On August 3 of 1995, with the snow finally melting and a clear sky beckoning us, Elaine Holland and I hiked into the Whitney region on a 4-day climbing trip. I was looking forward to this trip not only as a chance to climb Mt. Russell and the East Face of Whitney, but as simply an opportunity to get into the high country again, since it had been three months since my last visit to the high Sierra. It turned out to be one of my most enjoyable outings ever.
To summarize, nothing went wrong - but not entirely by accident. Our concerns about route finding, both on the approach and on the East Face route, resulted in us bringing photocopies of route descriptions from at least six different sources. As a result, route finding was not a problem. For the approach up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, we went with the majority opinion and turned off at the second creek crossing, then avoided all lower stream crossings by staying on the north side of the creek. The use trail was good and we didn't have any troubles getting up the thin ledges. Likewise, between lower and upper Boy Scout Lakes, we progressed uneventfully through the brush to the "wet slabs," then crossed the creek at a higher point. Our moderate pace left us a bit below Iceberg Lake as we ran out of energy that first day. Here we found an unlikely spot to lay down our bivy sacs, with water running down the nearby cliff. It provided us with perfect views of Keeler Needle and Whitney's east face.
With more perfect weather the next day, we made an non-alpine 8 AM start from camp. As we roped up at the base of the East Face route at 10:30, we could see no one either above us or below. With Elaine feeling the altitude a bit, I started on the Tower Traverse, and we swapped leads from there. The Fresh Air Traverse was easily identified by using the photo from "50 Classic Climbs." We were surprised when the crux of the climb appeared in the form of a 5.6 crack at the top of the Grand Staircase. Only Moynier and Fiddler's book "Sierra Classics" correctly mentions this fact.
Our relaxed pace put us on the summit at 4:30. The few people already there soon departed, leaving us alone with incredible views in all directions. The only distractions that day were a couple of aircraft a small private plane that buzzed the summit repeatedly, and a fighter that made one very low and very fast pass. While the East Face is a good climb and we had a good time on it, I wouldn't call it great. The main things to recommend it are its setting and history.
The Mountaineers Route made for a fine descent, with snow on the lower 2/3 that was just the ticket for plunge stepping and boot skiing. The total descent to camp took about 2 hr.
We left for the East Ridge of Russell the next morning at 10:20 after first relocating camp to Upper Boy Scout Lake. Mother Nature repeated the previous day's perfect weather for us as we scrambled up the never-ending scree slope that takes one to the plateau near Russell. Though we walked across small stretches of thin snow, we could have easily avoided them and made the ascent of Russell without setting foot on snow!! For anyone who hasn't been on the East Ridge of Russell, I highly recommend it . But it's not for the timid. The climbing is very real class 3 in places - and can you spell e-x-p-o-s-u-r-e? I enjoyed the climb even more than Whitney's East Face, while Elaine euphemistically called it "stimulating," as she is unaccustomed to mountaineering unroped.
Once back at the Russell-Carillon saddle, Elaine decided to call it a day while I scrambled up Mt. Carillon. There is nothing remarkable about this peak, but it was so close (13 minutes from the saddle) I couldn't resist. At the top I realized I was out of film. The descent of the scree slope was a breeze and we returned to camp 7 hr. after departing. Once again, headlamps were used only for after-dinner reading and writing.
Still in a daze from our tremendously successful climbs, we left camp the next morning at 8:30, stumbled leisurely down the use trail, and found ourselves back at Whitney Portal at the delightful hour of 11:00. An equally leisurely drive got us home at the very un-PCS-like hour of 8:30. After hearing of the late return suffered by those on Temple Crag that day, I consider it well worth while to grant yourself an extra day when doing climbs on the east side.