Black Butte CS

Sun, Oct 18, 2009

With: Matthew Holliman

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


I'm not sure how many times we'd driven past Caples Lake and Carson Pass with a fine view of Black Butte on the south side of the highway, but it must be dozens, and each time I've wondered, "Is that thing climbable?" Black Butte appears to be a remnant volcanic plug typical in the area of the Sierra Crest between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. It is overshadowed by Round Top and other peaks on the long stretch of ridgeline between Carson Spur and Carson Pass and looked to have a very short approach, so it never seemed worth spending a day to investigate. But today I was hampered by a need to return to the Bay Area for an evening dinner party and only had the morning hours to devote to an outing after our foray in Desolation Wilderness the previous day. Matthew had suggested Black Butte and I immediately took him up on it. It turned out to be a fine outing indeed, not only climbable, but no more than class 3 to boot.

We had spent the night sacked out in the back of our vehicles off the side of the Woods Lake Road. It was only in the morning that we discovered the No Camping Here sign tacked to a tree where we had pulled over. Oops. Luckily it was late in the season and though the road was open there was no one else along the road or at the campground found at the end of the road. After packing away our sleep gear, we drove into a trailhead a short distance away, only to find it a "Daily Fee Required" site. Annoyed, but not wanting to incur a ticket, we drove back out to our bivy site and walked from there (after all, it didn't say "No Parking".) We failed to read the sign completely though, or would have found that my Interagency Annual Pass would have allowed us to park there for free.

We found the actual trail about 50yds further up the road from the trailhead and started out around 7:40a. We followed this for about 10 minutes through the forest until I became convinced that we needed to leave the trail and head cross-country to the west. Matthew, reading a topo map he carried in his pocket, tried to explain that we should probably continue further on the trail until a creek crossing. With the faint early morning light and my old man eyesight, I was unable to read the details of the map and found it easy to discount what I couldn't see. "Humor me," I suggested to Matthew who politely gave no objection and followed me off through the forest.

The rocky abutment glimpsed through the trees that I had thought was Black Butte turned out to be nothing of consequence and we found ourselves traversing around the north side of a cliffy area almost a mile northeast of Black Butte. Lingering snow in the shady recesses made it more difficult and the up and down nature of our traverse did nothing to help us get to Black Butte in any certain fashion at all. Matthew was kind enough to heap no abuse on me for the misdirection though I certainly deserved it. I think he was happy just to know that no matter how badly I navigated on this one, it would still be a short approach of less than an hour's time.

It was 8:15a by the time we had finished with the floundering and were walking over easy ground with Black Butte in plain sight before us. Another five minutes and we were at the base of the east side and wondering which of several possibilities was the highpoint. I counted four pinnacles separated by notches comprising Black Butte. The southernmost one is further from the others which are clustered in a group of three (your perception may vary, so be warned). Our first guess was that the highpoint was in the cluster of three and that the one furthest south of these was highest. It also looked to be the easiest to reach which may have helped our decision in the matter.

We found easy class 2-3 scrambling on the east slopes leading up to our pinnacle of first choice. I was a few minutes ahead of Matthew in reaching the top, and in addition to a strong, cold wind blowing in from the west, I found we weren't at the highest point. I waited for Matthew to come up and join me so that he could discover this fact for himself. The highpoint was the next pinnacle to the north (the center of the group of three) and we could see a small cairn built atop it as additional proof. We could not see a way to access the higher summit due to a deep, intervening notch. Back down we went.

While descending I stayed to the north side of the slopes in order to get a better look at the notch between the highpoint and the pinnacle we'd just climbed. I discovered that the lower parts of the chute leading to the notch were cliffy and difficult-looking, but there was a comparatively easy traverse about halfway up to get into the upper recesses of the chute. I called over to Matthew who was further away and still heading down. This traverse would save us both time and elevation loss. There was some lingering snow in the chute that made the traverse into it harder than it would have been otherwise, but we both managed it without mishap. There was some class 3 in avoiding further snow in the chute, but the final 60-70ft was an easy class 2 scramble, and by 8:50a we were atop the summit. Taking all of an hour and twenty minutes, it was one of our quickest summits ever.

We found no register among the rocks comprising the summit cairn, nor anywhere in the vicinity that we could find. We contented ourselves with the fine views of Round Top and other nearby peaks (south, southwest, north, northeast) and of Caples Lake just below us to the northwest. After our brief stay atop the chilly summit we retreated via the same route, though we first stopped to look at the west-side chute leading to the same notch - it looked interesting, but we couldn't tell if it was class 3 or less for the middle portion of it.

The return to the trailhead was made considerably easier by taking a cross-country route directly east until we encountered the trail much as Matthew had described earlier in the morning. In crossing a small boggy area just before the trail, I managed to soak my boots and had to thrash my way through some thickets while Matthew, having found an easy way around, laughed at me from the other side of the brush. It's possible that his extra smirkiness was in some measure payback for my earlier choice of routes.

We came across the remains of an old mining site, lots of rusty equipment and old wooden beams strewn about the grounds, but no mineshaft that we could see. The old mining road we followed down was now part of the trail, and in combination with the portion of trail we had used in the morning, we found our way back to our starting point just after 9:30a. It made for a quick outing of barely over two hours, but it was surprisingly enjoyable - mostly because we were happy to see there was a relatively easy way to reach the summit. We had carried a rope, harnesses, and gear, but were glad to leave it all in our packs - no chossy volcanic roped climbing for us this time...

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