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Merchant Peak (6113ft / 1863m)

South Route

June 16, 2009


Jake and I hadn't climbed together for quite some time, so we got out today and climbed Merchant Peak. We had originally planned to climb Keyes Peak in the Monte Cristo group, but we didn't get the memo that the Index-Galena road was washed out 6 miles miles past Index. I had previously climbed Baring and Gunn, so I was happy to complete the tri-fecta of these prominent mountains. Merchant Peak was a worthy summit and definitely the most challenging of the three. For such a simple to follow route ( ascend prominent gully), the loose, steep rock and snowfields made for some very exciting climbing and later downclimbing.

We drove to the Barclay Lake trailhead and soon were happily hiking the level trail that runs along side the river. Our light day packs and the easy trail made me comment to Jake that I almost felt like I was in good shape! Jake immediately cautioned me that we would likely pay later for this moment of peaceful hiking! Sure enough, a little over a mile in we crossed the bridge and started up the obvious washed out streambed and entered the "hurt locker".

After a few hundred feet of hiking up the scree of previous slides we reached the first waterfall. This was easily bypassed by a trail on the left. A few hundred feet further up the gully we arrived at the second step and carefully made our way up some exposed slabs. This got our attention as downclimbing this section would be challenging. We knew from the Climbing Washington's Mountains guidebook that there there was an option to ascend the prominent gully to its head where it meets the ridge connecting to Pt 5760 and then descend via the Gunn Peak descent. This would add several miles and several hundred feet of elevation gain/loss, however.

Once above this second snowfield we put on our crampons and carefully got on the snow field and avoided the thin sections where it was melting out. We could see and hear the water rushing underneath the snout of the snowfield, so we really wanted to avoid falling through and being swept down these icy streams. further up the snowfield was a thin section so we opted to climb up some rock steps on the left. We left our crampons on since we would soon be back on the snow. There's nothing like the sound of steel crampons scraping for footholds on slabby rock while struggling to pull yourself over loose boulders. Aron Ralston's book, Between A Rock and a Hard Place, came to our minds several times although we didn't mention this thought to each other until later in the day when we were safely below the difficulties!

We were glad to have our crampons as the snow was still hard enough to make kicking steps difficult in places. We consulted the guidebook several times up to now o make sure we were on the correct route. The main gully continues up to the left but we needed to ascent a steep dirt ramp veering off to the right below high cliffs. Once on the dirt/rock we took our crampons off and climbed close together to minimize rockfall. We both have a fond appreciation of cedar trees as they were our only means of security for much of the way up this spur.

About halfway up the dirt ramp we found a fairly level rock outcropping near a waterfall where we stopped for a bite to eat and a drink of water. All too soon we were back to the tedious work of trying not to kick down rocks on each other as we made our way upwards. Eventually we gained the broad heather meadows still covered in snow. We could see melted out steps from a previous party and tried to follow them, but lost them in a step rocky streambed. We could see that while this was a practical ascent route, the real route was probably left or right. I saw what looked like boot skid marks to the left so I headed that direction while Jake headed right through some trees and brush. I discovered too late that the "boot tracks" I saw were really goat trails and bushwhacked my way up and rightwards back towards Jake.

Once back on the snowfields we kicked steps up until we could see three prominent rocky peaks above us to the left, middle, and right. We knew that the summit was to the left so we made our way up to the middle peak and then followed the ridge over to some more snow fingers and rocky ledge systems that eventually brought us to the summit.

High clouds had kept the temperature cool but now the mist that had been hanging around Mt Baring started moving up the valley and partially covered the summit of Gunn Peak as well as Baring. We snapped some summit shots and enjoyed our lunches. I had packed in a can of Sardines in Mustard sauce in honor of Jake and I climbing together again. The first time I ate these was almost 10 years ago when we climbed Prusik Peak together.

In spite of the swirling clouds, we had grand views of Glacier Peak to the north. From the summit I also got my first glimpse of Barclay Lake, far below. Almost the entire way up we had spectacular views of the north face of Mt Baring and now we were looking down on it. From our lofty perch we also scoped out the alternate descent route over to Pt 5760. It didn't look very appealing so we decided to just go back out the way we came up.

The route had taken a lot more out of us than we had expected and we slowly and carefully retraced our steps back down. At the second rocky step we were able to avoid the slabs on skiers left by downclimbing some loose rocks in a narrow slot between the snowfield and the cliff wall on skiers right. It was somewhat exposed so I put on my gloves and sweater to provide a little more protection in the event of a slip. I was glad I did because while downclimbing I pulled loose a large boulder and it glanced off my right knee as I slid down the muddy rock wall. I was amazed how even in a state of being out of control I found myself turning around and looking to see if more rocks were coming down as I slid. Fortunately I walked away with only a small gash on my knee and some muddy gloves and pants. Jake was able to downclimb the section without setting anything else loose and soon we were safely below the difficulties.

We carefully made our way down the scree to the trail and were grateful for the easy walk out through the beautiful forest.

Thanks for the great day out in the mountains, Jake! Let's do it again soon.