Merriam Peak, North Buttress

16-18 Jul 2005 - by Rick Booth

I have no idea how the North Buttress of Merriam Peak got on the climbing schedule this year. Maybe it is because I have never been up the Pine Creek drainage. Whatever the reason, Dan Clawson and I headed up to climb Merriam Peak via the North Buttress on Saturday, July 16.

After breakfast and the usual last minute gear sort and thrash, Dan and I headed up the Pine Creek trail at 10:30 AM. The first part of this hike is the "Burner Zone", about 2500 feet of switchbacks on mostly treeless terrain in the frying sun above a tungsten mine. Fortunately, all the indicated water crossings had plenty of water flowing, in fact, there was water flowing out of places not on the map. The end of the "Burner Zone" is near Pine Lake and marks the beginning of the MOAMF, or Mother Of All Mosquito Farms. Man. The next 1700 feet of elevation gain goes past Pine Lake, Upper Pine Lake, Honeymoon Lake, water ripping down the streams, bogs, swamps, mud, and standing water. One DEET commercial after another. The inlet to Upper Pine Lake had to be waded through. Freezing. Our goal was to go up somewhere near the Royce Lakes and camp there. The approach we chose to get there was to go cross country above Honeymoon Lake and head towards the col above the upper Royce Lake which is between Treasure Peak and bump 12,470. The trail goes around the first inlet to Honeymoon Lake and then goes up until a clear slabby area is encountered about 150 feet before the send big inlet to Honeymoon Lake. We left the trail in this slabby area and headed towards the gap between Treasure Peak and bump 12,470. The col is apparently called Co Co La as indicated in the Moynier and Fiddler book. We pulled into Co Co La about 7:30 PM and decided to camp there, not being too sure what the camping would be like down further towards Merriam. Co Co La is inhabited by a gargantuan marmot and a couple of mantled ground squirrels. There was plenty of water in easy reach.

About 7:30 AM Sunday Dan and I left camp and headed down past the lower Royce Lakes towards Merriam. Most of the snow has melted out in this area, however, there was a small section of snow directly below the buttress that we needed to climb to get to the third class start. We used ice axes but the snow was soft enough that they probably weren't needed, even in the morning. To say it had been hot for several days and nights is an understatement. We scrambled up the third class junk and started eyeballing our options for the route. It appeared there were two start possibilities, one directly up from the end of the third class scramble directly on the prow or go to the left somewhat. Craig Clarence indicated that is where he started and we took a look at it and it looked easy but maybe loose and ended in a dubious looking area. We decided to go straight up the prow of the buttress.

Pitch 1. Dan insisted on the first lead and headed straight up the prow about 180 feet. Dan went past the tower which is obvious from the start and headed for a second tower but couldn't get any pro at the tower so ended up at a mediocre stance in the crack. This pitch had poor pro since the rock is somewhat rotten in this area and the cracks are not continuous. The pro that was there was small cams in dirty seams. This pitch is not continuously hard but had a couple of 5.9 moves in it here and there.

Pitch 2. The obvious dihedral that is illustrated in Moynier and Fiddler's book was above us and to the left somewhat. We decided to see if we could get to the base of the dihedral with one more lead, effectively reducing the first three pitches indicated by Moynier and Fiddler to just two. This turned out to be easy to do. This second pitch is pretty much the same as the first pitch and the move left to get on a shelf to get to the dihedral was pretty wild. There are a couple of loose blocks that are encountered in the move left to the shelf that caused some consternation.

Pitch 3. This is the dihedral shown in the photograph but is certainly not the crux. Dan shot up this pitch in fine form. The bummer about this pitch is the end. Dan set a hanging belay on the only solid crack he could find at the end of the dihedral. A few feet past the belay the rock is shattered and the blocks are sort of stacked on top of each other. Yuk. This pitch is about the easiest on the route and is maybe 5.6 for the first half and 5.8 for the second half. We pitched a loose flake out of one of the cracks.

Pitch 4. This turned out to be a linking of two more pitches. Gingerly going past the loose junk, the pitch goes up until a solid hand crack is encountered that tilts back to the right. It is about 5.9 to enter the crack but it is only one move. With a 60 meter rope it was straightforward to link the following 5.8 pitch and arrive at the base of the crux pitch.

Pitch 5. This is the crux pitch. In spite of the intimidating look of the overhanging hand jams, this is not the crux. A couple of hand jams in this 9+ crack and it is possible to stem between the hand crack and a wide crack to the right. This gives you the opportunity to take a breather and eyeball the upcoming section which is the real crux. This section is about 12 to 15 feet long and is climbed mostly by liebacking. There are knobs on the left wall so it isn't as continuous as it looks. This is about 5.10a/b. After that there is a weird wide section requiring a couple of forearm jams to get up it. More awkward than hard.

Pitch 6. Pitch 5 is really the end of it, but pitch 6 has only about 10 feet of technical climbing. This is a wild 5.7 hand traverse to the right, directly under the giant overhanging block overlooking the route. There are adequate foot holds on the slightly tilted slab below the block but the slab terminates in "The Big Drop". It kind of sucks to climb this traverse with a pack sporting a couple of ice axes.

The remainder of the route is a couple of easy fourth/fifth class pitches along the narrow ridge heading towards the summit. It was about 8 hours from the start of the route until we signed into the summit register.

As the day was getting late we ripped down the second class slope on the back of Merriam towards the Royce-Merriam Col. Ok, ok, with our lousy knees we didn't exactly rip. There was a bunch of snow on the east side of the pass but it was quite soft. Again, we used our ice axes but they probably weren't needed. I "banana peeled" in a couple of spots and didn't go anywhere, just landing in the snow on my sorry butt. In short order we were back in camp at Co Co La.

The next morning we packed leisurely, which gave us an opportunity to check out the mischief perpetrated by the marmot and his buddies. Fortunately, we had hung our food up, however, the marmot had put the chomp on Dan's pack, chewing a nifty hole in the back screen, pulled out Dan's spare socks and ran off with the toilet paper. Maybe he had run out, who knows. One of those rascals also gave the handle from one of my hiking poles a taste test. After packing up we headed down through the MOAMF, found the trail, froze our feet again, and tromped down through the "Burner Zone" to the car.

Final Notes:

This route is not climbed very often. As best we could tell from the register it was climbed previously in 2003 and not at all in 2004. Prior to that was Craig Clarence's entry in 2002. This is a pretty good route but it is not for the faint of heart. With the lack of traffic, there are some scary loose sections that would likely get cleaned up with more regular ascents. As usual, route finding on the first two pitches are a problem, especially since the pro is somewhat iffy in this area because of the rotten rock. We linked pitches one, two, and three into two pitches and this is recommended. While the impressive dihedral can be climbed as is and a hanging belay set up on solid rock near the end of it, it is suggested that this pitch be linked with the following pitch although the loose blocks are very disconcerting. If this is done the belay can be set at the end of the 5.9 pitch. Either the following 5.8 pitch can be done alone or linked with the crux pitch. The disadvantage of this link up is a fall by the leader from the overhanging hand jams may result in the leader sporking his/her bungy on the little tower below the hand jams with all the rope stretch. There probably isn't a truly great sequence through the dihedral, the loose section, and the crux. The 5.7 hand traverse at the top was somehow not included in the Moynier topo.

We used a single 60 meter rope. It was probably not necessary but it made for more options, at least on the first two pitches. We brought a single set of stoppers up to about 3/8 inch, and a double set of aliens starting with blue up to red, and then two #.75, #1, #2, and #3 camalots plus one #3.5 and one #4. There is enough weird wide cracks to use the #3.5 and the #4. It is possible to go with just one #3 but we used both of them on the crux pitch. We also brought about ten slings and one long sling plus a few extra carabiners. We did not encounter any sign of pitons or other gear except for a large friend buried way deep in a wide crack near the top.


The lower Royce Lake was completely free of snow and it looked like there were plenty of camping options near the lake since we encountered many sandy ledges on our hike up to the base of the route. The second Royce Lake was partially iced over and the upper Royce Lake was about 3/4 iced over. Plenty of water.


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