Mt. Russell
(Fishhook Arete)

23 Aug 1998 - by Jim Curl

I'd gone in to climb this a couple years ago with David Ress, but the weather played tricks on us. That first morning we awoke to drizzle, so we decided to run up the East Face of Whitney. After nearly being electrocuted at the summit, we hiked down through ankle deep hailstones in the gully to hours of more rain at Iceberg Lake. In uncharacteristic fashion, probably influenced by his wife and friend who were both having no fun, Dave decided it was best to bail the next morning. And so we did -- in perfect weather.

I had planned to return this year with Bruce Bousfield, but he had to cancel at the last minute. Disappointment. My Sierra technical alpine climbing score for 1998: Zero.

"What about me?" Dot Reilly was planning on joining us at Iceberg Lake and surprised me with a request to climb the Fishhook. I didn't think she wanted to do it. We looked over the topo from Moynier's book. "Why does it say 5.9 when there are no pitches marked harder than 5.8?" A good question.

Windy and cold as we crossed over the Whitney-Russell Col to approach the climb. A beautiful "J" shaped arete, the Fishhook has the look of a classic. Now we were going to see if it was.

"You might as well just toss that Moynier book away", someone told us later. Well, I like John Moynier's book, if only because it offers inspiration. Hey, it's another list to complete! But, the directions and route topos, well, they aren't always too accurate. Just get used to it.

The Fishhook starts off pretty tame with a ropelength of easy stuff that I could solo. That second pitch got us onto the arete proper with some funky 5.8. It didn't help that we were shivering with the damn wind. At this point, the Moynier topo directs you out left onto the face for two pitches. But the party in front of us stayed on the arete and seemed to be having fun. They called it 5.9, Dot called it 5.8 and I thought it might just be 5.7. Whatever. It was fine climbing and certainly not something to avoid. The only caveat was that we had to climb down into the notch (5.7?) instead of traverse into it.

Pitch five was supposed to be the crux at 5.8+. Well, it wasn't that hard, wasn't the crux, but was by far the most enjoyable pitch of the climb. Too bad there weren't nine of those pitches stacked up on top of each other. Excellent rock, good pro, exposure, fun moves, the whole deal. And it was finally warming up and getting less windy! The pitch above that also sported a few moves you might want to call 5.8, but it was easier overall. It ended in an awkward chimney (is that an oxymoron?) which you don't have to chimney at all if you don't want to since it has a nice hand crack there.

The last three pitches were listed as 5.5, 5.5 and 4th class on our infamous little topo. Baloney. I couldn't find any way to stay on the arete that wasn't at least 5.8. Maybe I missed something. We waffled off to the right for some sandy walking and still had some 5.7/5.8 to get back up there. The last pitch included a short 5.6 hand crack, but variations were possible, both harder and easier.

Trumpets sounded as we pulled onto the summit and entered our names into the hallowed book.

Fortunately, Dot had climbed the South Face of Russell before and knew how to find the devious little class 3 descent. Slogging back over the Col, I looked over my shoulder at our climb. Was it a classic? Oh I don't know. It is very pretty looking, especially from the top of Mt. Whitney. Sure, we'll call it a classic.

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