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Day 2 of the Challenge saw 17 participants at the Pine Creek TH for a 6a start. This was the same number as we'd had for the first day, and by far the best turnout we'd ever had for the second day when attrition usually starts to take its toll. At the start, Matthew and Scott M. took off at a speedy pace that none could keep up with and they were out of sight within the first 30 minutes. A few hundred yards from the start I realized I'd forgotten my camera and had to return to get it. This put me in last position as we headed up the Pine Creek Trail, rising out of the canyon on lazy switchbacks. It took some time before I caught up to anyone, and I used the opportunity to chat with whoever was in front of me for a short while before passing them and moving up to the next. This was especially enjoyable as I got a chance to talk with those participants who were new, a number who were with us on the first day but I never got a chance for more than a quick introduction.
Though the temps was nice to start, lingering clouds in the morning portended of even more unsettled weather today. During the first four years of the Challenge we had 40 straight days without rain. Here we were looking at the possibility of two days of rain in a row - unheard of! Really, I think we were just fortunate those previous years. Though the range is known for its exceptionally mild weather most of the year, thunderstorms are not rare and it looked like we had arrived during one of these unsettled weather patterns that would last for days - most of the 10 days, in fact. By the time we had reached Lower Pine Lake shortly after 7:30a, most of the sky was clouded over. Rather than fret over developing clouds, I changed my frame of mind and took solice in the fact that there were still areas of blue sky to be seen. And I hoped the rain would hold off long enough for us to climb Merriam.
Past Pine Lakes I found myself in a small group with Mark and Evan. Matthew and Scott M. were far ahead somewhere, everyone else behind us. Mark had barely slowed from his high energy of the previous day, but it was enough to keep up with him. Evan was a new participant, quite strong for his 53 years of age. We spent an hour together hiking from Pine Lakes up to Pine Creek Pass, and right away it was very evident that Evan likes to talk. He found it helped him take his mind off the pain and drudgery of the trail, and he would use this technique considerably over the course of the week. And I have to admit, Evan had a lot of interesting things to talk about. In the sports world he had many interests, and seemed to compete at a very high level in all of them. He was an accomplished sailor, paraglider, fly fisherman, and bike racer. And he was no slouch on the trail either, which gave a lot of credence that all his talk wasn't just a lot of talk. I enjoyed questioning him about many aspects of his interests, and the time did indeed go by quickly.
When we reached the pass we took only a short break before heading west towards Royce Lakes and Merriam Peak. Ahead of us towards Royce Peak the sky didn't look too bad, but behind us it appeared something was developing near Mt. Humphreys, only a few miles away. We pulled up for a break at the outlet of Merriam Lake. I needed to fill up on water here and reconnoiter the East Face of Merriam for a route up. Matthew had climbed the East Face a year earlier, and his experience suggested some significant technical difficulties which we wished to avoid if possible. While Mark and I examined a printout of the face with Matthew's route marked on it, Evan took the opportunity to get out his rod and start casting into Royce Lake, confident that he could get a bite in a few minutes (he didn't). In the meantime, another group of five had traversed over from the pass and we soon had eight climbers at the base of the peak. Five of us (Mark, Michael, Glenn, Rick K., myself) decided on the East Face while the other three (Evan, Rick G., Matt) decided on the easier route via the Merriam-Royce saddle.
For the East Face, we were able to identify Matthew's marked route on the face before us, but we had a hard time agreeing on whether his recommendation to take the next chute to the left was really the best thing to do. From the bottom, it's very hard to work out the difficulty of a 1,500-foot face. We could guess fairly accurately the difficulty of the lower half, but higher up it was much guesswork and possibly wishful thinking, as we commented about which branch of which chute might work best. In the end we headed to the East Face for a starting point nearly the same as the one Matthew had chosen, but for the most part stayed in the solid chute to the left of his route. We had various starting points that we used, at least three different ones between five of us. One thing was clear - there were many options available on this broad face.
In the lower half, Glenn and Rick K. tagged along as the three of us made our way up from the bottom of the main chute. After a short time the other two angled over into the main chute as well. By the time we were halfway up Glenn and I had opened a lead on the others. We moved quickly but cautiously, trying to avoid rockfall that could be hazardous to those below us. The climbing was a mix of solid granite slabs and cracks that were great fun, intermixes with class 2-3 sections of sandy, talus-strewn ledges. These were the places that it was easy to dislodge rocks if not cognizant of the danger. 3/4 of the way up the face the chute split into two forks. Glenn and I stuck with the plan devised at the bottom to follow the left-hand chute. The rock here was quite good, but closer to class 4, and with more exposure than we'd had lower on the face. Within the left branch, Glenn and I took different routes as well, myself to the left and Glenn to the right. Mark led the other three into the right chute, later reporting that they thought their side was up to class 4 as well. It was hard to judge who was having more fun. Almost too quickly we reached Northwest Ridge, and another five minutes later we were on the summit - even after bypassing the summit for a lower point to the SW which we'd incorrectly guessed to be the highpoint.
We were on top, but we weren't celebrating too much. The weather had closed in during the climb and it was now visibly raining to the SE over Humphreys Basin. It seemed only a matter of minutes before the rain would reach us. Scott M., who had started off with Matthew, had signed into the register about 20 minutes earlier and was already gone. He was like a ghost, flying up the trails, floating to the summit, leaving no traces save his signature. Clearly he was very fast! Glenn found a 1-2 person shelter under an overhanging rock just off the summit under which he planted himself. Evan came up from the saddle five minutes after Glenn and I, and a few minutes later Rick K. arrived. My companions were all for getting down after this but I was still eager to get to the summit of nearby Royce Peak. Without waiting for Michael, Mark, Matt, or Rick G., I started down in a hurry to the Merriam-Royce saddle. I passed Matt and Rick G. on their way up shortly after I left the summit, pausing only briefly to talk with them.
It took 30 minutes to descend Merriam to the saddle and another 45 minutes to climb the class 2 slope up to Royce with about 1,200ft of elevation gain. Half way up the slope I had to stop to put on my jacket and rain poncho - rats. I had to climb slower under the non-breathable plastic, but I was happy that there had been no lightning and no winds so far. Looking back down to the saddle, I could see that the others were all returning from Merriam's summit and every one of them was headed back down from the saddle, leaving me alone on Royce. It was eeriely disconcerting after having so many companions on the hike, and I had the urge to get off the mountain as quick as possible and rejoin them. When I reached the summit plateau I had trouble determining which of two possibilities was the highpoint, and just as on Merriam I guessed incorrectly that the furthest one from me was highest. As I set foot on the summit block at the lower north summit, I heard the peal of thunder roaring out from the southeast. Damn! "And this isn't the summit?" I had to be more careful with my footing now that all the rocks were wet (the summit blocks surrounding the two summits are class 3), but as quickly as I could I made it over to the south summit. I signed in, took a handful of cloudy and fogged-over photos, then headed back down the same way I'd come. That first crack of thunder was the only one I heard today, thank goodness.
Back down at the saddle I collected the daypack that I had left out of the rain under an overhang, and headed down the east side. The snow was soft enough that it was unnecessary to bother with crampons, though I kept my axe in hand in case I should slip. With four sets of prints on the way up and eight so far on the way down, it looked like a well-worn path down the snow from the saddle. You'd almost guess it was a popular cross-country route in use all summer. The rain had slowed to a drizzle and I no longer felt the urge to get out as soon as possible. It was looking like I'd get back earlier than expected too, and I decided to make a loop through Royce Saddle to help keep things interesting.
I wished the weather was better to allow me to take better pictures of Merriam, Royce and Feather Peaks as I passed by them on my around the east side of Royce Lakes. But the low clouds and drizzly conditions gave the place a very Pacific Northwest sort of feel, and a pleasant change from the usual case of too much sun and not enough sunscreen. In crossing the snow around one of the lakes I noted only a single set of footprints. Others had talked about returning this way as well, but they had evidently all gone back by way of Pine Creek Pass. The single set of prints were from Scott M.'s tennis shoes - he had ascended Royce Pass in the morning before splitting off to Merriam while Matthew headed to Spire Peak. The route through Royce Saddle was as gentle and easy as it had looked on the topo map. During the descent down towards Honeymoon Lake I was taken by the beautiful flowers on display, made prettier with the glistening drops of rain clinging to the petals and leaves. I paused often during the descent to take pictures of the various flowers I came across, experimenting with different exposures and camera angles, sometimes lying prone on the ground to get a particular cliff in the background of the image. The rain stopped altogether once I was back in the Pine Creek drainage, and I was able to return to the comfort of just my tshirt.
I reached the trail south of Honeymoon Lake around 2p, ending my jaunt through unexplored places as I was now back on terra cognito. As I cruised down the trail at a pretty good clip, I kept expecting to come across one of the others heading down at a slower pace. Evidently they were all moving pretty quickly too, because I didn't see anyone for more than an hour. I passed a few backpackers and a packer bringing supplies up, studying the boot and hoof prints on my way down for clues to the others. The damp trail was full of boot prints heading down, but atop them were the hoof prints from the horse and mule I'd passed. I noted the time I'd passed the packer (2:27p) and then again the time when the hoof prints were now under the boot prints (2:42p), this point marking where the others last crossed paths with the packer. Based on this info, I figured I ought to be able to estimate how far in front of me the others were. This depended of course on how fast both the packer was traveling upstream and how fast my companions were traveling downstream, and I hiked along I trying to work out the math. If we were all going about the same speed, then they should be about twice the difference, or 30 minutes ahead of me. I was still trying to figure out the math (it didn't come to me so easily while I was tired and trying not to trip down the trail) as I neared Lower Pine Lake and spotted Evan fly fishing near the lake outlet. It would be easier just to ask Evan than to work out the algebra.
Evan seemed to be waiting for me, because he packed up his rod as I strolled over to see how his luck was. He said he'd caught 10 fish in the hour or so he'd been fishing there. His style is strictly catch and release, and with the tiny flies used for bait he got tiny fish for the most part, but still a fun time for him. After he finished packing the two of us headed down the trail together. I got to learn all about paragliding and sailing during the descent, as Evan told stories about his adventures and fielded my questions. It was 4:20p when we reached the trailhead. Back at the car I was surprised by Glenn, Matt, and Rick hiking up from the creekbed where they'd just gotten done with a quick rinse, having finished 20 minutes ahead of us. Scott M., Rick G., Michael, and Mark had gotten back even earlier and had already headed back to Bishop. Of the 17 that started out, 9 made it to the summit of Merriam and Matthew ended up climbing Spire Peak (though not Treasure Peak as he'd also planned). That was one of the best overall successes we'd had yet on a Challenge. Seven others had made it up to Pine Creek Pass (some further to Royce Lake, Mike L. almost to the Merriam-Royce saddle) before turning around on account of the weather, but it seemed most everyone had an enjoyable outing. Jeff had starting feeling bad within the first hour and had turned. Back in town, he started feeling better and a bit bored, so he drove up to North Lake and climbed Mt. Emerson. The rest of us headed back to Bishop, time to shower, eat, and get some rest!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Merriam Peak - Royce Peak
This page last updated: Sun Dec 30 15:47:41 2012
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