Everyone needs a climbing partner like Owen. He’s motivated and kind, mixed with a healthy dose of cynicism and a love of irony to keep things light no matter how bad they get. But as a partner, he’s got that something special – a low threshold for acceptance of invitations to get lost in the mountains.  That’s why, when an open late-summer weekend unexpectedly reared its beautiful head, the answers to who, what and where came almost as quickly as I had asked them. “Where” was just off Rainy Pass in North Cascades National Park, and “what” was Black Peak. A true giant of the range and just shy of 9000’, it had been on my list for a while, and it rose promptly to the top of Owen’s list the moment I mentioned it.Black is on a lot of people’s list for some very good reasons. First off, it’s big. Erase the volcanoes and Black is number 12 on the list of Washington’s highest. Second, it could very well be the shortest approach to such a peak in the entire range.  There are no glaciers to cross, no bushes to whack, a plethora of quintessential campsites, and for those inclined to summit, views from the top into the very heart of the Cascades.  Routes to the summit range from a straightforward fourth-class scramble, to moderate technical outing­s–all worthy of attention. And should you have no interest in the top, Wing Lake alone is as sublime a destination as you could hope for.Our trip began at the popular Lake Anne trailhead after a short drive from the Colonial Creek campground where we spent the previous night. In short order we were bearing up and right on a crowd-thinning fork away from Lake Anne, heading for the true backcountry gateway of Heather Pass. Near the top, braided trails took us to our first view of Black Peak, and the infamous talus fields that guard it.

 

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©Jim Meyers
Even for someone who’s spent decades climbing in the mountains, and who actually appreciates the time-honored Talus Waltz, this traverse looks downright unappealing. Fortunately, you are descending through the bulk of it and, as usual, things get far less daunting once you’re on your way. The final steps of the dance brought us to Lewis Lake, with a few nice campsites and a reputation for sizeable trout. We’d hauled in fly rods for this very reason. Two things however, conspired against us. The first was dirt. Seemingly tons of it was suspended in the lake. Whether from a recent slide or muddy meltwater we couldn’t say, but the water looked more like the Mississippi than a pristine alpine lake. Unwilling to accept that we’d just lugged fishing gear this far for nothing, we dropped packs and began to set-up when thing number two strolled into view.An abrupt, “Bear” was all I heard.I looked up to see Owen pointing ahead to the northwest end of the lake and the trail we should have been on. There, a rather large bear was ambling along with some purpose. Unsure of his destination, we crouched silently, breathlessly, hoping to remain unseen. We then glimpsed the object of desire – the only tent we’d see the entire trip.  We whooped and hollered to hopefully dissuade our visitor from his quarry, and to at least make sure that no one was sleeping in.

 

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©Jim Meyers
With no response from camp or bear, we watched as backpacks and kitchen gear were tossed around. Then, after apparently having some trouble with the zippers, our impatient friend entered the thankfully empty tent through a new skylight that seemed better suited to his dexterity. Empty-mouthed, he sniffed the air, turned and trotted over a pass, into the next basin.
Needless to say, we seriously questioned whether or not it was prudent to move deeper into a hungry bear’s territory. Fortunately however, common sense can often be subdued long enough to contrive some silly statistical improbability of a bad outcome and off we went.
The rest of the hike went by uneventfully, save for the relaying of some bad news to a descending hiker. A final short, strenuous slog carried us up into the basin containing Wing Lake, where we found it resting peacefully beneath the imposing east face of Black Peak.  Let me say again, if you don’t climb anything, camping here is worth the hike. Stunning rock walls, azure-green water, and infinity-edged heather meadows blending seamlessly into distant peaks combine to complete the ideal setting for unplugging from the machine.
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© Jim Meyres

For those so motivated, a short hike the following day will take you to the stunning views from the col beneath the south ridge, and you can get as high on Black as your comfort level allows. Though rated Class IV (some hand-over-hand scrambling), those accustomed to scrambling easy terrain with some exposure and loose rock will have no problem tagging the summit.

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©Jim Meyers
We had chosen the classic, technical (yet very reasonable) northeast ridge, and though we spent much of the climb in the clouds, our arrival on the summit coincided with the classic afternoon burn-off, revealing stunning views of Mt. Goode’s iconic north face just across the valley, and the icy peaks of Cascade Pass to the west – and that’s just in one direction.
A quick descent down the south ridge and we were basking in the afternoon sun at Wing Lake, filtering water, and resting for that talus field which, as you’ll recall, is now mostly up on the route home. Upbeat and refreshed from yet another summit off the list of to do’s, Owen and I made good time back to Heather Pass, remaining in the bluebird solitude of late summer that Black Peak so frequently affords.
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© Jim Meyers
Now, with winter ever so briefly loosening its grip on the Cascades once more, I’m looking forward to that next open weekend, and a chance to spring yet another alpine objective on a partner who’s only a question away from saying, “Yes.”
Logistics:
Where:
Black Peak  (8,970’) is located in North Cascades National Park, off Highway 20 at Rainy Pass, beginning at the Lake Anne trailhead.
When:
In an average snow year, your best bet for snow-free trails is from July through September. Those comfortable with an ice axe and crampons can go as soon as the talus is melted-out, possibly as early as mid June.
Time:
2-3 days for an enjoyable outing.
Equipment:
For anyone venturing above Wing Lake, an ice axe is recommended, and crampons can help make quick work of any frozen morning snow that can linger all summer near the pass.  The South Ridge has some loose rock so helmets are advised. In general however, remember that the lighter you travel, the easier the talus will pass.
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©Jim Meyers

 

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