Hall of the Mountain Gods

Merriam Peak via Direct North Buttress, 1000ft, 5.10b, 21 June 2020

I have to admit that after doing the Three Sisters Traverse, I was quite ready and happy to stash away the ski gear for the season, take a little break from the mountains, and switch gears to a rock climbing summer. The Sierras, which hold a special place in my heart, were calling.

The North Buttress on Merriam peak has been high on my list for a while; its striking line in a very picturesque setting just begs to be climbed. I met up with fellow ex-cyclist and now climbing partner, Ian Umstead, for this objective. We climbed the Red Dihedral on the Hulk last October, and, as mostly a sport climber, this would be his first alpine rock climb since then. He’ll soon be breaking into 5.13’s, and has been collecting a remarkable amount of 14ers, so I had no doubt he’d be up physically for this adventure.

Our (admittedly ambitious) plan was to hike in relatively early from the Pine Creek trailhead, get up to the Royce Lakes basin, attempt the nearby Feather Peak’s seldom-climbed Northeast Face, then camp and hit Merriam the following day before hiking out.

Questing up to the Royce Lakes basin. Photo: Ian Umstead
A short lived shady respite early on.

Things started as smooth as they could, given the approach starts with 2500ft of gain up steep, hot switchbacks before gaining another 2000ft cross country to gain Royce Lakes. We made decent time considering the heft of our packs, but still only made it to Royce around 12:45pm. The scenery at the lake basin was breathtaking and inspiring, and despite already heavy legs, we decided to give Feather a (perhaps already half-hearted) shot.

Feather Peak (pictured, along with Royce, Merriam, and Treasure) make up the Hall of the Mountain Gods

We had high hopes for Feather, considering that most of the route was 5.7 or easier, and hoped to be able to knock it out and be back to camp before dark. A long slog up slabs and a snow traverse landed us at what we felt was most likely the base of the route, where we switched to rock mode in a claustrophobic inset between rock and snow. This route likely hasn’t seen an ascent in at least 5 years, and the beta online was extremely sparse. It was near 3pm as I headed up the first pitch, and my spirits sank when I discovered the rock was barely a step up in quality from kitty litter. I could effortlessly peel edges off with my fingers, each foot smear dislodged a little cascade of granite crystals, and some of the blocks I was pulling on felt uncomfortably unstable. At times it would take a few minutes of searching around to simply find a remotely solid hold, not to mention the protection which was sparse and mediocre at best. I don’t know whether we were on route or not, but I quickly realized that we were never going to knock out these 10 pitches in under 5 hours. I came upon a godforsaken bail anchor consisting of two nuts and battered cord, and made the easy decision to get the hell out of there. 

A slightly improved bail anchor
The sour taste of defeat mixed with the sweet taste of being alive!

Having bailed, we enjoyed a rare relaxed afternoon in the mountains, in perhaps the most beautiful spot I’ve been to in the Sierra.

Dinner consisted of dried mashed potatoes and a block of gruyere and some Reeses cups; Ian and I reminisced on the cycling world, and felt incredibly grateful to be posted up in this timeless spot. Words can’t do justice to the feeling of peace and equanimity that fell upon me in these moments, surrounded by striking peaks and silence only broken by the soft murmur of the nearby stream. The unofficial name for this place, the Hall of the Mountain Gods, couldn’t have felt more appropriate. I had a good feeling about Merriam, knew I was ready physically and mentally and was calm, confident in our ability to knock it out quickly and safely.

The view from the tent

We woke up with the sun around 5am to a stunning reflection of the peak in the lake below. The approach was casual, and we were climbing by 7:30am.

Merriam in the early morning golden hour
Myself, going up!

It took me a few pitches to really get in the groove, especially leading with a decently heavy pack and full double rack, but by the classic “triple cracks” pitch I was moving confidently through the delicious splitters. The crux loomed ahead, and turned out to be fairly tame for its grade of 10b, and was a beautiful pitch on perfect, white granite with fun jam and lieback moves. 

Ian coming up one of the lower pitches

We popped onto the summit ridge in 6 pitches, having linked two down low. This was definitely the scariest part of the day. We were extremely dehydrated and tired as we attempted to simulclimb the ridge littered with gendarmes and loose blocks and solid exposure. It took us three pitches of simuling to reach a spot where we finally could unrope and scramble to the summit proper. Ian and I stood happily on top around 2:45pm, contemplating the scramble back to camp and the long hike out.

Where da cookies at tho

A short glissade facilitated the final part of the descent, and fresh water from a little stream compounded with finding our food uneaten by the local marmots (can’t say as much for our trash however!) helped boost me mentally and physically. 

Ian ran ahead back to the car, having to be at work at 6am in LA the next day. I took it a little more casually, but still had to hustle to knock out the 9 miles before dark. Despite the walk being mostly downhill back to the car, I settled into a deep tunnel vision as I trudged my way back out, really starting to pay for the efforts over the last two days. 

It’s in these moments that you wonder why you don’t just exclusively sport climb. You forget about the views, you forget about the climbing, and all you can think about is getting your ass back to food and water and a place to sleep. But the feeling of satisfaction slowly reappeared as I made my way through the final, dark, wooded switchbacks near the car. As soon as I put my pack down, the suffering was forgotten, replaced by “Holy shit, we just rolled that!” 

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