The North Buttress of Merriam Peak is no doubt the most significant addition to Chris’s 2nd edition of High Sierra Climbing (Supertopo). Unlike many routes in the Eastern Sierras (i.e. the Dark Star route (5.10c) on Temple Crag) the North Buttress of Merriam offers sustained vertical climbing from bottom to top (5.9). That being said, any 5.10 moves are barely noticeable and the gear is very straight forward making this an easily attainable moderate for seasoned trad leaders. The route was established by Bob Harrington and Vern Clevenger in 1976. The approach is hefty, weighing in at 4500’+/- in elevation gain during the 8-9 mile trek to the three lakes located between Royce and Merriam. The approach to the climb is about 500’ of easily advanced scree in addition to several hundred additional feet in gain from the top of the climb to the final summit via 3rd-5th class depending on the route you take. The climb itself is approximately a 1000’ which we did in six pitches. That makes for a 6000’+ descent back to the trail-head from the summit. Two days is the way to do this climb and enjoy the back country experience it has to offer.
The first two pitches make total sense to combine and it could be argued the 2nd pitch offers the best climbing of the day. But most would probably vote for pitch 4: aka the triple crack pitch. The lay back and then off width aspect of the 6th and 7th pitches (which combine well) will serve as the crux for most. This route offers just about every form of climbing which is what makes it so worthy. The bivy is also outstanding. The mosquitoes along the fishing lakes on approach are not. It is a true north facing climb with little reprieve from the cold. The summit ridge finish can be complex but short in length compared to most. The descent is one of the simple descents in the Eastern Sierras.
Drive Pine Creek Road to its terminus at a large (retired-2016) mine and packer station. Hike through the packer station on the Pine Creek Trail. After an hour or two of steep sun exposed gain, you pass a significant lake on the right side, cross over at its inlet and continue gaining elevation passing the next lake on its left side. You eventually come to a signed fork in the trail for Honeymoon Lake. The guide mentions two options, but the most direct and most sensible is to head straight for Royce Pass. There is not much route finding to it although the guide insinuates that could be an issue. Take the right option for Honeymoon Lake. Pass it on its left and look out for the next signed junction which is for Italy Pass. Take a left for Italy Pass. Royce Pass is very prominent in the horizon with Treasure Peak on its left. Leave the trail in short order and follow the major drainage (right side offers more tenable ground) up to Royce Pass. Once at the pass, turning and looking left will offer you your first look at the North Buttress of Merriam Peak. Skirt the first lake on its left. In July, that normally requires crossing a snow patch right along the bank. Continue to the inlet for the second lake which makes the best bivy for the climb. This bivy offers at least one if not two additional hours of daylight to set up camp and enjoy the setting sun vs the 3rd lake. The approach to the bivy takes 4-5 hrs for a fit party.
Route Description1000’+/-, 8 Pitches, 5.10b
1st-2nd Pitches- 200’- 5.10a/ These two pitches make total sense to combine. Although the line trends left, it is fairly straight up with little to no rope drag (if extended properly). The first pitch is rated 5.9 in the guide and second pitch is 5.10a. You barely feel any 5.10a. Many times backcountry alpine routes in the Sierras get written up a bit soft on the grade compared to CA grades in general. The first pitch starts out with uneventful stemming up a corner. You pull over a large flake on its right side and slide left to a small ledge above it (top of 1st pitch). The second pitch is one of three stellar pitches on the climb (2nd, 4th and 6th). The first crux (5.9) is being forced out right for a face climb move or two and then moving back left into the crack below a left facing finger corner offering perfect (2nd crux of the pitch) finger locks to a comfortable belay ledge.
3rd Pitch- 90’- 5.9/ Stem up to below a large block and traverse left below it or over it. You can traverse left above it, but that offers an exposed arête type of move. Either way, you traverse left onto one of two ledges below the “triple crack” pitch.
4th Pitch- 150’- 5.9/ Several summit log posters on Mountain Project reference this as the physical and/or mental crux pitch of the climb. If you are proficient at jamming, this pitch is definitely easier than the 5.10b pitch yet to come. Start up the middle of the three cracks jamming your way up to a wider section. Although C4#4’s fit in this wide section, I placed none as pro on the entire climb. Pro options are many and varied on this pitch. Climb the wide crack section with holds all over the place, moving right for just a short stint near the top. Avoid moving right too early into the loose block section. Before the alcove (mentioned in a lot of beta and obvious), climb back up and left pulling a bulge into more hand cracks. Move up and right out of the main crack system to a small stance with small to medium gear.
5th Pitch- 150’- 5.9/ You can go straight up, but the original route heads up and right, then traverses back left to a belay directly above the previous one. Follow easy cracks up right and cut back left on a right to left slanting ramp that turns into a positive hand and finger traversing crack finish. The finish offers cool climbing for the grade. Finish on a ledge below an obvious steep hand sized corner crack. It is 5.9 in the guide, 5.8 on Mountain Project (2016), but it is about the same as the other 5.9 pitches, they could all go either way.
6th-7th Pitches- 180’- 5.10b/ The guide has this stretch of climbing divided into two pitches but I felt they combined well. If you are searching for sun, you will normally find it at the top of the 7th pitch, thus motive to combine them. Combined, this pitch is the most technical of the route. Even though the right facing corner start is easy hands, albeit steep, once you stem to the upper section it turns to fingers where the guide references a 5.10b lay back move. This finger crack goes straight in fingers with ring locks and therefore no lay back is needed for the competent leader. What would stymie most on this pitch is the short off width (“wide S crack” in the guide) up and left to finish the 7th pitch (stuck cam 2016). You can protect out right before committing to the off width. If you have three layers of jackets on and a shoulder harnessed rack of cams, it can be tight for a few meters. Typical heal-toe and arm bars get you up in short order to a large sunny ledge that starts the summit ridge line.
8th Pitch- 50’- 5.7/ Don’t un-rope just yet. An airy traverse right below a large roof leads you to the ridge proper. It is well protected.
I was comfortable soloing this ridge line to the summit in approach shoes. Just another typical summit ridge in the Eastern Sierras with a bit of route finding. My partner was not comfortable with the terrain and I pitched it out approximately 3-4 rope lengths which would be the most anyone would need. At the first obstacle, I went left and eventually regained the ridge where it made sence. The final section involves a short down climb right and then you are on walk-able ground to the summit. This is not a long ridge when compared to most finishes in the Sierras.