| 4, 3, 2, 1...Liftoff for Lackawanna
Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
"When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."
4, 3, 2, 1...Liftoff for Lackawanna
Lackawanna Peak, 13823 ft. (ranked 95th in Colorado)
Climb date: Saturday, April 16, 2011
Trailhead name:Unmarked, approx. elevation 10,300 ft.
Distance: Just under 4 miles roundtrip.
Gain: Approximately 3500 ft.
Short and steep, this is a beautiful and challenging route skyward. Gerry Roach says it's a good route if you like to attack the fall line. The route gains 3,500 feet in less than 2 miles. Rockets seem to share a similar trajectory.
The flight team came together quickly as Derek and Clay enlisted for the adventure. We were enthused - Lackawanna would be a new peak for each of us. Added bonus: it's a centennial peak. I have not been this high since November of 2010.
Access to the south slope route comes from an avalanche chute that reaches Hwy 82. There are two choices for launch. Option one: scramble to a rocky point above the avalanche chute and then ascend the second-class ridge to the summit. This is the typical south slopes route documented in Roach's 13er guide book.
Option two was more interesting to us: ascend snow in the avalanche chute to 12,600 feet and then exit the chute. Sarah Thompson's trip report from 2007 provided us with good beta with regard to the snow climb. We expected 25-30 degree snow in the chute. The chute was south-facing, bordered by steeper SW and SE aspects. The Sawatch Range avalanche danger rose showed "green" southerly aspects. The weather had been good and was to remain good through our climb day. Excited about the prospects of a moderate snow climb, it was an easy choice to make.
A topo map of our route.
Captions on top of photos.
I prefer to camp near the trailhead on the night before an ascent. It's satisfying to explore an area in advance, hike around, establish a rhythm with the 'aina (land in Hawaiian), and possibly catch a fantastic sunset photograph. And besides, eight to twelve hours of prior acclimatization helps performance. I leave Boulder for Leadville on Friday afternoon.
Two hours later I place four cans of Guinness into the back of the Subaru and close the hatch. I slip the clutch but the car still shudders in the thin air of Leadville. The drive from Leadville to Twin Lakes is long enough for my thoughts to drift off to future endeavors. The turn-off for Hwy 82 arrives suddenly and I shoot past. I make a U-turn.
Once past Twin Lakes, Hwy 82 invites spirited driving. But I slow it down after encountering a group of Rocky Mountain sheep standing beside the road. I arrive at the winter closure gate at 6 in the evening. The road ends where the snow begins.
The song of cascading water lures me in to the trees. I locate the source, an emerging creek. In a few weeks it will be a raucous symphony.
I'm captivated by Lake Creek and ignore the setting sun. I look to the sky just in time to catch the warm evening light on a distant point.
La Plata glows in what can only be described as the light of Heaven.
(In space) The sun truly comes up like thunder and it sets just as fast. Each sunrise and sunset lasts only a few seconds. But in that time you see at least eight different bands of color come and go, from a brilliant red to the brightest and deepest blue. No sunrise or sunset is ever the same.
- Joseph Allen, American Astronaut
I walk back to my car and drive down the road. I pitch my tent in a pullout beside highway 82, about a mile east of the winter closure gate. This is the launch pad - I make final preparations for tomorrow's ascent.
A full moon rises overhead. Hours go by as I take long exposure photos. There is no wind - the night is still. There are no clouds - the night is bright. I turn off the headlamp - there is no need for it. Two coyotes cross the road near my tent. They stop in the road and look over at me. The sun is six hours away. It's late and so I retreat to the tent.
I sleep remarkably well considering the road-side location. A vehicle drives by at 4 AM. I wake for good at 6:30. Derek and Clay arrive at 7:30. We prepare our gear, laugh, and start up walking up the road by 8. We have about 100 yards to walk. The countdown starts.
Access to the south slope route comes from an avalanche chute that reaches Hwy 82. Our ascent trajectory is seen from this location. Our plan is to ascend the snow chute up the center of the photo towards the distant highpoint. The true summit of Lackawanna is not visible from here.
We start towards the chute. The snow is firm at 8 AM. Our snowshoes remain strapped to our packs.
Entering a new frontier.
We gain altitude quickly.
I look east towards La Plata where these lower subpeaks grab my attention. Their unique shape feeds my imagination.
We reach the mouth of the chute where we are reminded of the danger of avalanche. We cache our snowshoes in a secure location and install crampons on our boots.
We enter the chute and encounter a large snow formation, perhaps evidence of a past avalanche.
A deep runnel has formed at the base of rocks on the left.
The chute curves and the terminus remains out of view. We continue on with some trepidation of what might lie ahead.
We encounter another warning of the dangers involved. I measure the slope angle at a mild 25 degrees.
Derek approaches our fate. The route becomes steeper.
And what a beautiful fate it is. The snow chute continues upwards at 25-30 degrees. The snow ahead is undisturbed. It resembles an untouched frontier.
The steep slope on our left is wind loaded. The steep slope on our right is wind blown. We stay on the right side of the chute. The slope angle in the chute increases to a maximum of 35 degrees for a short distance.
Our ascent trajectory is visible here.
I walk in the center of the chute in order to take photographs from that vantage. (Photo by Derek)
Our snowy terminus is ahead.
Behind us, to the south, Star Mountain becomes our ever-present companion, our beacon.
We have ascended more than 2000 feet on snow. We now consider the final thousand feet. It won't be easy. The snow slopes that are straight ahead appear too dangerous. We decide to continue to the prominent rock formation, curve around it, and ascend the steep wind-blown slope that is to our right.
We reach the rock formation and exit the snow chute. The rock formation is located at 12,600 ft. The summit, still out of site, is 1,200 ft. above us.
Our trajectory steepens.
We make a wide sweeping traverse. (Photo by Derek)
The view to the south becomes big. We get closer to the stratosphere.
Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth...home.
- Edgar Mitchell, USA
We stop to refuel. This photo of Derek is a good indicator of the slope angle we encounter as we approach the south ridge.
After a short break it is back to business. Clay leads our progress towards the ridge.
Derek ascends the upper snow slope on Lackawanna. Grizzly Peak - the tallest 13er - rises high in the distance.
We continue to rocket skyward.
Clay powers through the final ascent.
We crest the south ridge and the summit appears. We approach it with relief - we've made it.
In the distance are century peaks Casco, Frasco, and French. Lackawanna is a giant surrounded by giants.
Clay and Derek reach the summit. I follow.
Clay admires the view towards the southwest.
My first view - a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white - was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing - I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves.
- Charles Walker, American Astronaut
The view towards the southeast is breathtaking. Mt. Elbert is at far left. La Plata Peak is right of center. Numerous high peaks fill the horizon. (Panorama photo by Clay)
Casco, Frasco, and French blend in with the cloud.
Mt. Elbert is swallowed by a spring storm.
We enjoy ten minutes on the summit. We look at each but we don't need to say anything. We know this is about as good as it gets. I walk out to the edge of the ridge and take a few photos of La Plata. (Panorama photo by Clay)
This is the view of La Plata from the vantage point in the panorama above.
Derek begins his descent.
Clay begins his descent.
And I begin my descent. Our landing strip is 3,500 ft. below.
For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light - our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
- Ulf Merbold, German Astronaut
As we descend the view to the south is tremendous. It's distracting from our task at hand - making each step count on a safe descent. (Panorama photo by Clay)
We carefully retrace our route with a slight variation. We re-enter the snow chute near the point where we exited earlier in the day. We glissade short sections of the chute but the snow has softened making glissade difficult.
We plunge step through sections that can't be glissaded.
We locate our cached snowshoes and put them on our feet. We exit the chute and breath easier now. We are getting closer to home.
We pass avalanche debris and downed timber from years past.
It's usually said that most accidents happen on descent. Clay is nearly buried alive just a few feet from the landing strip. Our extensive emergency training breaks into high gear - we laugh.
For those who have seen the Earth from space...the experience most certainly changes your perspective. The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us.
- Donald Williams, American Astronaut
The Come Down. I imagine astronauts share a similar feeling of quiet euphoria after landing.
Flight over, we dump our gear and go straight to debrief. We scheme future plans and then Derek and Clay depart for their drive home. I chill two Guiness in preparation of another night camped beside the road.
It's 4:30 in the afternoon. I gather my camera, lenses, and tripod, and then return to the cascades where I am treated to earthly wonders. Being up high is beautiful. As is being down low.
The water curls around my boots like I am a rock. With my feet in the creek I am grounded. The climb is over - tonight a warm bed would be nice. I return to camp, tear down the tent, and pack everything into the car. I listen to some good music while driving east towards Twin Lakes. The full moon is on a heavenly trajectory.
I pull into the parking lot of the Twin Lakes historic district. To the south, the sun sets on Mount Hope.
Night approaches but I remain motivated to take a few photos of the old places. I install a 35mm f1.8 prime lens on my Nikon and shoot it wide-open in the low light. The depth-of-field can seem paper thin at an aperture of f1.8. It can produce some interesting focus effects and color blurs.
The earth turns and the day becomes night.
We looked skyward and shot for the summit of Lackawanna Peak. And I'm convinced we made it half way to the moon.
I am not a religious man - I am spiritual. Today, Easter Sunday, I want to wish everyone good beginnings, peace, and happiness. Spring has arrived full of miracles.
The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation...and the love of God.
- James Irwin, American Astronaut