The Ellingwood Ridge, from La Plata’s summit.

While the Sawatch Range in central Colorado is impressively high–it’s home to 15 peaks over 14,000′–it’s not a very technical group of mountains.  Most routes are Class 1 or 2 walk-ups, and the mountains themselves have often been accused of not really being much more than giant talus piles.  (This reputation is not without basis, but I happen to enjoy talus fields.)

One of the notable exceptions to this is the uber-classic Ellingwood Ridge (really the mountain’s northeast ridge) on La Plata Peak (14,336′). This burly sawtooth of a line looks incredible when lit up in soft evening light, but no matter what time of day it is it commands one’s attention, whether viewed from the trailhead parking lot, Independence Pass, or the crest of the NW Ridge on La Plata’s standard hiking route.

Although the guidebooks allow that most major difficulties on the line can be kept to Class 3 with some creative route-finding and some humble descents below the actual ridge, these same guidebooks also warn about just how long the ridge is (2mi), and thus, how much time it takes to summit (a lot).  Sean O’Day’s trip report from almost exactly a year ago–while completed in markedly different snow conditions (Colorado is incredibly dry this year)–cites 9hr just to make the summit!  And Sean is a strong trail/mountain runner and experienced mountaineer.

I didn’t see how that could possibly be the case, though, so only compromised my usual bare-bones approach by bringing 13oz of water and a gel…just in case (I would consume both).

The day’s line: Up #3, down #1. Photo:

The first mile or so over to the creek draining La Plata Gulch is flat (even a little downhill) and fast. When I crossed the log bridge I was surprised to see that the immediate turn-off for the Ellingwood Ridge was actually marked by some pink flags.  The trail is relatively faint, but navigable; even so, it was nice to have the flags as confidence markers.  A few more minutes of flattish running brought me over to the creek that drains La Plata Basin Gulch, which I crossed on a fallen aspen, and here the route hangs a right uphill where it soon gains a sharp, narrow ridge with a surprisingly well-beaten path on its crest.

I made good time through this terrain, feeling a strong pep in my legs and excited for what lay ahead.  In short time I was at the 1000′ talus field that guards the ridge.  I’ve come to really enjoy ascending talus this summer, picking my line up the jumble of rocks and boulders, often using my hands and feet equally. Once one gains the actual ridge, the line is impressive and daunting.  Dozens of gendarmes separate one from La Plata’s actual summit; the terrain is complicated to say the least.

I made quick work through most of the early stuff, staying near the crest of the ridge with an occasional drop to the east to avoid 5th Class moves. At one point in particular through here I felt really lucky to have risked staying directly on the ridge and being able to jump a ~6ft gap in the rock that allowed me to avoid contouring far lower and losing elevation. Over the course of the 1h20 that I was on the ridge, though, there was plenty of up and down, almost always losing elevation on the still steep but not overhanging eastern side of the ridge.  Many of these traverses also consisted of crossing loose gullies; in general, it was very mixed terrain–solid rock scrambling, loose dirt, talus, grassy tundra.  There’s a decent amount of semi-faint use trail along the ridge, and I would actually contour a bit higher than a lot of this, choosing to work through short sections of Class 4 scrambling instead of dropping way down just to keep things Class 3.

There were only a few moments where I felt I made truly time-consuming route-finding errors, though, and after what seemed like a long time of concentrating I was picking my way up the final talus slope and seated on La Plata’s summit. Despite this being my first recce of the route, I was aware of the ticking clock, and only took 30 seconds or so to suck down a gel and the remainder of my water bottle (I had been on the summit just a couple of evenings previous, afterall) before beginning the 4500′ descent down the NW Ridge and back to the Roost on Highway 82.

I’d left the summit at 2:22:00 total time (2:21:33 ascent), so was now quite motivated by the opportunity to break 3hr for the car-to-car roundtrip.  My casual descents of this ~5mi route are generally in the 45min range, so I thought it would be close but that I could sneak under with some focus and effort.  The top 1500′ or so is a spicy jumble of talus and boulders, but I felt surprisingly fresh after the slow, technical climb and summit gel, so this section went well with mostly spot-on footwork.  Below the actual ridge the trail smooths considerably and I ripped down it, having a blast.  At about 11,000′ the trail becomes true carpet as it enters the trees for good and I was surprised at how worked I was on this flattish section; it feels like it’s been ages since I’ve run hard on anything flat.  Except for experiencing the same issues on the final stretch of rolling path after the La Plata Gulch creek crossing, the rest of the run went smoothly and I arrived back at the parking lot in 2:57:46, comfortably under the 3hr mark for the full loop.

All in all, I feel like this was a good, honest effort, and probably won’t hit it going for time again anytime soon, though it would probably go a few minutes faster now that I have some familiarity with the ridge…and so it goes…

Full Splits:
La Plata Gulch log bridge – 8:00
Start of the talus – 32:40
Grass ridge – 54:00
First rock tower – 1:01:35
La Plata summit – 2:21:33

Left summit – 2:22:00
NW ridge drop (~12,750′) – 2:33:30
Big square rock – 2:38:30
Last rocks (~11k’) – 2:43:00
La Plata Gulch log bridge – 2:51:25
Road – 2:56:00
Parking Lot – 2:57:46

(Apologies for the lack of photos, but I dropped my trusty camera off of the 2nd Flatiron last week and watched it explode into a dozen pieces–the top photo is from a run on La Plata last fall. I’ll probably purchase another one soon.)