| Man vs. "Fiascol"
13,908 Feet (69th Highest in Colorado)
North Ridge from the North Lake Creek Trailhead
Trailhead Elevation 10,780 Feet
7.0 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 3,128 Feet Elevation Gained
September 18th, 2010
Man vs. "Fiascol"
Casco Peak is surrounded by some of the highest mountains in Colorado. Fourteeners Mt. Elbert, Mt. Massive, and La Plata Peak are all in the top ten. Thirteeners French Mountain, "Lackawanna," Grizzly Peak, and Oklahoma Mountain are all in the highest hundred. At 13,908 feet, Casco Peak would be a remarkable mountain if it were anywhere else. In the highest part of the Sawatch Range, it's just another face in the crowd. The mountain can be approached from four sides: South Halfmoon Basin, Echo Canyon, the north fork of Lackawanna Gulch, and the south fork of Lackawanna Gulch. The hike up the north fork of Lackawanna Gulch is highly regarded as a beautiful hike, but it involves hiking up a steep scree slope to a col that Gerry Roach nicknamed "Fiascol" because of a bad experience that he had there. I opted for the most scenic experience, and was willing to take whatever beating "Fiascol" was going to give me.
The aspens were in full color as I made my approach to North Lake Creek Trailhead at the first switchback on Independence Pass. As if I needed another reason to enjoy fall hiking in Colorado! There was only one car at the trailhead when I arrived. Hiking thirteeners gives me the solitude that I can rarely find on a fourteener.
The North Lake Creek Trailhead, with the mouth of Lackawanna Gulch in the background
From the trailhead, I followed the trail to a spur trail that led to Lake Creek. Crossing the North Fork of Lake Creek can be a dicey proposition in the early spring, but the water level is usually low in late summer and fall. The steppingstones were coated with a nearly-invisible layer of ice, though.
Creek crossing on the North Fork of Lake Creek
The trail is actually an old mining road that leads to the mouth of Lackawanna Gulch. The road is not in bad shape, and most of it could be driven if it were not gated at the trailhead.
4WD road to Lackawanna Gulch
I was pleased to find a clean and modern "convenience station" along the trail.
Modern two-holer rest facilities along 4WD road
I followed the 4WD road to the mouth of Lackawanna Gulch at about 11,100 feet, where Gerry Roach wrote that there was a trail on the south side of the gulch. I couldn't see a trail, so I started at the creek and walked about 100 yards south. I still couldn't find a trail, so I headed back to the creek and started walking north. The trail was right where one would expect to find it, a few yards from the creek.
Trail on the "south" (north) side of Lackawanna Gulch
Although it is not technically in a wilderness area, the lower portion of Lackawanna Gulch had a nice wilderness feel to it.
The lower reaches of Lackawanna Gulch
There are not many aspens in the gulch. However, understory plants like fireweed, geraniums, cinquefoil, and bog birch provided pleasant red, yellow, and orange hues.
Fall colors in Lackawanna Gulch
While the route gives the impression of being largely untouched by man, there was some evidence of mining in the distant past.
Dilapidated mining shaft house on the banks of Lackawanna Creek
The gulch branches at about 11,500 feet, and the branches follow opposite sides of an unranked thirteener. The north branch was the one that I needed to follow.
Junction of the north and south forks of Lackawanna Creek, with Pt. 13,475 in the background
I crossed the north fork, and immediately spotted a good trail following the ridge above the south side of the creek. The terrain started to get steeper, yet there was no reason to complain; it had been a relatively easy hike so far.
Trail up the North Fork of Lackawanna Creek
Even though nearly all of the snow on the slopes had melted, there was still enough runoff to keep a steady flow of water in the stream.
Waterfall on the North Fork of Lackawanna Creek
Mt. Champion towers above the north side of the gulch. There are obvious signs of mining on Mt. Champion, but the basin below is absolutely pristine. The ridge that forms "Frasco Peak" and Casco Peak lies at the head of the upper basin. The infamous "Fiascol" saddle lies between these two mountains.
Casco Peak. "Fiascol" is the saddle to the left of the peak.
I contoured around the upper basin and approached "Fiascol" from the south. It looked impossibly steep. I realized from past experience that steep slopes don't always look so bad up close. Maybe this one wouldn't be as bad as it looked.
Approaching "Fiascol" from the upper basin
"Fiascol" was an exception to the above-mentioned rule; the closer I got, the nastier it looked. Ascending a steep scree slope is never pleasant, but there was no alternative at this point. I had to either climb it or go home.
Boulder hopping at the bottom of the col
I saw what appeared to have been an obvious line up the right hand side of the slope. However, I was unable to follow it because the scree was just too loose. I decided to stick to the rocks on the extreme right of the slope. Even some of the very large rocks were just waiting for an idiot to come along and send them catapulting into the basin below. I tested each hand and foothold carefully, and didn't cause any major disasters. I can't recommend that anybody should take this dangerous route up the slope.
Time to rock
Looking back down "Fiascol"
I reached the saddle high above the low spot. To my surprise, I saw a pair of hikers in the low spot of the saddle. They had ascended the standard route on French Mountain, and had followed the ridge over to "Frasco." The ridge over to "Frasco" looked pretty rugged, but I could see no apparent difficulties on the ridge to Casco's summit.
Casco Peak's North Ridge
The trail to the summit stayed on the east side of the ridge, and was not hard to follow. While it was possible to stay entirely on the crest of the ridge, the trail bypassed some of the larger bumps.
Following the North Ridge to the summit
The hikers that I had seen in the saddle passed me as I approached the summit. They were "well-seasoned" strong hikers. As Roach clearly stated in his thirteener guide, the ridge is roughest near the top.
Higher on the ridge
There was a bit of a scramble near the summit, but probably nothing that approached Class 3.
Scramble to the summit
I hung out just below the summit block and talked to the other hikers for a few minutes before ascending the final jumble of boulders. The summit block was only large enough to accommodate a few hikers.
There was an excellent view of Mt. Elbert from the summit. Our state's highest summit looked regal from a distance.
Looking at Mt. Elbert from the summit
To the north, I had a good view of "Frasco," French Mountain, and Mt. Massive.
"Frasco" in the foreground, Mt. Massive in the background, and French Mountain on the right
Since monsoon season is over, I was in no hurry to leave the summit. The weather was beautiful, and so was the scenery. Descending "Fiascol" weighed heavily on my mind as I began my descent. It would have been foolish to follow my ascent route down, so I decided to try the standard route from the lowest point of the saddle. The standard route was just as loose, and possibly steeper. The route went straight down the slope and through the talus field below.
What goes up, must come down
I sent large amounts of scree hurtling down the slope, and I started to hurtle down the slope myself a couple of times as well. The erosion caused by using this route on "Fiascol" is not kind to the mountain, and I'd have to recommend using one of the other routes. The other routes are probably safer as well!
Oops! Butt plant!
When I reached the bottom of the slope, I had to boulder-hop across a big field of large talus. It was mostly stable, and not at all difficult. Mt. Champion looked like a tempting candidate for a future hike.
The upper basin with Mt. Champion in the background
The lower basin was just as beautiful as the upper basin. The willows were plentiful, but they were only knee-high and not spaced very tightly. The trail through the basin became more distinct as I descended.
Willows in the lower basin
I followed a different branch of the mining road through the lower part of Lackawanna Gulch, and came across more mining relics. I found what appeared to be the partial remains of an old coal-fired boiler sitting out in the middle of a field beside the road.
Part of an old coal-fired boiler?
After following faint trails or having no trail at all for much of the day, it was nice to be back on the wide road back to the trailhead. I was too tired to think about navigation at this point.
Following the road back to the trailhead
Lackawanna Gulch lived up to its billing as a beautiful, wild place to visit. The upper basin was a pleasant surprise, and I could tell that it would be an excellent place for viewing alpine wildflowers in the proper season. The scenery throughout the hike was excellent, as were the summit views. But you should avoid "Fiascol" like the plague. If I had it to do over again, I would probably take the Echo Canyon route. I've seen portions of the route from several surrounding mountains, and it looks like it has plenty of good scenery to offer without the lethal doses of Sawatch scree.
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