Jonah Blank and I climbed the Northeast Ridge of Black Peak on June 17th in 17 hours car to car. The descent was via the South Ridge.
At 4:00AM, Jonah and I left the Lake Ann trailhead at Rainy Pass. Following the trail proved difficult in the predawn darkness. Soon, we found some old boot prints and got our momentum for the day on the snowy but only moderately steep trail. It felt good to be hiking with such a light pack! My recent trips have all involved carrying reasonably heavy loads, so my sub-15 pound pack felt like it was barely there. I thought that our fitness levels were high enough to allow us to complete the approach, climb, and descent in a single day.
A few months prior, Jonah asked me to climb a mountain with him to celebrate graduation. Why go to a commencement ceremony when you can climb? I thought it was a pretty cool idea and immediately agreed. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had several objectives in mind. Cutthroat Peak and Black Peak made the short list. In the end, I decided on Black Peak. Fred Beckey says “Black is a massive and very important high peak, one of the giants of the North Cascades…” and goes on to note that the rock quality is low. Given the relatively modest guidebook rating of II 5.3, I thought it seemed like a great option for Jonah’s first technical alpine climb.
Black Peak is Washington’s 17th highest peak and offers outstanding views of the wild North Cascades. The Northeast Ridge was put up by the legendary Michael Kennedy and Robert Jackson on September 1, 1973. It creates an aesthetic mountain traverse: climbing the Northeast Ridge on the way up and descending the South Ridge on the way down. I always appreciate the chance to experience multiple sides of a peak in a single day.
The approach went smoothly but required attention. Once we reached Lake Ann, we had to don crampons to navigate the hard snow. Once we reached Heather Pass, we were treated to the first view of our objective, standing proud in the morning light. Below Heather Pass, we spent time crossing somewhat steep snow with large cliffs below. Further excitement was provided in the form of a massive cornice formed on Coteo Peak, above Lewis Lake. In the cold, clear morning, the cornice was not a huge concern, but I did tell Jonah “maybe we should walk on the other side of the lake on our way back.” Finally, steep snow must be climbed to reach the base of the route. This ridge below the route was corniced – stay away from the edge! We reached the ridge 4.5 hours after leaving the car.
After gearing up, Jonah and I climbed around a cornice before roping up at the first place I could find an adequate belay anchor. I took the lead and climbed some impressively steep snow, even pulling a few mixed moves with my ultralight ice axe and aluminum crampons. Finally, I reached a rock ledge and brought Jonah up to my stance. Here, we could put away our crampons and switch to rock climbing mode, which I hoped would greatly speed our progress.
We brought no rock climbing shoes, planning to climb in our boots – this turned out to be a great choice. The quartz diorite that comprises Black Peak is highly featured, which makes it easy to climb in boots. However, I quickly learned that the comments about loose rock on the ridge were more true than I could have imagined. The majority of the climb was so loose that every single hold required testing. We climbed faster and faster as the rock improved higher on the ridge.
Eventually, the ridge steepened. I attempted to bypass a particularly intimidating gendarme by moving onto the West side of the ridge. This turned out to be a bad choice – this side of the ridge had significant snow and verglas covering the loose rock. To make matters worse, the rock in this section was easily the worst on the route. I did a lot of “cleaning” on this pitch, tossing handfuls of rock onto the Northwest Face below. I tried to make sure that the stones were landing on ledges, but a couple of them went for a 2000 foot ride to the bottom of the Shelockum Glacier.
Finally, we reached the summit block after rock climbing next to a long cornice on the 3rd class ridge above the false summit. I was surprised – none of the trip reports or guidebooks I’d read mentioned this summit block. Climbing up on this side looked harder than the advertised 5.3 rating for the route, so I guessed that we needed to traverse below the summit block on the left to meet up with the South Ridge route.
Around the ledge, I reached a steep snow slab. After putting my crampons back on, I placed a good cam in adjacent rock and stepped onto the slab. I immediately punched through 2 feet of snow with the consistency of mashed potatoes. I discovered that there was a ten inch gap where the daily warming of the surrounding rock melted the bottom layers of snow from underneath. Immediately, I had concerns about the entire slab sliding off of the mountain once whatever was holding it up gave way. I hauled myself onto the rock above and traversed with good protection (where was all this good gear earlier in the day?!).
The next snow slab was equally terrible. I had Jonah put me on belay as I made a rising traverse with my crampons on – boots in the snow, hands on the rock. I reached a rock ledge and realized that the snow was taking too long. I looked at the rock cliff above me, and yelled down to Jonah. “I’m taking my crampons off and climbing up the rock here. I suggest you do the same!” A smile came on as I progressed upwards on solid rock. The climbing was about 5.5 with sparse protection, but it quickly eased off as I got near the crest of the summit ridge. I belayed Jonah as he quickly followed. Before he reached the anchor, we were already discussing how to descend. We only had a couple of minutes to spend on the summit before we had to start down – storm clouds were approaching. We snagged a few photos with Jonah’s grad cap, stowed the rope, and went to work on the descent.
Downclimbing the South Ridge involved some 4th class rock on the summit ridge before easing off to a punishing and tedious scree gully. We initially started down the wrong gully, but Jonah smartly found a traverse to the correct one. Once we reached Wing lake, we found my friends Damien and Dandelion at their camp site. I ALWAYS run into them – I’ve seen them twice at Colchuck Lake, again on the last pitches of Prime Rib, and they were teaching a class for the Mountaineers on Baker when Bryson and I did the North Ridge. All of these chance meetings have been in the last three months! This was the first time that I knew ahead of time that I would likely see them, and they happily gave Jonah and I fancy chocolate bars for the hike out. These are two highly motivated mountain people who have really impressed me with their unwavering desire to spend time in the alpine. Dandelion runs a great blog, Dandelion’s Expedition, that I personally have spent several hours reading. Damien and Dandelion intended to camp at the lake and climb the NE Ridge on Sunday, but they got rained out and opted for a South Ridge ascent.
The rest of the hike out was uneventful. I was feeling a bit spooked by the sun-baked cornices on Coteo, so I jogged through the debris fields to limit my exposure. Jonah and I had a great day in the alpine, climbing a very impressive peak by a so-so route. To be honest, I would not recommend the NE Ridge – the rock quality was a major let down, and added a lot of stress to the day. If I did Black Peak again, I would do the South Ridge, which is a lot easier and only requires boots, crampons, and an axe.
Aluminum ice axe (CAMP Corsa Nanotech), aluminum crampons, single run of cams .3-2, a set of nuts and a skinny 60m rope worked well. You could easily bring a shorter rope. BRING A HELMET – loose rock is not a joke on this peak!
This peak is easily done in a day, but the camping at Wing Lake is spectacular. Plan on simulclimbing as much as possible. This route would probably be better later in the season, when less snow would have to be navigated on the approach and route.