Royce & Merriam Are Too Damn Cold

  • Updated: September 02, 2016
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

September 2nd to 4th, 2016
Royce Peak (13,280’)
Merriam Peak (13,103’)

For the last few years it's become a tradition for a few of us to do a longer harder trip over the Labor Day weekend. It's late enough where we're generally in good backpacking shape and you don't have any of the major issues like snow or mosquitos..

Last year hadn't happened thanks to my knee surgery but I was now back up and running and we decided to head up Pine Creek to climb Royce and Merriam.

We drove up after work and this time the bivy spot was the ditch below Keough Hot Springs. While Keough itself is more of a resort of those who want to pay there are several lukewarm pools on a dirt road leading north that are accessible to the public. Camping isn't officially allowed but a good number of people seem to sleep there every weekend. And of course for those of us arriving after midnight and just throwing down a sleeping bag it works just fine.

Stats on this trip weren't trivial and we had a very high camp the first day.  We'd had a very strong group of WTC students this year and we extended it to them as well.

The climb up Pine Creek is on the steep end as these things go. The parking lots starts at 7,400' and switchbacks directly up to Pine Lake at 10k.

There's an old mine which is currently inactive that's visible across the canyon from the trail.  There are lights on at night and occasionally a few people can be seen moving around.  I'm not sure if this means it may be started back up or if it's just the caretaker.

Last time I was up this way it was early season and the Brownstone Mine was too choked with snow to explore safely.  This time it was melted out so we took the chance to do a little exploring.

Most of the openings have either been sealed like the one above using foam or had the access ladders cut in the case of the higher up adits.

But if you head back off the trail a bit there is one which can be accessed via an only slightly collapsed entrance.

Inside it's flooded and there's the remains of machinery.

Turns out it doesn't go back very far.

The others decided they'd rather not go inside and Kristen was somewhat unhappy that I went in.

Meanwhile Kay was cutting an avocado as a snack and managed to slice her hand open necessitating a bit of first aid.

The view improves a lot once you reach Pine Lake right around 10k.

Stijn had a bit of a heavy pack and we found out at least one contributor an old fashioned film camera.  Kristen being the young-in of the group was both intrigued and disbelieving.

We took the trail as far as Honeymoon Lake at which point we started a long climb up to our planned camp at Royce Lakes.

The terrain wasn't bad but the altitude was hitting a few folks and we didn't reach camp until it was nearly dark.

Royce Lakes was somewhat otherworldly. It's high enough up there's almost no vegetation and camp spots are just wherever you can find sand.

It was also cold and windy which was an unfortunate condition that wasn't going to improve the entire weekend. We ate dinner wrapped in our sleeping bags and went to bed as soon as we could just to try and stay warm -ish.

The next morning the wind was still frigid and howling as we left for Merriam.

Note I'm climbing in both a beanie and a down jacket.  That never happens.  Merriam is the peak in front of us.

Our plan was to hit the eastern face which was supposed to have a fun 3rd class route.  We aimed for the north eastern ridge intending to swing left whenever it got a little too exposed.

You can also climb the saddle between Royce and Merriam and stay 2nd class.  That was how we planned to descend and I'd strongly recommend trying our route instead of the saddle.

There was 3rd class and a bit of route finding but we were all surprised at the quality of the climb.

It was all solid and never felt too sketchy as long as you looked around and picked your route.

The final section was a tunnel not unlike the top of Whorl. This dumped us out just a short 2nd class scramble below the summit.

And the classiest summit register item goes to...

We enjoyed the views and commented on how awesome the scramble had been.

Down to the saddle was a 2nd class boulder hop.

This is looking back at our descent route to the saddle from Merriam.  You can see why I liked the east face so much better.

When we reached the saddle Jeff was feeling a bit spent and elected to wait there while we tagged Royce.

Royce from the saddle is pretty much just a slog until you reach the very top.

We were drawn to this pile of rocks at the north of of Royce and assumed it was the summit. After getting cliffed out a few times I happened to check the map and realized the summit was actually a far easier point behind us.

View from the *actual* summit

The route down from the saddle was basic class 2. It's doable either way but I would strongly recommend climbing our route and using this to descend.

Off in the distance we had an awesome view of Humphreys which is on the list to do in the next few years. (Also note the wind disturbance on the water)

Once back at camp we put on every layer we owned then once again grabbed sleeping bags.

Despite that it was a struggle to stay warm and everyone turned in as soon as they could.

The next morning getting up before dawn being slammed by cold wind was the most miserable I can remember spending in the Sierra. If it hadn't been for the group I might have just stayed inside my sleeping bag but hey, we had a peak to do!

Todays target was Feather Peak which is the next mountain north of Royce.

Kay's tent in particular had had a hell of a time staying up in the wind despite having a large amount of guy lines.  The rest of us were in bivy's which generally stayed below the wind.

Royce and Merriam did look amazing from a distance.

Our initial plan called for climbing up a chute to the saddle between Royce and Feather. Unfortunately the snow was rock hard and considering the wind I didn't have any illusion it was going to get softer.

Fortunately we had a plan B which was to continue north and get to the saddle north of Feather.

This worked but the last steep part to the pass was all sand. This combined with the wind really took a lot out of some of the folks.

The route we started up was on the western side of the ridge and so out of the sun. After a short distance the combo of loose sand / rocks and the temperature caused everyone except Kristen and I to turn back.

Kirsten and I went a few hundred feet south along the ridge before I happened to read the map close enough to realize we were not on the correct route. We had beta on Feather Pass which was a ways south and this route wasn't looking very promising.

We looked at our options. From here we could have dropped down and climbed up to Feather Pass easily enough though that plus the climb of Feather would make for a decently long day. The general misery of the wind combined with the thought of our friends waiting in camp all day (not to mention spending another cold night) combined with the fact I was feeling a bit burned out from back to back trips made us decide to leave the peak for another hopefully more pleasant day.

We caught up with the others before the first lake.  Kristen and I had talked about options on the way down. We thought about doing the two peaks on the left by in the end we decided we'd just had enough. Not particularly wanting to face another miserable night freezing our butts off we decided to bail a day early.  We packed up and started descending as soon as we could.

The lower we got the warmer it got which felt amazing after days suffering relentless cold wind.

Eating elderberries along the Pine Creek Trail.

We made it down and headed for Astorga's in Bishop for a much needed hot meal.  Unfortunately as fit with the weekend we couldn't seem to escape the cold draft from the fans and air conditioning.

Jeff had volunteered to fill in as co leader on a trip I was leading to San Jacinto the following weekend so we had a break of all of 4 days before the next one. I spent the time sitting around working from home wearing a lot of warm layers.

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