I left the Pine Creek Pass trailhead at 10:00 AM Saturday, hiking in a light drizzle which eventually turned to snow. The hike through the dense forest between the pack station and the Union Carbide mine was relaxing. The willows and aspens were already changing color, and the mist and rain and snow soaked everything. The soaked vegetation was releasing a heavy aroma which aided in the meditation of mindless trudging.
When I reached the Brownstone Mine, about halfway to Pine Lake, the snowfall increased to blizzard intensity. I hid in a cave under a huge block and ate a snack while waiting out the flurry. After it passed, I continued through clearing weather.
Conditions being as they were, I nixed my attempt on the 'unknown' peak immediately northwest of Pine Lake (Pk. 12,160+ with the gray-and-white stripes) and hiked on to Upper Pine Lake, where I made a right turn and went cross country to Honeymoon Lake. This cross country route is much shorter than the trail, and has been ducked by a packer, with cairns of both rocks and mule poops. From Honeymoon Lake, I regained the trail and followed it to the flat above the lake. Taking a left turn in a slabby meadow, I hiked up toward Royce Pass but detoured further left and camped on a small ridge above Golden Lake. There are some excellent campsites on this ridge, with excellent views and erly morning sun.
That night, the temperature dropped to 20 deg F. As I lay in my sack, reading a book, my breath was condensing and freezing in the air and falling back as fine snow within seconds. I fell asleep, but awoke sometime in the night to the hissing sound of snow falling on my tent.
I awoke Sunday to bright sunlight. There were clouds boiling up from the Owens Valley, but they were not entering the Pine Lakes basin. I sat in camp and enjoyed coffee and breakfast while I watched the weather. At this point, I dropped yet another peak (Royce Peak) from my wish list. Waiting to see what the weather would do knocked two or three critical hours off my day.
At about 9:30 AM, I set out across the beautiful slabs and meadows leading to Royce Pass. As I approached the pass, snow-laden winds were blasting across the slabs. Once I crossed the pass and entered the Royce Lakes basin, the wind died and only gusted sporadically. I rounded the middle lake on the west side, which is actually a very tedious route, and cost me more critical minutes.
Finally I reached the snow below the Royce-Merriam saddle. The snow was rock hard with deep fresh powder pooling in the sun cups. In some places, where adjacent sun cups made long furrows, the fresh snow had drifted to a depth of three feet.
I reached the steep snow just below the saddle, and my progress slowed to a crawl. I switchbacked around some bare rocks, and the snow became steeper yet, with fewer sun cups. I began to cut steps and rely heavily on my axe. The snow was perfect for pick placements, however. Each swing produced a solid set, with the pick driven 3/4 into the snow. I worked directly up, just left of a huge moat beneath a large outcrop of rock. The angle slaked and I reached a 'dimple' of deep powder atop the permanent snow. From here, a few easy steps lead to the top of the saddle, and fresh blasts of cold wind.
I removed my crampons and ditched them and the axe under a block. Then I tackled the ridge scramble. This is a tedious but relatively easy climb. A class 2 route may be followed if one is very picky and not concerned about time. I bypassed some difficulties, but generally took a direct route, staying from 50 to 200 feet below and right of the ridge.
When I reached the summit, I first made the spooky scramble to the southwest summit. This involved a delicate traverse across a section of thin vertical flakes. I almost made the very last block, but looked back to see that the true summit is actually the easy pile of blocks behind me. I reversed my course and made the true summit at about 2:45 PM. I had limited time, so I only read a few of the entries in the register, then signed myself in and returned the aluminum cylinder to its cairn. Then I found a nice alcove in which to eat some lunch and rest.
The views from this peak were expansive!! I could also say beautiful, inspiring, tremendous, any of a host of other adjectives, but 'expansive' is probably the best description. I could see a huge open space around me. French Canyon and the Royce Lakes basin wrapped around on one side, and the Merriam Lake basin on the other. The clouds were welling up on both sides of the range, with both major valleys (Owens and San Joaquin) filled to the brim. The higher parts of the range were shining with fresh snow under crystal clear sunlight.
I left the summit at 3:30 and returned to the saddle. My descent down the steep snow was slow and nerve wracking. I made good time from the snow field back to Royce Pass, and then down to camp.
I had packed and left camp by 6:30 PM, hoping to hike all the way out that night. Darkness caught me as I reached the good campsites at Upper Pine Lake, so I gave up and decided another night out would actually be nice. I brewed up some coffe, crawled in my tent, and read some more of my book, "Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey. I awoke the next morning to a frosted forest, and regretfully finished the hike out under swirling clouds hung beautifully off the summits around me.
While I climbed up the VERY steep snow at the top of the Royce-Merriam saddle, I saw some other possibilities. There appeared to be a class 3 rock route to the right of the final steep snow, and also perhaps a ledge system leading from the higher but less steep snow on the left to the saddle itself. Are either of these routes preferable to the direct line? I will eventually have to return to get Royce Peak, so a safer bypass would be nice.
Jim Ramaker adds:
I did this climb with a large PCS group a few years ago, on a warm summer day. We had no axes, so a couple of us grabbed sharp rocks and clawed our way up the steep snow, as you did. But most of the group, led by Bob Suzuki, found an easier way up class 2-3 ledges to the left of the snow gully. I think they went about 50 to 100 feet to the left of the snow, and no one in the group had any trouble.