Darkness in a World of White: Black Peak

Installment 5 from Kyle Miller’s 08-09 touring season:

It was a long, cold night as we slept next to the highway hidden between two-ten foot embankments of snow. Joe Bell and I were camping out in celebration of the inaugural weekend of an open North Cascades highway, and the unofficial start of touring-only season for me.

We had come to climb Black Peak, a prominent mass of rocks that towers above its neighbors at a summit elevation of 8970 ft. More importantly, we had come for a particular aesthetic chute that runs down its southern face. We had first viewded the chute on John Scuclock’s Pbase website, which includes arial photography of dramatic peaks within the Cascades. When we looked at that line, we thought it was just begging for tracks.


The southern face of Black Peak our ascent route on the right and decent in the mid left side.

Photo by John Scurlock.

We awoke to clouds and quickly got on our way. The first hour of skinning through the forest passed quickly as the trees ahead and above obstructed any views we might have had. However, we quickly reached the high country, where were surrounded by limitless skiing potential, and the views poured in from all sides. Once arriving at our first of many passes, we got our first good look at Black Peak, which dominated the horizon five miles in the distance. After traversing along steep slopes, frozen lakes, and glacial moraines, we arrived at the base of the black giant.


Our first view of our objectuve in the distance.


Arriving at the base of Black Peak

The main climbing route and chute we had come to ski were on the southern side of the mountain, so we traversed clockwise from the northeast. Skinning became less effectual, so when we reached the steeper terrain we made a quick transition to crampons and pulled out the ice-axes. After kickstepping 300 vert, we arrived at the final pass. From the low col, we had a perfect view of our summit route and potential ski run.


Arriving at the col.


Rotten snow near the ridge.

The terrain was steep and the climbing became tedious, as we ascended the 40-degree slope below the summit proper. Each step was an undertaking of its own as we kicked steep steps into the snow. We clung to the face, our purchase held only by the front points of our crampons and the ends of our ice axes.


The final pitch to the summit.


The last steps.

As we moved vertically, mountain clouds rolled in, and the weather turned from blue skies to snow in a matter of seconds. Before long, we were on the summit, but a snowstorm surrounded us. We were standing on the edge of a thousand-foot cliff, and a massive unnamed glacier below.


Joe standing on the Summit.

Not knowing what else to do with the conditions as they were, we simply strapped in and prepared to slash up the southern face. We dropped in and traversed for a ways, scoping the chutes below, many of which cliffed-out to an unskiable point, before identifying and dropping into the line we had seen from below.


Our line in site

I went first, and carved down the chute, which was bounded on each side by 40-foot rock walls. The chute choked to barely wider than my board, and I switched over to hop turns as an added measure of safety. After a thousand feet of pure adrenaline and fall-line boarding, we traversed back to the low col from where we had come.


Ripping down the southern chute
It was time to make a crucial decision—either we could head back the way we had come in (a 3 mile traverse), or head north and ride 3000 feet of fall line that would end at highway twenty, four miles west of where we’d left the car. We easily decided that 3000 feet of additional turns was the preferable route. Our decision rewarded us with huge canyons, gullies, and wide-open faces, before we finally reached the flats below. But we paid for our fun and frivolity as we traversed, skinned, and hiked those final miles back to the car. Ten hours later, we were back at our starting point, jetboiling ourselves some classically-celebratory top ramen.


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