After five years of dreaming and three attempts, Mt. Russell is in the bag! It cost several hours of climbing sand, and a post-summit bail out down the South Face in a three-hour snow flurry. One heck of a day...
That makes 8/15 California 14ers down and all of them in the southern Sierra...
We got an early 3AM start, both my buddy David and I driving up from LA on about an hour of sleep.
We stuck together up to LBSL, we reached LBSL in 2:45 (about an hour slower than my last time). It was at this point David realized he would be going much slower, we decided to split up and set a series of scenarios JIC something happened to one of us alone.
I covered the span to UBSL in about 35 minutes where I would diverge from the MR taking the Rockwell Variation up the UBSL drainage.
Though I was feeling downright chipper, and my pace wasn't half-bad (for me). I rounded UBSL and began following another couple going the same route.
I noted a difference when the couple started climbing high on the NE side of the drainage. They smushed their path right up against the vertical granite walls while, in the past, I had stayed at the bottom of the drainage, cutting upwards at the end of the drainage looking for the Rockwell chute at the last second.
They looked like they were on top of their business so I decided to follow them thinking they might know a better path through the sand and scralus. I also was hoping to catch them and have a bit of company too, curse my extroversion.
After losing sight of them, I reached a particular sand pile that marked a cliffed out chute and realized that the couple had disappeared, not only had they disappeared, but they had me on a path which would require me to lose 100+ feet of gain.
Perplexed, I guessed they must have turned back and cut directly down-hill or they had began to climb a different chute.
Cursing my bad luck, and a little melancholy of being abruptly solo. I curbed my pace and took my first break of the day.
I continued the Rockwell route up through the class 3 bluffs below Russell's E. Ridge. I tried my best to stay on solid ground and loose talus (you know the sand and incline are bad when loose talus is the better alternative), but I was still slowed.
I happened to look up and I discovered the couple of climbers who had gone MIA. I guess they had topped out a short chute that deposited them back on route...
Doing my best to pace, I slowed further, finally topping out at the notch below Russell's E. Ridge nearly FIVE HOURS after leaving UBSL.
At this point I noticed some clouds building, though the forecast called for 20% chance of T-storms above 13,100 ft in the area, I wasn't too concerned. It seems that Sunday had a bigger chance of storms.
I began the ridge, massively excited. I'm not particularly reckless, but I love me some exposure paired with good hand/footholds. Russell delivers on both.
I was finally enjoying the hike, nabbing a few good photos, and loving the day. I happened to notice that I was in sight of Independence so I pulled out my phone, flipped airplane mode to off in order to update David (who was supposed to finish earlier than me) and update Instagram.
A few moments after switching my phone on, a blaring signal rang aloud. Looking at my phone a mass area emergency alert notified me of imminent storm danger for t-storms and dust storms. Looking down to the valley I notice several large dust clouds ripping along.
I hustled along to the next ridge-top spot and looked south to behold a LARGE rain squall building from Lone Pine Peak all the way to the Great Western Divide. It had built behind the Whitney Massif hiding it beforehand.
I swallowed a lump in my throat. I was just below the east summit, and with the West (high) summit a little further beyond I didn't want to turn around empty handed. There were scattered clouds overhead and to the north and west.
I hadn't seen any evidence of lightning, but the East Ridge of Russell is probably the worst place on planet Earth to be for an electric storm.
I continued on cautiously, I was keeping a low center of gravity while climbing in short quick bursts. If my heart rate got too high, the sleep deprivation and altitude would leave me woozy with ringing in my ears until my heart-rate settled.
As I neared the East summit I caught sight of the other couple working their way up Russell. After a shouting match we were able to help each other find the correct route. Soon we were over the East summit and heading west.
Within 20 minutes the couple reached the West summit, tapped the high point and headed back. I ran into them as they came off of the top. A short conversation ensued about the weather and our need to get of this death-trap of a ridge. I mention the S. Face exit chimney, which is a short 80-90 ft climb down the S. Face. From there we could top out Iceberg Col and descend via the MR.
They seemed to acquiesce, saying that they would go slow to let me catch up.
I nodded and climbed the last 50 ft to the top of Mt. Russell at 2:27 PM, 11 hours + ascent time. Woof.
I took a few moments to snap some photos, eat a snack and sign the register (I couldn't the books were SOAKED.)
I began to head back, shouting ahead to the other climbers who had climbed past the S. Face exit. After another shouting match they decided to follow the ridge back due to the quick and easy sand-slog down from Russell-Carillon Col.
Not wanting to get caught vulnerable I decided to stick with the bail out plan.
I located the chimney with a purported class 3 descent. After noting the number of rap slings and the keen bit of exposure, I would say that this chimney is a solid class 4, no bones about it.
Once in chute I switched to trekking poles and began my descent as a breezy snowstorm began.
Russell's S. Face isn't sandy like I would have hoped. The top half is god awful scralus. I only found sand in the merciful bottom-third of the face. The descent was painstaking as I began to become worried about how long this would take. Though I was prepared for a bit of rain, the snow would persist for THREE HOURS. Up high it began to stick, but lower it would melt and soak clothing.
I began to really worry about David. At this point, the feeling of being off-trail in terra incognito, mixed with the exertion of the climb, the loneliness, and the dismal weather conditions led me to develop a keen concern for my well-being.
I don't get scared, miserable perhaps, but I was getting scared. The weather forecast was wrong and I was now facing some portion of the descent in the dark. I was afraid of hypothermia. I was concerned about the slabs between LBSL and UBSL getting slick in the precipitation, as well as the E-ledges. I was getting more tired by the hour and worried about David. How would he find these conditions? He's smart but he was feeling the altitude and this was his first time on a big route like the MR (he did study the route religiously as a precaution).
Despite our precautions, and our preparations for such a late return, the dismal mood of the Whitney-Russell moonscape had me in a funk.
I managed to bust up to a Col different than the Iceberg Col, but I made it work. As I rounded Iceberg Lake, the snow began to fall redoubled. As I picked my way down the slippery chute to the Whitney moraines, the East Face of Whitney and the Needles almost disappeared into the white.
It took what seemed like an eternity, but I reached UBSL around 6:30 PM. From here the rain/snow subsided for the last time.
In the next 2 hours my mood perked and I found no issue with the slabs, E-ledges, or otherwise. I returned to the Mt. Whitney Main Trail at 9PM where I found David slowly making his way down. He was out of gas, but he had a good mood considering and seemed fully ambulatory.
We hit the TH at 9:30PM. A LONG DAY of 18.5 hours, but still a memorable day nonetheless. Not bad for only having an hour of sleep. I could have shaved 2-3 hours off had I gone solo, but it was great doing it with David and he made a personal best in terms of his hardest day in the mountains yet.
We got down to Lone Pine to look for a place to sleep, but alas, we looked in vain. We ate some Carl's Jr, slept an hour or so in my car and drove home, arriving at 3 am for a total turn-around time of 27 hrs.