Trip: Black Peak - Northeast Ridge / South Ridge

Date: 6/3/2017

Trip Report:
For ICC Alpine 1, we attempted to climb Black Peak via the Northeast Ridge. We bailed from the ridge due to the snow conditions and summitted via the South ridge instead. I was the only instructor, with students Alex, Sara, and Scott.

tl;dr beta: Snow conditions on the ridge and our limited snow protection turned us around from our attempt of the Northeast Ridge. The South Ridge still had some steep-ish snow sections, and we chose to approach the summit via a false summit about 20m south of the true summit, roping up for a short, exposed 4th class ridge traverse. Avalanche danger due to warming snow was very real - a large cornice-triggered avalanche crossed our Saturday tracks and we saw many other similar debris paths.

See all photos here

Rough timeline:

Saturday
  • 6am: Leave Seattle
  • 8:50am: TH
  • 9:20am: Leave TH
  • 11:30am: Heather Pass
  • 2:10pm: Camp (7100')


Sunday
  • 5:10am: Leave camp
  • 6:20am: Reach notch (8200')
  • 7:30am: Decide to bail
  • 9am: Back to camp
  • 9:15am: Leave camp
  • 10:45am: Reach ridge (8200')
  • 12:20: False summit
  • 12:45 True summit
  • 1pm: Leave summit
  • 2:30pm: Camp
  • 3pm: Leave camp
  • 6pm: TH


Saturday
On Saturday, we left from Seattle early to give ourselves plenty of time for the approach, in case the snow conditions were slow. The parking lot at the trailhead was still snowed in. Trying to let the students take charge with navigation, I didn't say anything as we walked past the trailhead sign (other teams had mentioned the trail starts behind the sign, but isn't obvious under the snow), so we walked to the end of the parking lot first before turning back and finding the trail.

We made it to Heather Pass uneventfully. The snow is melted out to the summer trail in a few places, but mostly we were kicking steps. We also passed signs of major (but not recent) avalanche debris - a large swath of trees completely knocked down.

After Heather Pass, the route traversed under corniced ridges on the way to Lewis Lake. One of the cornices looked quite large, and like a serious avalanche risk, especially with the warm weather at noon. We had read some recent trip reports mentioning this, and had decided to bring full avy gear (each person with beacon/shovel/probe). We decided to go ahead with crossing under it, trying to space out a bit and move as quickly as possible.

On our way back on Sunday afternoon, we saw that part of the cornice had fallen, and had triggered a large avalanche, obliterating our tracks. We thought it had likely happened within 4-5 hours of our passing.

The remaining approach went a little slower. We decided to camp at a small melted-out knoll above Wing Lake (~7100'), since it got us a little closer to our objective for Sunday. We found running water here - a tiny glacial-melt creek. We all initially cleared out bivy spots in the snow, but then I found a nice patch of mostly flat dirt in the trees, and moved my bivy there. (There would have been plenty of room for tents, but part of the ICC is sleeping in bivvies.)

It was around 4pm, so with plenty of time left in the evening, Alex, Scott, and I went on a scouting and step-kicking mission up towards the NE Ridge. By this point in the afternoon, the snow was soft and great for step-kicking, and we made good time up to about 7600', where had a good view of the ridge. There was still snow all the way up to the ridge, with a few open rock patches making the runout more dangerous. We could also see a cornice on the start of the ridge, but weren't sure whether it would be passable on the west side once we had gained the ridge, and didn't want to approach closer given avy concern with the afternoon snow.

Sunday
We left camp around 5:10am, and made good time up our pre-kicked steps, very thankful to our past selves. The snow was quite hard, so we put crampons on as soon as we left the steps. The snow gets steep (45-50+ deg) for about the last ~200'. We solo'd up, but in hindsight probably would have preferred protecting it.

Once on the ridge, we could see that the cornice dropped steeply but not impassably to the west - we could even see steps crossing it. We sent Scott out with our two pickets to lead across. Unfortunately, he got to the end of his 30m rope before he was even a quarter across, which left us with a math problem: how to get two teams, each with one 30m rope, across a ~120m cornice, with only two pickets. After much deliberation, we concluded that we were not comfortable with any of our possible options. If we'd had either 60m ropes, or more pickets, or both, we probably would have pressed forward. Instead, we bailed from the ridge, making two 30m rappels, each on a single picket. Scott downclimbed on belay to clean the pickets.

We still wanted to get the summit, so we headed back to camp, took a quick break, and then started up the route to the South Ridge. This route was much more straightforward. There were still sections of snow, and even at 11am, the snow was hard enough that we were grateful another party had already kicked most of the steps for us. We were mostly able to follow cairns. Near the summit, what we thought was the normal 4th class final gully would have been accessed by a sketchy traverse across steep snow above a cliff. So instead, we decided to take a more direct scramble route up to a false summit to the south of the true summit, and then were able to rope up for a very short (~15-20m) traverse across an exposed ridge to the true summit. The downclimb, return to camp, and de-proach to the cars was uneventful except for crossing the large avalanche debris crossing our Saturday tracks.

Gear Notes:
2 pickets
2 30m ropes
2 light alpine racks, lots of doubles (mostly unused, since we didn't go up the NE ridge)
Crampons
Ice axes
Avy gear (beacon, shovel, probe)





Approach Notes:
There's still snow the whole way from the trailhead, with just a few short sections of melted out trail.

Avalanche danger due to softening snow was very real, especially with large cornices hanging over the route.