La Plata North Face Ski Descent

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Date: June 27, 2009
Partners: John Osterbrock, Wes Martin
Route:  Northwest Ridge ascent, North Face descent to 12,300‘
Stats:  4,800‘ climbed, 2,100‘ skied, 10 Miles, 7.5 Hours

Our North Face route. Photo by Bill Middlebrook.

We skied La Plata Saturday and it ended up being a fairly grueling wrap-up of a good string of spring ski descents. I am completely ready to hang up the skis for awhile and after Saturday, it seems there‘s not much of a choice.

Partners for this one ended up being Jon and Wes, two guys I‘ve skied with multiple times already this spring. The forecast early on was looking decent with potential for a good freeze and cool temps throughout the day. We headed up to the TH and got a few hours of sleep before setting out around 6am.

The skis feel lighter every time! Photo by Wes.

We set a blistering pace and hardly stopped until half way to the summit, “light and fast” was the style today as we could safely leave crampons and skins at home.

Sayres and its “X Rated” Couloir at the head of the valley.

We jumped up onto the ridge and just about every layer was torn off immediately as the sun hit.  So much for cooler temps, our minds were on the freeze at this point. It also appeared that distant thunderheads were gaining steam and heading our way, so we continued to push it.

The ridge was dry almost the entire way to the summit.

…but the North Face still looked to be holding snow.

On the summit. Photo by Wes.

We topped out in 3 hrs 15 min from the TH. The three of us took a break and admired the wonderful views in every direction. Clearly Colorado is in its final push towards a summer landscape at this point.

Spring time in the Rockies.

After a long break, we geared up and began the ski. Our intended line was the chute dropping skiers right off the top. I skied out onto the slope and jumped around a bit, found a good position, and pulled out the camera to get Wes and Jon dropping in.

Wes.dropping in off the summit with Ellingwood Ridge in the background.

Looking back up as I took the rear. Photo by Wes.

It was apparent early on that the snow had not received a great freeze, as soon as we skied into the wind protected couloir we were swimming through mush. It was absolutely beyond the range of snow softness that I would consider acceptable to ski safely, and even more than that it was just plain tough to ski well and in control. Jump turns were mandatory just to get the skis out of the snow, and it was so dense it pushed us all over the place, it was a real test of leg strength. We did find that getting to a more shaded aspect skiers right in the couloir helped, but at times there was no avoiding it.  We just had to ski it out and be quick on the matter.

Photo by Wes.

We regrouped at another safety zone, waited just long enough to catch our breath, then skied out the remainder of the face with little time to spare.

Jon slashing the corn.

Photo by Wes.

Some nice big trenches we’ve got going here.

Wes and I skied out the mouth of the couloir and turned to watch Jon come down.

Man it was hot out, summer skiing can be brutal.  We exchanged boots for shoes, threw the skis on the packs, and began the slog out through the basin and around to the “bench” which we had read about in other accounts.  From our information, we believed the bench was closer to the low point of the ski than it really is, we ended up hiking almost to treeline before we were finally able to contour around the ridge back to the standard trail.

Note: If it helps anyone in the future, the “bench” which others refer to is the same flat spot at 11,800‘ that the winter route aims for before gaining the Northwest Ridge.  There are coordinates for this flat spot on Summitpost that can be plugged into a GPS, I‘ve included the link below:

http://www.summitpost.org/route/269433/north-ridge-direct-variation-winter-route-.html

Anyway we eventually were able to contour around the bench and after a painful drop in elevation through dense forest, we were back at the standard trail.

Heading towards the bench. We had straight up summer hiking conditions from here. Photo by Wes.

After rounding the corner, we headed for the standard trail.

A short hike back to the TH and we capped off a 7 and a half hour day of summer climbing and skiing in the Rockies.  Thanks fellas for getting out with the sticks one more time!  Thanks for reading.

-benners

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