Ascent of Black Elk Peak on 1989-05-12

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Only Party on Mountain
Date:Friday, May 12, 1989
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Black Elk Peak
    Location:USA-South Dakota
    Elevation:7231 ft / 2204 m

Ascent Trip Report

It rained during the night, and when I woke up at 6 in the morning it was overcast and drizzling. There was no sign of a ranger or anyone else around, so I quickly put on some shoes and drove down out of Sylvan Lake Campground and then across Route 87 to a big parking lot on the shore of little Sylvan Lake, right near the trailhead for Harney Peak. Here I ate a quick breakfast, glad to be out of the campground without having coughed up eight bucks. I then put my usual short day-hike stuff into my little blue daypack, donned my Gore-Tex shell, and started up the trail towards Harney Peak.

It rained during my entire hike, usually not very strongly, but the generally flat pine forests were dripping wet anyway. I had been expecting a more serious, steep hike, but the first two miles of trail were maybe a little more downhill than uphill. I trudged on in the rain, dry in my Gore-Tex, and after a while the trail started climbing in earnest to a mist-shrouded area of enormous jumbled rocks that formed the summit pinnacle of South Dakota. The trail climbed over, around, and through the jumble, often on concrete stairs, to a little castle-like rock tower that sat atop the rocks. I had reached Harney Peak.

The exposed summit, above the forests below, was being lashed by violent wind and rain, and was so socked in by clouds that I couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. I took refuge in the scummy room of the tower, but wet rain blew in the open doors while I ate some candy bars and took some pictures, trying not to get my camera too wet.

After ten minutes I left the tower, exploring the summit area by making dangerous jumps over the fissures between the huge rock spires so that I could say I stood on the highest natural point in the Black Hills (the tower was not natural, and it occupied the entire crown of the peak). I found the basement of the tower, which was totally dilapidated and contained a gross, non-functional bathroom, then clambered back up to the concrete steps of the trail and started my soggy descent from Harney Peak.

I followed the same trail I had taken up, and the rain, clouds and drizzle was just the same, too. About halfway back I came to a junction with the Needles Trail, which supposedly went past a lot of the towering granite spires so characteristic of the Black Hills, so I decided to take it, remembering from a map on a sign at the trailhead that it circled back to Sylvan Lake. This trail was mostly flat, winding through damp woods for a long time before coming to the Needles, shrouded in thick mist and quite eerie. I walked around them on the meandering trail, which, after leaving the area, took its time making its way back to Sylvan Lake—-my return loop had taken longer than I thought. The last section of trail was very indistinct as I paralleled the road in the woods to my car, still all alone in the trailhead parking lot.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:1089 ft / 331 m
    Trailhead:6142 ft / 1872 m
    Quality:4 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Scramble
    Weather:Raining, Cold, Very Windy, White-out

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