Black Giant, Black Divide Peak, Mt. McDuffie

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August 18, 2013
Day 3 of the 2013 Sierra Challenge was a day that everyone had been looking forward to. The main objective lay on the Black Divide- a prominent ridge bordering the eastern side of the Ionian Basin. The Challenge peak was an unofficially named thirteener sandwiched in between two higher peaks: Back Giant to the north and Mt. McDuffie to the south. Since this peak had no name, Bob had referred to it simply as "Black Divide." To lessen the confusion between Black Divide [ridge] and Black Divide [peak], I will refer to the peak in this trip report as "Black Divide Peak."

Getting to Black Divide Peak was no easy task. First, it involved a 4am start from Lake Sabrina Trailhead. From the trailhead, we would take the trail 6.6 mi up to Sailor Lake, head off cross country up and over Echo Col, and drop down to the John Muir Trail in LeConte Canyon. From LeConte Canyon, there were several ways to reach Black Divide Peak. Bob had suggested a 1.5 mile long canyon to the east of Black Giant which terminated at Lake 11654 at the eastern base of Black Divide Peak. This canyon consisted of tedious rock-hopping on boulder fields that looked loose and uninviting, prompting Bob to remark- "Be sure to curse me soundly while traveling it in both directions." Though this canyon was sure to be a sufferfest, it was the shortest distance to Black Divide Peak from the JMT.

After being recommended against taking this canyon by a friend who had recently been in the area, I played around with the idea of climbing up to Black Giant first, then traversing south to Black Divide Peak. Though this option consisted of more mileage and elevation gain, I could'nt help think that it would be less time-consuming than a 1.5 mile constant boulder hop. The terrain up Black Giant's West Slope was supposedly gentle and composed of bits of shale. I prepared for both routes, but decided to make my final decision at Echo Col where I would be able to gain a view of both routes.

PeakElevationTopographic ProminenceSummit Coordinates (lat/lon)
Black Giant13,330 ft1,110 ft37.102342, -118.6486
Black Divide Peak13,041 ft301 ft37.086303, -118.6414
Mt. McDuffie 13,282 ft702 ft37.073538, -118.643972

Fifteen of us showed up at Lake Sabrina Trailhead (9,050 ft) for the 4am start, half of which had no intention to climb Black Divide Peak, but had higher interests in closer peaks such as Haeckel and Wallace that lay on the Sierra Crest. We started hiking at 4:05 am, chatting about our peakbagging objectives that lay ahead. A long line of headlamps twisted through the forest as we were joined by more people.

Getting to the trailhead: From Bishop, head west on West Line St/State Route 168 for 18 miles towards Lake Sabrina. Lake Sabrina Trailhead is on the left, about 0.2 mi before the lake itself. Parking in dirt lots by the trailhead is for day use only. Overnight parking is permitted a little ways back where a double yellow line divides the road.

Trailhead coordinates (lat/lon): 37.213617, -118.610096

Day 3 start (photo by Bob Burd)

The hike started out in warm and muggy weather- a reminder of a 30% chance of thunderstorms forecasted for the day ahead. As we ascended higher, the temperature gradually dropped and became pleasant. Everything was still and silent. Not even a breeze stirred through the pine trees or on the mirror-like surfaces of several alpine lakes.

dawn at Dingleberry Lake

We left the trail just east of Sailor Lake (11,000 ft) and headed south to contour along Moonlight Lake's western shores. Getting to Moonlight Lake (11,050 ft) involved a very brief section of rock hopping, but after that the terrain became grassy, gradually ascending as a prominent canyon heading southwest towards Echo Lake.

alpenglow on Picture Peak.

We proceeded up the canyon at a brisk pace, spreading out across several meadows. A use-trail appeared here and there. It disappeared as the terrain gradually became rockier. A creek flowed through the canyon, providing ample water. As we came to Echo Lake's outlet (11,600 ft), several people decided to stop for a quick break, leaving me to begin soloing along Echo Lake's east shore.

Tommey had given me some useful beta on getting past Echo Lake. It was to head south along Echo Lake's east shore, staying as close as possible to lake level until intersecting a cascading stream. Follow the stream up for about 100-150 ft, then continue south on a mini-bench above some steep slabs. Continue southwest up the canyon and into a moraine, and follow the moraine up to Echo Col.

view south from Echo Lake outlet

I managed to stay at lake level for the first few hundred feet after the outlet, but then had to contour a little higher when small cliffs would drop straight into the water. The cascading stream had cut a small gully into the rock which was easy to follow up. As soon as the terrain flattened out on the south side of the stream (~200 ft above Echo Lake), I left it and resumed contouring around the lake.

Once past the southern end of Echo Lake, Echo Col could be seen ahead. The moraine that lay in between contained a mess of rock hopping on large sand-covered boulders, but thankfully the distance was short. I aimed for a slightly lower col to the left of what most people would consider as the true Echo Col (12,450 ft).

The climb up to the lower col consisted of mostly class 2 terrain with a few class 3 moves near the top. From the lower col, I could see a short section of class 4 downclimbing on the other side. Looking towards the actual Echo Col, the downclimb was straightforward class 3. I made a mental note to take it on the way back.

I took a short break at the lower col, snacking on a slice of pizza and studying the route that lay ahead. I immediately decided to get to Black Divide Peak by traversing from Black Giant. The canyon Bob had suggested looked looser than ever.

view south from lower col

From the lower col, I descended the few feet of easy class 4 rock, then headed towards the west shore of Lake 11428 on class 1-2 slabby terrain. A short talus gully dropped me down the last hundred feet or so to the lake.

view of Lake 11428 from the west

After reaching and passing Lake 11428's southern side, I left the shoreline and angled southwest, climbing up and over a soft ridge west of the lake's outlet. From the top of this ridge, the JMT came into view below. I descended towards it.

view from soft ridge

small unnamed lake to the southeast

looking back at my descent route from the JMT

I followed the JMT for 1.5 mi southwest to Helen Lake's southern inlet (11,640 ft), then left the trail and began heading southeast up towards Black Giant.

Helen Lake

starting on cross country terrain

The cross country terrain started as straightforward class 1 walking on gently sloping grassy fields. Eventually I attained a view of Black Giant's long West Slope. I ascended gradually along this slope towards a saddle lowpoint between two false summits. The true summit would become visible from that saddle. Another option was to hike up to Black Giant Pass first, then straight up the West Slope, but this option required a lot more contouring on terrain that was more of the same.

view southwest from West Slope

The entire West Slope was covered with a blanket of scree, so this ascent was pretty much one foot in front of the other. The summit soon presented itself, looking quite simply like a large pile of small rocks.

Upon reaching Black Giant's summit (13,330 ft) at 9:53 am, I was amazed to see the sheer drop northeast into LeConte Canyon. The views from this peak was truly one of the Sierra's finest.

view east from summit





From Black Giant, Black Divide Peak looked like merely a bump in front of McDuffie. Having heard that Black Giant's Southeast Ridge contained some sketchy pinnacles above the lowpoint between Black Giant and Black Divide Peak, I descended southeast on Black Giant's West Slope, staying a few hundred feet below the Southeast Ridge at all times.

As Black Giant's Southeast Ridge came to an end, I could see the lowpoint (12,750 ft) between Black Giant and Black Divide Peak. Reaching it involved contouring eastward across some loose class 2-3ish chutes. After the lowpoint, Black Divide Peak's North Ridge began.

view of Peak 12,928 ft

looking back northwest from Black Divide Peak's North Ridge (Black Giant's true summit is not visible)

Black Divide Peak's North Ridge contained some very enjoyable climbing. It resembled a giant sidewalk with sheer drops on both sides- a sidewalk with a view. The last bit of ridge before the summit involved some class 3 climbing on semi-loose rock.

class 3 finish

I reached the summit (13,041 ft) at 10:55 am to find amazing views in all directions. While the Ionian Basin contained lots of yucky slog climbing, it sure had its share of nice views! The Black Divide Peak register consisted of a single piece of paper in a plastic bag, with "UTM542055" scribbled in as the peak name. I could hear voices somewhere towards the northeast. Judging by the fact that there were no other names in the register, the others were still making their way up to the summit. Deciding to wait for them, I plopped down on the summit and enjoyed a few slices of pizza. Not long after, the sound of shifting rock caught my attention. Sean, having also traversed up and over Black Giant, was approaching the summit via North Ridge. We sat down on the summit and chatted for a while, gazing at Mt. McDuffie to the south which looked so close. Its summit echoed small voices in our minds- "climb me! climb me!" After a few more moments, we decided "Screw this. Lets climb that sucker!" So we set off down Black Divide Peak's Southwest Slope to fill up on water at a small tarn (12,440 ft) before committing to McDuffie's class 3-4 North Ridge.

view east from Black Divide Peak





descending Black Divide Peak's Southwest Slope

McDuffie's North Ridge was made up of the same material found on Black Giant and Black Divide Peak: loose, flaky talus. Although loose, the climbing was enjoyable, with areas of great exposure on both sides of the ridge. Halfway up the ridge, I heard a scream coming from Sean about 20 feet ahead. His footholds had peeled off and disappeared down the east side of the ridge. He was hanging onto the ridge with only his hands, his feet desperately searching for holds. All this time, rocks were cascading down onto him. One of them hit his pinky finger, breaking it instantly. After finding a stable spot on the ridge, Sean took off his glove and examined his finger. It was covered with blood and already showing signs of swelling. He put his glove back on and said it wasn't a problem. He was determined to summit McDuffie today. We continued up the North Ridge. How Sean managed to climb some of those class 4 sections with a broken finger amazed me.

McDuffie's North Ridge & views

We reached McDuffie's summit (13,282 ft) at 12:38 pm. While we had been were climbing up the North Ridge, a thunderstorm had quickly boiled up on the other side of the mountain. We could now see the storm with rain falling underneath it to the south, and it was quickly moving north towards us. We signed the register, snapped a few pics, then began hastily descending McDuffie's Northwest Slope.

McDuffie summit

view east




At first, McDuffie's Southwest Face contained a highly loose class 2 scree descent. About 300 ft above the base of McDuffie, the terrain suddenly dropped off and several class 5 chutes appeared below. It looked like we had began descending the Southwest Face a little early. A little further south, and this descent would've been class 3. Not wanting to climb back up and with the thunderstorm approaching, we picked a chute and began downclimbing it. The real crux did'nt come until the last 100 ft, where we downclimbed a low class 5 rib when the chute became choked up with overhanging rocks. As we reached the bottom of the chute, the first claps of thunder began to sound.

loose class 5 rib

From the base of McDuffie, our plan was to head northwest over Black Giant Pass and back to the JMT. We first traversed towards Lake 12,000 ft, then contoured above its east side to its inlet. From the inlet of Lake 12,000 ft, a steadily ascending "ramp gully" headed north up to a pass southeast of Black Giant Pass (which I will refer to as "False Black Giant Pass"). This ramp was made up of compacted talus and laid out at a very gradual angle. Walking up it was very easy and pleasant after the loose talus field from McDuffie.

view of the traverse to False Black Giant Pass from McDuffie summit

As we passed the outlet of Lake 12,000 ft, some large raindrops began to fall. Lightning bolts shot down from the sky and struck neighboring ridges. Hail fell in sporadic 1-minute intervals.

As we neared the top of False Black Giant Pass, blue sky appeared to the south and the dark clouds skirted quickly northward. The storm departed as quickly as it had appeared.

From False Black Giant Pass, Black Giant Pass was visible to the northwest. Sean descended False Black Giant Pass and hiked up to Black Giant Pass. I decided to stay more level and contour along the cliffs east of Black Giant Pass. A little after the pass, I merged with my ascent route for Black Giant and headed towards Lake Helen's outlet.

view northwest from Black Giant's West Slope east of Black Giant Pass

I reached the JMT and followed it down to Lake 11,300 ft (0.3 mi east of Helen Lake). I decided to begin ascending back over to Echo Col from Lake 11,300 ft since it would save a few hundred feet of elevation gain compared to the route I had come from.

I climbed up a small hill northeast of Lake 11,300 ft, then across a short boulder field. After the boulder field, the terrain became steep and grassy. As it began to flatten out a little bit, I unknowingly began heading northwest, then gradually arcing further westward. The grassy slopes gave way to a mess of rock hopping. I soon came upon a small moraine tarn with a col above it. As I reached for my map to check my location, I realized that it was missing. Thinking that the col above me was the western side of Wallace Col, I began climbing up towards it. Upon reaching the top, I realized that it was not Wallace Col. An array of lakes appeared on the other side which I did not recognize. A soft humming sound was present, accompanied by a tingly pressurized sensation. Waves of it coursed along the ridge on both sides of the col. As each wave coursed through me, I felt as if I were being squeezed by some force and lifted up towards the darkening sky.

As a thought snapped in my mind, I suddenly realized what this was. I tore back down the col as fast as possible, adrenaline pumping, running and leaping down class 3 rock, frantically grabbing one hold after another as if by instinct. Within minutes, I was back at the glacial tarn. I realized that I had been ascending too much to the west, and began making my way northeastward towards Echo Col across lengthy boulder fields.

Dark clouds now filled the entire sky. Loud rumbles of thunder echoed from all directions. I hiked as fast as possible, determined to get up and over Echo Col before the storms came upon me. A steady rain began to fall, making the large boulders wet and more difficult to negotiate. As Echo Col came into view, the clouds parted momentarily and the terrain began drying out- what luck!

looking northeast from Lake 11,300 ft

Echo Col's southwestern side

view towards Echo Col from Black Giant

As I climbed over Echo Col at around 5pm, I glanced back and noted several lightning bolts striking Black Giant. The mountain looked mightily courageous, taking whatever blows that would come upon it while still standing proud and grand. I steadily made my way across the rock field to Echo Lake, then towards the trail. I gradually began to grow more tired, and my pace began to slow. Just before the trail, I passed by Daria who mentioned that Bob and others were far ahead. She was wondering if I had seen Michael and Tom (who at this time were still making their ways up the other side of Echo Col). After hitting the trail, I forced down a couple large pieces of beef jerky, hoping that their effects would kick in within the next hour or so. I jogged down the trail, at this point not out of enjoyment but because I wanted the hike to end faster. My eyes were now fixated only on the trail ahead of me, switchback after switchback. After what seemed like hours, I finally arrived back at Lake Sabrina Trailhead at 7:37 pm. It had been a day filled with unforgettable memories.

Final Stats
31.3 miles
11,000 ft gain/loss

Weather Forecasts
Blue Lake
Moonlight Lake, Hungry Packer Lake
Echo Col
Black Giant, Black Divide Peak, Mt. McDuffie

Peakbagger Pages
Black Giant
Black Divide Peak
Mt. McDuffie

Summitpost Pages
Black Giant
Mt. McDuffie

Bob Burd trip report
Sean O'Rourke trip report
High Sierra Topix message board
Inyo National Forest


  1. Hey, just found your blog. The labeled panoramas and maps are nice -- I should take the time to do more of them.

    I have somehow managed to come as close to lightning as you were here. Bob may be able to survive it, but I don't have so much confidence in myself.

    1. Make that "... managed to *avoid* coming as close to lightning..." Sigh.