Tuesday, August 27, 2013

La Plata Peak

On Saturday, August 10th, I set out for the southwest ridge route up La Plata Peak, with Judy and Andrew. We stayed in a cabin in Buena Vista Friday night then headed north on U.S. 24 from Buena Vista toward Leadville for about 14 miles, then took the dirt Chaffee County 390 road west. Andrew and I had been down this road two years ago when we did Mount Belford and Mount Oxford. We stopped at that trailhead again, for a bathroom break (7.5 miles down 390), then continued on 390 for another 3.8 miles to Winfield, a very small town consisting of a few cabins. In Winfield we took a right fork and then took a very bumpy dirt road another 1.8 miles to the trailhead (justifying our rental of a Jeep Liberty and turning Judy green in the process - she doesn't like bumpy roads). 
La Plata Peak, center, viewed from Mt. Massive
Closer view of same picture - the southwest ridge comes up from the right. The northwest ridge is in the center of the picture.
Jeep Liberty along the dirt road.
The standard (and far more heavily used) route up La Plata is the northwest ridge. It is accessed by a trailhead just off paved Colorado 82. Aside from much heavier traffic, it is 2.5 miles longer (9.5 miles roundtrip) and involves 1,120 more feet of elevation gain (4,500 total). By comparison, the southwest ridge is 7 miles roundtrip and involves 3,380 feet of elevation gain. We arrived a little before 10:30 a.m. and found about five other vehicles at the trailhead. 

La Plata Peak is 14,336 feet in elevation and is the fifth tallest peak in Colorado (after Elbert, Massive, Harvard and Blanca). Like La Plata, Elbert, Massive and Harvard, which I've done previously, are in the Sawatch Range. La Plata is rated by 14ers.com as the 27th most difficult of the 58 14ers in Colorado. 

The trail follows a small stream, surrounded by forest, uphill. Eventually a plateau is reached with a broad valley situated at over 11,000 feet in elevation. The valley has a few small ponds in it and is full of swampy ground and willows. It looks like ideal moose country, although unfortunately I did not see any. The trail meanders through the willows, quite muddy in spots, over to the south edge of the valley to get on firmer ground, then heads east toward La Plata which is partially visible at the head of the valley. Toward the head of the valley, the trail veers north across the valley, on slightly firmer ground, and then goes steeply up the side of the valley wall. The trail through this section gets very loose. I found a small mine opening, where I took a short break (about 12,500 feet in elevation), and marveled at the fortitude of the miners who worked these kinds of mines so far out of the way and so high in elevation.  
Trail - almost to the valley.
The La Plata massif is visible in the back, center. The peak is not visible.
Looking back at the valley. Willows and swampy ground visible.
Toward the head of the valley. Route up the wall is about center of the picture.
Bottom portion of trail is visible. It eventually reaches the top at the low point in the ridge, just left of center.
Mine opening.
View of the valley below from the mine.
View of the valley from the top of the ridge.
At the top of the valley wall, about 12,800 feet, the trailed veered east and up some rock until a gradual incline met a rather formidable looking 1,000 plus foot steep pile of granite rocks, stacked on top of each other. Negotiating the rock up that wall was by far the hardest part of the hike. There are numerous routes marked through the rocks by rock cairns (rocks stacked on top of each other), but when you are going up, the trails just seem to stop, then pick up somewhere else, with no seeming rhyme or reason to them. I did find that on the way down the routes were much easier to follow, the result of a better vantage point. I knew from talking to several other hikers that the summit was about 35 to 45 minutes once I got to the top of the wall.
Trail just above the valley wall.
La Plata massif ahead.
Over 1,000 feet of granite rock to get to the top of this hill. The hardest part of the hike.
The top of the wall is about 14,000 feet and the summit is up a hogs back ridge, the last of three humps. Instead of sticking to the ridge, I took a more direct approach which involved some elevation loss which I had to regain. Possibly a mistake. I could see a number of people standing on the summit and several other people on the hump before the summit, but I had the summit all to myself by the time I got there, the second day in a row that happened.
View back down the mountain from the way I'd come. The trail is visible near the edge or the rim.
Mt. Massive in the distance - center.
Zoomed in on Mt. Massive - 2nd tallest mountain in Colorado.
Summit of La Plata Peak visible from the top of the hill. Picture taken at about 14,000 feet.
Zoomed in on the summit (back right). People visible.
Summit rocks.
View from the summit.
Self-portrait on the summit.
I found the most courageous pika I've ever seen in the dip between the last hump and the summit and got quite close for some head-on pictures. At the summit I found a large marmot that did not seem too concerned with me. I did not spend long before turning around and heading back down.
Cute little pika.
Only found at high elevations. Very difficult to get a good look at them.
Marmot letting its kin know I'm in the area.
The hike down the granite was substantially easier than the hike up. As indicated earlier, the trails were easier to follow and gravity created most of the inertia.
Backward glance at the La Plata massif on the way down.
The upper valley in afternoon light. Thankful for the good weather.
Andrew and Judy did not have as much success on the mushroom front as they did the day before at Quandary Peak. But if was a pleasant day after the rain and hail of the day before. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Quandary Peak

On August 9th I was in Colorado with Judy and Andrew to do some hiking and mushrooming. We flew into Denver late the night before, and after waiting for luggage, off-airport vehicle rental and the drive to Denver, we didn't get to bed until after 1:30 a.m. After breakfast, on the 9th, we drove through Breckenridge and then about eight miles to the Quandary Peak trailhead. We didn't arrive until about 11:30 a.m. Quandary Peak, at 14,265 feet in elevation, is the 13th tallest mountain in Colorado and the only 14,000 foot peak in the Tenmile Range. 
Quandary Peak - summit in the clouds - viewed from road into trailhead.
Andrew, our mushroomer, quickly found himself in the midst of the sporous fungi. I spent about an hour with Judy and Andrew, hiking slowly up the trail while we looked at scores of mushrooms. We found a few king bolete mushrooms, or porcines, which Andrew says are the most highly sought mushrooms, and many other varieties, mostly inedible, that I can't begin to remember the names of. As we hiked, we were followed by several large gray jays, very unafraid and very close. I suspect that they are used to handouts of gorp from hikers.
King Bolete Mushroom

Amenita muscaria
Gray Jay
Colorado was experiencing stormy weather and we began to get a little rain. At 12:30, near about 11,300 feet in elevation, I realized I needed to get hiking or I would never get to the summit and back. The east ridge of Quandary is 6.75 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 3,450 feet. At about 12,000 feet, I started to see the summit in the distance and one of the Blue Lakes in the distance (to the left).
Blue Lake to left, Quandary Peak right of center.
Zoomed in view of Quandary Peak
Zoomed in view of Blue Lake
The weather started to turn nasty. Lightning started to flash and thunder boomed in the distance. It was on and off thunder and lightning for most of the rest of the hike. There were periods of heavy hail where it was coming down and lightly covering the ground. Then it turned to heavy rain and wind. I zipped up my Northface jacket, pulled the hood over my cap and around my face and zipped up the zipper over my chin to keep the cold wind and rain off my face. I pulled on my gloves. I started to pass people coming down, some had been to the summit, others were turning around because of the weather and lightning. Very concerned about the weather, but hoping to catch a break, I continued on. One man asked me if I knew something he didn't, with reference to why I was going up and he was turning around. Eventually I reached the first plateau where the summit ridge was fully visible. From the plateau I could see a mountain goat part way up the summit ridge, off to the left. It stayed in about the same place and I was able to get some good pictures of the goat as I passed it by.  
Blue Lake is more visible.
Top of plateau is ahead and peak is just visible left of center.
Summit center and trail follows ridge to the left. A mountain goat is in foreground - actually taken on the way back down from the summit.
Mountain goat feeding on grass off to the side of the trail.
I learned a day or two later that there was serious flooding in Manitou Springs (outside Colorado Springs) from the storms this day. I talked to a man while hiking Mount Yale several days later that got three inches of hail this day while on Torrey's  Peak and he had to turn around. So, although we had some nasty weather on Quandary, it was much worse in areas not too far away.

As I started up the summit ridge most of the people were gone. Only a few were still coming down. The last two, a couple of women, commented that I was as crazy as they were (in reference to my continuing upward). It is always best to climb 14ers early in the morning to avoid the afternoon thunder showers, but this was my only opportunity for this peak and I wanted to do it while I was so close. I was anticipating some false summits, but was happy to see that the summit ridge was pretty straight forward: a few rock cairns, some mini rock shelters to get out of the wind, and some beautiful views on all sides. It was about 3:00 p.m. Fortunately, I caught a window in the weather and had no rain or hail while actually on the summit. Another benefit of braving the weather, I was the only person on the summit. Sometimes, usually, it is nice to have wilderness feel wild and lonely, big and overwhelming, instead of like an obstacle course at an adventure theme park.
One of the last people scrambles down from the summit.
The summit of Quandary Peak.
Self-portrait on the summit.
To the south, Mounts Bross, Lincoln and Cameron, all 14ers.
To the north, a beautiful basin full of lakes.
A different view of Blue Lake below.
Leaving the summit and looking down at the ridge trail below. 
I started back down, happy to get some elevation between me, the summit and potential lightning. I realize lightning can strike anywhere, but I like to reduce the odds by not being the tallest thing in the vicinity. The mountain goat I passed on the way up was still there. The weather was less rainy and I spent some time watching him and taking way too many pictures. I continued on and found another mountain goat, perhaps a hundred yards further. This smaller goat allowed me to get within about 15 yards of it. It was stirring to see it pound the ground with its hoof and yank out some sort of sustenance, perhaps grass or moss. To have a greater appreciation for the utility of its woolly coat. To wonder how often they are the unfortunate recipients of bolts of lightning, as they stay while we flee for lower ground. I spotted another three mountain goats much further away out among the green grass on the flank of the mountain. Seeing mountain goats is a thrill. It never gets old. 
Same mountain goat on the way back down.
A different mountain goat - indifferent to me as it chowed down on grass. 
I want to reach out and pull off the shedding coat. Better than pealing a sunburn.
I continued on down. Eventually I passed a few of the slower people. I hit tree line and the weather improved. When I was very close to finishing, I had someone warn me, heading upwards, that a group of about 40 runners was going to start what he called the "Quandary Crusher." A race to the summit and back. The start time was fortuitous as it missed the worst of the weather. It about 5:00 p.m. From a Facebook entry for last year, I see that the record to the summit is about 56 minutes and the fastest descent is 28 minutes. The overall fastest times is 1 hour, 34 minutes (amazing). The physical fitness to accomplish that is beyond my comprehension. In my current circumstance, age and level of fitness, I feel a sense of accomplishment just finishing the hike, even if it took 6 hours or so to do it. 
Quandary Crunchers set out on their amazing journey to the peak and back.