14'ers Weekend: Russell, Whitney, Muir, Langley

1 Sep 1996 - by Jim Ramaker

This adventure last September started as a private trip led by Debbie Benham to Mt. Russell (14,086), which Secor calls "the finest peak in the Mt. Whitney region." The Russell basecamp is close to the Whitney mountaineer's route, a climb I'd long wanted to do. So I got a few days off from work and started scheming -- I'd do Russell with Debbie, then try to solo the mountaineer's route and do some other peaks after she hiked out.

Debbie and I met at Whitney portal early on a Friday morning. Some PCS'ers who'd hoped to join us had cancelled, and a climber from Southern California who'd promised via the internet to meet us never showed up. So just Debbie and I headed up the north fork of Lone Pine Creek, using the description in Secor and the many tips from PCS'ers. We traversed the exposed Ebersbacher Ledges and continued up the canyon to Upper Boy Scout Lake. The only tricky part was finding the four creek crossings -- in between them the heavily used path is almost like a maintained trail. We got to the lake in four hours, leaving plenty of time to nap in a beautiful meadow below the lake next to a miniature trout stream. Weather was clear and mild and remained so for my entire six-day trip.

Saturday morning we headed up the long scree slope south of the lake at 7:20. By 9:00 we were at the Russell-Carrilon saddle, gazing in horror at the east ridge of Russell rising above us to the left, with its narrow crest and hundreds of feet of exposure on either side. Debbie and I talked about turning back, then agreed to at least do the class-2 terrain up to the first point on the ridge to get a better look. From there we could see a sloping shelf on the right side of the ridge, curving over into a 1000-foot face like a water slide into oblivion. A shallow slot and some cracks ran along a shelf parallel to the ridge crest, and I carefully climbed along them, testing each hold.

Finally I made it up to the second point on the ridge, where the ridge crest was just a foot wide, with nothing to hold onto. Luckily I spotted a narrow hidden ledge down on the right that allowed me to avoid the crest. It was a strange climb -- several times I thought I was stopped by a knife edge or a large block on the ridge crest with big air on both sides. But every time, there was a small shelf or ledge down on the right that provided a safe way through. At one point I did have to straddle a sharp edge crosswise to the ridge crest and clamber over it.

Finally I got within reach of the east summit. There was a nice scree shelf just before it, and the climb up to it looked like safe class 3. The higher west summit was hidden several hundred feet past it, but Secor said the ridge between the east and west summits was easy, so if I could get to the base of the east summit, the difficulties should be over. In a couple more minutes I was there. Debbie had decided to stay back on the second point on the ridge, now about 500 feet behind me. I waved back to her, climbed up to the east summit, then started the traverse. It was still a bit scary, but the sloping shelf on the right of the ridge crest was wider here, with plenty of good holds. A few more minutes and I was on the summit.

Views were tremendous in all directions, and I could see tiny figures on the summit of Mt. Whitney, about a mile south and 400 feet higher, with a chasm in between. I ate a PowerBar and read the register, and was humbled by the many tales of technical climbs on the classic "fishhook arete." After awhile it was time to go, and I carefully retraced my steps, trying to remember exactly where I'd gone at each point because I knew that way had worked out. Finally I passed the last scary spot where you have to take a short step across 100 feet of air (with good handholds).

Debbie wanted to climb Mt. Carillon (13,552), a short class-2 climb up beautiful granite boulders. In about 20 minutes we were on the summit, and the view back to Mt. Russell took our breath away. For the first time we could see the ridge in its entirety. It looked like a thin 1000-foot high blade of granite, and the shelf I'd climbed on was really just the upper 20 feet of a smooth 1000-foot high cliff that curved over slightly at the top. If we'd done Carillon first, we might've been too psyched out to try Russell.

There was also a great view looking down Carillon's north face into the cirque containing Lake Tulainyo, at 12,800 feet the highest officially named lake in the United States. The lake was a beautiful blue-green, with a permanent snowfield along one side of it calving off small icebergs.

After a rest, we headed back across the plateau and descended the long scree slope to our camp, arriving about 4 p.m. Debbie had to hike out the next morning, and we decided to split up so I could move my camp up higher for my attempt on Mt. Whitney. I left my tent and stove with her, since the weather was cloudless and I wasn't planning to cook in the morning, and headed up the talus slope south of Upper Boy Scout Lake.

At the top of the slope I emerged from behind a high ridge on my right and there it was -- the east face of Whitney. I'd seen it so many times in photos and in the distance while hiking in, and now it was just a mile away. I was in a wild mountain amphitheater of boulders, moraine, and glacial rubble, with granite walls soaring upwards on three sides -- a real Valhalla of the mountain gods. It was a new Sierra experience to stand at 12,000 feet and see a vertical wall of granite rising another 2500 feet.

I made my way up through this amphitheater, found the obvious break in the cliff to my right, and climbed 400 feet to Iceberg Lake at 12,600. The start of the east face route and the bottom of the mountaineer's gully were now just a few hundred feet away. Several other parties of Mt. Whitney climbers were camped at the lake. I grabbed a campsite next to a boulder and had a quick meal. A wind came up and it got quite cold as the light faded, but with my down jacket on inside my sleeping bag I was soon toasty warm. Some clouds drifted in and gave me some anxious moments, way up there without a tent, but I could still see the stars through them so I figured they weren't heavy enough to bring rain.

Next morning I was up in pitch darkness at 5:30, packing my gear and forcing down some cold cereal. I was ready to go at 6:20 but decided to sit and wait for the rising sun to hit the east face. Because it faces due east and is at such a high elevation, the face offers perhaps the best alpenglow in the 48 states. I was not disappointed -- one minute the face was grey and gloomy, and the next minute the whole thing was aflame with deep golden light. What a sight! A few pictures and I was on my way.

The mountaineer's gully was not bad -- I climbed up loose class-2 rubble in the center and up sandy class-3 ledges on the right wall. I wanted to be the first person up it so I wouldn't have people above me kicking down rocks, and no problem there -- I was halfway up the gully before the other parties were even out of bed. But I was surprised at the halfway point to see a party of three climbing down the gully toward me. Turned out they were technical climbers who'd climbed the east face the day before, arrived on top at sunset, and spent the night there without sleeping bags. They'd had a cold night but were very happy to have done their climb.

By 8 a.m. I was at the top of the gully and at the tricky part of the climb. From there you can either traverse across a steep snowfield and climb easy class-3 rock, or climb straight up some harder rock. I could see instantly that the snowfield was out of the question -- a summer of melting and refreezing had turned it into water ice, and I wouldn't have tried it even with ice axe and crampons (which I didn't have) -- to me it required a rope to protect the traverse. That left the rock. I'd been warned to avoid a wide gully because of icy patches in it and climb a rock buttress to its right. I tried this, but was soon on class-4 rock.

Then for the first time really, I looked at the gully to the left of the buttress. It had some patches of ice, but they were small and easily avoided, and there was a series of ledges zig-zagging up that looked doable. They led to the upper part of the right-hand buttress, and the best thing was that a rock at the top of the buttress was catching the morning sun, which could only mean that the sunlight was coming across the summit plateau and striking it. If I could get to that sunlit rock, I'd be on the summit plateau. I climbed up the ledges, avoiding loose gravel and icy patches, and was soon on the right-hand buttress. A few awkward moves up big blocks and flakes, and I placed my hand on the sunlit block and hauled myself onto the summit plateau. It was 8:30.

Amazingly, no one was around -- the first of the 150 or so people allowed on the trail each day had not yet arrived. Climbing the mountaineer's route was the fulfillment of a long-term goal -- but I never expected to do it alone and find nothing but peace and quiet on top! I signed the register -- one memorable entry was from an 82-year old man named Charles French who did one of the first ascents of the east face in 1935, and climbed the peak again via the trail 61 years later! That must be a record for the longest time between ascents by the same person.

After a rest, I turned to the day's next challenge -- Mt. Muir (14,015), about 1 1/2 miles down the trail. The summit is only 200 feet above the trail, and finding it is the first problem -- Secor recommends taking a compass bearing to locate it among a bunch of other pinnacles and rock piles. A simpler way is to hike down for 30 minutes or so and look for a 200-foot high peak to the left of the trail and a 10-foot high pinnacle to the right.

The first 150 feet of the climb is just scree, but don't underestimate this peak. The last 50 feet is tricky and exposed, with a death fall possible as you move across a high downsloping ledge. Secor's description is helpful -- the other descriptions I looked at including "California 14'ers" are worthless. Finally I got to a crack just below the small rounded summit, but was afraid to make the last move. I almost turned around, then suddenly thrashed my way up, signed in, took 20 deep breaths, and climbed carefully down.

Back on the trail, I joined the parade of hikers heading up Whitney. It's funny, but on the highest mountain in the 48 states you see some of the least experienced climbers in the Sierras -- a guy wearing a light windbreaker and carrying nothing but an empty 12-oz. water bottle, a teenage girl who'd somehow lost her daypack, and many people who'd come up from the bottom of the valley at 4000 feet that day, stumbling along with bad altitude sickness. According to the summit register, many of these folks are shocked to find no water fountain on top.

Back at the summit I joined the people resting there and realized the altitude was starting to hit me, though this was my third day up high and that helped a lot. I found a sandy crevice among the summit boulders, lay down in it to get out of the cold breeze, and took a short nap so I'd be alert for the descent.

About 2 p.m. I started back down the mountaineer's route. The first bit was the only hard part -- downclimbing the big flakes and avoiding the icy patches in the upper gully. Down in the main mountaineer's gully, I caught up with a party of three guys from LA and had a great time climbing and talking with them the rest of the way down. Near the bottom of the gully around 3:30 we were surprised to pass two young lads on the way up. They'd come in from the trailhead that day and were hoping to do the mountaineer's route and then hike down the trail (12 additional miles) to their cars by nightfall! I didn't read about them in the paper later, so I figure they either spent a cold night out near the summit without sleeping gear, or else spent the entire night hiking down the trail in the dark.

Down at the lake I packed up my backpack, then hiked down through the amphitheater to the lower lake where Debbie had left my tent and stove. On Monday I hiked out, had lunch in Lone Pine, and drove south to the Horseshoe Meadows campground to try Mt. Langley (14,026). The huge campground in a timberline forest at 10,000 feet was all but deserted. As I cooked supper at my picnic table, I watched a family of four from LA move in next door with an incredible pile of camping gear -- three gigantic 12x12 foot tents (including a cooking gazebo), a kitchen unit with cabinets and propane tanks, and enough firewood to last the winter.

Next morning I got up in the starry darkness again and got rolling by 7. My plan was to dayhike Langley. It was 10 miles away, but 7 of the miles were on easy trails without much climbing, and the 3 miles beyond that were supposed to be all class 1 and 2. I had no map, but figured I'd just wander up the trail, get above timberline, and look for a break in the huge cliffs leading up to the Sierra Crest. Once on the crest, the summit would be in view and the terrain was supposed to be pretty easy.

I hiked up through the beautiful forest, then emerged into a vast open basin of alpine meadows and lakes. I could see the sloping bulk of Langley in the distance, and I spotted a gully leading up to a break in the cliffs that looked like class 2. This gully, northwest of Cottonwood Lake #5, turned out to be a mile north of the route over Old Army Pass recommended by a ranger in Lone Pine, but it was more direct and interesting so I think it's the way to go.

The 2000-foot climb up the gully to the Sierra crest was lonely but beautiful, wandering up through a jumble of boulders as big as pickup trucks, then up sandy scree slopes with huge cliffs above. At the top was a 10-foot, nearly vertical snow bank that stopped me for a minute, but I soon found a way to clamber up it. Above was an amazing sight -- a vast silent sandy plateau extending for about 2 miles, all of it above 13,000 feet, devoid of vegetation, marked only by a climbers' foot trail that looked like a camel track through the Sahara desert. I strolled up that camel track under cloudless skies, heading for the final 500-foot boulder pile that led to the summit. It was almost like walking on a beach. Scrambling up the boulders, I caught up to a foursome from LA, and just after 1 p.m. we topped out.

The hike down was great fun -- I just had to find the correct spot to leave the plateau and go down the scree gully (there's no sign of it from the plateau, just a 2-mile long cliff edge). Going down the gully, I was startled by a sudden loud rushing sound as a large flock of swifts flew past me at incredible speed. Part way down the gully, I passed a circular lake bed of perfectly flat dry sand about 200 feet across, hidden in the giant boulders.

I got down to Cottonwood Lake #5 at 3:30 and took a long break, then continued down the beautiful trail past the other Cottonwood Lakes and down into the forest. I got back to my camp just after 6 p.m., for an 11-hour day. But 3 of those hours were spent taking various breaks, so Langley is very doable as a dayhike, even in fall when the days are shorter. I slept well under the stars that night, waking briefly to listen to the campground bears bang the garbage cans around a few hundred feet away (luckily they didn't visit my camp).

Wednesday morning I headed home, stopping to explore the strange rock towers of the Alabama Hills above Lone Pine, where many famous movies and cowboy shows were filmed. The ghosts of Gene Autry, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Stewart drifted about in the morning sun as the east face of Whitney stood sentinel in the distance.

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