Mt. Russell
(South Face, Right Side)

5 Oct 1997 - by Tony Cruz

Last year Steve Eckert gave me some advice I utilized to reach my goal of climbing all the California 14ers and to live to tell the tale. He suggested an alternative to the Sierra route I most dread: the East Ridge Route on Mt. Russell. I could have discovered Eckert's suggestion myself in Secor's book (South Face, Right Side) but it was reassuring to hear it from Steve. The only part of his story I didn't like is that he used a rope on the way down.

The only partner that didn't bail on me this time was my dentist and friend (friend and dentist?) Mark Burhenne. We were already two-for-two as a team in the Sierra, having climbed Matterhorn Peak in 1996 and Mt. Langley in a storm in 1997. This was my second attempt on Russell and Mark's first. My first attempt was my only failure in 1997. I didn't use to keep score but as my age and waistline increase it becomes more important for me to succeed on every attempt. I remember sitting a couple hundred feet below the summit, watching helplessly last July as Mike Rinaldi and Jimothy Farhni climbed the "class 4" headwall on Russell without a rope. Sometimes I hate rock climbers.

On Friday October 3, Mark drove his Land Cruiser to a secret spot deep in the Alabama Hills. The night was magical and balmy as hottest mid summer. Saturday morning we romped around the Alabama Hills as Mark searched in vain for a good spot to take photos. It wasn't until 8:30 a.m. that we started our hike up the Whitney Trail. I was weak and in a bad mood. Secretly I blamed Mark for my ills: I imagined that by not camping at Whitney Portal I had poorly acclimatized (bet you didn't know I felt that way).

After a couple of long switch backs and a stream crossing, we arrived at the second stream crossing, which is the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, about a mile from the trailhead. Just before this crossing we left the main trail and took the smaller but well-defined North Fork Trail. I am told that in years past much route finding was required but we encountered a well-traveled path and progressed without difficulty.

We passed through that cool forested area, but I didn't see any snow plants this time and the summer bloom of Indian Paintbrushes was gone.

Less than a mile upstream we reached an easy stream crossing. Mark helped me across and we proceeded on the south side of the stream for less than half a mile, where we crossed the stream again and hiked up the airy but easy class-two Ebersbacher Ledges.

>From there it was a short hike up the canyon to the saddle at the end. Just beyond we rested at the junction of the trail and the wide stream exiting Lower Boy Scout Lake. We filtered water at this idyllic spot and looked for Golden Trout that weren't there this time. I had stopped before the lake, exhausted. Mark had passed me, fresh and cheerful. I carried my heaviest pack in years, crammed with climbing gear, 2/3 of which I wouldn't need in an emergency. This was my "insurance" to make sure I made it to the top. I didn't feel it was fair to share my insurance policy with Mark since he hauled a ton of camera gear and a water filter. I also carried a four-season tent I didn't use and extra clothes I didn't use and food I didn't eat.

Half an hour later we crossed the stream and continued up the trail, which was still well defined and marked by carins. As we approached Clyde Meadow I stayed closer to the stream on the slabs than Mark did and I found bits of red ribbon tied on the brush to guide me. Consequently I walked slowly enough to regain my equilibrium and keep pace with Mark.

Beyond Clyde Meadow, we proceeded on the rocky trail on the southern drainage below Upper Boy Scout Lake. Veering left just before the lake, we climbed up a steep section. After a quarter mile, we passed the good camping spot less than half a mile from Iceberg Lake where the team had camped in July. The nearby running water had dried up so the site was no longer excellent. Below us was a spectacular view of the town of Lone Pine and the Owens Valley. Above us was the imposing east face of Whitney and its neighboring pinnacles (a view similar to that on the cover of Secor's book; we were a bit further way from Whitney). I think Mark said the view of the Whitney Ridge was as impressive as that of the North Palisades. If he said that I let him know how wrong he was, but I agree it was magnificent nonetheless.

The rocky trail remnant continued toward the pinnacles. We met three other climbers and joined them in a senseless act of machismo by climbing north over a waterfall. This was the most direct way to the Ice Berg Lake but it makes more sense to walk further west toward Whitney and then cut north.

Before 5 p.m. we picked one of the rock-sheltered campsites next to the lake which offered wonderful panoramic views. It was nice to dump our packs and admire the magnificent East Face of Whitney and south face of Russell. A few other climbers had camped near us. As evening fell we observed a comic drama unfold near the top of the East Face. Three climbers stood for the better part of an hour, making virtually no progress as darkness fell. We heard them yelling and saw their flashlights for more than another hour after that. The night was remarkably warm and free of wind for that elevation.

Sunday morning we started before dawn and I made it to the Whitney-Russell saddle before 7 a.m., carrying all my climbing gear plus ice ax and crampons I never needed on this trip. I had my breakfast snack as I waited for Mark to take pictures below me.

A short walk took us to the base of a long class-two couloir on Russell. After an hour long struggle on easy scree and talus, we were high on the mountain and had three non-technical routes to choose from. To the left was the exposed "class 4" diagonal ledge on the headwall that Mike and Jim had climbed. THIS WAS NOT REALLY THE CLASS 4 ROUTE, PER SECOR but it is steep and had me almost as spooked as the first time I saw it. Per Secor, this is actually the first Class 3 route he describes under "South Face, Right Side."

I stupidly recommended the next non-technical route, which is right of the headwall. It is a lousy class 4 chute which we thought was class 3. Later I dismissed Mark's suggestion that we climb the second chute to the right of the headwall, which is truly a class 3 route per Secor (and possibly the easiest way up; I'll never know for sure).

We wasted about an hour in the class 4 chute. Eventually we made it inches from the crux at the top, but the rock was too crummy for us to put any weight on it. Mark led the way up after noting that I was paralyzed with fear and frustration. But even after we traded places and I gave it a shot, neither of us could risk that last critical move. We carefully rappelled out of there feeling beaten. Mark pointed out a slab at the top of the chute that looked ready to tumble down. We had taken quite a risk with no payoff. Chills with no thrills sucks.

Mark was philosophical, content to live to see another day and take more photos. I felt brutally defeated but decided to fake an effort on the headwall before giving up. After all it was still early. To our delight the ledge was easy. After a few minutes we were perched below the last thirty-foot section of the headwall, which is extremely steep but has bomber hand and foot holds every six inches-my kind of rock. I agree with Secor 99% of the time and secretly snicker at weenies who suggest that some of Secor's class 3 ratings should be 4 or 5. But the Izzy in me cannot be suppressed in this case; I'm still convinced those last 30 feet are class 4. It's too steep and exposed and I'm too afraid of heights for it to be otherwise. Honest.

I practically flew up to the ridge and loved it. After years of dreaming I was finally on that knife edge! While Mark thought about whether or not to follow (I had no doubt he would), I surveyed the couple hundred yards of rock to the summit. I grunted over a boulder that I couldn't skirt due to the exposure on both sides. I practically tiptoed along, staying mostly on the north side of the ridge. Virgin snow made the going exciting. I prayed not to punch into any ice and gripped onto rock with both hands as often as I could. I thought that there were maybe a couple of spots where a hard fall to the north would not be necessarily fatal; there was no such margin to the south.

I reached the summit a few minutes before noon and was soon joined by a couple of other climbers, who remarked that the normal ridge route had been hairy due to ice patches under snow. Minutes later Mark showed up and took more pictures. His prints include a shot of us with snow-dusted Mt. Whitney behind us. It was nice to look up at the people on the Whitney summit rather than look down on Russell for a change! I felt higher than anyone else in the Sierra. Other nearby 14ers were clearly visible including Mt. Muir, which looked like a real mountain from this angle. I rave about the clear sky in the Sierra but this day was truly the clearest I ever experienced, without a spec of cloud.

Mark guided me over the inconvenient boulder (I hate it when I can't see a foothold) and helped me set a rappel anchor by joining three slings together. He took a nice photo of me rapping down and I returned the favor by photographing his butt surrounded by sky and rock. A climber unhooked the slings and tossed them back to us.

Mark's knees were already hurting at the top of the couloir and they took a massive pounding as we descended a thousand feet of steep scree and talus back to camp. We didn't get back to Iceberg Lake until after 4 p.m. We took our time breaking camp and started the rough journey home as the sun went down. Shortly after we started we passed one of the climbers we had met on the summit. He had made good time down climbing the East Ridge and coming up the south drainage.

My route finding on the way down was not as good as on the way up (I didn't find the red ribbons soon enough and did some extra bushwhacking where the stream flows over the slab near Clyde Meadows). We arrived at Lower Boy Scout Lake as it got dark. Another two-person team roped up at Lower Boy Scout Lake. They passed us, intending to belay each other down the Ebersbacher Ledges. The epic weekend continued-I was determined to get back to the car Sunday evening but feared that we would have to take an unacceptable risk going down the ledges since I was too tired to fool with a rope.

Then wonderful things happened. Mark got his wind back and as I whined and moaned and despaired, he spoke the words of encouragement I needed to avoid giving up. Then I remembered that Almora, one of the participants in my July attempt of Russell had surprised Pat Ibbetson and me on our way down to Whitney Portal. Pat and I made a wrong turn coming down the ledges and lost time getting back on route. We thought we were behind the rest of the team, but Almora walked down to us as we rested at a stream crossing. She explained that she had bushwhacked her way down the canyon, staying close to the creek, avoiding the ledges altogether!

I did not fully realize at that moment that in a sense, Almora would save the day for us. But a few minutes later, when the trail appeared to lead us across the stream, I remembered what she said. By then I was exhausted and Mark was leading. He didn't notice that the main trail vanished on the hard rock of the ledges and he took a spur trail south and over the stream. The icing on the cake was MORE PIECES OF STRING ON THE BRUSH appearing every few dozen yards or so. At times we had to bushwhack and I despaired, but Mark's energy and the red string and the knowledge that Almora had made it kept me going. The surreal world I had entered dulled the pain of exhaustion. It wasn't long before we hit trail, below the dreaded ledges! I wouldn't recommend this route except in the dark and only to avoid the danger of the ledges. Almora's route may have been a life saver, but It reminded me of the pleasures of George Creek.

The rest of the trip was anticlimactic. We were at Whitney Portal at 9:30 p.m. and I made it to work Monday morning. Mt. Russell is probably my last great climb in the Sierra. It fulfills a goal I set over 10 years ago of climbing the California 14ers. My interest in climbing the big peaks may be waning. Hopefully the rat will gnaw again next summer and I'll climb Starlite and Polemonium (which I did not originally count as true 14ers since they are secondary peaks).


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