My buddy Mike and I had been talking about doing a “big wall” trip for years, but never got to doing it. But, in late 2011, when he mentioned wanting to do Mt. Russell, that perked my ears. Mt. Russell is a California fourteener, and that would meet my need to do a serious rock climb, while at the same time tick another mountain off of my fourteener list. By the time we got our trip all planned and got permits, our trip had turned into a Mt. Whitney and Mt. Russell trip. Our plans were to hike into Iceberg Lake, do Mt. Whitney by the East Buttress route, maybe grab Mt. Muir (right next to the summit of Whitney), then the next day climb Mt. Russell by the Fishhook Arête. That was the plan…
August 14th finally came, and we flew to Las Vegas to begin our trip. We arrived in Vegas pretty late at night. By the time we got the car and started driving it was around 11 pm. We drove straight to Lone Pine, CA, and arrived just short of 4 am in the morning. Mike had booked a room already, we checked in, and crawled into bed for a short sleep. We got up around 8 am, grabbed some breakfast, some last minute supplies, and our permits. Then, we drove to the Whitney Portal, where we would start our adventure.
We finally started hiking around noon or so. We weren’t in a big rush today, because our only goal today was to hiking into camp, setup camp, get a decent night sleep. Little did we know how hard that hike in would be. Mike and I had both been doing a little extra training for the heavy pack in, but I don’t think either of us could have been completely ready for carrying 65 lb packs, at elevations of 9,000 to 12,000 feet, and on terrain that would be challenging without any pack. But, we were as trained as we could be, and we’d just have to tough it up and get up there.
At first the hike in wasn’t too bad. I was pacing myself well, but the heavy pack was definitely something that I wish I didn’t have to deal with. Mike was moving a bit quicker than I was, but I still think that he just wasn’t pacing well. So, I reeled him in several times in the initial miles. The first mile or so of trail was actually pretty easy, and very nice. The trail starts by following the Whitney trail for about a half mile or more. Then, the Mountaineer’s Route turns off sharply to the right and goes steep, up hill. If you cross the first creek crossing on the Whitney trail, you’ve just missed the turn-off. There is a sign at the turn-off. After the turnoff, the trail gets steeper and uglier quick, and it doesn’t let off. It only gets harder as you get higher. I’m not saying that because I was getting more tired. I really mean that the trail gets harder. It gets rockier, and steeper as you get closer and closer to Iceberg Lake.
After the turn-off for Mountaineer’s route, it definitely gets steeper, but the trail is still pretty easy to follow, and it is not too rocky at first. Once we started up this steeper section, Mike and I found ourselves resting more often. We’d take 50-100 steps, then rest and breath. Then, we hike a bit more. We did this on much of the remaining route. As the route continues up, you see the ledges on the right. We would be scampering along those ledges in another 30 minutes. The trail cross the creek once to the left side, then a little later, back over to the right side. If you are trying to follow the right face of the ledges tightly, and not crossing the creeks, you are not on route. Not long after crossing the creek the second time, we climbed up onto the ledges. The ledges portion of the route is probably the most dangerous and exposed portion of the hike in. Without a 65 lb pack it would be easy, but interesting. The exposure is definitely serious. You do NOT want to slip here. A fall would be fatal, and it has happened. But, fortunately, Mike and I were climbing mostly in an upward and sideways direction, while on the ledges. Climbing upwards with a pack is easier than down-climbing. At the time, I wasn’t really thinking about our climb out. If I had, I would have been stressing. Mike and I ultimately cleared the ledges, and things opened up a bit. I mentioned earlier that the climb gets harder as you go up. Well, I should follow that statement with a mention that the ledges are by far the most difficult part of this hike in – the crux of the hike in. In general the route gets harder and harder along the climb, but the ledges are a little nugget of special nastiness tucked in the middle.
Once we cleared the ledges, the trail levels out a bit for a while. The mental relief of finally getting off the ledges translates to a bit of physical relief as well, even though the trail was still going up, and we were still carrying heavy packs. At the next large creek crossing we took our first serious break. This was the first time that we actually dropped our packs and sat down for a while. We adjusted our shoes, replenished our water, and snacked a bit. It was really hard to put that pack back on again. I estimated at this point that we were about half way, but in reality, I think that we were only about 1/3rd.
The hike at this point gets a bit rockier. The trail gets moderately easy to follow, but it you know the general direction that you are heading, it is easy to keep on track. For the next couple of miles, we climbed a rocky slope up into the basin for Lower Boy Scout Lake. Then, we hiked along the left bank of the lake, and climbed another rocky slope up into the basin for Upper Boy Scout Lake. Many people setup camp at Upper Boy Scout. This was probably about the 2/3rd point for us. We took another short break just past Upper Boy Scout Lake. At this point it was around 4 pm. Mike and I were not making great time, but we were sure that we could make camp well before dark.
After break, we started our final section of the hike. The last section of hike is all rocky and steep, with almost no reprieve on soft trail. There is even a couple hundred feet of 5-10 degree slab walking, at least the way that we did the route. On the descent, Mike and I figured out that we were probably off route during most of the slab walking. Oh well, it was actually a bit of a relief from the rock hopping. The continues up to the left of Upper Boy Scout, then pretty much follows the valley, until you gain the most distant ridge to your right. Given the tough rocky terrain, this last section took us a lot of time. As we approached the final ridge climb, the weather turned nasty on us. It started raining, then it started hailing. At the time is sucked pretty bad. But, he biggest issue was not that it was hailing on us, it was that we didn’t know how much worse it would get. I was concerned first about getting to camp without issue, and second about getting camp setup, preferably NOT in the rain. It rained and hailed on us for the final 30 minutes of the hike. We gained that final ridge with water rushing down the trail, across our feet. Almost on command, as we gained the ridge, and arrived at Iceberg Lake, the rain and hail stopped.
Mike and I picked a camp spot, and quickly setup camp, and sorted through our gear. When it was all said and done, our stuff didn’t get very wet. As we were setting up camp, I cooked us some dinner, and gathered water from the lake. I found out later, that Mike walked away from the tent and puked. Mike was not feeling well, and he was reconsidering our plans for tomorrow. He told me this later.
We tucked into our sleeping bags around 8 pm. It was a restless night for me. I could not get comfortable, and my legs and body were burning up from the tough hike in. Mike was sleeping like a baby. We’d set our alarm for 4:45 am, without a firm plan for what we would be doing the next day. Around 5 am, we finally started stirring. We were very slow to get moving. Mike was feeling much better this morning, and I was feeling pretty good myself. As we slowly got ready, we decided to go ahead and tackle the East Buttress on Whitney, as planned.
We finally got started a little after 6 am. I was not crazy about what I considered a “late start.” The initial hike up to the base of the East Buttress follows the base of the Mountaineer’s Route. This portion is class 2, class 3 hiking/climbing. When we finally got to the climbing portion of the climb, there was one group ahead of us. Mike and I figured that they would climb faster than us, so we would be alone the rest of the day. As the other group got ahead of us, Mike and I pulled out the rope and gear, and got ready to bolt our self onto the wall. We’d stay bolted to the wall, moving gear along the way, until we reached the summit.
I wouldn’t be able to do the East Buttress route description justice, so instead I’ll just give a summary of the route, and then describe how I felt on the route, as we progressed. We needed to gain a total of about 2,000 feet of elevation in order to get to the top of Mount Whitney, from camp. By the time that we roped up, we had gained maybe 600-800 feet. So, we still have 1200-1400 feet of solid climbing to go.
A summary of the East Buttress route goes something like this. There are 11 pitches, with a max difficulty of 5.7 rating. In general, the more difficult sections were long longer than 20 feet at a time. So, it wasn’t extremely sustained in the difficult sections. The first two pitches were solid class 5.6. Without a warm up into some of the more difficult climbing, I was already starting to get a bit concerned, asking Mike questions like, “Mike, most of it is going to be easier than that right?” Mike’s answer was, “not really.” Although I could certainly handle the climbing, doing it at elevation, and knowing that we had 11 pitches like that was definitely a bit mentally stressful. Plus, Mike and I weren’t starting off very fast either. We’d gotten a pretty late start – about 2 hours later than I’d have liked – and it was taking us around 45 minutes to an hour per pitch. My quick calculations told me that we would be getting to the summit very very late. At that point (after pitch 2), Mike and I decided to focus on our timing, and try to keep at around 30 minutes per pitch, as a target. Since Mike was doing the majority of the work, getting us setup between pitches, and setting the gear, the only thing that I could do was to help out in the setup, and make sure that when it was my turn to climb, that I kept my rest breaks as short and minimal as possible.
We took a 5.6 option for the third pitch, and another 5.6 for the fourth pitch. Mike was right; this wasn’t going to be any easier. To add to the stress level, I think it was on the third or fourth pitch, we ran right to the end of the rope. We almost ran out of rope. And, because of the terrain, and the wind, we could not communicate at all. So, when I yelled to Mike that we were out of rope, he didn’t respond. Or, at least, I didn’t hear him. Luckily, we had just enough rope. When I climbed up to him, I angrily told him that we need to do something about our communications. He told me that he could hear me fine. I guess it was just an odd place that I was located. We didn’t have as bad a communication problem for the rest of the day – luckily.
The fifth and sixth pitches were a mix of 5.5 and 5.6 climbing. The seventh pitch was the crux pitch for us. It was a slabby 5.7, which Mike said was not well protected. From below, we had seen the other groups go through this pitch, and they stayed more on the face. When we went through this pitch, Mike and I stuck to the crack to the left, and didn’t have any problems. We couldn’t figure out why they didn’t follow the crack. It was clearly a 5.7, but Mike didn’t have any problems with it, and following Mike, I was ok as well. I should mention that we broke that seventh pitch into two, and belayed at the half way point. The second half of that seventh pitch was very cool and easy 5.6ish flake traverse.
After the seventh pitch, things started to wind down a bit. The eighth pitch was a mild 5.6, and the ninth, tenth and final pitch was a mix of class 4 (unroped) and easy class 5. We unroped for a bit of those last 3 pitches, but roped up for the final class 5 push to the summit. The final pitch to the top was a bit tough to follow. There seemed to be several options, and the blocks around the top were huge. So, it was difficult to see how to gain the top of those huge blocks. But, ultimately Mike found a route, and made the summit. I followed quickly.
We made the summit in approximately 10 hours from camp. I should mention that at about the half way point (around pitch 5), the clouds had rolled in. For the second half of the climb, Mike and I were watching the skies very closely for any hint that we might get storms. We saw a few mild sprinkles, but never really got rained on. The clouds were built up, but they never really got dark and ugly.
On top, we hung out for a bit, making calls, and munching on some food. We knew that we didn’t want to mess around. It was late in the day, and we needed to get started down, just in case the weather rolled in. Plus, we wanted to get back to camp before dark. After 30 minutes on top, we started looking for the top of the Mountaineers route. We were planning on walking down the class 3 Mountaineers route back to camp. We finally found the top of the route on the far side of the summit. We mostly just followed the summit counter clockwise, until we found an obvious decent route. The beginning of the decent was rough. It was very loose class 3, and I’d even say some class 4. It was slow going, but we just followed the gulley down towards an obvious notch on the right. The last move out of the gully, towards the notch was a pretty sketchy down climb that I’d say bordered on class 5. But, a fall would have been more embarrassing then dangerous.
We hiked through the notch to the right, and the remainder of our route became obvious. A very loose and nasty gully continued pretty much all the way down to Iceberg Lake. The gully was a mix of scree and rocks. Travel down the gully was a bit frustrating. You’d be walking down the scree (small pebbles and rock) fine, then all of the sudden, you’d hit a slick spot, and have to catch your balance, or land on your butt. I found myself on my butt plenty of times. I finally figured out why the scree got so slick at times. Underneath the scree was either 1) more deeper scree or 2) a nice big flat slab of granite. When the underneath was just scree and other rock, travel was easy. But, when a big slab of granite was only covered by a layer of scree and pebbles, it was like walking on ball bearings. At the end of a long hard day, this kind of travel was more frustrating than dangerous.
Mike and I managed the decent fine, and ultimately made it back to camp around 6:30 pm, a decent time of 2.5 hours. As we cleaned ourselves off, gathered water, and prepared dinner, Mike and I discussed our plans for the next day. Pretty quickly, we decided that maybe the Fishhook Arête wasn’t a good idea. First, we thought that the Arête might be just above our skill level. Secondly, we were a bit concerned that we had challenged the weather goods too much today, and tomorrow we would pay for our lateness. We decided that we’d make the final call in the morning.
After dinner and gear prep, we crawled into the tent. Mike told me later that he didn’t sleep as well the second night. I slept about the same. We set an alarm, but for whatever reason it didn’t go off. Ultimately we crawled out of bed around 5:30 am. This late start pretty much established our plans for the day. Attempting the Arête with a late start would be foolish. On top of the late start, the skies looked horrible. Mike and I were comfortable with a nice classic hike, but roping ourselves onto the Arête with the skies overcast starting at 6 am wasn’t something that we felt was prudent. So, instead of the Arête, Mike and I decided to attempt a classic class 3 climb of the east ridge on Mount Russell. The crux to doing this ridge would be actually being able to gain the ridge from Iceberg Lake. The primary route on the ridge came from Upper Boy Scout Lake. But, Mike knew of a supposed gully climb that gained the ridge from Iceberg. So, we decided to try it. We finally got going around 6:30 am.
The goal for the initial part of our hike was just to gain the ridge on the far side of Iceberg Lake. From that point, we’d get a good view of the Fishhook Arête, our planned decent route, and a general idea for the direction that we’d take to our ascent gully. We made the top of the ridge in about 45 minutes. From the top of the ridge, we started down the other side, trying to avoid dropping to much; knowing that we’d just have to regain elevation at some point. I started towards the Arête, but stayed to the right side, looking for a point at which we could gain the ridge that stood between us and Upper Boy Scout Lake. We needed to gain that ridge, then go over it, and work our way towards our ascent gully. After a few checks along the ridge, we finally found our route through the ridge. It should be noted that attempting to drop over that ridge too early would have put us in very dangerous terrain. Once we cleared the ridge, we pretty much just followed the base of the Mount Russell ridge, with Mount Russell on our left. Our ascent gully was obvious. It was a nice trough, which appeared ugly from a distance, but was clearly achievable as we got closer.
We finally traversed far enough that we could start our climb up the trough. The trough ended up being at least as easy as portions of the Mountaineers Route. It was not technically very challenging, and the route finding was very easy. The rock was pretty loose in the trough, so it could potentially be dangerous if multiple groups were in the trough at the same time, and anyone knocked rocks down.
We made it to the top of the trough in about 2 hours from the time that we left camp. We now on the Russell East Ridge, and we were making great time. I estimated that we’d make the summit of Russell in an hour or so. Mike, misreading the guide books, insisted that we were 3-4 hours away from the summit. Either way, it didn’t change our plans. After a short break, we started along the ridge. The East Ridge route was moderately easy to follow. The beginning section was easy and we gained about half our distance very quickly.
The second half of the ridge was a totally different ball game. I should mention at this point that Mike and I had left the rope and climbing gear back at camp. We had no intentions of using it, and we didn’t want the extra weight. I have to admit that having a rope of the second part of the East Ridge would have eased our minds a little bit. But, honestly though, the rope would have probably only gotten in the way. Needless to say the second half of the East Ridge was very exposed and some very serious class 3 and class 4 climbing, with a class 5 move here and there. I’ve done most of the fourteeners in Colorado, including almost all of the hardest ones, and I’ve never used a rope. The East Ridge of Russell was probably the most exposed climbing that I’ve ever done without a rope. It was one of those situations where you absolutely could not make a mistake. The terrain was easy to navigate, and the climbing was easy, but you just could not make a mistake. Any mistake would have been very bad.
Mike and I followed the right side of the ridge the whole way. We tried to stay pretty high up on the ridge, but we were not on top of the ridge for much of the route. Ultimately we made the East summit of Mount Russell. It took us about 1 hour from the time that we started the ridge. Mike and I looked at possibly doing the West Summit of Russell also, but convinced ourselves that the East was higher, and didn’t bother. We found out from another group later that the route from the East to the West summit had a very sketchy class 4 move or two, that really should be done with a rope. But, we also found out later that the higher point is the West Summit. I guess that just means that Mike and I would have to come back and do that Fishhook Arête after all.
We spent 15 minutes on the East Summit, and then started to look at how we’d get down. Mike already had a planned descent route. Our descent route start was actually located right next to the East Summit (about 10 yards east of the summit). The initial down climb for our route was pretty wicked. It was easily a high class 4, maybe low class 5 down climb. A fall at the start would be 30 to 50 feet onto the rocks, and that would not be good. There was a bunch of belay material located at the top of the down climb. Mike and I rigged up one of the lengths of webbing to help us in the down climb. Mike went first, and then I followed. As we looked up, it would have been fun as an up climb. We both got safely down from the initial down climb. If we had brought a rope, we definitely would have used it. After the initial down climb, the remainder of the descent was pretty easy. I’d say that the descent climb on Russell – after the down climb – was easier than the descent of the Mountaineers Route on Whitney. If we weren’t looking for a “classic” climb along that East Ridge, I would even consider doing the Descent Route both ways. It was pretty easy.
Mike and I got back to the base of Whitney and up to the ridge overlooking Iceberg Lake in about 1.5 hours. We spent some time on the ridge, ate and left email and text messages for home. At this point, Mike and I discussed the idea of hiking out tonight, rather than waiting another day. We didn’t have any plans for the remaining trip days, but if we got out tonight, we could at least try to do something tomorrow. If we hiked out tomorrow, the remainder of the day would probably be lost. So, we decided to go back to camp, pack up, and hike out today.
We hiked down from the ridge, and were back at camp around 12:30 pm, 5.5 hours total round trip for the hike. Mike and I casually packed up our stuff, and started the grueling hike out. I won’t go into much detail about the hike out. It was pretty much the reverse of the hike in. Having the heavy pack on the hike out sucked more than it did on the way in. Every downhill step hurt the feet and legs, especially towards the bottom. The ledges section that was tough on the hike in was totally horrible on the descent. Class 3 down climbing with a 50+ pound pack was wicked scary. With a 6 hour hike in, Mike and I figured we could do the descent in around 3-4 hours. It took us a little over 5 hours. It was just slow going with the heavy packs. On the ascent, it was our lungs that slowed us down. On the descent, it was the legs; they were sore.
I think that we finally got down a little after 7 pm. We went back to town, and checked into a cheap hotel. Once we got to the room, we cleaned ourselves up and tried to make plans for the next day. Ultimately, we decided that we try and tackle some locale climbing; something with little to no hike in.
On our final day of climbing, Mike and I headed back up to the Whitney Portal are. Mike had done some research, and found several options that we could check out. After driving up and down the portal road a few times, we ultimately decided to check out a section of rock called the “Beaches.” This rock would be a small hike back up the same hike that we took before. We’d hike up the Whitney trail, and then turn off at the Mountaineers route. Just past the turn, we’d scramble up to the rock on our right. Actually, this climbing area was just about a ½ mile or so below the ledges section.
Without any major pack weight, the hike into the “Beaches” was actually very nice. Plus, the weather was beautiful. Mike and I hiked in just before noon, and planned to just casually climb until we were done. The climbing at the “Beaches” was almost exclusively 5.10 ish slab climbing. The hardest part of the climbing was getting a top rope setup. Mike did not want to lead climb a 5.10 slab. A fall on 5.10 slab would mean some pretty scraped up knees and face. So, initially Mike tried to hike above in order to set top rope. When, that didn’t work, we spent an hour or more stick climbing from bolt to bolt, until we finally got the top rope setup.
Once we got the top rope setup, we climbed several of the routes, probably 3-4 times total. Mike got in a few extra climbs, since he had to setup the top rope and such. This was my first serious sampling of 5.10 climbing, and I thought it was awesome. It was very different than regular vertical climbing. Since a slab is slightly sloped, the hand holds are almost non-existent. That made for a very different style of climbing. We spent a couple hours playing on the slab, until my toes and calves were completely destroyed. Afterwards, we packed up, hiked out and started the long drive back to Vegas.
Overall, this was great trip. It didn’t go exactly as planned. But, a good climbing trip can also be judged based on how many “new ideas” you go home with. And, Mike and I continuously talked about additional trips that we’d like to make back to the Sierra Nevada’s. At a minimum we are looking at grabbing the Fishhook Arête sometime in that future, and also hitting the Palisades. I’m sure that plenty of other ideas will grow later also.