before. I’ve seen the vistas. I’ve got pictures. It would be a waste of time to go up there again.”
But this year I almost had no other choice. I had actually wanted to climb Humboldt Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range. I tried it last year and failed the over 5000 ft. climb. This year I was planning to rent a jeep to park higher. That way I could cut 1000 ft off the climb and then if I camped out at the foot of Humboldt, climbing the rest of the way should be manageable. But time was running out this summer. The weather had turned cool and they were talking about opening some of the ski slopes. Then miraculously the temperature went up into the 90’s again. There was no time to arrange a trip to the Sangre de Cristos. I just tossed my gear in the car and headed out towards La Plata.
One thing I dread about backpacking is the weight of the pack. A couple of years ago I climbed 3000 ft. with a 45# pack, and I thought I would die before I got to the camp site. Now I’ve got a smaller pack, and I bought a one man tent that weighs only 3 pounds. I’ve been filtering water instead of packing it in, and I decided to leave out my camp stove too, and just eat energy bars and Twinkies. I also tossed out my air mattress. That was a mistake. What I ended up with weighed about 25# which seemed okay, at first.
The trip over was nice. I stopped in Silverthorne just on the other side of the Continental Divide, ate a big breakfast, and got a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches and some Twinkies.
The parking lot at the trail head was packed. The only spot left was by a van filled with teenagers. They had their gear scattered all over the place, so I had to wait for them to clear out before I could pull my car in. While I waited, I found out that they were from a high school in Steamboat Springs, the Steamboat Mountain School, where hiking, camping, and survival training is part of their school work. They were camping out and climbing La Plata the next day like me.
I took off as soon as they cleared a place for me to park. I was starting late, around noon, since I only planned on going up to the tree line and setting up camp. Walking along the road to where the trail branches off, I met a guy from Ashville, North Carolina. He and his wife were heading back to their car because she couldn’t make it up the steep trail to the tree line. He seemed disgusted with her, and I told him that La Plata was a pretty challenging trail, even for someone used to the altitude. Then he told me maybe it was because they had climbed Elbert the day before! I noticed that his wife didn’t stop with him to chat. He’ll be lucky if she doesn’t divorce him for expecting her to climb two 14ers in two days.
The sign where the trail to La Plata branches off still doesn’t say “La Plata,” but there has been a small improvement. Someone put up a sign informing you that there’s no such thing as a “Poo Fairy.”
Sign at beginning of La Plata trail
I really appreciate that sign. I wish there was one at every trail head. It’s one of my pet peeves that dog owners bag their dogs’ poop and then just leave it by the trail, as if there were a “Poo Fairy” to come by and pick it up. Even if some animal doesn’t choke on it, it will still be an eyesore for years. I carry a trash bag to pack out trash, and I hope others do too.
The La Plata trail goes along a stream for the first couple of miles. It’s very steep, and some one has actually installed steps to make it easier to climb. The steps are built from logs and rocks and are from 6 to 18 inches high so it’s still pretty tough climbing, but in the places without them it’s slippery and easy to fall. I’m always amazed by the people who maintain the trails. They clear out fallen trees, build bridges, drainage trenches to prevent erosion, and when a trail gets too worn, they will re-route it to allow the area to recover. The work is done by volunteers and they provide a valuable service. One of these years I’m going donate some of my time to help.
I passed the kids on the way up through the forest, or, rather, they passed me. One of the boys asked if he could take my picture, so he could include it in his report.
After about a thousand foot climb through the trees, the creek levels out and goes into an area of thick underbrush. At this point the trail leaves the stream, so I stopped to filter some water. I wanted enough to last me through the night and the next day. I stop and drink water every 30 minutes, and if I don't my mouth starts getting dry after an hour or so. I see people on the trail with only one water bottle, and I can’t imagine how they can finish a long hike.
This is near where the kids from Steamboat Mountain
School kids camped. The trail leaves the stream soon
and heads up towards La Plata, on the left.
The high school kids stopped to camp by the stream, but I went on. It was another 3000 ft. to the summit and I didn’t want to risk another failure. Above the stream the trail gets steep again. There are no steps, but instead, switchbacks. This just means the trail goes back and forth in a zig-zag fashion, so it won’t be as steep. The switchbacks up La Plata are pretty steep anyway, but they help a little. Nearing the tree line, there were breaks in the trees so I started seeing the surrounding mountains, and even La Plata, which didn’t look so high, even though it was another 2000 ft. above me.
View from the tree line. Mountains on west already in shadow
I usually occupy my time looking for unusual vegetation and wildlife, but this late in the year most of the flowers have wilted and for some reason I didn’t even see many marmots and picas. I did try and take some pictures of the fall colors. The contrast between the yellow and orange aspen leaves with the evergreen pines and spruce is pretty.
As I got above the tree line, I started wondering where I was going to camp. There was no place flat enough to put a tent until finally at 12300 ft. I found a flat grassy area and stopped.
My “camp.” Ridge to La Plata on left, about 1000 ft above me
The tents they make these days are a lot easier to put up than the ones we used in the Boy Scouts, but they do require some assembling. As I was threading the flexible metal support rods through the edges of the tent I suddenly noticed that the tarp I had spread on the ground was blowing away. It was moving pretty fast so I ran, and as you do when running downhill, I picked up speed until I was running faster than I wanted. Suddenly the tarp stopped and so did I, with some difficulty, and then realized I was standing on the edge of a cliff. You never can be too careful on a mountain.
After that adventure I sat down on a rock and ate one of my ham sandwiches, which sitting in guacamole all day, had pretty much turned to mush. It was getting dark pretty fast by now, so I got my stuff into the tent, arranged it so I’d be able to find it in the dark, put my food on top of that rock you see on the right, hoping that if a hungry bear visited me he would occupy himself with my remaining sandwich long enough for me to get out my bear spray. I tried to call Sarah on my cell phone before turning in. Sometimes I can get a signal, but usually not. This time was no exception. I don’t understand how cell signals work. It’s a satellite. How would it know the difference between a town and a mountain? I always turn off my cell phone on a hike to preserve the charge in case I get stuck out there, but sometimes I wonder why I bother, since it doesn’t usually work anyway. I might as well be using it to read a book or play solitaire.
Well, after my failed cell phone call, I got into my long underwear and undershirt, and got my tent and my sleeping bag zipped up just before sunset, when the temperature on the mountain suddenly drops down below freezing.
It was 7 PM when I got into the tent, and there wasn’t anything to do but go to sleep. It was a long night. The small tent and my thick padded sleeping bag kept me warm enough, but I spent the night trying to worm my way between clumps of grass, which got harder as the night went on, and I had a headache, caused by the altitude I'm sure. I had my pee bottle of course – no old man, or woman, for that matter, should sleep outside without a pee bottle – so I didn’t have to get out in the cold. Then there were the noises: scratching and thuds, as if little animals were trying to figure a way to get in the tent with me. Luckily there were no big thuds. I kept feeling for my bear spray, just in case.
My headache went away at some time during the night, and I finally got some sleep. I woke up about 5 AM, and was having trouble going back to sleep when someone walked by on the trail, and shined a flashlight on my tent. They must have started up the trail at 2 AM. What do you do at the top of a mountain at 7 AM? I figured it probably involved ropes and pitons, but I wasn’t interested enough to get out of my warm tent to ask. I unzipped the tent a crack, and the air which rushed in was so cold I decided to lay there until the sun came up. In the meantime I started putting on my clothes and wishing I had brought something heavier than a windbreaker.
By 6 AM I was tired of waiting, so I rolled up my tent and sleeping bag and headed up the mountain, shivering, with two bottles of water and a package of Twinkies, leaving my heavy, 25# pack for the bears.
People get up early to climb mountains so it wasn’t long before I had company. Two guys caught up with me at the top of the ridge at about 8:30 AM. They were experienced climbers but they’d never climbed La Plata. “How about you?” one guy said. “Oh, this is my fifth time,” I bragged, exaggerating a little and not mentioning the fact that I’d never made it to the top. They asked how it was for the rest of the climb and I confidently told them that they had about 1000 ft. to go, and it was mostly steep talus, which was true. Before they went on ahead, one of them said, “by the way, how old are you?” When I told them 76, they congratulated me and said they were impressed that I could still get up a mountain. I didn’t realize my age was that obvious.
Climbing up big rocks – talus - with no trail really is difficult. My sense of balance isn’t what it once was, so I always carry a hiking stick, and I use my hands a lot. I’ve only fallen one time, but I really hurt myself. Afterwards my back bothered me for several months. I still can’t sit comfortably in a straight backed chair, so I climb carefully.
There are cairns placed strategically on the rocks, but they are hard to see from below so I got off the trail a lot. There were others on the rocks by that time though, so we were in a constant discussion about which way to go. About half way up, the high school kids passed me. I told them that I’d been waiting, and thought they’d never catch me. They smiled as they climbed past.
When I finally made it to the top, the high school kids were still there. Their teachers gave me high fives, because they also knew how old I was, and one of them offered to take my picture. There were 15 or 20 people at the summit, resting, enjoying the view, and taking pictures. There’s nothing like standing on top of a mountain, above everything around you. It’s like being in an airplane, except that you climbed up there yourself. You’re above the clouds. Occasionally you even see a plane down below. People on the trail below you, if you can see them, are like dots. And the view. Every mountain is different, but from La Plata you see nothing but huge mountains in every direction. Elbert, Massive, the Collegiate peaks, and with the fall colors, the mountainsides look like watercolor paintings.
The view toward Mt Elbert, with some of the
Steamboat students in the foreground
After putting my times down in my log book, recording the track in my GPS, and eating my Twinkies, I headed back down. I even got off the summit before noon like you’re supposed to do. It’s easier going down, not only because you don’t have to go as slowly, but on the rocks it’s easier to see the cairns from above. I had my GPS recording for backup, but it wasn’t hard to follow the trail.
There’s not much more to tell. They say it’s harder going down than up, because the jolting is harder on your legs, but this one was hard for me just because I was exhausted. My pack seemed heavier going down. I was continually watching the trail, looking for something solid to anchor my feet so they wouldn’t slip, but I didn’t fall, even though I scooted on my butt a time or two when I couldn’t find firm footing. And I felt pretty good after I got back to the car. My legs weren’t cramping. My joints weren’t sore. I think I was the last person back to the parking lot because I’m so slow, but it was still light when I started home.
I’m ready to go again.
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Well, here I am with my annual, well almost annual blog post. It seems like I’ve given myself enough of a vacation from writing, almost two years, so that I could return to it again. It’s not that I don’t write. I still correspond with friends, and then I write a kind of diary, putting together my thoughts and organizing them as well as I can. I have never tried to post anything like that on the blog though. I doubt if anyone would be interested. The only people who can do that are famous people. If someone is famous, if they’ve accomplished something, people are naturally interested in what’s special about them. There's nothing special about me, so maybe I should continue to keep my thoughts to myself.
Since my retirement, I've worked really hard to improve my violin playing, and I think I have improved, now that I have more time to practice. I’ve developed a repertoire of old melodies, familiar to my audience, 70 to 90 year olds, whom I entertain at nursing homes and hospice facilities. What I've learned over the years about performing is that people want to participate. They want to tap their feet. They want to hear something that reminds them of their youth, their first love. They like for you to tell them a little about yourself, about the tune you're playing. Sometimes I think they enjoy the story as much as the music
That’s what I got from my historical writing. I got involved in the stories, and hopefully so did my readers. As I get older and think about what to do with the rest of my life, I really want to keep entertaining people, with my violin and with stories. I have plenty of music, and plenty of stories, stories about my adventures, family stories I couldn’t include in my book, stories about people I admire, people that interest me. I hope you will enjoy them.