Peak Climbed: Merrimac Butte

Peak Height: 5,627'

Route: Without A Net

Difficulty: 5.8 R/X

Location: Courthouse Pasture, Utah

Trailhead: Monitor & Merrimac jeep road

Mileage & Gain: 1 mi & 550 ft RT

Date Climbed: October 5, 2019

Merrimac Butte and its partner, Monitor Butte, are two striking summits situated on the southern end of Courthouse Pasture. Apparently they are named after two battleships that duked it out in the most important naval battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Hampton Roads in Virgina. These commanding formations first caught my eye on a non-technical hike up UN 5,090 to the north way back in 2013 and they'd been floating around the back of my mind ever since. There are no easy routes to the top and I was doubtful I'd ever bag either of them... then along came Mark.

I'd partnered up with Mark this past summer for a couple of days at Vedauwoo and his affinity for wide crack climbing quickly became obvious. When we later discussed a possible trip to the Moab area I half jokingly suggested a route called Without A Net that ascends a massive chimney system on Merrimac Butte. It's ONLY 5.8 but most sources give it an X rating and describe it as a very serious undertaking with little to no protection along the entire length of the 200+ foot climb. Turns out this actually piqued Mark's interest and he agreed to at least give it a look!

After climbing House of Putterman earlier in the day we bounced through the required 4x4ing to get from Tusher Canyon to Merrimac Butte, had lunch, and got a very late start. I think it was 3pm. The short approach took some minor figuring out but didn't cost us too much time.

Mark led the climb in three pitches. The first was a short and straightforward offwidth squeeze protectable by a #6 cam at the start and either a Valley Giant or a blue Big Bro at the top. The second pitch was incredibly cool and unique, and followed a persistent, low angle flake deep inside the chimney. You can place large cams (#4 - #6) between the wall of the chimney and the relatively thick flake and even though the rock is soft and the flake is, well a flake, they'd probably protect against a minor slip. At the top of the flake there is a dirty, more or less level floor where it's comfortable to belay from even without a solid anchor.

The final pitch was where things got a little more serious. We were happy to have headlamps here! Mark tunnelled DEEP into the chimney until it constricted considerably, thrashed upward for a bit, then traversed all the way back above the belay at a level where the chimney had narrowed. He did this completely unprotected but said it felt secure enough due to the tightness. After the traverse he managed to sling a chockstone and then place a cam or two on easier terrain before topping out. Not wanting to risk a massive pendulum that would land me back on the floor, I chimneyed straight up from the belay which was extremely strenuous and certainly harder than 5.8. It was a very awkward width and hurt like hell by the end even with kneepads. The sun had just set when I rejoined Mark at the top of the chimney.

Under the impression that our work was over, we were surprised to discover the apparant lack of an easy way to the summit plateau a short distance above, something that all of the beta we'd read had failed to mention. We resorted to some serious shenanigans to overcome a short but steep bit of slab, lassoing a tiny bush and grabbing the other end of the rope with a ridiculous contraption we'd fashioned by taping two extended big bros together and attaching a nut tool to the end. Finally, a use for the Big Bros! I used the rope around the bush as a hand hold while Mark gave me a shoulder stand until I could reach a #2 crack above and slam in a cam (as the bush was failing). Easy climbing led to the summit plateau...

... but the fun wasn't over yet. Don't you love surprises? Enshrouded in darkness, we stumbled around the large summit area in search of the highpoint. The top of the butte is composed of a strange, weird white rock and it's hard to tell which of the many bumps is tallest, especially in the dark. To further complicate the task, it is not easy or even reasonable to scale a lot of these masses. However, after much exploration, our persistence was finally rewarded. Victory at last! It was late but we sat on the hard earned summit for quite a while, sipping whiskey as we watched the traffic on the road into Canyonlands down below.

To get off the summit we downclimbed the short, low 5th class crack system that we'd soloed up and then scrambled back to our gear stash. Fortunately the descent from the summit plateau is short and sweet - just one steep, clean, double rope rappel from an excellent anchor above Merrymaker, the line a stone's throw east of Without A Net. No more surprises!

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