Mt. Russell: The Bailout


The East Summit, resplendent with steeps.

I continued on cautiously, I was keeping a low center of gravity while climbing in short quick bursts. If my heart rate got too high, the sleep deprivation and altitude would leave me woozy with ringing in my ears until my heart-rate settled.

As I neared the East summit I caught sight of the other couple working their way up Russell. After a shouting match we were able to help each other find the correct route. Soon we were over the East summit and heading west.

Within 20 minutes the couple reached the West summit, tapped the high point and headed back. I ran into them as they came off of the top. A short conversation ensued about the weather and our need to get of this death-trap of a ridge. I mention the S. Face exit chimney, which is a short 80-90 ft climb down the S. Face. From there we could top out Iceberg Col and descend via the MR.
Whitney from the East Ridge

They seemed to acquiesce, saying that they would go slow to let me catch up.

I nodded and climbed the last 50 ft to the top of Mt. Russell at 2:27 PM, 11 hours + ascent time. Woof.

I took a few moments to snap some photos, eat a snack and sign the register (I couldn't the books were SOAKED.)

I began to head back, shouting ahead to the other climbers who had climbed past the S. Face exit. After another shouting match they decided to follow the ridge back due to the quick and easy sand-slog down from Russell-Carillon Col.

Not wanting to get caught vulnerable I decided to stick with the bail out plan.

I located the chimney with a purported class 3 descent. After noting the number of rap slings and the keen bit of exposure, I would say that this chimney is a solid class 4, no bones about it.

Once in chute I switched to trekking poles and began my descent as a breezy snowstorm began.

Russell's S. Face isn't sandy like I would have hoped. The top half is god-awful scralus. I only found sand in the merciful bottom-third of the face. The descent was painstaking as I began to become worried about how long this would take. Though I was prepared for a bit of rain, the snow would persist for THREE HOURS. Up high it began to stick, but lower it would melt and soak clothing.
Pics. The Summit. It happened.

I began to really worry about David. At this point, the feeling of being off-trail in terra incognito, mixed with the exertion of the climb, the loneliness, and the dismal weather conditions led me to develop a keen concern for my well-being.

I don't get scared, miserable perhaps, but I was getting scared. The weather forecast was wrong and I was now facing some portion of the descent in the dark. I was afraid of hypothermia. I was concerned about the slabs between LBSL and UBSL getting slick in the precipitation, as well as the E-ledges.

I was also getting more tired by the hour and worried about David. How would he find these conditions? He's smart but he was feeling the altitude and this was his first time on a big route like the MR (he did study the route religiously as a precaution).

Despite our precautions, and our preparations for such a late return, the dismal mood of the Whitney-Russell moonscape had me in a funk.

My bailout would (allegedly) take me down Russell's S. Face to the head of the Arctic Creek drainage. From here several options presented themselves. here the Arctic Creek drainage terminates in 4 cols (or passes) at the Whitney Russell saddle. Two cols, Sakai and Iceberg would provide access to the Mountaineers Route.

Sakai would deposit me up above Upper Boy Scout Lake, and Iceberg would put me at Iceberg Lake.

The other two terminated into massive cliffs.

Deciding to stick with familiar ground, I made a beeline for Iceberg Lake, If I remembered correctly the trip from Iceberg to UBSL would go by quickly.

I managed to bust up to a Col different than the Iceberg Col, but I made it work. As I rounded Iceberg Lake, the snow began to fall redoubled. As I picked my way down the slippery chute to the Whitney moraines, the East Face of Whitney and the Needles almost disappeared into the soupy whiteness.

Beginning down the moraines, I expected UBSL to appear after every bump and rise, but alas, each rise revealed more roller-coaster ups and downs through the relentless sleet.

Each rise and fall sent my spirits tumbling downward. Eventually the clouds lifted enough for me to descry the distant shores of Frog pond, a feature just above UBSL.

However from my vantage, I was still some distance away. I stopped in my tracks to compose my frustration.

It took what seemed like an eternity, but I reached UBSL around 6:30 PM. From here the rain/snow subsided for the last time.

In the next 2 hours my mood perked. Though I had to be exceedingly careful, ultimately I found no issue with the slabs, E-ledges, or otherwise.

Crossing the Ebersbacher ledges, I saw a lone hiker heading down on the trail below me.

In the gloom I determined that it wan't David. I continued picking my way downward.

Close to home now, I began to let my mind wander as I caught up to the hiker I had seen below me on the ledges. Daydreaming, in my exhaustion, I failed to notice a nefarious root in the trail.

My foot caught perfectly beneath and I went flying downhill.

In the course of my ersatz flight I managed to double over on myself like a taco shell and landed in the trail wrapped around a small tree like a horseshoe around a peg. The trail, deeply worn into a rut had trapped me.

I sat for a second, making sure nothing was broken as I managed to roll on my back and swing my feet over my head like a drunkard doing yoga.

I growled a series of expletives sounding akin to a hybridization of a grumbling bear and a Nick Nolte monologue.

I took note of an impressive constellation of cuts and scrapes everywhere before continuing on.

I returned to the Mt. Whitney Main Trail a few minutes later at 9PM where I found David slowly making his way down. He was out of gas, but he had a good mood considering and seemed fully ambulatory.

The Whitney Region in a building storm

We hit the TH at 9:30PM. A LONG DAY of 18.5 hours, but still a memorable day nonetheless.

Not bad for only having an hour of sleep.

I think I could have managed to shave 2-3 hours off had I gone solo, but it was great doing it with David and he made a personal best in terms of his hardest day in the mountains yet.

We got down to Lone Pine to look for a place to sleep, but alas, we looked in vain. We settled for a desperate prandial-tryst with some Carl's Jr, but alas, no satisfaction was to be found.

After debating finding a place to sleep and driving straight home, we settled yet again. We slept an hour or so in my car and drove home, raging to the tunes of Chumbawumba's Tubthumping, arriving at 3 am for a total turn-around time of 27 hrs.

It was quite a day, and it had been quite the journey. After three attempts, Russell was in the bag. Had the weather been calm and I had gone solo, I would have summitted quicker, and returned via the East Ridge and made a quicker descent to UBSL.

However the way it happened turned out to be a truer test of mettle. I needed to be both decisive and patient. I needed to be quick and steady. I needed to be healthy enough to feel comfortable, but also uncomfortable enough to pay attention and get down the mountain safely.

I was proud of myself for having the wits and guts to go through with an unexpected bailout. Was I necessarily enjoying it? No, it sucked, it was utterly horrible. Yet I'm still glad I did it, and I wouldn't have my first summit any other way.

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