Merchant Peak

Early Spring Solo, 1972
My Closest Call

A question mountaineers often ask themselves is how much the success of a climb results from their partner's determination and efforts and how much is their own. One way to answer this question is to climb solo. So, I decided to do a solo one-day climb up the southeast ridge of Merchant Peak. (Note: there is no official description of this route I can find.) In retrospect, I am sure I wound up climbing the lower east peak of Merchant.

It was early spring, so the hike in was on snow. When I got to the base of the southeast ridge, I left the trail and started up. The snow got increasingly steep and ended in a rock rib below the summit. I climbed the firm, steep snow using my ice axe, having left my crampons at home. The rock rib was a low class 5 climb. Being solo meant tying into protection as I ascended, leaving enough slack to reach a higher point to re-tie and continue. Once the end of the rope was reached, it was necessary to rappel down and climb back up to remove the knots and protection. This technical section was short and required only a couple of “leads.”

After a short time on the summit I rappelled down to the snow, then got out the ice axe to continue down the steep snow. Rather than re-trace my steps all the way down the ridge, I decided to descend a steep snow-filled gully toward Eagle Lake and make an easy traverse around the ridge to get back to the car. The snow had softened as the day warmed up, so I began to plunge step down the steep gully.

Suddenly my heel hit what must have been a sheet of ice below the soft snow. My feet shot out from under me. I instinctively brought my ice axe across my chest, grabbed the spike end with my left hand, and flipped over to land face down, pushing the axe into the snow. This was the classic ice axe arrest position I had taught in climbing classes. But the snow was quite steep and by now very slushy. The short, narrow pick of my Chouinard-Frost piolet (ice axe) was not sufficient to slow my sliding descent. As I gained speed, I began to think I would either slide all the way to the lake (800 feet below) or hit a tree.

The velocity of my slide increased to the point an irregularity in the snow surface was sufficient to toss me into a tumbling fall. One sometimes has strange thoughts in situations like this. Now tumbling head over heels, I realized the tumbling was so fast, violent and disorienting there was no hope of regaining a stable arrest position. At this time I recalled reading accident reports where witnesses said the victims appeared to give up once they started tumbling. I decided to concentrate on not stabbing myself with the ice axe, holding it away from me with the blade parallel to my body. I was aware my Chouinard ice hammer had come out of its holster and was flailing around on its tether; I could only hope its sharp end did not injure me.

I heard someone yelling and realized it was me.

Here began a remarkable set of lucky incidents. The tumbling continued for several seconds more until I hit trees. The first and second bits of luck were I hit between two closely spaced trees exactly back first. Hitting in an ideal position between two closely spaced trees helped distribute the force of the sudden stop. Had I hit a single tree or hit in any other body position I would surely have had a broken limb or worse. The third bit of luck was my rucksack and rock helmet, plus the rope coiled and slung over my shoulder, helped cushion the sudden stop. I hit the trees several feet up and fell to the base of the trees in a sitting position with the ice axe still held at arm's length in front of me. Inspecting myself for injuries, I found a small cut on my chin and a gouge out of one lens of my sunglasses; I suspect the ice hammer was responsible for both of these. In a fourth bit of luck, the sunglasses protected me from what could have been a serious face or eye injury. I re-holstered the ice hammer and stood up to take further inventory. Everything still seemed fine and I decided to continue down the gully, taking greater care.

I turned to descend. My knees went weak. I grabbed a tree to prevent myself from collapsing. Less than 20 feet further down the gully was an 80 foot cliff! What had appeared to be a continuous gully was an illusion; from further up the relatively featureless snow above and below the cliff had blended to give the appearance of continuity. Had I missed the trees and tumbled over the cliff I would certainly have been badly injured, or worse. Hitting those trees was the best piece of luck.

I hugged the tree a while to regain my composure, then started traversing around the ridge to the car. As I approached what must have been the hiking trail (still covered by several feet of snow), I met a hiker. My first thought was he might help me if I developed any problems getting to the car. However, he was on his way in and planned to camp at Eagle Lake. He was ill-equipped and a bit lost. I showed him on my map where he was and tried to convince him he was not properly equipped to be camping at an ice-covered lake with no snow-free spots to set up camp, but he was determined. So we continued our separate ways.

I hiked the remaining mile to my car and drove one hour back to Seattle. As I walked into the apartment, Tom informed me he had just used up all the hot water, so I fell into bed as I was and quickly fell asleep. The next morning I woke up so sore I could barely move. I was bruised black and blue all over. I had several broken ribs. But I considered myself to be very lucky!

Return to Climbing Index