Anyone who has flipped through Moynier's "Sierra Classics" book a few times has undoubtedly stopped to gape at the picture of Bob Harrington, a rack of Hexes dangling from his shoulder sling, powering up a classic-looking dihedral on the North Buttress of Merriam Peak. That picture and the route's reputation for clean rock and steep cracks put the route high on my to-do list, but the hot, dusty and boring hike out of Pine Creek kept me away. Last weekend Ben and I decided to give the route a try, and it turned out to be even more classic than advertised.
Leaving Orange County Friday in rush hour figured to be a nightmare, but the traffic turned out to be surprisingly light - I guess most people are trying to get INTO Orange County on weekday mornings.
We started walking up the old mining road at about 3:30 pm and reached Upper Pine Creek Lake at 6:30, where we decided to bivy. We only had enough food for one day so we were counting on doing the route and getting back to the car the next day.
The next morning, as we popped over the final ridge and descended to Lower Royce Lake, we saw our climbing route for the first time. We quickly realized we were in for a cold one - the September sun was low enough in the sky that it would not touch the north buttress at all that day.
We started the climb at a broken area near the toe of the north buttress, directly below the obvious left-facing dihedral halfway up the route. The first pitch was non-descript; I wandered a bit left then a bit right for about 200 feet, setting up a belay below some small tiered roofs. There was a bail sling with a biner at this anchor, always a bad sign. An even worse sign was the shiny biner hanging from a fixed nut up under the loose-looking roofs. A bail biner hanging from fixed gear in the backcountry usually sends me a clear message: "Do not go this way, it is loose/scary/unprotected!"
Needless to say I encouraged Ben to go up into the roofs and give it a try. He used better judgment and traversed up and right to the very prow of the buttress, and climbed some thin cracks on its right side. This is probably the section where Secor mentions a slot with 5.10 stemming, as there definitely was some 5.10 with plenty of stemming. Traversing back left to the bottom of the obvious dihedral proved to be very exciting, but we were both soon at the base of the "obvious left-facing dihedral." Ben's pitch was about 130 feet long.
The third pitch is the one pictured in Moynier's book. It starts up the cracks on the wall to the left of the dihedral. Striking a Harrington pose (minus the Hexes) I went into layback mode to bypass the thin-hands crack. The crack opened up after that and double cracks appeared. I was able to stem between the corner and the outside crack, with one hand in one crack and one in the other. This pitch was super classic, but seemed harder than 5.8. In fact, I'd call this pitch sustained 5.9. The caption under the picture in the second addition of Moynier's book calls this pitch the crux, but this is a typo - the crux is clearly a few pitches up, as indicated in the topo. I stopped after about 150 feet to belay at a very uncomfortable stance a little above the overhanging flake indicated in the topo.
As Ben was following this pitch, he gingerly bypassed a loose flake wedged into the crack that I had warned him about when I was leading. It was so loose that with a finger he was able to lever it out and send it flying. The 100+ pound sliver spun through the air and smashed into the belay ledge Ben had just vacated. The mountain shook and the smell of scorched granite drifted up. Scary, but nothing compared to what we were to find on the next pitch.
Ben took the lead and moved up past some fixed bail gear and tried to move right into the grainy diagonalling 5.9 crack indicated in the topo. Stepping on two huge blocks stacked on top of each other, the top one started moving. He quickly backed off it and tried to go around on the lower block. That one moved too. These things were several hundred pounds a piece, and 15 feet directly above my head. After several minutes of examination, he finally decided to move straight up, place a high piece, then tension traverse right on top of the blocks into the crack. I held my breath as he moved over, but the weight he placed on the blocks wasn't enough to set them off. After that excitement he was able to quickly finish off the pitch, which included both pitches 5 and 6 on the Moynier topo. This pitch ended at a nice big ledge and was about 150 feet long.
The next pitch, our 5th, was the crux. Perfect overhanging hands led into a finger crack layback and stemming pump fest. This pitch was so clean and so fun - definitely one of the best pitches I've done in the backcountry. After the crux the crack gets wide and I was quickly out of big gear so I set up a belay about 70 feet short of the notch behind the block mentioned by Moynier. Ben got us up to the notch (past a big fixed Friend which I couldn't booty - damn!) and I led the last pitch before the summit ridge. This last pitch was also really cool - it went up from the notch and then finger traversed right under a roof formed by this huge (like house sized) block perched on the very prow of the buttress. Only 5.7, but exposed and very fun.
Two more pitches of easy 5th along the exposed summit ridge got us to level ground. In the summit register a party that did the North Buttress in August mentioned that they found fixed bail gear most the way up - a previous team had rapped the route. We figure they probably bailed at the loose blocks.
We got back to our bivy that evening at 6:30 pm after 14 hours on the move. Both of us were pretty beat so instead of walking out by headlamp we spent another night at the lake - hungry, but not otherwise uncomfortable.
The route took us 7 hours and we did it in 9 pitches. A 60-meter rope was unnecessary. We had double cams up to and including a #3 Camalot, plus a #4 Friend and a #4 Camalot that we were glad to have because there are a few wide sections. Both Secor and Moynier's first addition call this route a grade III. We thought it was clearly a grade IV, and Moynier calls it a IV in the second addition of his book.
Despite a few loose sections, Ben and I consider this route to be one of the best we've done in the Sierra, with incredibly clean rock and classic steep cracks.