Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mount Russell

Mount Russell, located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, very near Mount Whitney, is a fourteener that I've been wanting to do for a long time. In the past I have been intimated by what I've read about Russell's class 3 knife-edge ridge and had decided that when I did it, I would do it with a guide. However, with my son Sam's recently gained experience in technical rock climbing and mountaineering, I realized I had my guide and dangled a free-trip to California to get him to go with me. Sam flew in from Utah on a Thursday afternoon and we set out for Lone Pine by car. Although it is now off-season for hiking, we were relegated to a flea-bag motel near Olancha, more than 20 miles away from Lone Pine, due to a film festival taking place that weekend. We set our alarm for 3:00 a.m. and started hiking about 5:15 a.m. from Whitney Portal. We did the first mile on the main Mount Whitney trail, in the dark, then after passing Carillon Creek, we arrived at the signed North Fork of Lone Pine Creek
where we turned off the main trail to take the trail known as the Mountaineer's Route, which is an alternate route up Mount Whitney. I've heard and read about the Mountaineer's Route for years and have imaged the lower part of the route to be a steep scramble up the side of the canyon with dicey footing, difficult route-finding and exhausting hiking. I was both relieved as well as somewhat disappointed to find that the route has been over-hyped. I was surprised to find a regular dirt trail branching off the north (right) side of the creek (that I'd never noticed before). The good trail winds fairly steeply up the north side of the canyon for about one-third to one-half a mile, then crosses over to the south (left) side of the stream. It was about this time that we first noticed light from the sun just beginning to rise in the east. The trail stayed on the south side for about a half mile, still mostly a good dirt trail, until the canyon started to narrow and the granite wall forced us back across the stream. To the west, above us, the stream bed was choked full of trees and brush, quite beautiful in autumn colors. Note, many of the pictures below were taken by Sam, and this attribution is all I'm going to do to acknowledge it. 
The route up the Ebersbacher Ledges starts to the left below the lowest pine tree just right of center. 
We were saved the misery of hacking our way through that vegetation by the Ebersbacher Ledges which are part of the granite wall on the north (opposite) side of the canyon. Looking from the south side, the route up the ledges is fairly obvious, heading east (down-canyon) from the bottom of the canyon wall, up diagonally, past a distinctive sentinel pine tree,  then reversing and going west again (up-canyon), along a ledge containing some pine trees. 
The Ebersbacher Ledges.
We crossed the stream, which included a small, but pretty waterfall, with some water spraying out from the lip, and an unusual feature: water going down the face in vertical stripes. 
Once across, we traveled up canyon next to the north canyon wall for about 20 yards, before reaching what was described on summitpost as the "third class chute that leads up to the famed Ebersbacher Ledges, ...A large boulder reminiscent of the Matterhorn marks the chute." The seam in the granite has some large rocks which we climbed up, just past the sentinal pine tree, 
Looking up at the pine tree from the start of the route up to the Ebersbacher Ledges.
then we followed a level, relatively narrow ledge (probably the most exposed portion of the route),
Sam took this picture of me from above as I walked along the narrowest part of the Ebersbacher Ledges on the way back down.
 to another vertical seam, filled with a dead pine tree, that leads to a higher ledge. 
Climbing this section was difficult with a heavy backpack.
Not too far past that obstacle, the route reversed itself and went back to the west, along the ledge and through the pine trees, heading back up the canyon with little or no exposure. Off the ledges, we approached the top of this portion of the canyon and were rewarded with a view of the summit of Mount Whitney and Keeler and Crooks Needles to the left of it. 
They looked very close. At the top of this part of the canyon, Lower Boy Scout Lake sits at 10,320 feet, in a scenic valley surrounded by tall mountains on three sides. 
Lower Boy Scout Lake. Mt. Whitney is just visible in the back.
The trail crosses the stream again to the south (left) side just below the lake outlet and goes along the south side of the lake into some large boulders. The trail is difficult to follow through this section as it angles upward to the left of a small waterfall that flows faintly over smooth granite slabs to the southwest. 
Waterfall above Lower Boy Scout Lake.
Once above the waterfall, Lower Boy Scout Lake lay picturesquely below us, 
and large, smooth, sloping granite slabs angled upwards above us, with small amounts of water almost imperceptibly flowing down portions of them, inter-mixed with thick brush. 
We overtook a party that had been hiking ahead of us and Sam struck up a conversation with a man from Russia who had climbed Russell previously and was going to do it again that day. We looked above to the northwest, unsuccessfully trying to discern Mount Carillon and Mount Russell (they were blocked by lower rock formations). 
Looking up toward the ridge that leads to the Russell/Carillon saddle. Upper Boy Scout Lake is at the low point of the ridge to the far left.
Looking up toward Upper Boy Scout Lake.
As the canyon above us leveled out again, we encountered more very large boulders, some resident marmots, and 11,300 foot Upper Boy Scout Lake, with a beautiful backdrop consisting of the rocky Whitney/Russell ridge. 
Sam's surreal picture of Upper Boy Scout Lake with Mount Russell in the background. We followed the drainage back to the base of the face of Mt. Russell.
The Mountaineer's Route up to Mount Whitney goes south (left) up and over a ridge just below Upper Boy Scout Lake. From about the same spot, the normal route up Mount Russell, per summitpost, is a "steep, sandy slope to the northwest [of Upper Boy Scout Lake]...up to the Russell-Carillon Pass." The Russian man we met took that route. We read that it was a better descent route and opted to take the "Rockwell Variation," which goes to the end of Upper Boy Scout Lake, then follows the small inlet creek up to the end of the canyon to the southeast face of Mount Russell, then heads "north up a tedious sand/talus where you gain access to a very wide chute that leads diagonally right to the Russell-Carillon Pass." I set up my bivvy bag and left behind my sleeping bag, pad and extra food (in a portable bear cannister), and we started boulder hopping around the right side of Upper Boy Scout Lake about 9:20 a.m. Sam and I later debated whether the normal route or Rockwell Variation is the best way up. Both are long, steep and tedious through very loose sand and talus. However, we beat the Russian, who looked in much better shape than me, up to Russell, so I favor the route we took, plus the views on the way we took were spectacular. We were all alone in this rock-filled wilderness which at times reminded me of a moon-scape. 
I kept staring up at the straight wall and massive crags of Russell looming above us, grateful to get such a close-up, intimate view of the mountain we intended to summit later in the day. We eventually reached a rock band that we had to climb 
Sam approaching the rock band below the southeast face of Mount Russell.
Sam climbing up the rock band. 
Climbing up the rock band.
and pretty quickly attained a steep sand/talus field that was more difficult to climb than anything I've done so far. It was literally like trying to hike up through a loose sandpile - even relatively large rocks offered no purchase, but slid down-hill when any weight was placed on them. Slow and steady, my normal hiking mode, was not effective in this environment - it was like hiking on a treadmill and staying in place. Rather, we found ourselves taking short, quick steps, in bursts of energy. This exertion tired us out quickly and we found ourselves resting a lot.
Loose talus/sand below the southeast face.

A photo from above reveals the steepness of the terrain.
We debated which of several chutes to take, and eventually settled (correctly) on the upper one, right next to the face of Russell.
The steep upper chute is directly above Sam. 
Once we reached the long chute we encountered larger boulders which provided more secure foot and hand-holds and made the hiking somewhat easier. As we got higher in the chute, a backwards glance revealed that we were making progress up steep terrain.
Climbing the closest chute below the south face of the east arete.
It did not feel that steep facing upwards. After hours of monotonous, tiring hiking, we reached the top of the chute near the east arete (sharp, narrow ridge) of Russell. 
Beginning of the east arete on Mount Russell.

Mount Carillon, at 13,559 feet in elevation, was a short, easy 15 minute hike away.  We decided to do it after doing Mount Russell.
Mount Carillon is right of center and Tulainyo Lake, at 12,802 feet, the second highest lake in California and the 14th highest in the continental U.S.
Mount Russell from Mount Whitney. We took the steep chute which is in shadow at the right side of the picture  where the saddle meets Russell's east ridge.
 Below is a picture borrowed off the internet taken further down on the Russell/Carrillon saddle and further to the north than we got. It gives a better profile shot of the north side of the arete than any of our photos and a better representation of the exposure. We started up just below the blocky knob (passing it on the left) and then encountered the spiny ridge that looks like the back of an iguana. The high point visible in the picture is the lower east summit of Russell (I could not find an elevation for the east summit, but one blogger noted that his Garmin showed it only two feet shorter than the 14,086 foot west summit). 

My first thought in looking at the ridge was, "where do we go?" We started up hiking just to the right of the spiny ridge. This area had the least exposure and the best hand and foot holds. 
Toward the top of the first little section we encountered a couple of horizontally running rocks which we had to climb over. There was severe exposure on each side and a deep crack between the rocks. This was our first really exposed section and required us to throw a leg over the next rock to pass over the crack. It provided a nice early introduction to the exposure and gave me more confidence for what was to come later.  We soon found another issue: thick frost blanketed the rock on the north side, where it was shaded from the sun. We increased our vigilance to find good hand and footholds to avoid slipping and falling. 
Frost covering the rock on the north side of the ridge.
The frosted rock was cold on our un-gloved hands and the crunch of our boots in the frost was a little unnerving. There were a number of times on our way up and back, when we spent time looking for the safest ways through frosted areas where the foot and hand holds were not as numerous and the angle on the rock was quite steep. 
Negotiating the frosty rock on the way up. The east summit in the distance.
The east summit. Note the woman in the center (with a red hat) in a crack below the summit.
The east summit from a different angle.

Negotiating a section of the spine. The ridge is not wide at this point.
As we dropped down from the highest hump before the east summit, a woman, ahead of us, below the east summit, called out to Sam. She had turned short of the west summit, unable to do the mantle move (the crux) between the east and west summit, and could not find a safe way across the rock to where we were. Sam told her she could join us to go back and climb to the west summit and that he would help her on the mantel move and on route finding on the way back. The woman was trying to come back too low on the mountain. We eventually got to her and then started up the steep ascent to the east summit. It was steeper than anything else we did on the mountain, but the exposure was not as significant and so it felt safer. 
Lacking back, from near the east summit.
The area on the east summit is actually much smaller than the higher west summit and has more of a high point feel  to it than the west summit. 
Sam and the woman on the east summit. The west summit is behind them.
The Whitney/Russell ridge below the east summit. Note Upper Boy Scout Lake to the upper left and Iceberg Lake to the upper right.
Going down the far side of the east summit, we crossed through a very narrow part of the ridge, then up and over little bump in the ridge, 
Sam on the narrow ridge. The west summit is in the background.
Me walking down from the east summit toward the west summit.
and then encountered the crux (the most difficult part) of the climb. It is a large boulder which requires a mantle move to get over it. 
The crux.
The term "mantle" comes from the shelf above a fireplace. The climber must use no hold to get on top of the shelf other than the shelf itself. The motion needed is similar to that used in getting out of a swimming pool without using a ladder or steps. The climber places both hands on the shelf and raises his body gradually, then puts one foot on the shelf and transfers body weight to it without the use of holds on the wall behind the shelf. What makes this mantle move more mentally challenging is the exposure: the ridge line below the rock is only about two feet wide. 
Sam stands on a ledge with his hands on the shelf which he will use for his mantle move.
Note the narrow ridge below him leading up to the large rock. I followed Sam and the woman and did it quite easily and did not have a sense of fear or extreme exposure while doing it. From there we crossed another narrow and exposed portion of the ridge. 
Scrambling across the exposed ridge to the west summit.

Sam stands on an exposed boulder near the west summit. 
The western divide from the summit block of Mt. Russell.
The final summit block is much less exposed and is easy climbing to the top. 
Mt. Russell summit block.
Sam perched on the summit. 
The summit has a large flat surface that is good for taking pictures 
Sam and I on the summit of Mt. Russell with Mt. Whitney in the background.
and the views are some of the most impressive I have seen anywhere. Mount Whitney to the south, with a good view of the Mountaineer's Route. To the east are Guitar Lake, Crabtree Meadow and Mount Hale.

To the north are Mount Tyndall and Mount Williamson. Beautiful rugged country with little or no vegetation.

On the way back, the route between the west and east summits was uneventful, except for the mantle move. It was a little more disconcerting going back, because you had to lower your foot into space, while supporting your body with your hands, while searching for a foothold on the the ledge below. Going down from the east summit was more difficult than going up, the route finding was a little more difficult.
Coming down from the east summit of Mt. Russell.
Our way back over the spine was the most disconcerting part of the trip. The frost covering the north side was quite visible and this was the area where the woman had gotten stuck trying to find her way back. 
A sheen of white frost covers the north side of Mount Russell.
Sam headed out first to do the route finding and kept us up, close to the ridge. Going down some of the frost rock was more difficult than going up it and there were several times when we had to scout out the best way through steep sections where the footing and holds were not as good. 
North side of the east arete of Mt. Russell.
Toward the end of the ridge, I remembered to call Judy on my cellphone for my traditional summit phone call and was grateful to get reception. What looked like storm clouds were coming in and we decided to forget doing Mt. Carillon. We headed southeast down a much more gentle slope than the chute we'd come up (the normal route), going some distance before hitting a rocky ridge line where the descent got much steeper and the talus and sand much looser. Sam got some great photos of Mt. Whitney and Mt. Russell, experimenting with his camera settings.
Ominous clouds over Mt. Whitney (to the upper right).
Mt. Whitney (far right), Mt. Muir (the pointed mountain to the left) and the Whitney/Russell ridge in the center.
Mt. Russell: the highest looking point at the right is much shorter than the summit, the east summit is the point just to the left of it, and the west summit (highest point) is the fifth point to the left; the top of the chute we climbed is just below the east arete on the right side.
My toes jammed into my boots and made this last section no fun. I was happy to be going down this than the chute we'd climbed up, as it was much steeper. We finally arrived at Upper Boy Scout Lake where we camped the night. We had intended to do the Mountaineer's Route up Mount Whitney the next day, but during the night as I felt my blistered and battered toes, I thought of what the down hill portion of Mount Whitney would do to aggravate my existing condition. Having summited Whitney four times previously, I felt no real urge to do it again and suggested to Sam we forego Whitney. He'd had a bad headache all night and was happy to go down. The rest of the way out was uneventful, other than the Ebersbacher Ledges, which added a little bit of interest. 
Going down the crack filled with the log on the Ebersbacher Ledges.
The route-finding going down was a little more difficult than on the way up. All in all, I really enjoyed Mt. Russell. The exposure added an element of excitement, which made the climbing more purposeful and careful. The views were amazing and my confidence in class 3 climbing increased greatly.


  1. Fun to read Sam's version, followed by your version of this hike. Great father/son bonding experience!

  2. Bizarre terrain, beautiful vistas, fleabag hotels, approaching storm--it is the stuff of Cannon Legend. I'm glad you made it, and glad you made it home. By the way, I love picture #43 of Sam.

  3. What a great experience! I'm very envious!