If Sourdough summit through Stetattle Ridge is where trails go to die, then Black Peak is where trails are born.— an observation comparing trail experiences between Stetattle Ridge and the approach to Black Peak.
Lots of information on this peak exists, check out only a few:
From all of the hikes/peaks I’ve explored this summer, this one is the most straight forward. And, even for that, I have to say that the trail spur off the Heather/Maple Pass main trail leading out to Black Peak can be easily missed. In fact, because I had to do this trail twice, thwarted on my initial summit attempt via the NorthEast ridge due to a pesky knee issue, I missed the spur both times! Even looking for the turn, I passed it by a slight margin on the 2nd summit attempt hike. So! Look for the sign saying Heather Pass one way and Maple Pass the other. The spur is literally right there. A smaller, leaner looking trail off on your right. If you pass it and notice a beautiful meadow with a trail running across far below, then you have gone too far. Go back because you need to be on that trail. 🙂
With that said, it’s interesting how trails just appear, everywhere, throughout the hike. This makes route finding a little tricky. Some trails lead to the same points, but some take you on a wandering adventure. Be mindful of your path. So long as you see the Peak, how can you go wrong? Talus field or meadow trail, choose your own adventure. I imagine with snow, the adventure choosing becomes less so as trekking along snow can be faster than talus hopping.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any beta or insight into how the NE ridge goes because I had to bail due to a knee issue. I did go back and do the standard SE ridge, which is not as exciting as what I had originally had in mind, but given the situation, was much more reasonable in the event I had to bail mid-ridgeline. Some stats follow but I don’t really have anything new to add to the logistics of this thing. Two guys passed us on their way down who had done the NE ridge and said they followed the left most line to gain the ridge, following a moat to bypass the glacier. The rest of this post is regarding my experience of both attempts.
- 1st attempt total elapsed time to Wing Lake (super slow due to knee issue): 5:04:06
- 2nd attempt total elapsed time to summit: 4:20:52 (with photo stops along the way, particularly once we cusped the saddle onto the ridge); 6.82 miles
- Total elapsed time to Wing Lake: 2:24:08 (snapped after taking a bunch of pics); 5.34 miles
- Total elapsed time to saddle, start of SE ridge: 3:28:49 (includes reducing weight of pack to move more quickly), 6.30 miles
- 2nd attempt total elapsed return time: 3:39:27 (knee held up, though marginally by the end)
- Total elapsed car-to-car: 10:44 am start (see below for the delay story), 6:45 return to the car – 8 hours elapsed time
Summit Attempt #1
On my first summit attempt, the plan was to do the NE ridge, which goes at 5.7 which starts above a glacier, has some scree section before you are on the ridge proper, knife-edge ridge traversing to keep it spicy, and some actual climbing that adds to the overall adventure. I was excited to be adventuring with a recently friended alpinist. I was hoping by combining my climbing and outdoor hiking adventures I could really open up some things for myself. It’s times like these when I am injured for sport climbing that I look for alternative ways to stay engaged and motivated despite injuries, which I’ve been navigating since February of this year.
I already know that the mountains are for real so I treat them with respect and haven’t thrown myself at something that by the look of the grade would seem so trivial. There are elements to this style of climbing that I want to be sure I dial in so I am not a risk to myself or my partners. Excited to tackle this ridge, it was disheartening to find myself having to make the difficult decision to turn around and bail. My knee was in such bad shape but I kept pushing it, trying to make it to Wing Lake and reassess. We had plenty of time, but I was so slow that I worried that it still wouldn’t be enough.
After lunch and a lot of ibuprofen, I tested the knee by hiking lightly around the camping areas surrounding Wing Lake. There were a lot of tents, people we passed coming down after camping, as well as ultra runners. The weather was beautiful and a perfect day to be out so no wonder there were so many people up here. Still, I knew if I wanted to do this ridge and if something were to happen to me (because of my knee), or my knee would get any worse, that I was creating a huge risk for myself and my climbing partner. The only way off the ridge once you gain it, is up! Could I put ourselves into this type of situation? And for what? Maybe we would be ok, maybe not. Was it worth the risk?
Having to break the news to my friend was really hard. I felt that I’d let him down, in fact I felt that way the entire weekend. Very little of what he had hoped to achieve came about, because of me. This was not a position I enjoyed being in. I really wanted to crush some routes and have a good time, like we’d had on other adventures, but it just wasn’t happening.
The Friday before Black Peak, I stumbled on some news that threw me into an unusual state that I almost didn’t even meet up for the weekend plans. A childhood friend died from Covid (the delta variant) and I caught the news on Facebook as I was perusing before showering, packing, then heading north. At first, I was in disbelief. I couldn’t register that this was the same person. He was like a big brother to me back in the day and that’s how I’ll always remember him.
Something about this situation, maybe being caught by surprise, caused another anxiety attack of sorts. I don’t know why I started having these and I wasn’t sure when they would stop happening. The tears were falling, my chest was tight, and I couldn’t breathe. I was immobilized and worse, I had no one I could call who could just come over and be with me in this state. I wasn’t sure I could even move, let alone set about the remaining tasks to get on with the weekend. I contacted my friend and filled him in as best I could, warning that I might not make the meetup or go climbing this weekend. These experiences were all new to me and I had no idea how to manage them, let alone how long they would last. My friend was great, and I felt embarrassed sharing the experience I was having. I didn’t want him to worry, though he was prepared to drive down and sit with me, if I needed it. I’m not someone who typically needs this kind of support or care (let alone has ever had it before!) that it seemed silly for him to do that. I should just get moving.
I told him I’ll try to shower and reassess. If I can shower, then I’ll see if I can pack. And, if I can pack, then I’ll see if I can drive. I reached out to my other trusted friend who had been an anchor for me during this unsettling period, but he was indisposed (doing the thru-hike in the enchantments), which meant I was on my own to get through this.
I never imagined how debilitating this experience could be until I was in it.
I managed to successfully shower. That was a good sign. I was breathing again but still not calmly. I finished packing, it was food anyway so it was easy to finish. I focused on the next step. I mean, if I didn’t get out of there, what would I do? Allow myself to get swallowed by this? No way! I needed to get out and the mountains were the best place for me. My friend understood this. After loading the van, I wrote him to say I was on my way. He cautioned me, reminding me that he could just come down here to me. I said no way. We are going into the mountains, as planned, and proceeded to drive north.
By the time I made it north, I was in a much different place — more collected. Unfortunately, I believe this experience impacted my ability to do much that weekend. Emotional distress/stress, as I’ve learned through these experiences lately, really impact my ability to do the things I’m used to doing. I have to dramatically scale things back and it takes a lot more energy and focus to participate in life. My friend understood this and didn’t press me to do more than I could do. I was very appreciative of this though I still feel like I let him down. He had such ambitions and I’m totally capable of doing these things with him. To have to bail before the ridge, to be so slow, to have to admit that I can’t continue, further dampened my already low spirits.
Instead of letting it get to him, he suggested we go back down, leisurely, being mindful of the knee and just enjoy being out on a beautiful day. He further suggested we should consider collecting our food and heading out for a picnic in a meadow he enjoys nearby. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to end the otherwise compromised weekend. We lounged until sunset, which wasn’t too long after we had descended from the trail but long enough to enjoy the experience. Black Peak and the NE ridge would have to wait for another day, which I promised I would attempt with him whenever another opportunity arose.
Summit Attempt #2
In the meantime, I had the summit in mind and wanted to get in one last, long, hike before leaving Seattle. There was only one opportunity left and my original Black Peak partner couldn’t join so I made plans with my other adventure buddy. We wouldn’t be doing the NE ridge. With this partner we’d go up the popular SE ridge. No ropes, ice axes, or other shenanigans to contend with, which also meant a lighter pack that could be better for my knee.
Everything about this attempt was straightforward. My knee held up though gave signs of trouble throughout the descent from the ridge, which was worrisome. Also, and unexpectedly, rain came in and made navigating wet rock a little more adventurous than it probably would be otherwise. Because of the rain, we did not scramble the last stretch to reach the very top of the peak. We stood underneath it and I marveled at the NE ridgeline in front of me. Woa! I can’t wait to go back for that!
One significant difference in this attempt, other than my knee and emotional state, was the lack of people. No one was camping up at Wing Lake and we saw no one on the trail up to the Peak until we were nearing the saddle to the ridge. A man was coming down just then. And, on our way back to the main trail from the scree descent, we saw a man had pitched a tent in the camping zone off Wing Lake. That was it! It was awesome!
No masses of people to contend with on the ridge because there are points that narrow, making passing people going up or down, tricky and potentially dangerous. Pristine views the entire way and this feeling of truly being in the wilderness, enjoying everything, including the rain.
Oh yeah, rain. The forecast looked better than it played out and as luck would have it, the weather system hit us just as we were heading up the ridge. We could see it in the distance, coming our way. We kept going upward, all the same, carefully scaling wet rock. If it had rained any harder, we would have hunkered down and waited it out. If it had rained for an extended period, we would have carefully retreated. The upside to the rain was that the slick, sandy bits we screed our way up would be stickier on the way down — less ball bearing feeling under our feet, which meant we could potentially descend faster.
Because of the rain, I would not agree to scaling the last bit of rock to the tippy top of the peak. We could do it, I felt sure of that. But, I was worried about the way down. It was slick and there was a risk of sliding off the mountain if you slipped. My friend was a little insistent to try but I wouldn’t do it. So, I will happily return to snag the proper summit via the NE ridge someday in the future. 🙂
All-in-all, this trail was really straightforward, the ascent up the SE ridge also very well marked by cairns and easy to make your way up (think 2nd and 3rd class approach). There are some thin sections to be mindful of but for the most part, a very approachable summit via this route. If it is any more crowded on the approach to the ridge, you might be concerned about loose rock being kicked down on you, but otherwise, wear a helmet, mind the terrain, and try not to kick things down on those below you.
My favorite part of doing this hike a 2nd time was having already heard the stories of the PCT hikers arriving, I was on the lookout for them. No stashed caches this time, and no one obviously returning while we were hiking up or down. However, a mishap at the start of our hike led to us having a fun encounter when we returned to the car.
Brief Encounter With PCT Hikers
On the 2nd attempt to go up Black Peak, my friend wanted to sleep in town and leave early the next morning. This meant I would be driving out over 3 hours to get to the trailhead very early to arrive early and give ourselves enough time to attempt the summit (given what happened on my first attempt), we left early and good thing we did!
I packed everything the night before and as I was setting about getting some sleep, a mental rollcall of what I needed to do the following morning streamed through my mind. Food, helmet, shoes. Food, helmet, shoes. That was about it. Oh, and socks. Then, I was out.
I didn’t have any issue getting up with my alarm that morning, which was a good sign that I was recovering and on my way to becoming functional as the human I am used to being. Before leaving I grabbed my food from the fridge, my helmet from the closet, and my shoes from the shoe rack. Off I went.
When we arrived at the trailhead parking lot, it wasn’t quite 9 am, which was good. The lot wasn’t particularly full of people, but there were a few getting themselves ready to head up. My friend and I went to get ready ourselves when as I was getting my shoes realized, I didn’t have any socks!
What do you do when you don’t have socks?
I always have a spare set in the car, except this time. I had taken them out to wash them and forgotten to put a pair back. No socks. No hike.
I looked at my friend and even asked strangers if they had an extra pair. No luck. My only option would be to drive into Mazama and buy some from the climbing shop in town. I figured we’d be hiking by 11 am if we did this and hoped it would be enough time for us to reach the peak and back before dark, knee pending.
Off to Mazama we went, bought the socks, got a cup of coffee, a baguette and ran into friends I’d just stayed with over Labor Day weekend. Back up to Black Peak we went and loaded with food and caffeine, we seemed to make good time up and back from the climb that it was still light out. Having forgotten the Forest Pass for the car, I parked on the road across from the Rainy Pass entrance. We were changing clothes and eating our snacks from the morning (I saved my coffee for the drive home) when 3 people approached us.
Two men and a women wearing big packs approached and one of the men asked if we had any cold beverages to spare. I had my cooler with me and ordinarily I pack some cold beverages just in case my climbing/hiking/adventure partner wants some. In this case, this partner doesn’t drink so I didn’t bring anything. I recognized that these hikers must be coming off the PCT and I was intrigued!
First, I couldn’t stop apologizing for the lack of cold beverages to offer. I know they must really have been psyched to get some. Next, I confirmed they were PCTers and asked some questions. 2 of them had hiked all the from Mexico, at the start of the PCT. 1 of them had started in Northern California. All of them were headed to the end of the trail and would arrive in the next few days. It was only the weekend before that I had learned that PCTers will stop in Mazama (hitchhiking) on their way up to Hart’s Pass and on their way back. I’d seen some there but didn’t engage in conversation. It’s also where I learned that PCTers get a trail name and when they sign the register at the Mazama Store, they sign with their trail name. Naturally, I had to ask what their trail names were: Tumbleweed, Daddy Long Legs, and Good News.
If only I had that cold beverage to offer! I have so many more questions for them. But, if you, the reader, ever find yourself near dusk along the road across from the Rainy Pass Trailhead, during the season when the PCT hikers start appearing; make sure you’ve brought some extra cold beverages to share. Maybe you’ll run into a PCT hiker and get to hear their story.