Royce and Merriam

24 Aug 1996 - by Jim Ramaker

Royce Peak (13253) and Merriam Peak (13077) are two medium-sized mid-Sierra peaks south of Mt. Abbot and about five miles northwest of Mt. Humphreys. To climb them, Roger Crawley and Bob Suzuki combined their permits and assembled a PCS horde of 14 people. Besides Bob and Roger, the group included Alex Keith, Arun Mahajan, Peyma Oskoui, Dan Tischler, Nancy Fitzsimmons, John Wilkinson, Larry Hester, Helena & Rick Verrow, Bob Bynum, Jeff West, and me (Jim Ramaker).

We hiked out from the Pine Creek trailhead (7400 feet) at 9 a.m. on Sat. Aug. 24. For the first couple of miles, the trail winds up the canyon walls above a large tungsten mill, and right from the start you're surrounded by cliffs and peaks -- no boring, sun-baked, sagebrush slog as at other east side trailheads like Big Pine Creek or Shepherd Pass.

The trail climbs up through the woods and past the two Pine Creek lakes. A striking, unnamed, black-and-white striped peak rises from the lower lake at 9900 feet to its summit at 12,600. It appears to offer adventurous class 3 routes from the lake and would make a great dayhike. We had lunch near the upper lake and hiked two more miles uphill through a beautiful timberline area to Pine Creek Pass at 11,100 feet. From the pass we turned right and strolled due west up onto a vast barren plateau, which offered easy walking on slabs, grass, and sand. Cresting a slight rise, we spotted our two peaks, rising steeply out of the flat terrain with one of the Royce Lakes symmetrically arranged directly below the saddle between them. We got to the lake at 3 p.m. -- a pretty good performance for 8 miles and 4300 feet of climbing.

As clouds darkened overhead, we talked to some other people camped there, rested, and thought about setting up our tents. Around four, our laziness turned into frenzied action as a light shower quickly built into a powerful rainstorm, with plenty of wind and hail but luckily no lightning in our exposed location. We rushed to get our tents up, and learned the value of being well-versed in setting up your tent in wind and rain. We had varying degrees of success, and by the time we got inside our tents with our soaking wet raingear, most of the tent interiors were pretty soggy.

Some of us had gotten cold in the wind and rain, and our damp sleeping bags offered scant warmth. It was a sobering exercise in camping technique -- if this little storm had made some of us seriously damp and cold, what would a real downpour have done? In summary -- practice setting up your tent till you can do it blindfolded, set it up if possible as soon as the sky looks threatening, and bring a sponge to mop up the tent floor before laying your sleeping bag out.

The mountain gods were merciful this time -- the sky cleared off around 6:30 and a fresh breeze did wonders for drying our sleeping bags, even though the sun had dipped behind the peaks in the west. We were able to cook dinner outside, and were further rewarded with an astonishing sunset, as the sinking sun painted the lingering storm clouds a fiery pink and the distant ranges behind us to the east a golden yellow. We were all toasty warm as we got back into our tents and sleeping bags and listened to the patter of the next rain shower on our nylon roofs.

We woke before dawn to a deep starry sky, and set off about 7 for the saddle between the peaks. The snow leading up to the saddle was very low-angle but frozen, so Bob told us to pick up sharp rocks to use as ice daggers. What we go thru to stay within the lawyers' definition of a non-technical climb! Bob found some class-2 rock that avoided a short stretch of steeper snow, and our huge cheery group was soon relaxing on the saddle.

From there we wandered up the class-2 slope to Royce, with the lead dogs taking 45 minutes for the 1100-foot climb from the saddle. Roger and Bob deserve praise for a summit success rate of 107% -- we dragged one of the non-PCS campers at the lake along with us. Luckily he was a cooperative fellow, and agreed to take summit photos of all 14 of us with about 12 different cameras. Absurd yes, but there aren't many (any?) PCS summit photos with 14 climbers in them, and everyone wanted one.

The weather was clear, and we had great views of Humphreys, Goddard, the Abbot group, and the Palisades. We could even see Banner and Ritter in the forest-fire haze far to the northwest. One thing about this area -- it seemed that wherever we were, even in valleys or behind ridges, the soaring bulk of Mt. Humphreys was never out of sight. What a peak!

A pleasant boulder and scree descent brought us back to the saddle around 10 a.m., and six stalwarts then attacked the class-2 slope of Merriam. It was steeper than Royce but with nice solid rock, and this time the lead dogs made the trip in about 35 minutes. From the summit, we looked down a class-3 gully on the east face, hidden from view from our camp. It offers a shorter and sportier way to the summit from the lake. We rested on top, and yodeled to the other eight members of our party, now just arriving back at camp on the vast plateau below. All good things must end, and someone finally said it was time to go. In an hour we were back in camp, now facing the dreaded PCS Sunday of being tired from a morning of climbing, with a long hike out and an even longer drive home standing between us and civilization.

But such thoughts soon drifted away in the magnificence of our surroundings, the resilience of the human body once on the trail, and the pleasant vulgarity of PCS conversation. We wandered across the plateau and down past the lakes, arriving at the cars at 5:30 after a refreshing late afternoon rain shower. Despite the long drive awaiting us, ten of us gathered for dinner at a restaurant in Mammoth lakes -- we just didn't want this fun trip to end.

Bob Bynum adds:

I learned several lessons from that experience. First of all, don't delay in putting on rain gear and warm clothing when it starts to rain in the mountains. Second, always carry gloves and keep them in the pockets of your rain gear so that you don't have to dig through the pack to find them. Third, make sure that the tent is not inside out before starting the trip. Fourth, brief your tent mates on the tent set-up procedure. If time permits, tent mates should practice setting up the tent they intend to use prior to the trip.

Also I enjoyed the description of the sunset, the climb, and the camaraderie we all felt at Grumpy's afterwards. I agree with the statement about "we just didn't want this fun trip to end". Jeff West introduced me to Grumpy's and I now look forward to going there after each PCS trip. This past weekend, Gretchen and I went to the PCS car camp. We set up our tent early on Friday and then drove over to Mammoth Lakes and had dinner at Grumpy's. It was like reliving a part of the Royce, Red and White, and Bloody Mountain trips. I look forward to more enjoyable trips with PCS. This is a great group of people.

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