Mount Russell (Almost) 2013

Mount Russell's tremendous East Ridge (from the 1st notch)

Mount Russell, at 14,086 feet in elevation, is one of California's highest peaks. Part of an elite club of 15 California summits unimaginatively called "The Fourteeners." Russell is so qualified seeing as it meets the sole criterion: being over 14,000 feet.
Mount Russell's aesthetic and vertiginous East Ridge
(from Mount Carillon)

True story.

Although elevation isn't necessarily an indicator of a peak being particularly aesthetic, notable, or challenging, Russell shows itself to be all of these things and more, despite being overshadowed by Mount Whitney, California's highest peak, rising over 400 feet higher just 1.5 miles to the south. 

In the words of Norman Clyde, a celebrated Sierra guru, Mount Russell's East Ridge "delight(s) the heart of the mountaineer." For once you stand upon it, any way you turn you face drops of over a thousand feet straight, while the climbing goes along a stable crack system and remains a relatively low class 3 in difficulty.

However moderate, Mt. Russell isn't shy about thrusting you over a few spirited drops.

As a hiker who enjoys a bit of class 3 and the thrill of stiff exposure, I found this combination simply irresistible.

Drawn by the steady pull of mountainous vainglory I set out on Memorial Day weekend of 2013 determined to climb this scintillating stone fin.
Pack weight sans T-poles and DSLR

There are many experiences in life which involve a learning curve and the world of climbing is no exception. For this first trip up Russell I made a few good decisions, a majority however were bad. My first bad choice was my decision to go solo. Wanting to compensate for the lack of support,  I erred on the side of safety by bringing enough climbing protection for two. This included a 60m 10.2 mm dynamic rope (for those who aren't familiar, it's a beefy [cheaper] rope), slings/nuts/carabiners (metal clanky stuff for securing the route should I feel iffy about an unprotected move), ice-axe/crampons (just in case I encountered an unexpected glacier), and a full DSLR camera kit.

All told, with my 100 liter pack, bear canister, and two-person tent (I'm going solo mind you) my pack came in at 70+ lbs.


Take a journey with me, picture me: a fully grown man, with a crumpled permit and wag bag in hand, wearing a comically over-sized pack, chit-chatting with experienced outdoors-people telling them my plans to haul this monster up the N. Fork of Lone Pine Creek.

In retrospect it's easier to see why it is they looked at me with comic wariness. I practically had "Greenhorn" written all over.
My intended 2013 route is represented in red.*
Descriptions are color coded with nearest line
of corresponding color.

Regardless, I continued forth full, of brashness and undeserved confidence. Stepping on-trail my bravado evaporated and my energy-flow dwindled to a miserly trickle.

The traditional approach to Mount Russell (14,088 ft) begins at the bustling Whitney Portal Campground (8300 ft). This highly popular trail head is used to access Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48.

Though Russell and Whitney begin from the same terminus, the routes diverge shortly after beginning. Instead of taking the Mount Whitney Main Trail, any aspiring Mount Russell ascensionist will split off of the Whitney trail about one mile from the trail head and follow the N. Fork of Lone Pine Creek. From here on, one follows the Mountaineers Route (MR) up Mt. Whitney.

Though the MR isn't exactly cross-country travel, it is steep, loose, and requires great route-finding skills. On the approach to the traditional route up Mt. Russell, you follow the MR up the N. Fork of Lone Pine Creek, along the Ebersbacher Ledges, past Lower Boy Scout Lake (LBSL) (10,300'), over the slabs and past Clyde Meadow to Upper Boy Scout Lake (11,300').

From Upper Boy Scout Lake (UBSL) one heads to the northeast onto the sandy slopes of Mt. Carillon and ascends 2,000' of miserable sand. Once astride the Russell-Carillon Col at a lofty 13,320 feet in elevation, one turns west to behold the titanic East Ridge. The final 800 vertical feet is Class 2-3 which can be pushed into the Class 4 - low Class 5 range (if one cannot resist the electrifying draw of open exposure).
Topo of the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek
The approach to LBSL is in Purple, my intended route: red
The route I ended up taking to my highpoint in 2013 is in Yellow

During the 4 slow hours it took me to reach UBSL, I had been passed by a rather energetic fellow with a roguish grin and southern drawl. In the few moments it took him to pass me, he introduced himself as Keith. He asked where I was headed, and once he learned that I was climbing the same route, he invited me to team-up and tackle the route together on the following day.

Great! I accepted the offer and told him that I'd see him at UBSL that night.

Once I finally arrived, I found the very same fellow, but as it turned out, he had decided to camp with two gentlemen who were also heading up Russell the following day. After learning of a different route up to the Russell-Carillon Col (which I later learned was called the Rockwell Variation) he swapped partners and teamed up with these other fellows. 


I'll admit that I felt a bit stunned. Had I just been impromptu dumped by my impromptu partner?

I introduced myself uneasily. Try as I might, I couldn't keep much of a conversation going with them (whilst they happily chatted with Keith).

In retrospect I realize that the combination of my exhaustion and having barged in unannounced, these gents eyed me warily. Never trust a packer with a huge pack I suppose... I may have just been tired, but I suspected that these guys saw me as a potential hazard and weren't to keen on me being on a rugged mountain the same day as them.
Dismayed though I was, I didn't want to be dramatic or ridiculous by directly asking if I was no longer welcome to join. Though I had originally planned on going it solo, the thought of going alone after the promise of companionship sounded wholly unappealing.

I set up camp nearby trying to gauge whether or not they would allow me to join them the following day.

The two gentlemen (Oren and Will), gradually warmed as I prepped my dinner and the four of us chatted for a bit. They were both avid travelers and mountaineers. Will was from the Central Valley area and was the most experienced mountaineer in the group. Oren is a charming fellow with a warm accent, hailing from the San Diego area. Though not the most experienced, he was diving head-first into the world of mountaineering. Keith, however, is a good ol boy from the South. He is an avid trad climber with a solid set of skills. No stranger to heights he seemed to have the best stamina of the lot.

Oren and Will hit the sack after eating as Keith and I stayed up, sharing some Johnnie Walker Green Label, while the Sierra sky blazed with innumerable pinpricks of light.


Dawn at UBSL: Mt. Russell is the high point on the right.
The Rockwell Variation follows the right-side of the drainage
I awoke the following morning as I heard my three camp-mates stirring outside. I struggled outside hurriedly, hoping they weren't leaving without me.

I emerged into the golden morning relieved that they hadn't left yet. I began my own preparation alongside them. I tried not to hem and haw, though I was clearly burning time waiting to be invited along. Finally I asked which route they planned to take.

Will responded "I think the three of us are going to head up to the Notch instead of the sand slog. It's not necessarily easy, but it's supposed to be easier." He hesitated a moment, "You planning on going that way?"


"I'm not sure." I replied sheepishly.

"Well, you're welcome to join us."


"If you don't mind that'd be great!" I blurted. I kicked myself inwardly. Way to be discreet Joe...

After a few moments I was ready.

We began the day picking through the talus around the east side of UBSL. Will took the lead, Keith and I followed (I was exhausted from the day before and was red-lining my heart rate just keeping up).

After a bit, both Will and Keith pulled ahead with Oren hot on my heels. By the time we reached a small lake in the cirque below Russell's East Ridge, I was already five minutes behind.

The first bit of the Rockwell Variation involved boulder hopping around UBSL continuing up over the first bench in the drainage. From here the route went class 1 as we topped the second bench, passed the little lake, and followed tracks through sand and over a few sprawls of talus.

Once we approached the headwall in the upper cirque we cheated to the east up a crappy sand chute angling towards some class 3 bluffs.

I encountered some small break as I was able to catch my group once they started the bluffs. Though my cardio was shot from the previous day, I still remained stronger on class 3 terrain than Oren (he has now surpassed me in technical ability as of 2014, hats off to him!).

Keith even commented, "You know Joe, I was worried at first that we were going to be going slow, but you really kicked it up."



Approaching the drainage headwall.
The Gents are visible center-screen.
I breathlessly thanked him as we waited for Oren to catch up.

My lucky streak dissipated quickly as the bluffs terminated and we began thrashing up a class 2 sandy purgatory. The other three quickly pulled ahead.

From here we worked our way to the north: right up against the vertical South Face of Russell's East Ridge. From there we headed east toward the prominent notch at the direct head of this narrow chute.

Sand reigned.


As I approached the top, the three shouted down to me. The asked if I wanted them to wait. Not want to be burdensome, I declined their offer.

I topped out five minutes later and looking above me I could see them start up the East Ridge proper.

My nerves were ringing as I stopped to rest. This was the moment I had greatly anticipated.


With ritual care I removed my climbing bits as if they were sacred artifacts. I re-snugged my helmet, carefully donned my harness, checking each of the buckles with care. I clipped a set of nuts and some quickdraws and slings to my rack. I was determined to climb this mountain, but only if I could do so safely.

I shouldered my pack and clenched my ice-axe. Deep breath. I rounded the corner and I began ascending the tapering talus field.



Enjoying the Edge
To the north the aquamarine waters of Lake Tulainyo glimmered in between the late season snow-bergs.

I came to the point where the boulders ended and the solid rock begins. Moving around three overlapping flakes, I swung my feet over the gargantuan void to the north, my boots finding purchase in the crevices between the flakes.


I whispered to myself with deliberate slowness, "Trust the hands, trust the feet."

Before I stepped to safer ground I looked down between my boots at the space far below.

Fire flowed through my veins and lightning coursed through my fingertips. With a massive grin I threw my head back and howled with delight. The Sierra peaks echoed my call and garbled it with the wind.


I stepped on to the safer ground of the East Ridge feeling invincible.

I picked my way around a tower to the south. I followed a series of ledges, finally rounding a corner to the first notch. Here I was met with a grim sight: the entire route, a crack system just to the north of the ridges apex, harbored melting drifts of snow (see title picture)...

A young gentlemen was seated at this point all alone. I struck up a conversation. He had come with a group of friends who had continued one. With the combo of snow and his general disdain of heights he decided not to go on. He was waiting for the others to return.


A moment later, my party came in view ahead. After a distorted shouting match over the wind, they were continuing on because the snow was feeling solid.

Not wanting to bail out I decided to ditch my pack and give it a go. As I prepared to ascend the first snow covered section, my seated friend cried out. He could apparently see his group returning.

I returned my attention to resuming my adventure.


My first few sections of snow were solid, but after that the snow became slushy and I began to slide the direction of the chasm to my right. I stopped in my tracks and began to evaluate the situation. I didn't have a rope by myself, and since I recently witnessed a young man die in an motorcycle accident on my way to work, my prior feeling of indomitability

I decided to fall back to the first notch and wait for the returning party.

Once safely back at the notch I chatted with the other hiker and fiddles with my camera to pass the time (I managed to successfully use a wag bag on an exposed ledge). After about 45 minutes the returning party arrived.



My cumbersome downfall...
They told us that it had taken them too long to get to the East Summit and that there as too much snow for them to want to try and make the higher west summit. Their leader was an experienced climber whom I had met online at the Whitney Zone Message Board under his moniker ClimbSTRONG. Knowing him to be an experienced fellow I figured I wouldn't press my luck.

I made my way back down to the Russell Carillon Col to wait for the other three. after getting bored I went up Mt. Carillon's short class 2/3 west ridge and tagged the summit.

After returning to the Col once more, I figured that the other three were going all the way to the summit. I began to worry, but I was exhausted, out of water, and I needed to get out of the sun.

I headed down the sand slog (which made a fast and easy boot-ski) and returned to camp at UBSL in a mere 30 minutes. I laid down for a nap and decided that I would hike out and get help if the other three didn't arrive by the following morning.

By 5:00PM Keith rolled into camp with a triumphant grin on his face. All three had made it. I congratulated him on his success as he explained that Oren and Will were shortly behind.

Though I was certainly wondering whether I could of made it, I didn't regret my decision to turn back. I had picked a poor time of year, and wanting to be well prepared and protected, I over-packed and over-exerted myself on the first day. Had I been able to keep up with Keith, Will, and Oren I might of felt more confident being roped-in. But there's no use in over-evaluating past possibilities.

The following day we packed out and drove down to Lone Pine to enjoy us some Pizza Factory. Yet as I drove home, I was determined to make the summit at some later date.



Continued in 2014: Mount Russell (Redux) 

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