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Ascent of Harney Peak on 2007-06-15

Climber: Sarah Kin

Others in Party:Philip Kin Jennifer Laflin Zachary Brown
Date:Friday, June 15, 2007
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Harney Peak
    Location:USA-South Dakota
    Elevation:7242 ft / 2207 m

Ascent Trip Report

I lived in South Dakota from 1985 - 2000 and never got around to climbing Harney Peak, the highest point in the state of South Dakota. Sad. I decided to remedy this on my most recent family vacation to the Black Hills. To anyone not familiar with the area, I would recommend the Black Hills as a vacation spot for outdoorsy sorts of people. The scenery is beautiful, the fly-fishing is above-average, and there are a lot of great hikes throughout the various state parks and national forests. Anyway, this is not a travel guide. But I do recommend the area.

Joining me on this hike were my husband, Philip; my sister, Jenni; and her fiance, Zach. We wanted to be on the trail before noon, since the trail map that we had said it would be a 4-5 hour trip and I do not, under any circumstances, like hiking in the dark. It was pouring down rain when we started off and didn't show any sign of slowing when we arrived at the Sylvan Lake campground. We paid our park entrance fee and got directions to the trailhead in the pouring rain, and ate our lunch in the car. The rain let up and then stopped while we were eating, but the skies stayed overcast. We had a conference in the car as to whether or not it was a stupid idea to hike up a mountain in the rain. Since this peak-bagging thing was kind of my idea, I didn't want to be responsible for anyone getting injured (or worse!) because they felt pressured to do something stupid. As we talked, the clouds started to break up and we unanimously decided to give it a try and if we found the trail to be impassibly muddy, we'd head back. At this point, it hadn't done anything other than rain.
The scenery up this trail is beautiful. The trail is narrow at times, but I really prefer this because it feels more like hiking a trail than walking down a road. Probably due to the rain, we didn't see anyone else on the trail for a long time. The trail that we were on was rated "moderately strenuous" but I don't think that Philip and I realized just how out of shape that we were. About an hour in, we were already gasping for breath and the sky was clouding over again. Time for another conference. The trail was in fine shape, but Philip and I weren't. It looked like it was going to rain again, and, most frustratingly, we didn't have a clue how far we'd come and how much further we had to go. We pulled out the map and decided that we must be almost halfway. Not wanting to give up when we were halfway there, we pushed on.

The higher you get, the nicer the view is. We saw a couple of deer early on, but they resisted being photographed. Big chunks of granite jut out of the soil, sometimes dramatically. There are clusters of needles throughout the Hills, and the Cathedral cluster is visible from the trail. Since Harney Peak just barely qualifies as a "mountain" there's no tree line to speak of, so the whole route is heavily wooded. Maybe a half an hour after we'd stopped to talk, it started to rain again, and this time the sky really opened up. Philip found shelter under a rock overhang. There was just barely enough room for all of us to fit comfortably, but it kept us dry, which we were very grateful for since this was a real storm. Thunder, lightning, hail (pea sized, but still) and torrential rain. While waiting for the storm to pass we saw our first fellow hikers. I'm not sure that they saw us though, since they were pretty focused on getting off the hill. The rain was intense, but it didn't last long. We talked again briefly about calling off the hike, but if we thought we'd been close before, we were sure now. Plus, the sky had totally cleared at this point and the sun was shining down. We thought it was turning into a beautiful day for a hike. We were wrong on all counts.

First, out of shape people are terrible at judging distances that they've walked. An hour into the hike we had decided that we were halfway there. Three hours later, the trail we were on crossed from Custer State Park into the Black Hills National Forest, so we could really pinpoint our location on the map for the first time. Looking at the map at that point was about the most disheartening thing I've ever done. We were only about three-quarters of the way there, and we'd been on the trail for 4 hours. The trail guidebook told us we'd be getting back to our cars about now. By the way, can anyone tell me what those blue-diamond bomb signs screwed to trees are all about? I can't figure it out.

Second, the sky was clouding over again and the clouds were low enough that they were literally all around us. Hearing thunder when you are in a cloud is pretty damned scary. We tried to find shelter as it started to pour again, but didn't have as much luck as last time. By the time we actually found a rock that sheltered us we were already soaking wet. Also, Zach found a machete, which doesn't have anything to do with anything, but was weird. This storm was about like the last, thunder, lightning, and hail, but the fear of getting struck by lightning was increased. We were on the most strenuous stretch of the trail at this point and Philip and I were dying. Zach was jumping around like some freaking two-legged gazelle, proving that this trail would not be challenging for someone in decent physical condition. Also, he was carrying the machete, which was not amusing Jenni much. On this last stretch of trail, we passed several hikers coming down who had taken shelter from the last storm in the observation tower at the top. The last 100 feet or so is just bare rock and there's a staircase to get to the observation deck/tower. The view from the top made the whole experience worth it, it was magnificent. I'm not sure how far, exactly, you can see, but it's quite a ways. We took some pictures, lounged around, and enjoyed the view. As we stood at the top, the sky began to cloud over again and we realized that the highest point in the state is about the last place we wanted to be in another storm, so we started to scramble back down. The trip down was a lot less fun than the trip up, although it was faster. Philip and I were in a world of hurt and it was tough to keep moving. The trail drops steeply for awhile, and then rises again, and then drops and then rises. The rises were really tough on my already exhausted muscles. Finally, six and a half hours after we started, we got back to the car.

What We Learned:
1. Get a map, study the map, pick a path, then hike. At least we brought a map, but that's about the only thing we did right. The fact is that there's a large system of trails, all of which somehow connect and intertwine to get to the summit. Due to poor planning, we picked the longest path available. It didn't end up mattering, and we got back to the car before dark, but I'm not sure that we were even on the trail that we thought we were on when we started. The big maps carved into wooden signs that are a prominent feature of most trailheads are a nice reference, but that's not a good point for planning to begin.
2. Figure out how much water you think you're going to need, then bring extra. We had to start rationing our water before we were even halfway up. It's not like we all died of dehydration or anything, but it could have been a lot hotter and drier than it was, and we wouldn't have been prepared. Especially if you're as inexperienced as we were, err on the side of caution.
3. Even for shorter hikes, it's a good idea to bring food. Power bars, dried fruit, whatever. Food gives you energy and boosts morale.
4. Check the weather before you go. Rain is one thing, lightning is something else entirely. In mountainous areas, where afternoon thunderstorms are common, it's a good idea to start your hike early so that you can be out of harm's way when the storm starts.
5. Be realistic with yourself about what kind of shape you're in and what you can handle. Philip and I weren't in good enough shape for this hike and we could have been injured.

The fact of the matter is that we did a lot of things wrong, but we survived. And we're learning where our limits are. It's going to take some work and some time at the gym before we're ready for another "moderately strenuous" "4-5 hour" hike, but we'll get there.
Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail
    Weather:Thunderstorm, Pleasant



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