Mount Russell Thompson Variation #2

The Russell-Carillon Col from the top of Thompson Variation #2
Mount Russell to the left.

I have this dreadful habit.

I have never been one with a natural inclination for long-term dedication and discipline. Whatever bits of these virtues that I may possibly show have been a recent development in adulthood.

Yet from time to time, my dormant sense of spontaneity will awaken from its' arcane slumber and land me into either grandest adventure, or squalid calamity.
Me, dangling in the Sespe Backcountry.
Wanderlust to blame.

In some instances this spontaneity has lent me courage that would have otherwise evaporated if I had the time to plan it out. Yet in others it has left me hanging upside-down whilst rappelling a 180 foot waterfall in the Sespe Wilderness.. but I digress...

In this particular instance, the result was sort of both.

Ever since I set foot on Russell's E. Ridge, I had been chomping at the bit to finish that classic climb. I wanted to stand on that magnificent summit.

Due to other trips and other schemes Russell moved to the back-burner, the memory of that sandy hell still fresh in my mind's eye.

Eventually my memory faded as winter passed, but as we rolled into the California spring I still had to wait until the snow passed as well. Even though we had a low snow year, I  busied myself as I made preparations to return to grad school in the fall.

Then one day, early in June, I was at work and I got an e-mail reminding me of our week-long vacation at the end of the month. I, of course, was supposed to house-sit for my parents but this all-too familiar wanderlust fell over me.

My mind rushed as I plotted the logistics required to find someone else to cover for me while I go and get some Sierra-time 

With a few short phone calls I was set, and with a few inquiries on the Whitney Zone and Whitney Portal Store Message boards, I learned of a more slabby and less sandy route from Lower Boy Scout Lake to the Russell-Carillon Col. Known semi-unofficially as Thompson Variation #2 it was first climbed by the eponymous Doug Thompson, owner of the Whitney Portal Store.

Fortunately Doug was quick to reply to my inquiry and invited me to grab him at the Portal Store before my climb and he would show me the route on a map.

Game on.

I packed up and headed for the Sierra Nevada.

The Beta

In preparation, I planned on spending one night at Horseshoe Meadows (elevation 9,900 ft.) to get some acclimation. I planned to spend night two at the Portal, allowing me to sleep as much as possible before hitting the trail at midnight.

I felt confident that I didn't want to carry an overnight pack up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. Though having two days to climb Russell would seem wiser, I was working with a last second and limited time frame.

Color-coded Topo. Click to enlarge.

I felt that carrying a light day-pack and starting fresh would give me enough energy to make it up and back in a day. That plus my acclimatization schedule should ensure that I could endure the day. Then final leg in my strategy was giving myself enough time, and not over-exerting myself.

In the words of Louis Pasteur "My strength lies solely in my tenacity."

After my first night at Horseshoe (I chatted with a couple of through hikers: Mowgli, Girly Girl, and Girly Girls boyfriend). I rolled into town to pick up a walk in permit (try #7 to get a walk-in permit and I still haven't got snuffed).

Once situated I headed up to Whitney Portal, set up in the Backpackers Camp, and went looking for Doug.

Once I snagged him and got his attention, he perked up immediately. He pressed an aerial photograph of the region into my hands and pulled a portrait off the wall.

He explained that one takes the slab-alternate above Lower Boy Scout Lake, and then cuts northward around the slabby base of Mt. Carillon's South East Ridge. I replied "Sounds easy enough."

He continued on explaining that in order for one to avoid the sand, they would have to stay as close to the ridge as possible. That way, at worst one would only encounter a sandy ledge or two, but the climbing would stay slab-like below and class 3 boulder hopping and some solid rock before traversing westwards onto the Carillon plateau.
This is a photo of a photo hanging on the wall in the
Portal Store. I've added the respective routes.

"Yeah," he retorted. "Only two people have asked me about it in recent years, both of em couldn't find it."

I stared back with a blank look.

"They both report following my directions but they ended up slogging through sand... Say," he began looking at me with an appraising look. "You won't have a camera will you?"

"Yeah." I replied

Placing a hand on his chin he squinted at me for a second and said, "If you don't mind taking a few photos and posting them to the board, it would make it easier for other people who might try and find it."

"Yeah, sure I may be going up in the dark but I'm willing to do my best."

With that, we wrapped up our discussion, he insisted that I keep the aerial photo postcard, free of charge (Thanks Doug! Here is a report in lieu of $4.99!)

Whitney Portal Trailhead
As I exited the Portal Store the wind began to pick up. I had checked the forecast the day before, and I had sunny skies on the docket for my summit day.

I headed down to camp and began carefully packing my day-pack and making sure I had adequate nutrition. Around 4PM I decided to hit the hay. I made one last trip to the bear box and on the way another hiker commented to me "Windy day."

"Yep. You come down today?" I asked.

"No, heading up tomorrow."

"Yeah me too, I'm shooting to hit Russell." 

"Well looks like we'll get a little thunder-show, huh?"

"Wait, what?" I asked sharply. "The forecast was clear last I checked."

He gave me a knowing look, "I was just at the visitors center, 30% chance before 11am."

I quietly cursed and thanked the man for the info. I went to the one spot in Whitney Portal where I could get service and confirmed the man's assertion online.


I decided to carry on as planned, but I didn't want to be up high when the storm hit. If I awoke at midnight and it was raining I would wait until daybreak and check the forecast. If it looked bad I would just have to wait until 9 or 10 so the clouds would have time to dissipate before I ascended past the treeline.

When I awoke after a fitful afternoon/evening of sleep the trees in the portal were bending and creaking under the buffeting of the wind.

I was groaning myself. I poked my head outside. It was a moonless night and though it was dry, the wind was really moving. Overhead all the stars were obscured by a low layer of cloud.

I sat in consternation for a few moments. If I waited until day I wouldn't have nearly as much time. Yet I didn't want to push my luck.

Another thought occurred to me. If I did wait, I would at least be able to snag breakfast at the portal store. The scales were now completely tipped. I settled back into fitful sleep.

Continued: The Description

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