We submit this report to add beta to the West Couloir route up Mt. Russell. Our trip began on 5:45 pm from the Shepherd pass trailhead. Given this was the evening of the 37th anniversary of Ansel Adams famous moonscape from Glacier Point, we hoped for a great moon to light our ascent. We were not disappointed! After reaching the saddle above the trailhead in two hours, the moon dwarfed our headlamps, which were rarely needed thereafter.
We hit Anvil Camp in five hours and still had hopes of reaching the pass that night. Exhaustion arrived before the pass though, and we were very fortunate to find the one and only bivy site above the Pothole open for business upon our midnight arrival. After a noisy and short night with the tent fly flapping in the steady wind, we finished the climb in about another hour and stopped for breakfast at Lake 12002.
Duly strengthened, we set out for the North Rib route up Tyndale. We agree with Secor, that, this is a good climb. Having just read Up and Down California in 1860-1864 by William Brewer, it was really cool to realize we were on the path picked by his associate Clarence King on this peaks' first assent! It was quite fun once we got over all the loose rock. I have seen lateral moraines and terminal moraines but the Williamson region is just one endless moraine!
Our original plan had been to carry our packs up to the ridge north of Tyndale and then descend into the Wright Lakes basin from which we would attempt Versteeg and or Barnard. Somehow the trip up Shepherd Pass sort of tempers one's enthusiasm for such frivolity and we left our packs at the lake like any sane climber would do.
After our 3 hour 15 minute round trip to Tyndale we donned packs and hoofed it for the JMT from which we still hoped to enter the Wright Lakes basin for the night and to attempt one more peak that day. The words of the only hiker we passed all day proved prophetic. He said, one 14'ner is enough for a day. By the time we reached Wright Creek it was 3:00 and we realized we were far better off saving our energy for an attempt on Russell the next day. We made it to Wallace Creek in time for a quick bath and a good dinner before calling it a night.
As a side note, it was nearly unbelievable that we could hike fifteen miles on the JMT and spend one night twenty feet from it while seeing a grand total of five people! September hiking has its privileges.
The temp dropped to about 22 that night so we got a more leisurely start and hit the trail about 8:00 am on Saturday. Three beautiful Saturday morning hours later we dropped packs above Guitar Lake and prepared for our assault of Russell. We got started by 12:30 and after one hour were skirting the north side of the uppermost of the Arctic Lakes. At this pace we would be back in time for an early dinner (ha ha).
The West Couloir is the obvious notch just left or West of the taller West summit of Russell. The approach is scree, cliff band, and more scree. There is an obvious crack through the cliff band that lines up with the Col itself; this was the easy and obvious way up coming from the West. Once we reached the Couloir itself, we made a little better time as we could use the sides of the Col to avoid some of the scree. The downside of such a narrow Col is that one lose rock can set the whole thing moving as happened to us at least once.
The first Chockstone we encountered was clearly visible as we approached the climb. This is the one mentioned in Climbing California's Fourteeners. It was at this point that we broke out the climbing gear. After exhausting the possibilities under and immediately around this rock we realized that the way up was about fifteen feet back down the Col up the left wall. The opportunities to protect this pitch were very few and climbing shoes would have been a welcome addition. Our supply of protection did not include small enough nuts to take advantage of the few available cracks.
Rick led this section with some difficulty but after being top-roped, I found it quite enjoyable. We then put the gear away and continued climbing the Col to the second Chockstone. This one is not mentioned in any route description we could find, and based on the clean ragged look of the granite, we suspect it is a new addition to the Col. It proved to be the crux of the climb. Once again we were only able to set protection under the Chockstone so the required move was all the more challenging for Rick as he lead.
From the bottom it looked much easier than it was as the upper left edge of the rock paralleled the left wall of the Col. The problem was that once you got your head up to the point of your hands, there was simply no hand hold to advance to. Given our lack of experience / imagination, the move boiled down to the following: grab the top edge of a chockstone about eight feet above the base of the Col and in one move unaided by any footholds bring you knee up into the crack at the level of your hands! There was simply no other appendage the right size to stick in this off-width crack. Being that neither of us are climbing gym rats, let alone gymnasts, this was more than a little challenging!
After three heroic tries, Rick succeeded in busting the move and getting over the rock. This time being top-roped allowed me to cheat because as soon as I got my head up high enough to see what I was in for, the slack was pulled out of my rope and I could make a much less strenuous second move to get over the hump.
Now neither of us knows the fine points of rating climbs, but we were more than a little misled in thinking of this as a class four route. The two pitches around the Chockstones were in the range of 5.6 and 5.8. I was going to write someone a letter about this until I read the following in Secor's introduction: The class number of a climb in this book may mean nothing. Class four may include moves up to 5.6 in the real world. This route contains two such real world adventures.
From here it was just another fifty feet or so to the notch West of the West summit. We mistakenly spent the next fifteen minutes climbing to the East summit over sandy ledges. Once there, we followed the obvious use route to the true West summit. It was more than a little exhilarating reaching the top of such a difficult peak by a route that taxed our abilities to the limit. We were also treated to a magnificent sunset but it was hard to enjoy it knowing that darkness loomed and that our descent would be no picnic.
We quickly made for the headwall between the two summits looking for the diagonal chute down to the large south face scree slope. Once we were sure we had the right spot, we used our remaining daylight to set a rappel down to the base of the headwall. In the middle of this stretch I realized that my first official rappel was in the dark off a 14 thousand foot peak. How cool is that? After completing the rappel, it was easy to see how people with just a little more skill than we have would elect to do this unroped. But given the circumstances, and having lugged that rope all the way up there it seemed silly not to use it.
From here we stayed very close together to avoid kicking rock on each other and made the upper Arctic Lake in about thirty minutes. The full moon again bathed us in enough light to make my finicky flashlight unnecessary. Dinner consisted of unfiltered water, gorp, and power gel. Not gourmet, but it got us back to camp by about 10:30 making for a ten hour round trip. An epic day in the life of two climbing wanna-be's if ever there was one!
We were too whipped to set up the tent and we learned that sufficient levels of exhaustion make even sleeping out at 11,600 feet in 25-degree weather quite comfortable. More than ready for an early hot breakfast, we were fed and on the trail up to Whitney by about 6:00 Sunday morning. We were treated to some views that once again made us think of an Ansel Adams print. The full moon reflecting off Guitar lake in the dawn light was followed by Red Kaweah living up to it's name as the sun hit the Kaweah ridge with the moon still hovering just above it.
Our plan to climb Muir on the way to Whitney was shelved after a brief look at the summit blocks from the main Whitney trail. We just didn't have the moxie for another climb of that caliber after our previous night's engagement. So the rest of our trip, up to a perfectly calm summit of Whitney, followed by a long eleven-mile descent to the Portal, was uneventful.
The final tally for our trip was 53 miles and three fourteeners in less than 72 hours. Several observations arise from a trip like this.
First, pick one peak region per trip. This will probably be intuitive to most of you but we had to learn it the hard way. The amount of energy and time spent getting from the Williamson region to the Whitney region made it difficult to climb like we had hoped to.
Second, don't underestimate the time requirements of a peak like Russell. Taking climbing gear makes the difficult portions much more fun as it removes the fear factor. But the tradeoff is that this process adds gobs of time to the climb.
Third, be prepared to bivy. This is the second Epic climb I have been on and for the second time, when faced with a long night on a mountain, I found myself inadequately prepared. The primary shortcoming was on water. I am going to try and squirrel away an extra quart on future climbs like this.
Finally, September is a great time to be in the mountains! The crowds, the bugs, and the snow are nowhere to be found and apart from the wildflowers, all the beauty is still intact.