As the tempo of hail fall increased and lightning cracked in front of us, I knew with certainty that I had broken one of my cardinal hiking rules: descend immediately when t-storms are visible. Two weeks before these minutes of terror, we began planning a revisit to the East Ridge of Mt Russell that Gordon and I had failed to summit in early June due to deteriorating snow conditions. Everyone but Monique bailed on me by the weekend so it was just the two of us that decided to tackle Russell as a day hike. With NOAA reporting good weather for the weekend, we headed up to the Sierras for what promised to be an exhilarating trip. Saturday included the drive up and an acclimation hike in the Cottonwood Basin. I was not encouraged when we got rained on at the end of this hike and during the night at the Portal. However, we awoke to beautiful clear skies and looked forward to a great day.
We made excellent time up the North Fork exploiting the lower ledge shortcuts that speeded our arrival to the Ebersbacher ledges. After a quick ascent up Clyde’s Meadow, we found ourselves at the foot of the dreaded scree slope that leads to the Russell-Carillon Pass. Gordon and I had used the Rockwell variation previously and had only used the scree slope as a glissading descent. Despite my misgivings of using this approach, Monique and I made good time up the steep slope, reaching the edge of the gentle basin that leads to the pass shortly after 10AM. It was during this part of the ascent that I first noticed the white, billowing clouds forming behind Mt McAdie to the south. Although the sudden change in weather gave us pause, we decided to push on to the pass and the beginning of the Russell’s east ridge. Within minutes, the white clouds turned ominous but remained south of McAdie. Clouds also began forming behind Mt Whitney, directly adjacent to our goal. Thunderheads are usually sufficient to deter me from continuing but the memory of our defeat 6 weeks earlier still stung. And so instead of following my cardinal rule, we decided to climb the long and exposed East Ridge to the peak.
To the top
We quickly scrambled up the approach and headed for the first high point. While some clouds swirled around Russell, they were mild compared to the thunderheads further south. As we approached the eastern, lower peak of Mt Russell, I glanced south and watched as Mt McAdie and the upper Whitney trail were pummeled by rain. Monique followed my gaze and made our first intelligent decision of the day – retreat. Unfortunately, her decision was solo as I decided to at least climb the east peak that loomed before me. As Monique quickly headed back to the pass, I scrambled to the top of the east peak and was surprised by two things. The higher west peak appeared to be minutes away and the thunderstorm that motivated Monique to descend had headed southeast away from us. I suddenly found myself bathed in sunshine and within easy reach of my goal. I quickly scurried over the adjoining ridge, momentarily delayed as I pondered the crux boulder half way across, and suddenly found myself at Mt Russell’s high point. The views were astounding and I congratulated myself (prematurely) on making the right decision..
Lightning and Hail
After a brief interlude, I headed back down by the same route. As I was coming off the ridge, I noticed Monique had moved further down the basin, closer to the scree slope that was our exit. What she had seen (and I hadn’t) was the looming storm cell just north of the pass. After a quick break to eat and put on another layer of clothing, I hurried after Monique who had taken off minutes earlier for the edge of the basin. I caught her at the edge and we both began descending the steep trail to Clyde’s Meadow 2000 feet below. Suddenly the sky opened up on us and it began to hail. Our trail and the surrounding slope quickly turned into a winter wonderland as the hail began to accumulate. Without warning, thunder cracked above us as an arc of lighting flashed across the two ridges that straddled our slope. I was hard pressed to keep up with Monique as we both found new motivation with each lightning bolt that flashed none to far away. Shelter was non-existent and we were loath to dump our trekking poles that immensely aided our rout down the mountain. I’d venture to guess that we came very close to beating my previous glissading time down this slope even though we were on scree (and hail.) Although the storm cell was moving away from us, we finally took cover under a large rock shelter by Upper Boy Scout lake.
Our conversation during the few minutes we were in shelter centered on our uncomfortably close experience with the lightning show. We hadn’t experienced the characteristics that people usually describe – static, tingling, hair standing up, poles vibrating, etc. But we both knew that we may have pushed our luck a bit too much on this trip. Tired and wet, we descended first to Lower Boy Scout Lake and then down the rugged North Fork canyon where a flash flood had practically obliterated the pleasant trail we had taken during the morning. The narrow lower ledges challenged us in our tired state but we finally hit the main trail and shortly thereafter arrived at the car. Three and a half hours after leaving the wild backcountry, we were once again in our familiar urban environment. More pictures
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