Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 102 – St. Elmo Peak & the Search for Peak 6733 (10-29-14)

The sign said “Enjoy Your Day, But Please Close the Gate, Cattle Summer Pasture in these Fields”.  Well, OK.  October 29th wasn’t really the time of year for summer pasture, and although mountain goats might like it, the steep forested slopes up ahead didn’t look like good pasture for cattle any time of year.  Nevertheless, Lupe and SPHP went through and closed the gate.

Lupe was just starting out on Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 102.  She was only a couple of minutes from the G6, which SPHP had parked along a dirt road SSE of Hwy 385, about a half mile S of its junction with Hwy 87/89 (10:37 AM, 54°F).  Her first peakbagging objective for the day was St. Elmo Peak (6,458 ft.), less than a mile to the S.  Lupe would have to gain over 1,200 feet of elevation to get up on top.

Beyond the fence, Lupe and SPHP started climbing the rough remnant of a road up a steep gully.  The road became an overgrown trail, and then disappeared.  Lupe hadn’t gone too far when the terrain started leveling out.  She reached a small saddle NW of St. Elmo Peak.  Lupe and SPHP turned SE, and headed straight up the mountain.

Lupe came across a seldom used dirt road.  Brief explorations revealed that it was going to lose elevation no matter which direction Lupe might choose.  So, Lupe and SPHP abandoned the road to resume climbing.  Somewhat higher up, Lupe came to another road.  It went down to the S, but looked like it would gain elevation going N.  Lupe and SPHP followed it N.

Within 5 minutes, Lupe came to a wide spot where there were clear views off to the N and NE.  The road continued around to the N side of St. Elmo Peak, reaching its highest point at a closed gate.  Beyond the gate, the road was blocked by deadfall timber as it started downhill.  Once again, Lupe and SPHP resumed climbing straight up the mountain.

The climbing was now much tougher than before.  The forest was dead.  Countless pines lay shattered and scattered in every direction on the steep slope.  Thistles and low thorny bushes had grown in thick profusion amidst it all.  It took SPHP a long time to work up through the tangled mess.  Even Lupe wasn’t enjoying this much.  St. Elmo Peak itself was ugly, but there were great views to the N.

Finally, Lupe found a faint trail going up the mountain.  Even better, with only a few exceptions, someone had cleared the deadfall off the trail.  Lupe and SPHP started making much better progress.  There was still a good climb ahead, but it didn’t take much time.  The trail ended at a rock outcropping near the summit.  Lupe and SPHP scrambled up.

Lupe was now on a surprisingly large, and fairly level, block of granite.  To the E were cliffs and very steep slopes.  There were wonderful views from the NW all the way around to the NE and SE.  The view of Harney Peak (7,242 ft.) to the E was fabulous.  This big granite ledge at the N end of St. Elmo Peak was easily the best viewpoint on the mountain.

Lupe reaches the big granite viewing platform on top of St. Elmo Peak. She wasn't quite at the summit yet, but pretty close to it. Harney Peak (Center) is seen in the distance. Photo looks ESE.
Lupe reaches the big granite viewing platform on top of St. Elmo Peak. She wasn’t quite at the summit yet, but pretty close to it. Harney Peak (Center) is seen in the distance. Photo looks ESE.

Harney Peak from St. Elmo Peak, 10-29-14

Harney Peak (7,242 ft.) (L) and Little Devil's Tower (6,960 ft.) (R).
Harney Peak (7,242 ft.) (L) and Little Devil’s Tower (6,960 ft.) (R).

Whew, time for a break to enjoy the views and let lungs catch up!  Lupe and SPHP sat together on the big granite ledge.  Lupe had Taste of the Wild and water.  SPHP had water and carrots.  Lupe and SPHP watched smoke billowing up in the distance to the NNE from hills E of Hill City.

Smoke was billowing up from hills E of Hill City. Photo looks N.
Smoke was billowing up from hills E of Hill City. Photo looks N.

Although the granite ledge was the best viewpoint, Lupe hadn’t quite reached the summit of St. Elmo Peak yet.  The true summit was to the S, hidden by a mixed forest of pines and young aspen.  After a few minutes spent recovering from the climb, Lupe and SPHP went S to find it.

The true summit was very close by.  Although the forest hid a quite a few boulders, it didn’t take Lupe long to find the highest one.  She leaped on top to claim her St. Elmo Peak peakbagging success!

Lupe on the true summit of St. Elmo Peak! Photo looks ENE.
Lupe on the true summit of St. Elmo Peak! Photo looks ENE.

Lupe and SPHP returned to the big granite ledge.  Lupe agreed to pose for a few more photos.  The smoke E of Hill City looked like it was spreading.

Zimmer Ridge (6,600 ft.) is seen beyond Lupe. Photo looks NW.
Zimmer Ridge (6,600 ft.) is seen beyond Lupe. Photo looks NW.
Zimmer Ridge.
Zimmer Ridge.
The smoke E of Hill City looked like it was still spreading.
The smoke E of Hill City looked like it was still spreading.

Lupe had made it to the top of St. Elmo Peak, but the longest and hardest part of Expedition No. 102 was still ahead of her.  She was just getting started!  Her next peakbagging goal was Peak 6733, which was still 3 miles to the S.  It was time for Lupe to get going.  Lupe and SPHP left the granite ledge, and headed back down the faint trail.

It turned out that the faint trail led all the way down to the wide spot on the upper road back where Lupe and SPHP had first started seeing views to the N.  SPHP hadn’t noticed the faint trail here before.  Lupe and SPHP got on the road and headed S.  It lost elevation steadily at a modest pace.  The road turned SW staying on the NW side of a long ridge coming down from St. Elmo Peak.

Eventually, the road curved W.  When it turned NW, it was time to look for a new route.  Walking over to the edge of a small rise, SPHP saw another road below to the SW.  It looked like it was heading SE for Bear Gulch, exactly where Lupe needed to go.  Lupe and SPHP left the upper road and headed down the slope.

The lower road was better than the one Lupe had left up above.  Lupe was very happy to find a creek running near it.  She laid down in the water to cool off and get a drink.  Lupe and SPHP went SE, and soon came to a fork in the road.  One fork continued to the ESE following the creek upstream into a narrow, densely forested part of the canyon.  That road was marked USFS Road No. 302.1F.

The other road was not marked.  It crossed the stream, and headed S gaining elevation along the W side of a big field.  Lupe took the unmarked road.  She gained a fair amount of elevation, and came to a side road marked as USFS Road No. 302.1H.  It went E, and looked like it was going to go around the N end of a ridge to the SE.  Lupe’s objective, Peak 6733, was 2 miles farther S along this same ridge.

SPHP thought about getting up on the N end of the ridge, but didn’t.  Instead, Lupe and SPHP followed No. 302.1H all the way around the N end over to the E side.  There, it turned out that No. 302.1H was absolutely choked with deadfall.  SPHP was optimistic that it would end soon.  Wrong!  The deadfall went on and on.  Lupe could get through it OK, but it was taking SPHP literally hours per mile.

Looking NE back at St. Elmo Peak from USFS Road No. 302.1H at the N end of the ridge that Peak 6733 is part of 2 miles farther S.
Looking NE back at St. Elmo Peak from USFS Road No. 302.1H at the N end of the ridge that Peak 6733 is part of 2 miles farther S.

The struggle through the deadfall was exhausting.  Finally, No. 302.1H climbed fairly high up on the E side of the ridge.  The deadfall lessened and Lupe reached a small clearing.  Lupe and SPHP left the road to climb directly up to the top of the ridgeline.  It had taken so long to get here, SPHP wasn’t certain if Peak 6733 was still to the S or back to the N.  The top of the ridge was forested, so it was hard to tell.

It turned out the deadfall had slowed progress down even more than SPHP thought.  After a little scouting around, it was clear that the highest ground along the ridgeline was still farther S.  Peak 6733 had to be in that direction.  Lupe and SPHP trekked S following the ridgeline.  Lupe came to a series of successively higher points along the way.  Each time she got to the top of one, another even higher one appeared ahead.

There was plenty of deadfall timber up on the ridgeline.  It wasn’t as bad as back down on No. 302.1H, but it was certainly enough to make the going much slower than it should have been.  Several times, SPHP thought Lupe had reached the top of Peak 6733, only to quickly realize she hadn’t.  The sun was starting to sink toward the horizon.  Lupe was running out of time to reach Peak 6733.

Thunderhead Mountain (6,567 ft.), where the Crazy Horse memorial carving is located, came into view to the SW.  Lupe had to be getting close to Peak 6733.  Up ahead, another high point came into view.  This one was noticeably higher and steeper than the other high points Lupe had reached.  SPHP’s hopes rose again that this might be Peak 6733.

By the time Lupe and SPHP arrived at the top, it was only half an hour before sunset.  SPHP was already concerned with how Lupe was going to get back to the G6.  It was far too late in the day to even consider returning through the massive tangle of deadfall.  After checking out this high point, Lupe would have to try to find a way W to Hwy 385 before it got dark.

The top of this final high point had several high rock outcroppings of about equal elevation strung out along the E side of the ridge.  There was another rocky high point off to the W, but the forest made it difficult to tell which of all these points was the true summit.  Lupe would have to visit all of them.

A quick trek over to the W revealed that the rocks on the E side of the ridge were clearly higher.  Crazy Horse looked pretty close by to the SW.  Lupe returned to the high rock outcroppings on the E side of the ridge, exploring them all one by one.  There was a lovely carpet of kinnikinnick growing in the saddle area between the E and W sides of the ridge.

Looking NNE back at St. Elmo Peak (L) from the high rocks on the E side of the ridge at the last high point Lupe climbed on her search for Peak 6733.
Looking NNE back at St. Elmo Peak (L) from the high rocks on the E side of the ridge at the last high point Lupe climbed on her search for Peak 6733.
Sylvan Hill (7,000 ft.) from the last high point. Photo looks E.
Sylvan Hill (7,000 ft.) from the last high point. Photo looks E.
Lupe on the kinnikinnick carpet in the saddle area. Photo looks NE.
Lupe on the kinnikinnick carpet in the saddle area. Photo looks NE.

Near the S end of the E side of the ridge, Lupe found the highest rocks of all at this high point.  Lupe and SPHP managed to get up on the summit, which was a somewhat precarious rock only a foot or two wide.  Lupe posed for a summit photo.  It had to be a close up.  There wasn’t any room for separation.

Lupe on the summit of the final high point of the day. SPHP had to lean back to get all of Lupe in the picture. Success, but it still wasn't clear if this was Peak 6733 or not!
Lupe on the summit of the final high point of the day. SPHP had to lean back to get all of Lupe in the picture. Success, but it still wasn’t clear if this was Peak 6733 or not!
Nearing sunset at the summit.
Nearing sunset at the summit.
Crazy Horse on Thunderhead Mountain taken from the summit.
Crazy Horse on Thunderhead Mountain taken from the summit.

From the S end of the high point, Lupe could see a big saddle to the SSE.  Beyond it was an even higher mountain than the one she was on.  She could see that it was part of the ridge that swept around to the E, and then back N over to Sylvan Hill (7,000 ft.) at its highest point.  If Lupe wasn’t already on the summit of Peak 6733, then that next mountain to the SSE had to be it.

The easiest way down off this high point was to go back to the N.  From there, Lupe and SPHP went E down off the ridge.  Lupe turned SSE, cutting through a field where the terrain wasn’t too steep.  Arriving at the saddle between the two high points, Lupe discovered a road with a gate.  The road wasn’t marked in either direction.

For a couple of minutes, SPHP considered going on to climb the higher peak to the SSE.  There was a good chance it was the real Peak 6733.  There really wasn’t time, though.  Lupe might make it up there while it was still light out, but it would be completely dark by the time Lupe could even get back to the saddle.  SPHP didn’t even know what return route Lupe should take from here, only that she couldn’t go back the way she’d come.

Nope, Lupe had to skip that peak to the SSE.  Just forget about it!  The best bet was to get a move on, and try to find a way W to Hwy 385.  If Lupe could get to Hwy 385, she should be able to find the Mickelson Trail.  Even in darkness, she could safely and easily follow the Mickelson Trail back to a point close to the G6.

So, Lupe and SPHP followed the road going SSW over the W side of the ridge.  As Lupe searched for a way to Hwy 385, she saw Crazy Horse in the early twilight.

Crazy Horse

P1050625Lupe eventually found Hwy 385, but not until well after dark.  Lupe and SPHP followed the Mickelson Trail N.  The wind blew.  Clouds swept by.  It rained lightly.  The sky cleared.  Half a moon and myriad stars shone above.  Far below the bridges, Tenderfoot Creek rippled along in the otherwise silent night.  For many  miles, the American Dingo trotted ahead on the long trail home.  (9:00 PM, 44°F)

It wasn’t until the next day, when SPHP had a chance to look carefully at the photos taken on Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 102 and compare them to the maps, that SPHP knew for certain whether Lupe had climbed Peak 6733, or not.  She had not.  The final high point that Lupe reached was High Point 6634, about 0.625 mile to the NNW.

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