Climbing Black Rock

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Photos by Jeff Ingersoll

“Jeff, we’re leaving Redding. Yeah, we’ll meet you at the burned-out store. About and hour and a half, I guess.”

My friend, Chris Ingersoll, has just called his brother in Hayfork. He will meet us in Wildwood. It’s June 10, and this is my first backpacking trip of 2013. I’m eager. It’s only 6:20, though, so we are not running late. I’m alway pushing for an early start.

It seems funny that Chris finds this early. We worked together logging for a couple of years, and loggers really do get up early. Then I remember that Chris was always immediately asleep as soon as he got in the crummy, and slept all the way to the landing. Great riggin’ slinger, but not much company at 4 a.m.

Traveling the Ditch Grade, we talk geography, mostly. Which mountains you can see from where. Which drainages go into Cottonwood Creek and which into the South Fork or the Hayfork. Where the headwaters of the Eel begin.

At Wildwood, we examine the ruins of the store while we wait for Jeff. This is the first time I have seen it since it burned. It’s odd, how much smaller a bare fountaion looks than the building that stood on it. It also seems odd- and perhaps inconvenient- that the store and gas pumps are gone. They were there for a long time.

Jeff arrives in a few minutes, and we decide to take both rigs up to the trailhead. He follows us to the Wild-Mad Road, and we drive to Pine Root Saddle, where we turn east onto the road to Stuart Gap. The trailhead is only a short distance past Stuart Gap and the turnoff to Rat Trap Gap. The trailhead is well-mainained, and has toilets.

Jeff and I let Chris take the lead. We both know he is the fastest dog in this pack. Jeff and I have never hiked together, so we do not know which of us hikes faster. I go second, and this turns out to be the proper order of precedence. I walk a little faster than Jeff, maybe because his pack is heavier. Chris goes a lot faster than either of us.

The trail runs gently up a ridge, through timber. Mostly Douglas Fir and Red Fir, with a Ponderosa Pine here and there. Soon, Chris spots a White Pine, which get more common as we go up.

This is easy hiking. After about a mile, the trail splits. Chris is waiting for us. The sign is gone, but both of them know that the fork to the right is the one we want. The left-hand fork goes to North Yolla Bolla Lake, and through the saddle to China Camp.

After another mile or two, we reach Pettyjohn Basin, a lovely meadow where we get our first look at Blackrock Mountain, the peak we plan to climb tomorrow. We stop to chat and eat a bite. It’s a short hike to the lake, less than three more miles, so we are not in a hurry.

At Pettyjohn the trail changes, running sidehill to the west. Still easy trail.  Soon we reach a broken boulder both of them recognize as signifying we are nearly at the lake.

“You do the honors, Jim,” says Chris, stepping aside.

“Why, thank you, sir,” I reply. I lead the way, but it is only fifty yards around a bend to Blackrock Lake. A nice little lake, set in a basin at the foot of the mountain. The lake is shallow, eutrophic, not the typical alpine lake I had expected. A few trout dimple the surface. Precipices of dark rock rise straight ahead. A steep hanging meadow leads up to the right, between ridges. I suspect this will be the route to the top.

Three or four nice campsites sit at the outlet, where we are standing, but Jeff says, “We usually camp on the other side,” so we make our way along the well-worn path on the east side of the lake. Sure enough, there are two nice sites on the south edge of the lake. We set up camp in the farthest one, under large Red Firs.

Water is always the first priority. It appears that the rivulet running by the campground into the lake is dry, but I find a catch-basin in the rocks not too far up.

The fire pit is pretty good, not huge. Nice for an evening campfire. It is still too big for easy cooking, though. I build a little three-rock pit on one side of it, and heat water for coffee. We pick out our sleeping spots. As we are sitting around drinking coffee, Dave Barni shows up with his two dogs. He was invited along on this trip, but decided just to day-hike up and meet us.

Dave is an old friend. I used to date his oldest sister, in high school. He hung out with my brother and Chris and Jeff. Still does, actually. It’s great to get the chance to catch up with him. We chat about old times and fishing, and he makes me promise to let him know if I catch any fish. After an hour or so he leaves, and we finish setting up camp.

Chris and Jeff have tents, but I prefer to sleep under the stars. Jeff crawls into his tent for a nap, while Chris and I set up our sleeping spots. Chris wanders off to look around. I lay out my sleeping bag and take a nap. I don’t really sleep, just read and doze. In the early afternoon, I get up and put my fishing gear together. The lake is shallow and not real big. I have been told the fishing is not good, but I don’t care. Fishing is not the main reason for this trip. Still, I’m a fisherman, so I have to at least try.

In an hour, I have fished my way around to the far western side, where the path ends at a small cliff. I get several bites and catch one pan-sized trout, which I keep for dinner; partly symbolic and partly delicious.

I cook on a tiny fire, which allows me to roast the fish on a grill. Chris cooks his dinner on his gas stove, as usual. Jeff, however, breaks out some Sterno cubes, and a neat little fold-open cooker. This is very light and, as it turns out, very effective. I will have to look into this, for those times when a cook fire is not practical, or not permitted. Gas cookstoves are a pain.

As the shadows get longer, we build up the campfire and sit around into the night. Jeff and I debate politics and religion. This can be a recipe for ill-will, but it is not in the least so, with us. For once, I get to be the liberal (sort of). Jeff and I have known each other for many years, and have many common friends, but not until now do I get the pleasure of really getting to know him. I find I like him a lot. There is something about campfires.

In the morning I am up first, starting the fire for coffee and oatmeal. Soon the Ingersoll boys are up, though. Today we are going to climb Black Rock Mountain.

This is not technical mountaineering, but it is not a walk through the meadow, either.  Well, actually, the first leg is a walk through the meadow; a very steep hanging meadow, leading to a cliff. There is a safe way around the cliff, though. In fact, the next half mile is a series of more-or-less safe routes around small cliffs. We are mature guys. We do not take chances.

The route is all rock and water and blooming plants, very pretty in the morning sun, until we reach the trees. To the left- east- are scree slides. We stay in the trees as much as possible, walking on soil and avoiding the scree. It is steep, but not dangerous. As usual, Chris leaves us behind, then waits at an opportune spot for us to catch up. We stop for a bite to eat on a big flat boulder.

At the next stop, Chris say, “Well, here’s our final altitude tree change. Mountain hemlock.” Sure enough, the ground is littered with tiny cones and small, stiff needles. During the years when I was still logging, Chris turned to log scaling. He knows his tree species.

Finally, the trees thin out and we are on the highest ridge. It is gentle and soil-clad, sloping up to the fire lookout tower. The tower is a relic, a monument to the pre-satellite era, when a mountian-top was the highest place anyone could sit for very long. It is falling apart, barely standing. Looking down, we can see the lake below us.

Black Rock Mountain has two high points, rocky black outrcroppings jutting up fifty yards apart. We crawl up the eastern one and sit on a wide ledge, facing north and east. The day is cloudy, the bottoms of the clouds hovering at the same height as our heads. Fluffy white clouds, but broken up, so we have intermittent visibility. We make out Hayfork Bally and Hayfork Mountain. The Trinity Alps rise behind them, capped by Thompson Peak and Caesar Peak, the highest points in Trinity County. We can see Wells Mountain and Kingsbury Mountain, and the shoulder of Chanchelulla climbing into the clouds. Bully Choop and Shasta Bally are obscured, as are Mount Shasta and Lassen. North Yolla Bolla peak is very close, to the southeast. Below, we can see the lake, where we are camped.

From the other high point, we are looking south on peaks we do not know. We make out the drainage of the South Fork Trinity River. We know we are also looking at the drainage of the Eel and the Mad River, but we do not know what starts where. The south is terra incognita for us. Finally we start back down.

Going down is easy, through the soft duff under the trees. I ask Chris, “How fast would we have gone down this when we were kids?”

He laughs. “With ten-foot strides, running.”

Apparently all mountain boys occasionally hike to the top of a hill on a dare or a race, or just to see what is there, and then run back down, leaping and crossing back and forth. Four hours up, and twenty minutes down. For us, that was long ago. We move more carefully now, but we still make good time. We can see the lake below as we descend. Soon we are back in camp for a late lunch.

We lie around camp discussing current events and the state of the world, and Jeff catches us up on local events in Trinity County. I’ve been living in the flatlands for a long time, but my heart is still in the mountains.

Later, I decide to fish my way around the lake, again. I get several hits and catch one nice one, which I release. There really are not that many fish in the lake. Both of the ones I have caught are rainbow trout.

In the morning we eat a leisurely breakfast and pack up. We all have things to do back in civilization, but we linger. At Pettyjohn, we stop to linger some more. It’s truly a beautiful spot.

While we linger, a pair of government biologists arrives. The older one does the talking. He tells us they are monitoring the stream temperature for a global warming study. When I ask how long they have been monitoring this stream, he tells me it has been measured once before, about eight years ago. He does not seem overly impressed with the data accumulated thus far.

He is, however, eager to talk about the amphibian population at Black Rock Lake. We tell him we heard a few frogs at the lake. He believes they are endangered, and we discuss the impact of fish on the frogs. I tell him I have checked the stomach contents of thousands of trout over the decades, and only found frogs in two. He says the fish attract snakes that eat the frogs, and that the fish also eat the frogs’ food sources. We agree that there is undoubtedly a food-based population balance, of some kind.

The biologists leave, and the three of us agree that government “science” often seems designed to produce politically correct results. This is probably the first thing Jeff and I have actually agreed on in three days of friendly debate.

We soon find the second thing, though, as we stroll merrily along together, lagging far behind Chris. We discover that we both love musicals and show tunes! Here is an oddity; a couple of gnarly old mountain men gushing hilariously over “Mary Poppins” and “South Pacific”! When I tell him that is supposed to be the province of drag queens, Jeff looks puzzled. He is definitely not gay, nor particularly sympathetic to gay rights. That doesn’t dampen his- or my- enthusiasm, though, and the discussion prances lightly along, eating up the miles back to the trailhead.

Too soon we are back at the trucks. Too soon shaking hands and vowing to do it again.

On the drive out, I pull off the road to let a Forest Service truck pulling a horse trailer go by. I holler out the window, “One more comin’.”

He stops and says, “Two more behind me. Where ‘ya comin’ from?”

“Black Rock. We climbed to the top yesterday.”

“Is the tower still standin’?”

“Yep. Pretty shaky, tho.”

He laughs. “We figured it would be down, this year. You have a good afternoon.”

We do have a good afternoon, motoring leisurely back down the Wild-Mad Road, back down Highway 36 and the Ditch Grade, and back down Placer Road to town, and home.

Photos by Jeff Ingersoll.

James Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school and got a law degree. His work is in senior services.  His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing.

James Montgomery
James Montgomery calls himself a broken-down logger/garbageman who went back to school, got a law degree, and worked as a nonprofit administrator, before retiring. His interests include hiking, fishing, computers, kayaking, hunting and writing. He is now serving as president of the board of directors of Empire Recovery Center.
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16 Responses

  1. Avatar Richard says:

    Great story, James, and brings back many fine memories of the Yolla Bolly Wilderness. My first Northstate solo backpacking adventure in '79, then with my brother to the lookout when it was still functional, former girlfriend's first backpacking experience in '81, and my wife's first wilderness experience in '87. Though her late father and uncle considered that area their second home, she had never before been there, and we were fortunate to each limit out on the biggest, tastiest brook trout I'd ever seen. She loved it.

    Off on Monday morning to the Trinities with an old friend to enjoy the trek up Long Canyon and 4 Lakes Loop, and do a bit of fishing. But, your excellent story has whet my appetite to again stroll the ridge between North Yolla Bolly and Blackrock peaks, and enjoy those magnificent views. Thanks for a good start to the day.

    BTW, it's good to know your cellphone worked up there…

  2. James Montgomery James Montgomery says:


    Credit for the photographs goes to Jeff Ingersoll.

    He was the only one with sense enough to bring a camera.

  3. Talk about a blast from the past….I didn't realize that you folks were still in the area… I am now in Mt Shasta, and my kids in Davis and Durham. Your story took me back to pre-college and teaching days when I worked for the USFS on trail and road crews, mostly up in the Alps. It was great hearing about all of you!!


    • James Montgomery James Montgomery says:

      Wow! Haven't heard from you in awhile. Thanx for teaching me math.

      It has come in handy, from time to time.

  4. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    Oh, the 'fire lookin' outs' as I called them as a child. I never was a climber or hiker, but living and growing up in and around the California mountains, I learned early to spot the 'lookin' outs.' I always wondered what the view looked like from up there . . . now I know!

  5. Avatar Terry Moravec says:

    Really loved the article and pictures, James. My husband, Richard, earlier mentioned my dad and uncle loving that area. Uncle Rex was still pack packing in well into his eighties. They called their camp Shangri La. Wonderful area, beautiful site.

    BTW, Richard confused the "cellphone" call from the mountains over Callahan with Yolla Bolly. I remember (both our surprise) when I called your cell to invite you to our Neighborhood Watch meeting and you answered from a mountaintop. Advances in technology…from lookout towers to satellites…from smoke rings to cellphones…

    • James Montgomery James Montgomery says:

      I was pretty amazed to get your call. I don't normally take my cell-phone into the woods, and had forgotten it was in my pocket!

  6. Avatar John says:

    Did you guys actually hike cross country from the lake to the lookout. There is an actual trail that goes to the lookout.

    • James Montgomery James Montgomery says:

      Yeah, we hiked up from the lake. Where is the trail?

      • Avatar John says:

        Take the trail to North Yolla Bolla Lake. Not to far up that trail there is another split. That is the trail to the Lookout. It goes up to the ridge line. Of course that would involve backtracking from Black Rock Lake. North Yolla Bolla Lake offers better fishing.

  7. Avatar Len Epstein says:

    Great article. It brought back wonderful memories. I was the lookout on Black Rock in the late summer of 1967. I was forced down sometime in October by a horrendous storm. At the time I was at Black Rock, my wife Susan was the lookout on Horse Ridge, 15 air miles to the west at the south end of South Fork Mountain. We could see each other through binoculars and talk on the forest service radio.

    I enjoyed hearing mention of all the trees, and on the summit of the mountain were what I called then Foxtail pines. Sometimes in Colorado where I live now they're called Limber pines. Anyway, thanks for a great article. I'm saving it.


    • James Montgomery James Montgomery says:

      Thank you for your reply. Interesting summer, I bet. You must know the area to the south, then. I was going to Hayfork High in 1967. We missed the Foxtail Pines, if they are still there.

      • Avatar Len Epstein says:

        It's hard to remember clearly back that far. I do remember looking to the south into the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Eel River, a rather large basin. There was no sign of man there, and I enjoyed looking at it on moonlit nights. Sometimes I could stare at it for hours (there's not much to do at a lookout after sundown with only one kerosene lamp for light). I also enjoyed looking to the north, right at sunset when Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen would be highlighted on the horizon.

        I had two visitors in about seven weeks–one a friend from San Francisco, and one a hunter scouting the area. Between my wife and me, we were in the area for three seasons. She had two on Horse Ridge and one on Kettenpom, both in the Six Rivers Forest. I of course finished the 1967 season on Black Rock in the Trinity, so we were quite familiar with that part of the country. I worked on a number of crews, building fireline and trails. It was a very special experience for me and it was fun for me to read your article.