Hiking Stats as of 11/15/2019
Total Trips:
Total Distance:
Total Elevation Gain:
 3,891.68 miles
 1,060,050 feet

Feb 15, 2014 - Black Buttes


Partners: Kyle Breen

Distance: 17.08 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,768 feet

Trip Time: 11:05

Maps and Stats:
Over the past couple of weeks we finally started getting the rains and mountain snowfall that should have been here at least two months prior, and with the forecast calling for a chance of late afternoon snowfall in the Sierra I was quite hesitant about heading up and risking getting stuck driving back in a snowstorm. This was a bit of a letdown, as Kyle and I had previously discussed doing something difficult since it was a 3 day weekend and so we wouldn't mind a longer day on the trail. I called Kyle Friday night and found out that his wife was volunteering at an obstacle race in Sacramento Saturday, and he suggested that if we met up early we might be able to go get something on the western sides of the Sierra. He suggested Black Buttes, an OGUL peak I knew was at least 8 miles one-way from Highway 80. The upside is that it is only about an hour away from Sacramento, so our driving time would be reasonable. I agreed to meet in Sacramento at 7 AM the next day. A successful summit of Black Buttes would be my 23rd different OGUL peak.

We met up at the Frys in Roseville at about 7:15, and made it to the TH by 8:15. I wasn't sure where we would park, but we were able to park in a turnout right next to the Trailhead so we were certainly off to a good start. The approach to Black Buttes follows an OHV road for several miles, part of a large off-road vehicle network in the area. We had been on similar roads in hikes to Signal Peak in the past, and we weren't looking forward to sharing the road with the off-roaders. The road conditions, while not ideal for hiking, were what we imagined were a gift from heaven for the off-road crowd. I could just imagine them speeding up as they approached the large flooded areas, sending water spraying in all directions. Fortunately, our fears were never realized, and we actually didn't encounter any vehicles on the road all day. Rather, we were forced to continually go around streams and large puddles as we made our way up. From down here we got our first good views of the snow capped Black Buttes ridgeline - we had elected to leave our snowshoes in the car, having noted that there was no snow at the lower elevation and figuring there couldn't really be that much snow for us to traverse higher up. From here it looked like the snow cover was pretty thick, although again too far way for us to worry about just yet.

It was 3 miles on this road until we reached Eagle Lakes, a collection of several quite small lakes that we walked in between. After bypassing the lakes, we continued on the Beyers Lakes trail, which was notable in that it didn't appear that any off road vehicles could possible follow us here. In addition to logs and flooding, the road also contained large boulders. On second thought, perhaps that makes it even more appealing to the off road crowd? The road quickly disappears though, and a small bridge took us across Fordyce Creek. Once on the other side, the trail became a bit harder to follow, and we relied on a series of cairns to show the way across the rocky areas where trails are not as easily followed. We had yet to gain a significant amount of elevation yet, and finally the trail started heading uphill and we started seeing patchy snow around 6300 feet. By 11 AM we finally had some good views from our higher location, including views back towards snow covered Signal Peak.

We continued uphill through manageable snow, however, as we approached the 7,000 foot level around noon the snow became annoyingly deep and postholing became a real problem. We had long lost any semblance of a trail and had decided to head up the ridge towards the west end of the Black Buttes ridge rather than stay on towards Beyers Lake (which we never saw). We had hoped that this strategy might get us out of the deep snow, but that turned out to be wishful thinking, and our pace slowed to about 1 MPH as we slogged up the hill. As the time approached 1 PM, we could finally make out the end of the relentless uphill snowclimb, and when we crested at 7,350 feet we enjoyed a fine view of a frozen lake set against the ridgeline that we were about to head up. Our plan was to simply follow the ridgeline up until we found the highpoint at a little over 8,000 feet, and so we made our way around the lake and started up the slope. Once we got about halfway up the slope, the winds picked up significantly and while that may sound like a problem, it actually helped us as the snow became much more compact and we stopped postholing. This increased our speed dramatically, and as I paused to take a couple of pictures Kyle zoomed on up to this first false summit to do some recon on the best route to take. From this first summit we could see we had a ways to go, losing some elevation before climbing up yet another false summit. This part of the traverse was quite easy and thus enjoyable, although the wind was quite fierce the snow we firm and so we moved quickly. Along this flat section the trees were permanently bent from right to left from years of abuse from the wind.

As we made our way up this next false summit, we could finally see the true summit, yet again still frustratingly far off. In reality, it only took us about 15 minutes to make our way over to the real high point, where we arrived at the bottom of the class 3 summit blocks. Kyle went up first, and the blocks proved to be quite enjoyable, taking maybe 5 minutes to complete. As I emerged on top, at 2 PM I could see Kyle posing on the summit. I joined him, and took pictures of the fantastic winter landscape all around us. The views were great to the west (our ridgeline traverse), north towards Sierra Buttes, east further along the Black Buttes ridgeline towards the lower summits, and south toward Old Man Mountain and Signal Peak were memorable indeed. We located and added our names to the summit register, noting that we were the first to log an ascent in nearly 4 months (since the first snowfall) back in October. This is one remote peak to be sure, especially in winter. Kyle got a summit shot of me and then down we went.

On descent we intended to largely follow the same tracks we laid coming up. For the most part we were able to do this, at least at first. The route is pretty obvious along the high ridgeline, and we enjoyed using gravity to our advantage, glissading down some of the safer slopes as we made our way back. We spotted the frozen lake we had seen on the way up, although we descended and traversed a little too close to the lake for my comfort. We made a mistake once we got to the deep snows on descent from the ridgeline (well to be fair it was I who really made the mistake as I had the GPS), leaving the tracked route we laid out in the morning and heading straight downhill towards where the Beyers Trail was marked on my GPS. I had made two bad mistakes with this decision. First, if I would have studied the map a bit closer I would have noticed that the spot where I was aiming for was actually on the wrong side of a minor ridge, which would require us to hike back up and over the ridge on our way back. Second, it should have been obvious that the snow would obscure any semblance of the trail. Of course, that is exactly what happened, there was no trail to be found, only deep snow and miles of postholing. I almost didn't want to tell Kyle that we had to hike back up the minor ridgeline as we made our way back, but he took it well and broke trail uphill as we attempted to relocate our tracks from the morning. Although we only had to regain a couple hundred feet, in deep snow after a long day it felt like much more.

I (in my mind) redeemed myself with my completely accurate directions on how to find our tracks from the morning, and once we found those we started moving faster again, using the steps we made from the way up to avoid postholing further. At this point it started snowing for a brief moment - not enough to cause concern but enough to make me want to ove before we might need to put the chains on my car in order to descend. That only lasted a few minutes, however, and around 6500 feet the snow cover largely disappeared, and we picked up the pace. On the lower elevations we noticed several waterfalls that we had missed on the way up, and the sun set as we followed the trail next to a stream. It was too dark to take any more pictures the rest of the way, and we didn't get back to to the car until nearly 7:30. During the hour plus hiking by headlamp we were quite tired from the long day, and the flooded OHV road only added to our fatigue as we had to continually leave the trail and go around the flooded sections which was not always easy in the dark. About a mile from the TH we could see the headlights of a car approaching, and in the complete darkness I suddenly had visions of bad things happening to us so I turned off my headlamp and convinced Kyle to follow me several yards into the forest as we hid and waited for the vehicle to pass. I just couldn't figure out why someone would be on this remote road (we didn't see another vehicle on the road all day) at night, and headed into the woods? Well, the vehicle would up turning on one of the other side roads, and I felt a bit foolish as I turned my headlamp back on and got back on the trail. Fortunately there were no additional incidents, and we finally arrived back at the car after over 11 hours of hiking and over 17 miles of travel. Quite a tiring day for what was supposed to be an easy outing!

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