| Lackawanna - Winter South Slopes. Theoretically.
Who: Nancy (sunny1) and me (JosephG).
Trailhead: Lackawanna south slopes approach - direct fall line ascent.
Elevation gain: ~3,500'.
Approximate mileage: ~4 miles.
Trailhead directions: From the Twin Lakes turnoff from Highway 24, take Highway 82 towards Independence Pass. Go approximately 15.8 miles. Just after this, there is a large, obvious open area on the north side with a large, obvious gully in the middle. This is your trailhead. Approximately .1 miles back (at 15.7 miles), there is a pull off on the south side of the road. If you go past the sign saying "end of avalanche area," then you have passed the "trailhead." The trailhead is .9 miles past the LaPlata standard TH.
View from the trailhead, such as it is.
A Little Backstory
Lackawanna has been on my shortlist for some months now. Between work, weather, and admittedly some general lethargy, it just had not happened. But weather turned promising, work was manageable, and there's nothing like a 4 a.m. alarm to kick lethargy out the door. Even better, Nancy had acquired a pressing interest in this particular peak. So much for excuses.
When I was looking at Lackawanna reports from the south slopes approach, I found a great deal of helpful reports that addressed a gully ascent directly, but none that addressed a ridge ascent in the winter. With the avalanche conditions as they were (calling for the possibility of catastrophic large wet slides), we both thought a gully ascent of Lackawanna's south-facing avalanche gully was . . . unwise. Frankly, neither of us was even sure the ridge would go. But there only was one way to find out.
The Route and Ascent
When we first got on the low-angle snow just past the "trailhead," we found the snow easily collapsing under us. It was essentially a solid slab resting on unconsolidated, weak sugar. Even with snowshoes on and the snow relatively firm, the snow broke underfoot like we'd just opened a sinkhole. Any weight caused shooting fracture lines. We had set out anticipating taking the ridge, but had secretly hoped snow conditions would permit a gully ascent. Now we knew they would not.
Nancy in her element. Elevation'll do that.
Early snow work.
We turned our attention to the slopes above us and picked a line to the ridge that avoided high-angle snow. For the most part, this was surprisingly easy to do. Essentially, we stayed just climber's left of the thickest of trees and followed a line of least resistance away from the gully, avoiding some icy rocks and unnecessary snow. The snow levels on Lackawanna were alarmingly low, of the end-of-May variety.
Looking down at what seemed like significant progress.
This route is an unrelenting grunt of a hike. The elevation climbs steeply and continuously from the highway. It goes straight up until you don't think it can go up anymore, and then it goes up some more. It is a lung- and leg-burner.
Coming out of the trees.
Star Mountain to the south.
When we got to an elevated vantage point, we could see the snow in the gully was quite sparse. On the way down, we actually heard water running under it. I have no doubt that the gully ascent is the more efficient and easier way of achieving Lackawanna's summit from the south, but I cannot emphasize enough that snow conditions on this day mandated otherwise.
The gully ascent line. Sparse.
The objective was obvious: find the path of least resistance through the trees and head up. We made our way through a pleasant assortment of aspens, bristlecone pines, and blue spruce trees. They made for a nice, and well-scented, blend of forest.
There are a lot of game trails on the ridge (and, presumably, through the trees when the snow is gone), and we saw plenty of animal scat--goats, sheep, and elk. Getting out of the trees also provided us an undisturbed view of Lackawanna's false summit.
A nice dry ridge to the false summit.
An almost-windless day, we spent 45 minutes lounging on the summit and taking in the views. They did not disappoint. Most impressive.
Having crested the false, a clear path to the true.
Topping out. (Photo credit: Nancy.)
Nancy approaching the summit.
Nancy checking out Grizzly and Garfield.
Grizzly and Garfield.
Nancy with Casco, Frasco Benchmark, French, Massive, and Oklahoma.
More summit views: Elbert.
More summit views: self-portrait.
All good things must come to an end, and eventually we decided it was best to descend.
Let the descent begin.
Long look down. (Photo credit: Nancy.)
Ridges and sky.
Conveniently, the snow--which had softened considerably over the day--made the descent much easier, since it provided so much postholing. What's that you say? Postholing helpful? Well, yes: the snow actually kept us much more balanced and minimized the potential of slipping and falling on the precarious descent since it sucked in and held our feet (or at times up to our waist) so well.
Bristlecone Pine. (Photo credit: Nancy.)
Frankly, I suspect descending the ridge is easier in winter than in summer, save the extra energy of extricating oneself from the snow. On the descent, we came to appreciate the trees even more, hugging them for support and balance.
Can't see the forest for the LaPlata.
Good ol' plunge-stepping.
The view forward.
In short, the route is straightforward. We did not use a GPS, nor did we need one. Look up, walk up, and find the path of least resistance through the not-too-dense trees.
Finally, I want to thank Mike (oldschool) for providing some much-appreciated photographs that suggested how dry the ridge was up high as well as a general assessment of conditions. And, of course, to Nancy, who listened to my tunnel-vision targeting of Lackawanna this winter (hey, you can drive to the trailhead!), and joined me in finally making it happen. No trees were harmed in the making of this TR. Well, ok; maybe there was some incidental contact.
What TR isn't complete with wildlife?
Great route, great summit, great day. Thanks for reading!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):