Ah, it is good to know that we are in good health! In the ongoing series of matchups “Steve & Misha vs. the Sierra in winter” the mountains are undefeated, nor are we in danger of getting rich as a result of our imperfect effort. We are, however, slowly perfecting the art of enjoying ourselves irrespective of reaching the summit.
The enjoyment began at six o’clock in the morning on the day of our approach. Sunrise still an hour away, groggy noggins deprived of adequate sleep by a marathon shagfest somewhere nearby in the wee hours of the morning, gear heaped in piles about the room awaiting organization; we were prepared to start the day in fine fashion. The seconds ticked by toward the dreadful hour: three, two, one…blessed silence.
By mutual agreement we decided the night before to eschew mechanical contrivances and allow ourselves to awaken naturally, as sun and bodily need dictated. Though somewhat grueling, our first day’s walk could easily be done in about a half day. Why rush?
At the crack of ten we finalized our preparations, still amazed that we held a legitimate wilderness permit. We had figured that there were none available, but that the chances were still good that rangers would be patrolling the lower main trail asking for permits. So our plan was to get some kind of permit, then feign ignorance if asked to show our hall pass. But all that scheming was unnecessary. When Misha approached the counter asking for a North Fork permit the ranger simply said, “okay.” I’m sure it was Misha’s confident stride and imposing mien that did the trick.
Our trip had originally been planned for the previous weekend, but we had scrubbed at the last minute due to an impending atmospheric meltdown. We had tried in vain to get accurate information on just how much damage that system had done to our chances before leaving town, but had come up with next to nothing. Thus, I made a point of arriving in Lone Pine early enough the day before to get a good fix on conditions. It appeared that our approach route would be snow-free, which heartened us considerably. But we could not really tell what lay in store for us on our intended routes: the southwest ridge of “The Cleaver” and the North Arete of Mt. Russell.
We had grand plans of traversing the Cleaver, circling round Tulainyo Lake, ascending Russell, then descending the south chutes and thence back to the car. However, the mountains had other plans for us. At Lower Boy Scout Lake it was obvious that the usual route up to Clyde Meadow and Upper Boy Scout Lake was about as secure as the road to Baghdad airport. Snow covered the talus and slabs, mocking our notions of walking upright.
So we availed ourselves of an alternate route described by Peter Croft in The Good, the Great, and the Awesome. A chute on the north side of the meadow leads up to a broad slab conveniently poised above a huge overhang. If you successfully pass your initiation on the slab, the Powers of the mountain allow you to proceed directly to Upper Boy Scout Lake without groveling up, over, and through the loose talus, truck-sized boulders, and willows that rule the opposite side of the canyon. Even without snow on the regular route, I would recommend this alternative to anyone with confidence on exposed slabs.
We passed the test, and soon found ourselves at Upper Boy Scout Lake. Photography, eating, and hydration occupied us for the better part of an hour until the sun threatened to disappear behind the ridge towering overhead. Prior to departing we had discussed taking the so-called “Rockwell Variation” to reach the Russell-Carillon saddle. But from what we could see, it didn’t appear any more promising than the mess looming above us. And then there was the matter of it’s being completely in the shade. Getting cold and wondering if there was really a way out of that box canyon didn’t fit into our “enjoy the mountains” philosophy, so we bagged it in favor of trying to stay on the talus slopes off to the east.
That we were successful is testament to our good fortune and nothing else. Our luck consisted of finding a use trail that mislead us away from the standard route and up into the last gully before the south ridge of Carillon. The talus on either side of the chute was relatively stable. Indeed, even the center, where the “trail” zigzagged its way up, was remarkably free of scree. I highly recommend this route over both the standard route and the Rockwell Variation (which we observed from above the next day).
The plateau beneath the Russell-Carillon saddle bears a remarkable resemblance to the images of Mars beamed back to Earth by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers. Only the most determined curmudgeon could fail to succumb to the pleasure of strolling across this fascinating landscape in the warm sunshine and calm air.
Our original plan had been to descend from the saddle and make camp near Tulainyo Lake. However, the steep slope on the north side served as a formidable deterrent. So we decided to make spend the night at the saddle. Campsites were not exactly abundant, but we found a reasonably flat sandy spot and plopped our gear on the ground.
Dinner was a delicious combo of couscous and curried tuna. At no time during the day were we as glad to find that Diamox actually works than when we were chowing down, taking in the fading light on Mt. Whitney and the surrounding crags. Not only did it spare us the headaches that come with rapid ascent, but it preserved our appetite—we could eat and actually enjoy it!
The only drawback to our choice of camp sites was the lack of water. There was a brief discussion about when we should undertake the task of melting water for the next day—now or in the morning? Somehow it seemed like a good idea to wait until the next day. From the appearance of both the Cleaver and Russell, it was clear to us that our plan to climb both was not to be. There was too much snow, especially on the north sides. So the game plan was to go up Russell’s east ridge, reverse the route, then walk back to the car. The route is alleged to be third class, so we thought, how long can it take? Three hours? Four at the most? Plenty of time!
We awoke just after six thirty the next morning to a glorious day. A light breeze had kicked up during the night, but that was a good thing, as we would surely get too warm without a little wind to cool us.
The stove was immediately pressed into action. While Misha scampered about taking pictures of the alpenglow I lolled about in my sleeping bag scooping snow into the pot from time to time. What happened to the roaring inferno this Pocket Rocket had been last night? It produced little more than a tepid grumble, even at full throttle. I cradled its bright red fuel bottle in both hands, hoping an increase in temperature would coax it into demonstrating a bit more vigor. But it was not to be. It took fully two hours to melt all the snow we needed for the day. By the time we were done the fuel bottle (our only one) was nearly spent, and I had managed to break our only lighter.
Time to head out! A brief scramble brought is to a broad ledge just beneath the start of the serious climbing. With all the snow covering the ridge we opted to break out the rope. We simulclimbed until I was out of gear. My instincts were to stick to the very crest of the ridge, where there was the least amount of snow. This meant bypassing what in dry conditions are a series of third class ramps in favor of exposed fourth class ridge walking interspersed with the odd fifth class move.
At one point I hopped across a gaping abyss, and thought nothing more of it until I heard Misha start to grumble. It seems I have slightly longer legs than he, long enough to turn a carefree step into a gripping dyno. Misha assured me that his chances of falling were about fifty-fifty. I eyed the tiny cam that was my only piece of pro and declined to offer him an estimate of the chances of my catching him.
But the good part was yet to come. Progress up the crest of the ridge was soon blocked by a short tower. Lacking the sticky feet of a gecko, I opted to traverse around on the north side. But footing there was treacherous. The snow was soft and loose. The slabs rolled off into a thousand foot void. The climbing was not difficult, but it was nerve-wracking. Protection was harder to come by than I hoped, partly due to lack of good cracks, and partly due to our minimal selection of gear.
Upon reaching a particularly sketchy patch of unprotectable slab I opted to regain the crest. The moves were a bit awkward, but didn’t seem all that hard. So again, I thought little of it. By now, Misha had also dropped off the ridge and began following on the north side. He complained that his boots didn’t provide enough traction. The complaints became more and more emphatic. Comments like, “this is more than I signed up for” increased in frequency up until the point where we turned back up to the crest. There they were replaced with, “I’m about to fall,” etc. It seemed that my passage had disturbed the snow and delicately balanced debris. Everything he touched moved.
To both of our great relief, Misha pulled through and joined me at the stance. I promised it would get easier, but I’m not sure he was convinced. I’m not sure I was convinced either. I climbed by Braille for another hundred feet until it was possible to get back on the crest, where the difficulty finally decreased.
I was very pleased to hear Misha comment on the fine quality of the climbing there. But I was less pleased by what I saw up ahead. We were now near the base of the final headwall of the east summit. The obvious route looked just like what we had traversed, except much steeper. I had no desire to attempt it.
However, on the south side of the ridge there was a fine class two slope that seemed to lead to the vicinity of the east summit. A short bit of fifth class downclimbing brought us to a broad ledge, which we followed over to easy ground. Unfortunately, this path did not lead to the promised land. A hundred foot section of class four climbing was one option. A shorter section of fifth class was the only alternative.
All the while I had deliberately refrained from looking at my watch. I knew we were going slower than planned, but I didn’t really want to know how much slower until we reached the east summit. Misha destroyed my happy ignorance by announcing that it was now twelve thirty.
Assuming it took us as long to reverse what we had just climbed as it had coming up, the earliest we would be back at camp was four o’clock. That would give us just enough time to make it back to the car before dark. Getting back before dark was particularly important, since we still had to negotiate the exposed slab above Lower Boy Scout Lake, and then find our way through the Ebersbacher Ledges. Both were doable by headlamp, but it would be much, much slower. We felt an epic coming on if we didn’t turn around soon.
I don’t know if I’m just getting used to failure on winter climbs, or if I was just relieved not to have to continue in marginal conditions, but I wasn’t too disappointed. Misha was disappointed. Like me, he thought we had it in the bag when we left camp. This was one of only two California fourteeners left on his tick list. Alas, there was nothing for it. I munched some sesame sticks. Misha shot a few more photos. We headed down.
It was only now that we became fully aware of how much the clouds had built up. Whitney was shrouded in mist. Williamson could not be seen. Other peaks were in various states of obscuration. Wisps of cloud swirled up and over the ridge. Conditions changed from sunshine to whiteout and back in a matter of minutes. How will we find our way down if we can’t see? Well, there is always climbing by Braille!
Still, we were having fun! We felt great. The sun, when it shone, was warm. The wind was mild, and the scenery stunning. Back on the ridge, we observed a relatively rare phenomenon with the poetic name “Brocken Spectre”. Under just the right conditions, the sun will cast a ghostly shadow of a climber onto the fog, and surrounding this shadow are concentric rings of brilliant color. What a sight!
Descending proved easier than we anticipated. We found our way to the third class ramps, where we discovered that the snow there was deep enough to provide secure footing. At least most of the time. A short bit of slippery down climbing gave us both a thrill, but the rest was a cruise. We even managed to return to camp with enough time to allow Misha to collect his consolation prize: the summit of Mount Carillon.
In the half hour it took him to scramble up and down, I had most of our kit packed up and ready to go. We still had a ways to go, but who cared? We were still having fun, and that was all that mattered.