Black Elk Peak isn’t as tall as we thought it was. Black Hills photographer Paul Horsted enlisted Nebraska surveyor Jerry Penry to remeasure the mountain and discovered that the bronze plaque at the top pegging the altitude at 7,242 feet is generous by eleven feet:
In September, Penry and six team members spent two days of their own time and resources producing what might be the best-ever measurement of the elevation of Black Elk Peak.
The team determined that the highest natural point on the peak — excluding the stone-built fire lookout tower that sits atop it — is 7,231 feet above sea level. That is lower than the 7,242 feet listed on the bronze plaque at the summit, but still high enough to be the tallest mountain in the state. The team also determined that the highest man-made point on the peak — the tip of the lookout tower’s lightning rod — is 7,262 feet [Seth Tupper, “How South Dakota’s High Point Ended up Shorter Than Thought,” Rapid City Journal, 2016.12.26].
Penry provides a detailed explanation of his team’s survey, conducted September 15 and 16, 2016, complete with field notes and photos of the mountain, the team, and a mountain goat who supervised. Penry found that the 7,242-foot mark goes back to surveys from the late 1800s that were never rigorously updated, plus some variation introduced by the couple feet of rock blasted off the mountain in 1911 to provide a level surface for the first fire tower. That blasting removed the 1893 triangulation point that was the basis for pre-Jenry elevations.
Penry also resolved dispute over whether “McGillycuddy Peak”, the unofficially named spire 300 feet south of Black Elk Peak, might actually be taller. Penry notes that Valentine Trant McGillycuddy, who was the first white man to document his ascent of Black Elk Peak, got the impression on his first 1875 ascent that that southern spire was taller than the spot the lookout tower and his ashes(!) now occupy. Penry says that McGillycuddy may have been right in 1875 and that erosion and climbers may have knocked some rock off that spire. But today, by Penry’s survey, McGillycuddy Peak is 1.91 feet lower than the highest natural rock on Black Elk Peak.
- Penry’s downward revision does not change South Dakota’s rank among state’s for highest elevation. We’re still #15, behind Texas, whose Guadalupe Peak is 8,751 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, and ahead of North Carolina, whose Mount Mitchell is 6,684 feet above the Atlantic.
- We also remain 13th among states for average elevation, at 2,200 feet. Aside from high points in Hyde, Potter, and Walworth counties, everything 2,200 feet and up in South Dakota is in West River. But don’t back out of your East River land deal: if global warming melts all of the ice caps, the seas will only rise 216 feet.
- At the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago, Black Elk, McGillycuddy, and neighboring peaks may have been over 15,000 feet high. Assuming a steady rate of erosion, Mother Nature would have taken 89,000 years to knock eleven feet off Black Elk Peak.