Townsend Ridge and Burley from summit of Merchant.JPG

Trip Report    

Alpine Scramble - Merchant Peak

Trip of 9/29/18: This is one of my favorite scrambles, the trip's reputation as being rife with "loose rock" notwithstanding. There are a couple of short, unavoidable sections of loose dirt or scree, but the rest of the trip can be conducted on safe, fun, and solidly-settled boulders and bedrock for those familiar with the route.

  • Road suitable for all vehicles
  • Trip of 9/29/18. The "crux" of this trip is found in the "main" canyon, below the side canyon that leads up to the alpine meadows/bowl and summit ridge, but above the two waterfalls or "pour-offs" of the main canyon.  A group of very large boulders has become jammed in place, blocking upward progress except for a vertical chimney of about 15-20 feet. 
    The upper half of the chimney is enjoyable scrambling, with ledges on the canyon wall on one side (climber's left) and a large boulder that can be used for stemming on the other.  The problem is the lower portion of the chimney, the first couple of moves off the deck: boulders that could formerly be used as a staircase or stepping stone have washed (or been "trundled") out and down, leaving an awkwardly-protruding boulder at head height.  While hand and footholds are available, particularly for taller and longer-limbed individuals or more-experienced scramblers, those with less reach or experience may find themselves challenged to find secure-feeling hand and footholds that they can utilize.
    On a previous trip, which turned into a "scout" of the crux due to weather, time, and party members who were unable to negotiate the crux (trip of 9/8/18), a scramble hand-line was put into place (100' of 7-mm cord; not a kern-mantle climbing rope), doubled over a large boulder that is solidly embedded just above the crux, with additional one-man rock placed on the back of the boulder above the line to try to preclude any tendency for the line to slip up and over the boulder.  The two halves of the line, knotted off near their ends, trail down to the bottom of the crux.  
    The line will eventually lose strength due to weather and exposure, but in the meantime is available for parties to use to capture any gain up the chimney, to protect the descent, and to pass packs up and down the crux.  Needless to say, the line should be used only after testing (ideally, one strong party member should "free" scramble up and eyeball the placement before the rest of the party relies upon it).  From the point of view of scramble "style," the line should arguably not be used as direct aid.

Route below the crux: Follow the Barkley Lake trail across the bridge over the creek, go a further two or three hundred yards and look for a somewhat subdued pile of rocks (not a true cairn) just off the trial to hiker's left (north).  Turn up a rock outwash (that eventually turns into the lower part of the main canyon).  Stay in prominent rock outwash, sometimes trending slightly to climber's left (if the rock in the outwash becomes less prominent, overgrown by too many plants or blown-down logs, or narrowing into an uncomfortably tight-walled gully) -- always err on the side of the more prominent, broader, less walled-in rock wash.
You should reach the entrance or bottom of the main canyon/couloir/gully, which should be entirely obvious.  Turn around as you enter the canyon and before crossing down into the main gully or streambed: note that as you look back toward the Barclay Creek drainage and across to Baring's steep north face, TWO prominent washes diverge downhill from the mouth of the canyon: on your exit, you will want to take the wash to skier's left, the one you just came up.  Following the wash to skier's right will intercept Barclay Creek downstream of the bridge in heavy "jungle," a problem at certain times of the year.
Use care crossing the (usually dry) stream bottom to the climber's left side of the canyon -- this is one place where it's difficult to avoid a few feet of loose rock.  Facing up the canyon will reveal the first waterfall pour-off.  This is passed on a well-worn (but initially difficult to spot) way-trail in the brush to climber's left.  When the party emerges above the waterfall, it's worthwhile to take note of what will be your exit to the way-trail on your way out, and to possibly set a cairn to mark the exit.
Enjoyable solid bedrock and large boulders lead along the stream on up to the second, higher pour-off.  This is passed on climber's right, but don't ascent to the bottom of the canyon wall and the green belay branches of the trees and brush growing there too early to avoid tedium and wasted time.
Above that pour-off, there is more bouldering and a few small boulder problems to be met before reaching the obvious crux (described above).
There is another problematic (genuinely loose steep scree) area just below the "cave" feature (at the bottom of the cliff which forms the west wall of the side canyon, where parties depart the main canyon.  This needs to be handled carefully, with party members not negotiating the area kept out of the line of fire of rockfall.  A second problematic area is above the cave, where again loose steep scree and dirt is unavoidable, roots and limbs and the base of the cliff itself should be used to prevent slipping and dislodging of dirt and rocks, and the party should again adopt a strategy to minimize friendly fire.
Parties in the past have stayed overly-long in the brush to climber's left of the side canyon and have perhaps insufficiently utilized the generally-sound bedrock exposed by the action of the side canyon's creek over time.  Skirting the brush and trees by staying on the larger boulders and the bedrock works better, though some care should be used by some parties not to get boxed by steeper sections of the side canyon (more confident parties should be able to work through these areas on somewhat-exposed ledges and corners, or by staying on the "hog's-back" of the rock just to climber's left of the deeper sections of the side canyon).
The alpine bowl above presents fewer problems: at an appropriate point when the saddle to the north of the main summit (up and to your left) can be visualized, veer up and left through steep heather way-trails (goat and human) and rock outcrops from the generally vertical or slightly-rightward bent of the track up out of the side canyon.  Once in the saddle, turn south and follow way-trails or generally remain on the hog's back rock ridge to the expansive views of the main summit.
Our 9/29/18 trip was done on a sunny day with high clouds that occluded only the most distant peaks, and in high fall color on all the berry-and-heather covered alpine meadows.  The sun was hot only during the descent through the upper bowl and upper side canyon, otherwise the air was pleasantly mild.
Our party was hearty and hardy and the crux was passed with relative ease since all party members had successfully negotiated it during our earlier scout.