After skiing mostly in the front range of the Sierra, it felt like time to hike further in and explore the further peaks. Thankfully, local skiers Alex F and Nathan L had an intriguing linkup idea: hike in Pine Creek to Royce Lakes and ski Merriam, Royce, and Feather peaks.
I knew very little about the area, but Alex and Nathan were intimately familiar with the zone and had been eyeing the East Face on Merriam this season. It’s a line that needs a fat snowpack given some rock chokes near the bottom (apparently). I was excited with the prospect of seeing some of the mountains further in, and was very excited to linkup with Alex and Nathan. We agreed to meet at the end of the Pine Creek road at 4 AM and begin our march up Pine Creek. It was going to be a very warm day, with a potentially dubious refreeze, so an early start was in order.
We met up at the Pine Creek Pass trailhead, where a few cars were parked. There was snow down to the parking lot, but Alex and Nathan mentioned that there would be some shwacking to get through the first few miles of the climb. The approach up Pine Creek is a bit messy to start: there’s pushing through some alders, then a steep climb up a snow gully, then an exposed traverse over a road switchback over cliffs. Thankfully, the snow was firm enough for boot support and I just threw my crampons on. Once we reached the bench below Lower Pine Lake, it was pretty cruiser travel on skis in firm morning snow to Royce Pass.
Nathan mentioned that Royce Pass was called the ‘Gate of the Gods’; it was certainly a dramatic terrain feature, with two huge rock walls lining a broad, flat slope. High granite walls were all around us in this area, with Bear Creek Spire, Peppermint Peak, and many others I don’t know the names of.
Once at Royce Lakes, we got eyes on all three of the peaks: Merriam to the south, Royce directly in front, and Feather to the north. WOW…Merriam was a stunner. A diagonal rock face with a clear line of snow on the east face…that was the line. My stoke levels jumped a few notches. We skinned past Royce Peak and gazed up at the numerous lines on its south and southeast faces. That would be later…but definitely exciting. We didn’t see Feather’s north couloir yet, but in the guidebook the pictures made it worth checking out.
We skinned the flat lakes over to Merriam and got our first peek at the ‘rock crux’ at the base of the line. There was a sneak through some rocks/ice onto the upper line; it’d be a bit funky coming down, but we thought it would go. Climbing up, our crampons nicked some ice and rock so we knew it was thin. Three people could get back down it right?!
Climbing up Merriam was a bit of an oven; the sun was in full bore and the snow was definitely softening fast. Nathan and I swapped bootpacking and sped our way up the heating slope. Near the top there was some looser, more unconsolidated snow that we took note of; other than that, it looked like it was gonna be great corn all the way down to the rock sneak.
I snapped a few pics of Nathan skiing down Merriam and damn it looked fun! It was smooth, fast corn that you could ski in one pitch. Woot!
Sneaking through the rocks down at the bottom went smoothly. There was one spot where you kind of had to point-and-shoot, but nothing too bad.
After Merriam, it was on to Royce. We opted to climb up to the south col and then climb the SW Face, rather than climb up the steeper E Face. Climbing up the SW Face was warm, but low angle and easy to gain vert. Our buddy Nick P grouped up with us on Royce after getting a later start and radioing that he was headed up our way. On the climb up Royce, Alex let Nathan and I that he was feeling sluggish and wanted to go at his own pace. He told us to keep moving ahead and that he’d radio us on his progress. Nathan and I wanted to put 2 laps on Royce (the SE Face and the S Face), so we appreciated his flexibility with the plan.
Nathan and I poked over at the roll-over to the SE Face and…voila…beautiful corn! It was gonna be ripper. I took it first, skiing it in one go. It was quite fun!
Nathan came next, skiing equally as fast through the corn. Yummy.
We transitioned for another lap on steeper south face/gully. Nick had put a track in it and radioed to us that it was also delicious. HARVEST! A day for stoke for sure. Alex radioed us that he dropped the east face and it was also delectable. He was connecting with Nick and they were going to group up for Feather. Nathan and I charged on for another lap on Royce. Following our skin track up the SW face made for quicker progress on our second round.
The south face/gully was steep, a bit more constricted, and VERY fun. Nathan led this one and I snapped a few pics. We managed sluff near the top and then opened it up for a continuous ski for the second half of the slope.
We weren’t able to ski traverse much over to Feather, so a flat skin across the lake basin it was. It was hot and we slowed down a bit. We saw Nick and Alex ahead of us, beginning to boot up. We radioed over and they reported nice warm chalky powder. Man…it was a good day. Nathan and I found a rhythm and continued on. We were tiring but had more in the tank.
As Nathan and I approached the bottom of Feather, Nick and Alex radioed that they were going to ski out together. They let us know to find a safe spot to wait while they skied. We got to the side, let them ski down, and watched them lay down nice tracks in the wide and moderate couloir.
Nathan and I continued up the booter they had set to the top of the couloir. We were pretty dehydrated and hot at this point in the day; we were over 10k’ in and it was HOT. We rested quickly at the top of the couloir before dropping down. It was indeed lovely warm chalk pow.
We tried to hold speed to get all the way back to Royce Pass, but weren’t quite able to make it all the way without some poling and pushing. Once at Royce Pass, we got nice ripper low angle corn down to Pine Lake. There was some poling/pushing to get to Pine Lake; I opted to throw on skins for a short pitch, but it was quite brief. Nathan opted to keep pushing/poling and we re-grouped at Lower Pine Lake. From there, we ski traversed out the way we had climbed up. There was some isothermal mush and some weird brush down low, but we were able to ski back to the car.
Fun day…great skiing…awesome people!