Mt. Russell
(To Climb or Not to Climb That is the Question)

23-24 Aug 2003 - by Bob Bynum

Trip Participants: Kai Weidman, Cecil Anison, Mumtaz Shamsee, Brian Boyle, and Bob Bynum.

A combination of outstanding leadership, co-operative weather, good camaraderie, a beautiful sunset and sunrise, and a challenging class 3 climb equaled one of our most memorable peak climbs. Several events made me think of some passages from Shakespeare's plays.

The trip started on Saturday morning. We met at the Whitney trailhead at 8:30 AM and started hiking at 9:15 AM. Gretchen Luepke Bynum started hiking with us, but didn't intend to camp out or do the peak. After about a mile, we left the Mt Whitney trail and headed up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. At this point, Gretchen stopped and returned to the trailhead to do other exploring in the area. The rest of the day we followed a use trail that in many places is not well marked. This proved to be challenging with some bush- whacking and boulder-field crossing.

There were some difficult stream crossings, but a very picturesque waterfall where I wish we could have spent more time and gone for a swim. Also climbing the Ebersbacher Ledges in full backpack was a little hairy due to exposure. We arrived at our campsite next to Upper Boy Scout Lake at about 2:30 PM. This gave us plenty of time to set up our tents and relax before cooking dinner. We were treated to a nice alpine glow on the White Mountains to the East as the sun set. We all went to bed at about 7:30PM.

The weather was absolutely perfect for the backpack up to our base camp on Saturday. The sky was perfectly blue with not a cloud in sight. The temperature was in the 70's with a slight breeze. It was just enough to keep us cool, but not gusty. At sunset everything seemed calm. During the night, however, things changed. Around midnight, I woke up and noticed a strong wind blowing. When I looked up, I could still see the stars and figured that a storm wasn't imminent. At this point I didn't worry. By dawn things had changed. Cecil awakened us at 5:45 AM as promised. We were scheduled to start climbing at 7:00 AM. Cecil was uncertain about doing the peak. The winds had blown in and in the pre-dawn light there were clouds swirling around Third Needle, Day Needle, Keeler Needle, and Mt Whitney like some witch's brew. Above us there were numerous dark clouds. This made me think of a variation of a passage from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

"Double, double, toil and trouble
Clouds are swirling round Whitney's rubble
Thrice a stir around Third Needle
Double dark clouds about Day Needle
Killer winds on Keeler Needle
For a charm of powerful trouble
Like a hell-broth clouds do bubble
Now what about climbing Mt Russell?"

Cecil decided to wait for about 45 minutes before we made the decision to do the climb. We wanted to see if a storm was imminent or if it would just be cloudy all day. This made me think up a variation to Hamlet's soliloquy.

"To climb or not to climb, that is the question:
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of a feeling of defeat
Or to take on a climb against a raging storm"

Around 7:00 AM Cecil decided to start the climb. She thought we could turn around if the weather became inclement. For the first part of the climb, we could see the clouds swirling around Mt Whitney. It was an ominous, but beautiful sight. As we climbed higher and could see over the ridge, we had a clearer picture of the weather. There were many patches of dark cumulus clouds, but it looked like there would be no rain until late in the afternoon, if at all. The wind subsided and it was calm. Once again, I thought of another Shakespeare quote. This time from Julius Caesar.

"Friends, Californians, Peak Climbers,
We come to climb Mt. Russell, not to run from it"

Our route took us from Upper Boy Scout Lake up to the Russell-Carillon saddle. As we climbed towards the saddle, Mt Russell came into better view. From below the saddle Mt Russell looks like a giant glass shard from a broken mirror. From the saddle to the summit is a long ridge hike along the East Arete. This is the route that Norman Clyde first ascended in 1926. His description of the summit I found quite appropriate.

"The whole summit, in fact, is nothing more than a knife edge with a high point at either end."

The climb along the East Arete has some very exposed class 3 that is quite frankly very hairy. Although it is scary making an exposed class 3 maneuver, it gives me a great feeling of accomplishment. With excellent guidance from Cecil and Kai, we were all able to cross these stretches. At 10:53 AM we all summitted.

For me, actually reaching the summit of any peak produces a great sense of euphoria. The more difficult the peak the greater the sensation. This was especially true for Mt Russell with its exposed class 3 climbing and 14,086 ft elevation. I am sure the whole group agreed with me here. The view from the top was spectacular. Although there many patches of cumulus clouds, it was still a very sunny day. One notable feature is Lake Tulainyo which at 12,818 ft is the highest in the continental United States. From the peak, it appears to have a smooth beach on its Western shore.

We began our descent shortly after 11:00 AM and arrived back in camp at around 2:00 PM. Originally, the plan was to spend an extra night at Upper Boy Scout Lake, but we were not sure if the weather would produce a storm that night. We packed up and began hiking out at about 2:45 PM and arrived back at the trailhead at 5:45 PM. This was the end of wonderful trip.

The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes, and Trails, First Edition, R.J. Secor, The Mountaineers, 1992, ISBN 0-89886-313-9

Climbing California's Fourteeners, Third Printing 2001, Stephen F. Porcella and Cameron M. Burns, 1998, ISBN

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