LaPlata Peak & Ellingwood Ridge

elevation: 4,370 m.
height gain: 1,800 m.
area: Leadville,Colorado,USA
map USGS 1:24,000 Mount Elbert, CO


Pictures in which I'm featured are a courtesy of Tim Best.

cutting wood

Tim labouring, quick, take a picture!

I first noticed this stunning 14er when I stood on Mount Elbert last april; it looked stately, I really wanted to climb it. I quizzed my friend Tim about it and that spark of interest turned into its own entity. My "love" for this peak almost grew into an obsession as I learnt more about it. After my departure from Leadville, Colorado, correspondence with Tim about LaPlata Peak and its infamous grade 3 approach via Ellingwood Ridge continued; he sent me pictures of the jagged ridge and references for research. Obviously, a plan was in the works. This loop had been under Tim's radar for quite some time, I could sense that he was also very excited at the prospect of attempting it. He had been up LaPlata's normal route but Ellingwood's intricate ridge still eluded him, he expressed being thrilled at finding a partner that was up for challenge. Of course, I felt a bit anxious; this long committing route is renowned for its route finding problems and technical difficulty if off-route. The thought of being turned around on an otherwise easy ascent didn't appeal to me BUT the reward of successfully ascending LaPlata via the challenging ridge sure outweighed any doubt I had in my mind. During the summer here in the Canadian Rockies, I prepared myself for that climb. I undertook the longest trips I could physically do in a day, often 15-16 hour days and embraced moderately difficult scrambling with mind boggling exposure at times. When the opportunity would arise to try this ascent, I wouldn't be backing down!

Ascent:  -Ellingwood Ridge  grade III, class 3-4
Descent:  -North-west ridge  class 2

Scramble: RT 16.0; 12.0 up. I spent the whole day (friday) at City on a Hill coffee shop in Leadville relaxing and doing final research for the challenging route Tim and I were about to undertake. This is my favorite place in Leadville, it offers a great variety of food, comfortable seating and free WIFI. There were many trip reports to scrutinize; while some of the information was conflicting, I was getting familiarized with specific features and was gaining confidence that we could "crack" this route. When Tim finished work, he came to get me and we proceeded to go camping at the Mount Elbert trailhead. The following day, we simply drove to the Lake Creek trailhead close by. Tim had also been busy preparing for this trip, he had hiked this trail to scope out the access to Ellingwood Ridge; this was a good thing as several junctions and faint trails confuse hikers before they even reach the ridge. Tim led us in the right direction and we reached the long steep talus slopes that grant access. After a tedious ascent in the shade, we crested on the grassy ridge in the sun; the weather was fabulous. We stopped for a "Tim Best special": a delicious maple-bacon donut accompanied by some hot coffee, mium!

The ridge starts off easy but we knew it wouldn't last, soon we would have to put our "thinking caps on" and find our way around bluffs and pinnacles. The first half would be an introduction for the tougher second half. The initial challenges were fairly easy to negotiate, I felt good and embraced the route finding ahead of me. The terrain offered good scrambling, never too difficult and mostly devoid of scree. I have lots of experience travelling off trail and route finding in the Canadian Rocky Mountains; to me, this was like second nature. As we progressed along the ridge, it seemed a way always revealed itself. When we encountered difficult sections near the ridge crest, we downclimbed on the eastern aspect until we could regain the ridge proper or a saddle. Several possibilities exist, you just have to find the route that works for you; most of the scrambling we did was moderately easy (class 3). We arrived midway after 6.5 hours of hiking at a casual pace, stopping often for pictures, water and so on. The following part of the ridge does look daunting and the summit does indeed still look far away; if I remember well Gerry Roach (author of Colorado's 14ers guide book) comments on two separate occasion: "The view from here is quite discouraging", now we know why. Tim and I poked fun repeating that throughout the day!! We paused on the grassy knob for lunch before tackling the second half of the ridge; the weather was stable, we felt no haste.

The following part of the traverse was a bit more complicated, it seems like we had to loose more height to circumvent tremendous towers and rockwalls; by then, there was no denying how impressive this complex ridge truly is. Travel on the ridge is never in a straight line to keep it within class 3, countless downclimbs and ascents will test your perseverance. Many ledges lead to blind corners, gullies and cliffs; due to the lack of trail segments and cairns, hiker's must rely on their own ability to find a proper way and avoid consequential exposure. As we moved, I recognized specific key features; I think we faired out really good as we seldom backtracked. I started to smell success when we reached the "catwalk" which is part of the ridge crest that precedes East LaPlata. Walking atop the "catwalk" is delightful and leads to some good scrambling before reaching the very short class 4 notch near the apex of a buttress. Honestly, it is my opinion that the difficulty of this traverse isn't the scrambling (unless you want it to be or you are off-route) but more so being able to negotiate route finding challenges. After the notch, we travelled on the ridge before having to sidehill on a steep slope using ledges; scrambling wasn't quite over yet! This final obstacle led us to easier talus slopes and the top of East LaPlata.

Once on East LaPlata, we started to relax as most of the difficulties were behind us. The final stretch displayed more of the same, this is really the ridge that keeps on giving. We descended to the saddle before circumventing more rock towers on their south side, we had gotten quite familiar with that by now and made short work of it. The last grunt was mercifully short or maybe I was just ecstatic to be on the last uphill of the day and towards the mountain that had occupied my thoughts since last april. The sense of accomplishment was almost overwhelming, I was so bloody thrilled about this non-standard ascent; just writing about it now (3 months later), these intense feelings are resurfacing! We reached the summit after a mentally demanding 12-hour trek, to say we were jubilant is an understatement. I must admit that we took our time, we're not trail runners and stable weather allowed us to amble along. Looking back on Ellingwood Ridge was amazing, it looks so broken and intimidating; hard to believe we had travelled its whole length! The surrounding mountains include Mounts Elbert and Massive, they were gorgeous with the orange hue of the late afternoon sun. This was a magical moment.

We planned to come down the standard route, retracing our way on Ellingwood would defeat common sense. We hiked at a casual pace while enjoying the beautiful sunset, we were in wind down mode. I was starting to feel tired but gravity encouraged forward progress. The good trail helped; I appreciated not having to pay attention to finding my way, it was great to simply focus on the sunset and think back on the incredible feat we had just accomplished. Eventually we pulled out our headlight. At treeline, we had our final pit stop to replenish on food before the last jaunt through the forest. We were happy to reach the trailhead, it had been one hell of a shlep! I will never forget this remarkable loop up LaPlata Peak. I can't begin to thank my friend Tim enough for suggesting this route; thank you, thank you, thank you! This one will remain a tough one to beat. Sad to say, now came the time to drive back to Canada .... but how lucky was I to leave on such a high note.

muhrican bonfire

Enjoying an "Muhrican" bonfire, keep giggling there Tim.

laplata gulch creek

Crossing LaPlata Gulch Creek.

trail to treeline

Following a fairly good trail on a rib to treeline.

talus slope

This long talus slope grants access to Ellingwood Ridge.

no trail segments

Where are the trail segments? -Tim

north end of the ridge

Cresting on the gentle grassy north end of Ellingwood Ridge.

breakfast of champions

Time for a Tim Best special, breakfast of champions!

first rock buttresses

The first rock buttresses are encountered soon thereafter.

twin lakes

A fine view of Twin Lakes to the east.

point 13206

Point 13206 is circumvented on its east side, East LaPlata and LaPlata Peaks are quite distant.

fun downclimbing

Fun downclimbing on blocky terrain as we go around Point 13206.

next highpoint

Traversing towards the next highpoint on the left.

more downclimbing

More fun downclimbing on the east side of the ridge crest.

back on the ridge

Back on the ridge proper as we near the following highpoint.

paper cut

The injury of the day, a paper cut from reading the directions.

easy bit

Easy hike to this highpoint; but don't be fooled, rarely is there travel in a straight line.

descending again

Descending again.

tim is about to come down

Looking back as Tim is about to come down.

hard to pick out where we've been

It's hard to pick out where we've travelled in the multitude of cracks and ledges.

aiming for the gully

Aiming for the obvious gully that precedes Point 13138; now I know why Gerry Roach says twice "the view from here is quite discouraging"....

another downclimb

Another downclimb, the absence of scree is delightful.

traverse on grassy slopes

I'm traversing on the grassy slopes to the scree gully.

ascending to the highpoint

Ascending climber's left of the highpoint.

amazing gendarmes

The amazing gendarmes we have circumvented.

terrain we travelled

Zooming out for a good perspective of the terrain we have travelled so far.

respite from ups and downs

A respite from the ups and downs as we approach Point 13138.

grassy summit midway

Point 13138 is a nice grassy knob about midway, a fine place for a break before continuing on more complicated terrain.

second half of the ridge

Starting on the second half of Ellingwood Ridge.

dipping down

Dipping down in a fissure on the west side of the ridge.

going around pinnacles

Going around sheer pinnacles.

climbing up to the ridge

Climbing back up to the ridge with East LaPlata getting closer.

downclimbing on the east side again

Downclimbing on the east side of the ridge again.

a fair drop from the ridge

We've dropped from the ridge crest a fair bit.

aiming for a small saddle

Aiming for a small grassy saddle.

looking back

Looking back at our descent from the ridge and traverse on easier ground.

easy climbing traverse

Easy climbing traverse to another saddle (slightly left center).

tim gains the saddle

Tim gains the saddle.

yet another saddle

And another traverse to yet another saddle (middle).

tim climbing again

Tim's climbing the steep slope to the saddle; wait, didn't we do this already...

recognizing the catwalk

Finally, I recognize the "catwalk" and the buttress with the notch that precede East LaPlata.



nearing the catwalk

Nearing the "catwalk".

it goes trust me

It goes Tim, trust me!!

on the catwalk

Delightful walk on the "catwalk" and good scrambling ahead.

tim climbs the ridge crest

Looking back as Tim scrambles up the ridge crest.

aiming for the notch

Aiming for the notch near the apex of the buttress.

nearing the notch

Nearing the notch.

left or right

Option, left or right? ...we chose right, a very short class 4 scramble.

tim reefs himself up

Tim reefing himself up the flake.

east laplata ahead

Closing in on East LaPlata; an unranked 14er part of the "Colorado Forget me Not" list of 14ers.


STAY, this will be a great shot!!

more scrambling

More scrambling, just when you think an easy plod lies ahead....

exposed traverse

This traverse is somewhat exposed.

reaching east laplata

Reaching East LaPlata Peak, first victory!!

laplata peak ahead

LaPlata Peak is just ahead but first, more of the same...

more of the same

Down, traverse and back up; OK, we're over it!

final bloody climb

Final bloody climb of the day.

last steps

Last steps to the summit of LaPlata Peak!!!

summit cairn

Now this is welcoming; the cardboard makes it all the more official.

tim and i at the top

Tim and I with Ellingwood Ridge and Mount Elbert in the background.

southern view

Southern view beyond another cairn.

tim texting

Tim texting about our successful ascent, can you tell he's happy?

sunset on the ridge

One of the most spectacular sight was the sun setting on Ellingwood's jagged ridge.

standard route

Looking down the standard north-west ridge.

indescribable accomplisment

Indescribable sense of accomplishment on the way down as I gawk at the impressive rugged ridge we travelled.

incredibly beautiful

So incredibly beautiful, it will be tough to top this trip!
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