Thursday, November 8, 2012

Direct North Buttress of Merriam (car to car)

Although I love to camp and spent significant amount of time in the mountains for as long as possible, at times I do like to push my body, test my limits and see how I perform under stress. This time the goal was to climb a route (Direct North Buttress of Merriam Peak IV 5.10b) that was as intimidating to me at this point in my life, as my first ever alpine rock climb was, (Swiss Arete on Mt. Sill II 5.7- less than two years ago).

In addition, to add to the challenge we decided to climb the route car to car. Doing it car to car means a 17-18 mile round trip, around 6500ft of elevation gain, climbing at over 13,000ft, and a grade IV 5.10b as a cherry on top, all in a day.

After a drive from the Bay Area we arrived at the Pine Creek trail-head at 10pm. It was a bummer to get there so late because we had to wake up at 2:30am. After eating some food and finishing packing we hit the trail. Moon-less night was illuminated with our head-lamps, and a wall of dust we raised going up the switch-backs. At dusk we were moving past the Upper Pine Creek Lake, and at sunrise we witnessed the first rays of sun hit Bear Claw Spire AKA Treasure peak.

Merriam, Royce, and Feather peak (L to R)

North Buttress of Merriam is the rock wall in the middle

As we hiked through the gap between Treasure Peak and Spire Peak a gorgeous view opened up- Merriam Peak, Royce, and Feather stretched from left to right. Morning sun was appreciated.

We passed the Royce lakes on the eastern side and moved towards Merriam. North Buttress was a stunning rock formation that stood out in the center. Elegant, yet blood-chilling, this formation is one impressive chunk of rock!

After a food break and racking up our gear, we approached the climb. The snow at the base was minimal and we were able to get over to the buttress without the need to put on crampons (which we did not bring). The crux of the approach is not to break an ankle on unstable boulder field. Although the views make up for this mild inconvenience.

After we made it to the base, I volunteered for a first lead. At first the thin crack above looks fairly hard, but it ended up being no harder than the advertised 5.9 in the topo. Next, Bryan took us through the 10a face pitch. The climbing we found through these two pitches was a lot better than we expected. Pitches were not one move wonders, but required concentration and technical climbing for most of the length.

Our pitch three was again mine. Not sure if I went a bit too high or what, but with protection about fifteen feet bellow my feet the mantel to the traverse ramp left was for sure exciting.

Although excited after the mantel, before me was the triple crack pitch I dreamed of leading ever since I saw the photos of North Buttress a year ago. Since not much protection was placed before and rope drag would not be too much of a problem I decided to link these two pitches.

Huge block we traversed under

Summit Ridge

Having a 70 meter rope helped since I needed every meter of it to make it into the alcove belay at the top of triple crack pitch. Belaying in the alcove had an advantage of hiding from the wind, and possible rock fall from above. Triple crack pitch was everything I wanted it to be. A great variety of jamming, stemming, and transitioning from one to another allowed me to be creative and have a lot of fun.

Bryan was excited about the long pitch and took the next two pitches as well. Although he was not able to link them due to wandering terrain, he took the crux pitch (our 5th) in great style. Although not easy, the crux pitch did not seem too hard for me neither. The training is paying off. An overhanging hand crack kept at 5.9 by ability to stem, followed by a some harder moves (won't spoil it) above.

I took the last 5.7 pitch, which featured a WILD traverse under a HUGE block. This block is bulging about 10 feet out on top of the buttress, and can be seen even on the approach.

This was a perfect finish to a great climb. From there we had another 300feet of 4th class scrambling to the summit. Rope drag here was annoying and we lost too much time figuring out where to go. After we got it figured out we were in the sun, and on the summit shortly.

 We spent about thirty minutes eating, taking photos, checking out the summit register and taking in the views on the summit. Few minutes after us, another pair of climbers topped out after doing one of Peter Croft's new routes (which looks awesome by the way).

I would rate north buttress of Merriam as a 4.5/5 star climb by alpine standards. It was everything we wanted it to be- an aesthetic line up a beautiful buttress. Dirty scrambling was absent. Pitches of sustained (but not hard) technical climbing present. Yes, there are some big blocks that may go at some point, but this is an alpine climb. For a less traveled route, the rock quality is fantastic (in my opinion).

Merriam Peak

The hike out offered a few more picture worthy stops, but for the most part involved battling mosquitoes. Bryan and I surprised ourselves by hiking out with some day-light to spare- 17 hours after we left the car. Although we did not try to beat any records ourselves, we were happy to get back at a reasonable time because on the next day we went to Yosemite Valley to watch Hans Florine and Alex Honnold set the new speed record on the Nose.

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