Whitney and Russell

15 Aug 1997 - by Jim Ramaker

Five of us met at Whitney Portal on the morning of Friday, Aug. 15 to attempt Mt. Whitney (14,494') and Mt. Russell (14,086'). The group included Arun Mahajan, David Shaw, Bob Suzuki, and co-leaders Charles Schafer and myself (Jim Ramaker). We hiked up the north fork of Lone Pine Creek, starting at 10 a.m. and getting a morning wake-up on the short exposed section of the Ebersbacher Ledges. We had lunch at Lower Boy Scout Lake and pushed on to Iceberg Lake at 12,600', arriving in a hailstorm around 4:30 after a gain of 4200'. We got our tents up and the weather slowly cleared to a beautiful cool breezy alpine evening. The cool breeze sent us to bed shortly after 7, so we had one of those long sleeps you sometimes get on PCS trips.

Saturday we were up at 6 -- Bob and Charles to do the 1500-foot, 5.7 East Face of Whitney, and Arun, David, and I to do the Mountaineer's route. The three of us cruised up the Mountaineer's route with no problems, avoiding the scree and climbing the sandy class 2-3 ledges on the way up to the notch. From the notch we climbed the wide chute about 50 feet past it on the left, climbing carefully to avoid the ice flow and the small icy patches in the chute. About 9:30, after 2 1/4 hours of climbing, we stepped from the mountaineering world to the tourist world of the plateau. It was a beautiful calm morning, and after a long rest on the summit, we departed about 11 and arrived back in camp at 12:30. This climb seemed easier than when I did it last year -- it is definitely not one of those all-day PCS epics, though it's still a sporty and interesting climb in spectacular surroundings.

While the three of us relaxed all afternoon at Iceberg Lake, Bob and Charles were putting in a long, exciting day high above us. They got a bit off route above the Fresh Air Traverse, and had to downclimb over 100' to find the correct crack. Above that, they saved time by climbing unroped on some of the class 3-4 pitches, and summitted at 2 p.m. After that they hiked a mile and 700 vertical feet down the Mt. Whitney trail to bag Mt. Muir (14,015). Then it was back up to 14,500 and down the Mountaineer's route, finally arriving back in camp at 7:30 p.m.

Around this time we had a fascinating visitor drop by our camp -- a world-class mountaineer from Bulgaria named Val Trenev. He was helping lead a coed group of about a dozen teenage Explorer Scouts, and told us off-handedly of some of his mountaineering exploits. He'd climbed the north faces of the Eiger and the Matterhorn, done a first ascent in the Torres del Paine, skied the Whitney Mountaineer's route in one day in winter, and so forth. And he was no bullshitter -- before he'd dropped by, we'd watched him cruise unroped up a 100' vertical cliff above our camp, which he later casually dismissed as "only 5.8+". Suitably humbled and charmed by this mountaineering demigod, we washed our dishes and slunk off to bed.

Sunday was Russell day, and the plan was to hike down to Upper Boy Scout Lake and climb the East Ridge from there. We made good time, packing up our camp, hiking down, setting it up again, and leaving for the climb by 9 a.m. I'd forgotten how painful the scree slope leading up to Russell is -- steep, loose, and unrelenting for a full 1500'. At 11 we finally stepped onto the strange desert-like plateau at 13,000', and strolled over to the Russell-Carillon saddle. The spiry East Horn of Russell glowered down at us, and our mood was not lifted when we ran into two climbers on a CMC trip who'd just turned back on the East Ridge because of the exposure. After some minor procrastination, we started on the ridge at 12.

Right at the beginning there's a knife-edge section with some narrow upright slabs cross-wise to the ridge, and we got our first taste of the vast exposure on both sides of the ridge as we did some awkward straddling moves over the slabs. After that, the ridge rises steeply toward the East Horn (not to be confused with the East Summit farther on), with the only possible route going up a steeply sloping slab with some parallel cracks high up on the right side of the ridge. The slab looks frightening to climb unroped, but take heart, this section, like most of the East Ridge, is not as bad as it first appears. One of the cracks up on the slab is a knee-deep trough that we strolled up in almost total security. And the rock here, like almost everywhere on the ridge, is solid, with fairly frequent handholds and a rough texture that gives excellent friction.

After we passed the East Horn, the East Summit came into view about 500' away, and this section is the hardest part of the climb. We climbed briefly on the knife-edge, but most of the time on slabs and ledges 10 to 20' down on the right. This section requires total concentration, as the exposure on the right is hideous and a slip could be fatal.

But again, take heart -- you're always on slabs or ledges on an inclined "shelf" with good holds, and not on a vertical wall hanging your butt out over the void. And all of the actual moves are class 3 or easier -- if you find yourself struggling in terror on tiny holds or on a smooth inclined slab, back up and look for an easier way, because you're probably off route. Bill Kirkpatrick describes the East Ridge of Russell as like climbing on the curved upper part of the wall of a bathtub, and that's a good description (there's even a pool of water at the bottom of the wall, except it's 1000 feet below and filled with icebergs).

As the ridge rises toward the East Summit, we kept traversing at the same level instead of following it up, aiming for the bottom of a nebulous gully about 50' below the east summit. Once we reached that point, the scary part of the climb was over. We climbed up almost all the way to the East Summit (class 3, but not exposed at all), then traversed another 500' or so over to the West Summit on sidewalk ledges about 20' down on the right side of the ridge. It's best to go a few feet past the West Summit on the ledges before climbing up to it.

It took an hour for the five of us to traverse the 2000-foot long ridge -- a smaller party that didn't stop to rest and BS could do it much more quickly. We relaxed on the summit for 40 minutes or so, reading the register and admiring the views of peaks near (Whitney, Williamson) and far (Great Western Divide, Palisades). Around 1:30 we retraced our steps, or tried to -- at a couple places we went slightly lower or higher than on the way up. By 2:30 we were back on safe ground at the Russell- Carillon saddle, celebrating our triumph. We then did the 20-minute class-2 scramble up to the summit of Carillon (13,552'), and took a long break. Bob wanted to climb Mt. Tunnabora (13,565'), a mile away to the north across the Tulainyo Lake basin, and I agreed to go with him. Arun, David, and Charles had had enough and departed for the lowlands.

Around 4, Bob and I dropped down off the saddle (a 500' descent, class 2 if you zig-zag on ledges, class-3 if you go straight down) and strolled across the Tulainyo Lake basin on boulders and deeply suncupped snow. This basin, home to the highest named lake in the United States, is a silent, lonely, and beautifully peaceful place.

The climb up Tunnabora was an easy class-2 scramble, just like Carillon but a bit longer. We summitted at 5 and enjoyed tremendous views. To the north were the Palisades, Mt. Williamson, and an impressive, seldom- visited cirque at the head of George Creek canyon. To the south was the spectacular ridge on Russell we'd just climbed, with its tiny shelf of slabs and ledges atop a vast vertical wall.

After suitable celebrations on our third summit of the day, Bob and I headed home thru the waning light. We powered straight up the boulders to the Russell-Carillon saddle, then raced down the boulders and scree to camp, dropping 2000 feet in 40 minutes, and arriving at 7 p.m.

Like Iceberg Lake the night before, Upper Boy Scout Lake was a popular camp, with about a dozen or so tents set up. A neighboring woman dropped by to wait anxiously for her eight friends to come down from Whitney, and they finally staggered in exhausted about 8:30. A full moon rose over the jagged north ridge of Thor's Peak, and Bob and I stayed up for awhile talking, savoring the last hours of a spectacular day in the mountains.

Monday we strolled down the canyon and got briefly lost on the Ebersbacher Ledges, but still made it to the cars in 2 1/2 hours. The traditional post-climb lunch at the Bishop Sizzler brought our adventure to a close.

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