Thanks to Warren Teissier for the helpful route description on Climbing Boulder. [Editor: Route description has been moved from climbingboulder.com to http://www.mountainproject.com ].
We also used Gerry Roach's 14er book description.
In this TR, I will reference some of the points in those route descriptions and add a little more detail. Shortly after leaving the TH, we ran into two hikers at the junction of the dirt road and the trail heading east with the "first mile on private property" sign. They had been down that trail and could not find the bridge crossing the stream in the dark. They thought they had gone the wrong way, but decided to follow us down the trail. The bridge was there, just to the north of where the trail ends above the waterfall. They didn't see it due to their Petzel headlamps not being bright enough. Lessons: 1) difficult routefinding in the dark requires more than 3 small LEDs for light, and 2) search both directions to find a stream crossing.
We reached the third creek quickly and said goodbye to the two guys who heading up the NW ridge route. We spent about 5 minutes searching for the elusive "faint trail". Even with Warren's good description it was not obvious. Here is more precise beta: The trail is exactly 20 yards (Tony stepped it off) from the end of the bridge. Also, the first 10 feet of the trail are heading on almost exactly a 90 degree true bearing (east), and then the trail curves slightly south of east. There is a 4" diameter log blocking this trail (probably to keep NW ridge hikers from getting on the wrong trial). There are no cairns. This faint trail is easy to lose, but if you lose it, take the path of least resistance East and you'll find it again.
When you reach the 4th creek you will notice that you are at the same elevation as the TH. There are several faint trails that parallel the West side of this creek that you use to ascend into the La Plata Basin Gultch. A lot of fallen logs and some steep dirt sections make the trail a little more challenging, but no bushwacking is needed. We also found Roach's ridge crest a little West of the trail above 11,000', and I don't know which would be easier. We reached the area where the talus touches the creek, around 11,200' but decided to continue S on the primitive trail further up the basin. After about 15 min I decided this was a mistake, because we would have to ascend the W side of the ridge on small loose scree and rock bands instead of the more solid and larger talus that heads SE up the ridge. We wasted a little time and energy with our route choice, but reached the ridge about 3 hrs after leaving the TH.
As Roach says, you should bypass the initial summits on the ridge on the E side, staying 100-200' below the top. We climbed one and then had a sketchy 4th class downclimb to get back on route. As some other TRs have noted, this ridge is a lot of class 2+ if you stay far below the ridge. We didn't like losing so much elevation, so we tried to stay relatively close to the ridge crest, which requires some 4th-5th class climbing. In the early and middle section of the ridge, I think this is slower than staying low on E side. A solo hiker passed us about 300' below when we were staying high around point 13,140. It took an hour to go about 200 yds staying on the W side of the towers, including a downclimb around a rap station. Although the climbing was fun, we decided to spend less time climing and more time traversing around obstacles after that to save time. The incessant sidehilling if you stay low is no fun, so it's a tradeoff.
Weather was nice and sunny, but if you had to bail off this ridge there are many scree gullys which head down to La Plata Basin Gultch to the West. They are fewer and steeper as you get closer to the summit. Escape is possible, however the rock would be loose and not too fun to descend.
The real fun and most enjoyable climbing starts at the 13,000' area where the ridge begins to gain elevation towards Point 14,180' and the summit. The time at elevation was starting to fatigue Tony, so he began pressure breathing for the rest of the climb and was able to maintain a steady pace using that method. We found it quickest to stay right on or near the solid ridge crest. We climbed a fun, short 5th class chimney on a tower around 13,500'. When you hit the talus on the slope above that, it is pretty solid to climb, or you can move closer to the ridge crest when it gets loose. There are several ways to ascend the tower at 14,180' but it is easiest to bypass towards the east (big surprise). Climbing over and down the West side looked like it would involve some tricky moves. You'd think it would be easy after this tower but the ridge doesn't relent until you are close to the summit.
I was enjoying the climbing but my feet, ankles, and calves were killing me due to poor footwear choice. I wore the La Sportiva Exum Ridge, which are great for class 1 or easy class 2 trail running and rock climbing, but did not have enough rigidity to properly support my foot on the sidehilling, scree and constant standing on only the front on the foot. If you like wearing trail shoes, make sure they have enough stability in the sole or you might regret taking them on this route.
We reached the summit at 1:50p, about 8 hr 45 min after starting. We were blessed with great weather that stayed partly cloudy the rest of the day with no storms. We did not spend too much time on the summit and began to descend the NW ridge route. The trail is in good shape and quick to descend. However, there is a lot of erosion and many spots on the trail are covered in loose small gravel that could cause a fall if you are tired. After many switchbacks and short rest breaks, we were back to the car at 4:55p. 11hr and 50min! A long day!
Some lessions from this trip:
The ridge it too complicated for me to remember, describe or give any more specific routefinding details, but if you have any questions I'll try to answer them. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
If your skills and conditioning are up for it, go climb this classic route and have fun!