Saturday, January 16, 2016

Road to Denali, part 2: La Plata Attempt




La Plata is out of sight, behind the wind and clouds and cold

Derek and I planned to try Mount Lady Washington as our second training climb. It would probably be just a couple miles longer than Estes Cone, but twice the vertical. It had the nice advantage of a short drive and would give us spectacular views of Longs Peak. Instead, Homie intervened. He knew we were training for Denali and figured we'd be ripe for coaxing into winter 14er attempts. He was right. Homie is working on "the grid" - a ridiculous endeavor that no one has yet to do. This is to climb each of Colorado's 14ers in every month of the year - a minimum of 696 ascents. He needed a January ascent of La Plata (fifth highest in Colorado) and knew there was a track on it. Having a pre-made track to follow in the snow is a huge advantage. The draw to go with such a winter expect (Homie has done 52 of the 58 Colorado 14ers in winter) was too much and we agreed to the much longer drive and the much longer climb.

Homie, wisely, didn't mention the weather report of -20 degrees windchill on the summit until we were an hour out of town. I'm not sure I'd have gone knowing that. You might think "but isn't that great Denali training?" Maybe. As it turned out, if Denali is this cold and windy on summit day, I'll be staying in the tent. I'm not going to get in trouble on that mountain. Or La Plata for that matter.

Due to the long drive, a somewhat lackadaisical 4:30 a.m. pickup time, and icy roads, we didn't start up the trail until 7:40 a.m. The track was good and Derek led the way up the steep trail in the woods. We all wore mittens to keep our hands warm. We stopped just before treeline to eat, drink, and pee and both Derek and I spent too much time with our mittens off. We got our hands in trouble. Starting back up and grabbing our poles only made things worse.

At treeline we caught a party of two and moved slowly by them as we ascended steep, loose rock, gravel and snow to the ridge. Derek's hands went numb here and at the ridge we contemplated turning back. The wind was very strong and conditions were miserable. We agreed to continue for five more minutes and see if things improved. After five minutes both Derek's and my hands were marginally better, but the wind was stronger if anything. We dropped the poles in order to continue with balled up hands and decided for another five minutes.

Descending from La Plata. The terrain behind Derek is what we climbed up/down.
Derek was getting worked over by the combination of wind, cold, and fatigue. This was going to be a huge challenge without the wind. Today, it was too much. I doubt I would have made it either. We were all wearing balaclavas to cover our entire faces and this was causing my googles to ice up. I could barely see where I was going. I could lift the googles, but that exposed more of my face to the brutal cold wind.

Derek and I turned around at 12,700 feet while Homie continued. Homie made the summit, but even he was extremely cold and worried about damage to his face. And he's part polar bear! Learning about the continued brutal conditions all the way to the summit and back down made Derek and I confident that we'd made the right choice. We're still building our fitness, our experience, and fine-tuning our gear. Homie, on the other hand, is fully tuned.

Derek and I hiked back to the car and hung out for a bit. Derek was a bit tired and decided to just hang at the car. I wanted to try and get in as many miles as Homie, albeit not nearly as tough as his, so I started back up the trail, hoping to maybe run into Homie on his descent. I hiked back up a mile and a half and turned around. A half mile before I got back to the car I heard someone yell out. I knew the start of this trail was on private property and I looked up the hill expecting to see a rancher with a rifle. Instead it was Homie, running up behind me. Running. He's a nut.

The drive home was nasty. We decided to go the longer route via 285 to avoid the ski traffic. Just past Fairplay we found the highway closed due to high winds blowing so much snow across the road as to produce whiteout conditions - zero visibility. We had to turn around, go over Hoosier pass to Breckenridge, heading straight for the nightmare I-70 traffic. Ugh. We stopped in our condo in Breckenridge and watched football and ate for 90 minutes before continuing home, arriving there sixteen hours after we left. That's a long day for no summit...

1 comment:

Gayla Wright said...

You two are a glutton for punishment. Not sure that came out right, but you get the message. The conditions sounded horrible. Could be like that on Danali!?!? It is reassuring to know you will turn back when conditions warrant it. Love you both, NaƱa