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La Plata and Massive

Started: 2015-11-09 08:44:53

Submitted: 2015-11-14 19:50:48

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator attempts to climb two of Colorado's highest peaks on his last major climbing expedition of 2015

After Labor Day, the weather began to cool, but the snow hadn't yet begun to fall, and I looked west to the mountains to find my last big climb for the summer -- knowing that it would probably also be my last big climb in Colorado for the foreseeable future.

I've had my eye on the classic Ellingwood Ridge route on La Plata Peak for several years. It's not the easiest route up the mountain -- it's a punishing multi-hour scramble across a rocky ridge, with standard descent by the trail that reaches the summit. It's far enough from Boulder that I wanted to camp near the trailhead to get an early start for the climb, rather than try to drive three hours from Boulder before I even started.

I waffled about my plans for several days after Labor Day, then finally decided to leave work early on Friday to head up to the open campground nearest to the mountain. I got a late start out of Boulder, and by the time I reached Whitestar Campground, on the far side of Leadville near Twin Lakes (along the road up to Independence Pass), it was well after dark -- and the campground was full. I continued west, along the road toward the trailhead, and saw (as I expected) that the other Forest Service campgrounds in the vicinity had already closed for the season. I ended up at the trailhead for La Plata Peak and saw that the parking lot -- a wide spot along the highway -- was already half-full. A group of college students arrived in multiple vehicles around the time I arrived, and proceeded to set up their tents in what turned out to be a flat area below the parking area. I discovered that I could almost lay down flat by removing one of the rear seats and setting up my sleeping bag in the back of my Rav4, which more or less worked to give me some approximation of sleep. (This is one of those cases where a larger vehicle would actually have worked better for me.)

I woke up Saturday morning, ate breakfast in my vehicle (while the group of college students took down their tents) and headed up the trail. The trail lead over a narrow bridge over a deep ravine carved by a small creek. My first thought was "slot canyon".

Deep canyon carved by South Fork Lake Creek
Deep canyon carved by South Fork Lake Creek

I left the main trail where the trail continued south to reach the summit by a gentle route, and headed east to traverse around the mountain on a faint social trail that faded in and out as I hiked. I turned south into a steep, tree-filled gully and found a faint trail along the the rushing creek to follow up to the shoulder of the mountain, and ultimately to Ellingwood Ridge. Halfway up the gully, while still well below treeline, I began to get tired. I rested, and snacked, and ultimately decided that I was too tired to continue. (My late start the day before, and the inadequacy of my sleeping arrangements, had probably doomed my climb.)

I turned around and retraced my steps back to the trailhead. It was still the middle of the morning, so to salvage the rest of the day I drove west on Colorado state highway 82 to the summit of Independence Pass. I walked along the paved trail to the overlook, past aging tourists straining for breath above 12,000 feet. I walked along the ridgeline forming the Continental Divide to the south-west to the summit of Point 12,812 (which appeared to be unranked, failing the prominence test above its parent, Point 13,198, a mile to the south.)

Ellingwood Ridge and La Plata Peak from Colorado 82
Ellingwood Ridge and La Plata Peak from Colorado 82

I drove back down Colorado highway 82 to the east, driving past Twin Lakes and joining US 24 north most of the way to Leadville. Before I reached Leadville, I turned west to drive up the dirt Halfmoon Road between Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. I drove up this road once before to climb Mount Elbert to the south, and now I wanted to climb Mount Massive to the north -- from almost the same trailhead.

I looked at the Forest Service campgrounds in the valley, but they were already closed for the season (albeit not locked like the ones I looked at the night before), so I continued west, just past the Mount Massive trailhead, and found a dispersed camping site, nestled between the road and Halfmoon Creek, to set up my tent.

Halfmoon Creek
Halfmoon Creek

I walked down to Halfmoon Creek and dug a small canal in the densely-packed river rocks. I realized that I had forgotten my camp stove in my rush to get out of the house the previous evening, and considered my options for cooking supper. My supper required only that I heat pre-packaged Indian meals in boiling water for several minutes, so I would have the option of heating water over an open fire. (The alternative was to drive into Leadville to find food, but I wasn't enthusiastic about driving up and down Halfmoon Road.) I surveyed the local woods and gathered enough downed wood to make a cooking fire.

Campsite cooking fire
Campsite cooking fire

I lit a fire in the fire ring, found a rock to function as a seat (I had also neglected to bring a folding camp chair), and set my pot of water on a rock awkwardly inserted into the side of the fire. I cooked flour tortillas in another pot, which I claimed were actually supposed to be roti. The whole thing actually worked fairly well, though at one point the rock I was using as a cooking surface suffered enough thermal stress (probably due to having a pan filled with cold water on the top and the middle of a hot wood fire on the side) cracked along the side in a loud pop, jostling the pan and splashing some of the water into the fire, but otherwise not negatively impacting the integrity of the fire or my dinner.

Broken rock in campsite cooking fire
Broken rock in campsite cooking fire

When the fire died down, and the sun set, I retreated to my tent to read, until I discovered that my head lamp's batteries were wearing down, so I instead read in my vehicle before going to bed.

I woke up on Sunday morning in my tent. I ate breakfast in my vehicle, then broke camp and drove a half-mile to the Mount Massive Trailhead. I decided to take the standard route along the east slopes up the Mount Massive Trail. I spent the first few miles following the Colorado Trail north, then turned east to begin climbing through treeline to the summit.

Mount Massive and trail from treeline
Mount Massive and trail from treeline

It was a bright fall day, and the grass above treeline had turned golden in color in preparation for winter.

Grassy east slope of Mount Massive
Grassy east slope of Mount Massive

I followed the trail as it ascended a broad valley between the ridges stretching out from Mount Massive and its subpeak "Massive Green". I stopped for a snack at the saddle between the peak and its subpeak, where I could look up at the rocky summit ridge that separated me from the summit of Colorado's second-highest fourteener.

Summit ridge on Mount Massive
Summit ridge on Mount Massive

I picked my way along the summit ridge, climbing another 500 vertical feet, to reach the summit, joining the other hikers who had reached the summit before me.

Jaeger summit selfie on Mount Massive
Jaeger summit selfie on Mount Massive

To the east, Leadville was wrapped in haze, but to the west, mountains stretched as far as I could see.

View of mountains west of Mount Massive
View of mountains west of Mount Massive

I ate lunch on the summit, then descended via the same route. Just below the saddle I ran into Ian, one of my former coworkers, who was trail-running up the trail. (This was, in fact, the second time I'd run into him on the trail to a fourteener -- I saw him on the Longs Peak trail on the Fourth of July.) I learned that he had camped right across the road from me.

I returned to the trailhead and drove home, pleased to have reached one more summit before the end of the summer.

If they want reality, they should stick cameras to our heads as we wander
aimlessly around town.
- Bitscape, 29 July 2001