Peak(s):  La Plata Peak  -  14,336 feet
Date Posted:  10/27/2019
Date Climbed:   10/26/2019
Author:  daway8
 La Plata winter route  

I was originally intending to pick up East La Plata along with this repeat of La Plata but a few different things prevented that from happening. However that fun looking scramble over to the sub-summit is now up near the top of my list for future hikes - but I'll probably save it for a summer route to tag from the Ellingwood Ridge approach. Since this winter variation seems to be a popular and fairly well documented route I'll just add a few of my own takes on a couple points and include plenty of photos so people have a recent point of reference for this route.

Included in this report will be:

  • My thoughts on the imposing headwall that you must tackle to gain the ridge for the winter route.
  • A couple images to validate the avalanche concerns on the standard summer route.
  • Several images that provide some remote beta on the classic Ellingwood Ridge approach that I hope to do next year.
  • A note on the "vortex winds" I encountered late in the day (possible vortex shedding effect??)
  • My times

As has become my habit, large bold section headers will allow you to quickly scroll down to sections of interest.

General beta on the first part of the hike

Some perfectly shaped peaks as seen from the bridge near the parking area. La Plata is just off to the left.
Edge of the parking area and the start of the South Fork Lake Creek road.

These first few photos are basically a glorified conditions report and a "winter" version of the photos in the route description (obviously it's not technically winter yet but it's looking a lot like winter already). I had been planning to start around first light but I muted my GPS going through Denver (tired of having the same old prompts interrupt what I'm listening to...) and forgot to unmute it afterwards and ending up shooting out to somewhere around Vail before I realized I missed my turn. This frustratingly added ~45 minutes to my already 3 hour drive and meant it was plenty light by the time I got there.

Also, as a result of I think perhaps temporary insanity or some such thing, I ended up lugging a 30lbs backpack all the way up this peak. That seriously slowed me down. Why did I have that much weight? I have no idea. What on earth did I pack for a day hike that weighed that much? I have no idea. Other than that I carried way too much water because I was playing around with different winter water storage options. But that only accounted for part of the weight. I'm going to be doing a very thorough inventory to look at what on earth I had in that pack to make it weigh so much - 30lbs just seems a bit extreme for a dayhike...

Turn off from the road to the trail - trivial to spot in any season (at least in daylight).
The metal+wood bridge referred to in the route description.
Cool little mini-canyon below the bridge with mostly frozen water but some still gushing.
Log bridge over La Plata Gulch with exposed running water under it.

Given my somewhat late start (7:38 am) there were already several folks ahead of me which was fine since following their tracks made navigation effortless. For the very start of the trail route finding would be trivial even if you were the first one there after a big snowstorm but there were a couple spots along the way where I remember glancing around and thinking 'I'm glad someone already put tracks in - I might have fumbled about a bit here if I had been the first one through...'

So you might want a GPS with the route loaded on it if you think you might be the first to break trail after a storm - otherwise the first part of this trail is trivial to follow. The log bridge was slightly disconcerting to go over in boots since the snow coverage kept me from being able to see most of the actual logs and I didn't want to plunge a foot into the exposed running water. But it turned out to be a pretty solid little bridge so there was nothing to worry about. Once it freezes over and the snow gets deep enough for people to break out snowshoes you might hardly even realize you're going over a bridge here (as opposed to the earlier two).

The log and stone steps referred to in the route description.
Creating our own trail to the headwall - temporarily trading out the lead with a couple that came up after me.

Some reports had made it seem like there might be an actual established trail that splits off the summer route towards this ridge route and the North Face route but if there was I missed it. I ended up forging my own trail, putting on microspikes as soon as I left the summer trail and leaving them on the rest of the day. There were others that day who continued along the summer route the whole day. Since I've been studying up on avalanches lately and satellite photos as well as online descriptions both identified the summer route as being avalanche prone (see some photos a little ways below, after the headwall section) I was feeling slightly paranoid about that route plus I was curious about checking out the winter route variation in case I decided to try to pick up another snowflake with this route someday.

In reality I doubt there was too much avalanche danger on that path yet (and the folks who took that route appear to have made it out since the parking lot was empty by the time I got back) but until I go through the Aaire 1 class I finally signed up for which will hopefully help me to do informed evaluations of current conditions, I'm planning on really conservative route selections where I'll try to avoid any route where you can see the classic avalanche scars in Google Earth photos (as I've shown in some recent trip reports).

So it's basically a choose your own adventure where I generally opted for the whatever seemed to be the path of least resistance going uphill. A man and woman came up behind me and we briefly hiked together but they seemed to prefer to hike by themselves so we only occasionally met up after that.

The Headwall

This feature is worthy of much more attention than it's given in the route description and some other online write ups, though I did find a couple trip reports that put some decent emphasis on it. The notes at the bottom of the Northwest Ridge route description merely say to "climb a steep, rocky headwall and continue along the ridge..." Sounds kind of ho-hum. To make it a little more reflective of what you're up against it might more appropriately say "CLIMB a VERY STEEP, VERY ROCKY headwall which is composed of very loose rock with all sorts of hidden pockets between rocks filled in with snow of unknown depths..."

Similarly the very useful site says "Gaining the ridge is mildly sketchy but not horrendous." I might help this headwall to end up in the "overhyped" thread but as far as I'm concerned if this dude says that headwall in winter is "mildly sketchy" then I don't think I want to be anywhere near something he considers to be very sketchy.

In reality, going up wasn't near as bad as it looks from a distance, but I'm not sure I would be saying that if I hadn't already done the Maroon Bells and all the other difficult peaks. But while coming down that steep, snow covered pile of loose rocks I felt far more sketched out than I ever did on the Bells or any of the 58 for that matter. It's mainly just the last little bit up to the ridge that is significantly steep but the entire thing is pretty loose and the lower down you are the more likely you are to sink random, significant depths if you don't step on top of the rocks.

For reference, I've never tried to tackle terrain that steep before while it's snow covered - if you're experienced on that type of terrain in winter conditions you'll probably think this is no big deal, just a fun start to a long ridge walk. But if you've never been on steep, loose, snow covered rocks before you might not want to make this the first winter 14er you try. This route supposedly "usually has little to no avalanche danger" (according to but as I looked at it from below and saw some little tumbles of snow that had fallen over the path up all I could think was "are you sure about that???"

This is not the summit of La Plata - this is just the headwall - a "little bump" on the way up to the ridgeline.
Near the base of the headwall - there's a little rocky hump you have to get up on first.

Earlier, when I was scanning the route on Google Earth as part of my standard avy evaluation I spotted this section and my reaction from the satellite view was:

"That just looks like a big cliff!"

Upon hiking up to the clearing below the headwall and seeing it in person my reaction was:

"That looks more like the summit than just a mere headwall!"

I had seen basically the same picture in at least one or two of the trip reports I checked out beforehand but had halfway disbelieved that this was considered the "normal" winter route on what people label as a comparatively "easy" winter 14er.

The most natural seeming route up the headwall is along the rock lip seen at the right. This section can be just "hiked" up.
Looking down from partway up the headwall. From center to center left you can just make out our trail through the trees.
Approaching the steeper sections where the "hike" is about to turn into more of a "climb."
I ended up topping out first - at the end of the tracks are the two who came up after me - just to the left is where we came up.

Going back down the headwall was much worse than coming up - at least from a psychological point of view. When I got back down the ridge to the top of the headwall I checked my GPS a couple times to make sure I was in the right spot and stared down at the tracks in the snow from the way up thinking 'we came up that?!?' But there weren't really many options at this point so I went down keeping not just 3 or 4 points of contact but probably closer to 7 or 8 for the first steep section.

On the ridge looking ahead to where you drop down the headwall.
Some of the steeper section near the top of the headwall. I stood and stared for a couple moments...

The Ridge

The headwall is basically the crux of the route as far as I'm concerned - if you make it over the headwall it's pretty much smooth sailing from there, other than the annoyance of sinking down into snow pits if you step between rocks - especially as you get closer to the summit. Route finding isn't really even a thing - it's a ridge - unless maybe you were doing it in a snowstorm and couldn't see the ridge. Then you just need to make sure you don't wander off the ridge.

Going up the ridge.
Another ridge shot - 2 hikers center right for scale.

Still going... this ridge goes on for quite a while and has a few humps along the way - again 2 hikers for scale.
Center front is one of the bigger drops in the ridge just before the last main section of ridgline.

Once you get all the way across the ridge don't think that you're done - there's a whole lot of scrambling up a splattering of rocks/small boulders to get to the top. If you can see them you're generally better off stepping on top of the rocks rather than sinking to unknown depths by stepping between them but beware since not all the rocks are stable. If this section were to get totally covered in snow (given the crazy winds up there I would question how often that actually happens) you might be better of going over it with snowshoes - maybe...

It was at somewhere right near 14k that the winds really got piercing enough that I had to go duck behind some rocks towards the north side in order to add some more layers. After that I was fine though every now and then there was a good enough gust to make me stagger a little.

At around the end of the ridge where there are plenty of sloppy snow coated rocks to scramble over still...
Finally reaching the summit!

There is one little hump next to the summit (roughly W/SW of it) that caused me to momentarily be confused on which way to go to get to the summit. I had to do a quick check of the GPS to make sure I headed up the right peak - from above it's totally obvious but coming up from below there's a brief spot where it's not totally clear which hump you need to go up.

I just love summit views this time of year on clear days!
View partway down - this little hump in the foreground can lead you off course on the way up if you're not paying attention.

Standard summer route photos

I thought it would be good to throw in a few photos looking over at the avy terrain on the standard summer route just to highlight the potential dangers of that route in winter.

Looking over to some of the slopes to the right (west) of the standard summer trail. Multiple avalanche paths are visible.

Like I said earlier, it doesn't really look like there is enough snow loading just yet to make an avalanche likely but this is obviously an area that gets avalanches on a pretty much yearly basis it would seem. So be very careful to research conditions and know what to look for if you decide to do the summer route in winter. Those intimidated by the headwall might be tempted to stick to this route instead but personally I'd take a headwall over being buried in an avalanche any day...

The line in the snow is where the folks using the standard summer trail came up to the ridge from. The avy paths can be seen behind.
Slightly different angle looking down at the valley the summer trail comes through - dangerous slopes on both sides...

Ellingwood Ridge remote beta

This is a really cool looking ridge that Gerry Roach lists as a "classic." I had briefly toyed with the idea of trying that route for this hike but after a quick read of the descriptions decided it would be too much for me at this point in my 14er journey. A few glimpses from across the ridge confirmed for me that I'm going to want to wait until summer before I try to tackle that and I'll need to make sure I'm in good shape before doing it (and that I'm not wearing a freakin 30lbs backpack!!).

I didn't feel like messing with doing a panorama (seems like it takes forever to process a pano image on my phone) so I just took a series of photos along the ridge. On the PC I've sized them to all be side by side but it probably won't show up that way if you're viewing this on a mobile device.

Ellingwood Ridge A
Ellingwood Ridge B
Ellingwood Ridge C

Below is another series of photos taken from a little higher up and further along. That route looks like it would be a lot of fun in summer - but too much fun in winter...

Ellingwood Ridge A
Ellingwood Ridge B
Ellingwood Ridge C
Coming out from center left is another view of Ellingwood Ridge from up at the summit.
Looking over to East La Plata - the sub-summit you'll come up if you do Ellingwood Ridge.

Vortex winds

Having really strong winds up in the mountains is no surprise, especially in winter when they tend to often be far stronger than what is common for your average summer hike. But on this hike I experienced something different than I've ever encountered before. I'm not sure if there's a more proper term for this but I've dubbed it "vortex winds" and I think it might possibly be an example of (or maybe in some way be related to) the phenomenon known as "vortex shedding" which I encountered when doing a quick Google search to see if I could find out anything about this type of wind.

Basically what happened is that I was being blasted by really strong winds coming from all directions at once - with constantly varying intensities for the gusts coming from any given direction. It was strong enough that I was literally being rocked left, right, back and forth. I had to spread my legs and trekking poles to keep my balance.

This took place at a little after 4pm out along the ridge at the place where you see a couple humps that are a little shy of 12,800ft. I didn't experience this on the way up and I'm not sure if the folks who went down the mountain earlier in the day experienced it either. It was pretty wild!

Center left are the humps along the ridge where the "vortex winds" occurred on the east side.
Nearing some of the vortex winds - can't really catch the multi-directional components from the photos.

My theory is that as the strong winds blast over and around these humps on the ridge it creates some manner of vortex shedding that perhaps interacts between the two humps along with the other prevailing winds and creates this crazy "wind from all directions" phenomenon. There was one brief period of maybe 5 seconds where there was enough snow blowing to limit visibility to just a few feet - and this on a basically cloudless day!

Wrap up

Due to my late start and excessively heavy pack the sun dropped below the horizon before I made it back to the trailhead. I did at least make it down the dreaded headwall before sunset and in fact there was just barely enough light left that I made it all the way back to the trailhead without needing to pull out my headlamp. All in all it was a fun and beautiful but long hike. I've now gained some more confidence on sketchy winter climbing but I think it will still be a while before I tackle any couloirs - if I ever even both with those types of routes. But I'm definitely pumped to take on some more summits over calendar winter when it rolls around!

Random shot off the right (west) side of the ridge I figured might be relevant to someone but didn't know where else to put it...
Sun dropping below the distant mountains shortly after I made it down the headwall.

My Times

As mentioned before, my 30 lbs pack along with the snow slowed me down and my GPS blunder delayed my start. Plus I made myself slow down a bit and take some more breaks since I'd pushed too hard on some other hikes and felt totally wiped out at the end. This time I made it back feeling ok even though I started pushing somewhat hard as the sun went down.

7:38am start from trailhead after 45 minute delay due to overshooting the exit off I-70

8:03am reach the log bridge at about 0.87 miles in.

8:45am divert from the summer trail and start making my own tracks for the winter route.

10:23am reach the base of the headwall. About 2.18 miles in.

10:47am top out onto the ridgeline above the headwall.

11:41am about to dip down before the last major portion of the ridge. About 3.03 miles in.

12:58pm another relatively flat spot in the ridge not really visible from below. About 3.69 miles in ~13,450ft.

1:50pm resume hike after having ducked off the north side near 14k to get enough shelter from the wind to add layers.

~2:30pm reach summit.

2:51pm heading back down from the summit.

~4:15pm encounter vortex winds off the east side of the humps that are just shy of 12,800ft.

5:30pm moving from the base of the headwall after having stopped to remove and stow some layers. Sun about too drop behind the hills.

6:11pm back on the main summer trail again.

6:24pm at the log bridge.

6:35pm metal+wood bridge

6:45pm back at the trailhead

Note on GPX file: The route I took was a bit sloppy and wandering - especially going up from the summer trail through the trees. There are probably some much better variations of this route but this will give you the basic idea. The main key is to hit that headwall at about the spot shown - that seems to be where most people go up, based on my research - but if climbing is your thing there are probably many other options.

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39

 Comments or Questions

10/28/2019 11:28
A very well documented hike. Thanks for putting this up!


Summer Route
10/29/2019 11:30
Brad McQueen and I came up the summer route that day. We didn't feel there was enough snow for avy concern yet.
But like your photos show, lots of avy paths. We discussed a few of them, because when you start really looking you'll notice there is very little avy debris at the bottom of any of them, which to us said those avy paths go pretty often, if not yearly. It's the same with some of the avy paths that the summer route crosses between 11,400 and the saddle at 12,800.

Headwall, with more snow, it's not as bad. Definitely will want an ice ax. Been on it twice in winter. From what I remember, the snow is a bit thin compared to the rest of the area. Maybe because of the slope and wind?

I noticed the changing winds as we got closer to the lower ridge. I didn't think much about it at the time, other than turn one direction than the other to get the wind out of my face. I think your theory is solid.


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