On Saturday, August 12, Dee and I chugged up to Iceberg Lake near the base of the technical routes on Mt Whitney and near the Whitney-Russell Col which is the access to the Fish Hook Arete on Mt Russell. Iceberg Lake on the weekend is kind of like Everest Base Camp. Tents and people everywhere. This chug is about 3.8 miles and 4200 feet of elevation gain.
On Sunday morning, August 13 (Happy Birthday, Dee!), we headed out for the Fish Hook Arete and arrived at the foot of the arete about 7:00 AM. An indistinct trail in the scree marked one starting point for the arete so we started there. It looked lower 5th class so we roped up and took off up the arete. I kept to the left of the arete by about 15 to 30 feet and ran the rope out about 175 feet. This was moderate 5th class. We were now committed to this route since it was difficult to downclimb to a lower route or climb up to the arete proper. The next pitch went for another 175 feet and required some 5.9 climbing. The next two pitches were 100 feet each and maybe 5.8. I do not believe this is the route described by Moynier and Fiddler. We arrived above the "Notch" described in Moynier and Fiddler and rappelled down into the notch on a rap point left by someone earlier.
The next pitch is a neat-o section that ascends the arete directly. It is rated 5.8+ but is probably only 5.7. Big time fun, especially since it is in the sun! Following that is "the Chimney" pitch which is about 5.7-5.8 or so and is mostly a pain. The next section is where we lost it. Supposedly it goes for two 5.5 pitches and then one fourth class pitch on the right side of the arete. We went up one 5.5ish pitch and then up some tough stuff that terminated on what looked like 5.9 finger locks....we dropped back down and continued around to the right. This ended up with an escape on a grainy 5.6 or so hand cack that allowed access to the summit ridge. This pitch was grainy (nobody goes there), somewhat poor pro, and somewhat runout. There was no fourth class pitch in sight. Once on the ridge, we were done and strolled up to the summit and signed in. Twelve hours from the bottom of the ridge to the summit.
Since the hour was late we packed up our stuff and headed for the East summit in order to look for the way down. About 50 feet or so from the East summit itself, we started looking over the edge. There is a cairn there, not particularly obvious, but it is there (I nearly bashed my face on it looking over the edge...duh). As inobvious as it looks it is easy 4th/3rd class (thanks Arun). Dropping down here about 50 feet put us on the scree. We raced the failing light to the bottom of the scree slope heading for a huge groove (trail) in the scree that goes left (east). We made it to the trail just as the sunlight disappeared. From there we just cruised in the twilight/moonlight to the Whitney-Russell Col and dropped down there to Iceberg Lake.
The weather was perfect. No clouds, no threatening weather, plenty of monlight. The wind was minimal. This route has a reputation for being both windy and cold. In spite of the excellent weather, neither Dee nor I took our windblock 300 weight fleece jackets off all day.
Assessment: I think we went up the opening pitches via the same route that Scott and Arun took and Jim and Dot used in 1998. I think this is off route, if the route is defined in "100 Classics" by Moynier and Fiddler. My guess is that in my haste I went past the escape to the left that would have allowed for easier access to the "notch". The arete tilts a fair amount and once in the middle area it is difficult to escape to the right, on to the arete itself, or to the left (downclimbing overhanging stuff...) in order to try and find the Moynier-Fiddler route. This commits the climber(s) to some tough stuff. If the pitch out of the notch is rated 5.8+ then the climbing in here can get into the 5.9 zone, depending on which crack is chosen. This also forces the climber(s) to go above the notch and either downclimb or rap into the notch. Time consuming.
The pitches past the chimney pitch are not obvious (to me). We went around to the right on what looked like the route (footprints in the sandy area) and then ended on a shelf which looked like hard climbing to get past the next gendarme. We dropped back down and went around to the right. This was loose, grainy, and had some poor pro. We finally gained the summit ridge on a grainy 5.6 crack and then strolled over to the summit. There was no 4th class pitch on the route we took.
Opinion: This route gnawed away at my sense of humor all day. The opening pitches are stone cold, even without the wind. It is not obvous which way to go. If the "crux" is the pitch out of the notch then these pitches have some hard 5.9. The pitches past the chimney are not obvious. We ended up wandering around on 5.5-5.6 with poor pro. Only the pitch escaping the "notch" and the chimney pitch were right on the arete proper. To me, this route is not very aesthetic. It is not right on the spectacular arete and wanders back and forth too much. I do not recommend this route to a 5.8 climber. Getting off route on the early pitches requires solid 5.9 skills (or aid) and getting off route on the top pitches requires running it out somewhat (5.6) over potentially dubious pro.