It was August of 2011. The heavy La Niña winter had already made the year spectacular in terms of climbing. Many of the snow routes were in outstanding shape, the couloirs filled in late in the season, and I had made the most of the situation with fantastic climbs on Shasta and the Sierra Nevada, including the Palisades, the Sawtooth Ridge and Whitney. I was getting ready to leave for a sailing vacation in Greece. But before I spent time on the water, I was craving one last climb, one more 14er...
The East Ridge of Mt. Russell had been on my list for a while. It was reported to be one of the best Class 3 routes out there, spectacular and enjoyable. I had no company for the weekend. The usual suspects were either busy or not interested in the climb. The route is frequently soloed, and doesn’t involve more than 3rd class scrambling, so I decided to go alone. The snow was all but gone on the route according to reports, and the weather was meant to be good.
In search of variety and solitude, I decided to go off the beaten path (or highway) that is the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. Just before Lower Boyscout Lake, a drainage heads up and right into a beautiful cirque framed by Mt. Carillon and the Cleaver. The Cleaver is an imposing, notched granite wall that hides the strikingly deep blue Tulainyo Lake behind it – one of the highest named lakes in California and the continental U.S. Ascending to the so called Cleaver Col offers access to the usual starting point for the climb on the East Ridge of Mt. Russell: the Russell-Carillon Col, which is more commonly reached via a scree slog from Upper Boyscout Lake. From there, I would retrace the legendary Norman Clyde’s steps when he first climbed Mt. Russell in 1926: ascend the East Ridge, descend the North Ridge to Tulainyo, climb up to Cleaver Col and then head back down to the cirque. As with all great plans that go astray, this one seemed... straightforward.
After spending the night at the Whitney Portal, I headed up North Fork trail. I had only been there before in winter when everything was covered in snow, so I was enjoying the summertime scenery. I soon found myself on the Ebersbacher ledges, which we had skipped altogether in winter when the gully was filled with snow and the willows bridged over. The ledges turned out to be easy, and nothing like the dreaded, exposed beasts that some report. Not before long, I was almost at Lower Boyscout Lake, hung a right, left the main path, and headed up a drainage along beautiful streams, waterfalls and meadows. At some point during the ascent, I paused. I was feeling light headed and not quite myself. I sat down to recompose, tried to eat lunch, and pondered the situation. I felt drained all of a sudden. Given that I was alone, I began reaching the conclusion that I should head back. Maybe the altitude was getting at me. Maybe I had gone off too fast, relishing how light my pack was without crampons, avalanche gear and the like. Altitude sickness alone on a remote route was not a good idea. I sat down in a shaded alcove and managed a short nap.
When I woke up, I felt better. I decided to make my way up again slowly to see how I would fare, and resolved to turn back if I felt weak again. Albeit at a slower than usual pace, I made steady progress upwards, and felt "OK". I got to the cirque and set up camp well before sunset. The cirque was a spectacular amphitheater. I was surrounded by majestic granite walls, lush meadows, and a running stream fed by the snow that still filled the upper bowl. Gazing up at the walls marked the inception of my troubles.
I could see the route up to Cleaver Col ahead of me, but there was a gully that seemed to cut straight through the SE ridge of Mt. Carillon, which would offer a more direct route to the base of the Russell climb. I eyed it up, and it looked oh-so-doable. On the map, the gradient looked reasonable, and there was an intermittent stream marked through the gully. I walked to where I could see its entire entrance, and starting tracing an imaginary way up it. Again, it looked reasonable. It was uncharted territory, so I didn’t know what to expect exactly, but all signs looked positive. I decided to go for it the next morning, and simply to turn back and retrace my steps if it proved too difficult or did not offer an exit after all. At this point, the decision seemed innocuous and reasonable. With hindsight, however, I was already heading down a risky path: I was about to embark on a climb that I knew nothing about, alone, without a rope or gear to make a retreat easier and while I was still not feeling 100%. None of these thoughts entered my head at the time, or at least had a significant enough impact on me to pull back the decision. I retreated into my sleeping bag at 11,500ft and rested my weary head on a bed of California stars, as the song goes. It was a beautiful, clear night in the Sierra Nevada.
Rising before sunrise the next day, I snacked, shouldered my pack, and headed for the entrance to the gully. For the third time, I debated with myself whether to bring my ice axe along: first at home when I was packing, then at the car, and now at camp. I knew from reports that there wasn’t much snow on the route, and that any remaining patches were avoidable. There was a little snow in the gully entrance though, so for that reason and as a general precaution, I decided to take it along. This was perhaps the most crucial decision I made on the trip, unbeknownst to me at the time.
Following a very short section of snow to enter the gully, I strapped the axe onto my pack and headed up. The opening moves on the rock were harder than they seemed from below. I got up without problem, but I remember thinking that I didn’t like the idea of downclimbing them (which is usually harder). The gully opened up after that, and varied between Class 2-3 for the most part, with some spicy Class 4 moves here and there. I pushed through, climbing through them safely, but I was already coming to the realization that I had covered a fair amount of technical ground that I, first of all, had not budgeted for and, second, I felt uncomfortable downclimbing. The gully was proving to be harder than it looked. It had lured me in, trapping me a little more each time I gave in to reflex and cranked a few more moves. Apparently my visual evaluation skills and actual climbing skills were out of skew. I was well past the point of no easy return. My strategy was to find an easy exit at the top and not have to return – only it was more of a hope than a strategy.
A good two and a half hours had gone by when I found myself at the top of the gully, looking for an escape. Unfortunately, it was not to be… Above me was a steep headwall framed by vertical sidewalls, with a chimney on its right side, an offwidth crack on its left side, and a featureless face in the middle. It was a good 30ft high. I looked for an easier exit, but I could see none. I cannot be sure that there wasn’t one. I was already stressed and drained by the adrenaline of my first solo climb on harder terrain that I had bargained for, so it is possible that I missed an easier option. At the time though, climbing the headwall seemed like my only choice. It was so close to the exit of the gully, and my alternative of a lengthy and potentially risky downclimb all the way back was far from appealing. Push ahead I would...
With some trepidation, I started up the headwall. The first half was reasonable, going at easy 5th class probably. Then the rock steepened and was missing key holds in the crucial overhanging part. I did not like that option at all, so I climbed down to take another look at the chimney on the right. No matter how much I wanted to see a reasonable path up it, I could not. It only had two sides, and would have required specialized techniques with a pack on, which I was not prepared to try for the first time, alone and unprotected, 12,000ft up a remote gully. The offwidth crack on the left looked more workable but, as much I like a good hand or fist crack, I wasn’t about to try chicken wings, arm bars and foot cams for the first time. The featureless face in the middle seemed like my best option. I climbed the first half one more time and eagerly looked for handholds further up. Below me was a decent drop of – who knows – 15-20ft – onto a rock and snow ledge? It’s hard to judge and, under stress, memory plays games on you. In any case, falling was not an option.
With questionable footholds and reasonable handholds, I looked hard for a handhold above, but could not see one. There was one some way to the right though, and if only I could reach it, I should be able to proceed upwards after that. Except... the reach was long. I eyed it up. Then I went for it. I missed...
The moments that followed have been etched strongly in my memory: my feet slipped; I let out a husky "no"; I felt an intense burning sensation in my abs while I tightened my core to try and stay on the rock; I was hanging by my fingertips only. It was one of those moments that lasts an eternity. The seriousness of the situation went through my head in a split second: I was alone in a hidden gully where no human soul was certain to set foot any time soon, desperately clinging on to avoid a long fall that could at the very least cause serious injury. I had no idea whether I had phone reception. I might not even be able to move my limbs to pick up the phone after a fall. I would have trouble describing my position, even if I could make a call.
I have tried again and again to recall how I recovered from that move, but my memory is blank. Somehow, I did. I moved back left onto a good foot stance, hyperventilating in the thin air of the High Sierra, stranded half way up the headwall, bathing in adrenaline. At times like these, all the niceties are stripped away and reality is raw. There is no social or other safety net to bail you out. No wishing the situation away. It’s down to you – your body and your ingenuity – you have to deal. It’s as real as it gets. That’s part of the allure of climbing. In this particular case though, the stakes felt too high. Back on the rock - what to do?
Jammed in the offwidth crack on the left were two large chockstones. I had attempted to use them as handholds, but they were too far away. After a couple of minutes of thinking, perched on the headwall, I was struck by inspiration! That ice axe, which I so nearly left behind three times, might get me out of the mess. I maneuvered my backpack off, and unstrapped the axe. The leash, which I don’t always attached, looked sweet. I put my pack back on, and prodded the first chockstone in the crack. It seemed securely jammed. I secured the leash on my wrist, and hooked the chockstone with the axe.
It held. The long reach helped me move up the featureless face onto reasonable footholds. I then hooked the second chockstone, higher up. It held too. In another couple of moves, I was standing on top of the headwall, wishing hard for the sight of nothing but easy slopes ahead. The initial signs were good and the terrain looked easy. A minute or so later, I had gone over the ridge crest and was standing on the broad, sandy slopes that lead up to the Russell-Carillon col, on the other side. I was safely out of my predicament... As I looked up, feeling the adrenaline drain and relishing the broad expanses that lay ahead instead of that miserable, constricting gully, I caught sight of something small and brown right in front of my face: it was a hummingbird. It hovered for a second, and then flew away.
I am an engineer by training. A positive thinker, allegedly, and scientifically minded. I am not superstitious. I maintain a good deal of suspicion, shall we say, for metaphysical things and the like… As quickly as the hummingbird had appeared in front of my face, I was overcome by a sweeping feeling. By the time it had flown away a second or two later, and before I could even ponder what a hummingbird was doing at 13,000ft hovering in my face, I felt a strong presence. The presence of my grandma. She and I had been very close before she died in 1991. The presence I felt took me back two decades in an instant. I could not explain it. I could not fight it. It was just unmistakably there, all of a sudden, hitting me like a bucket of water in the face. It shocked and comforted me. The hummingbird flew away and while I was soaking in that powerful feeling, I steadily slogged up the mellow scree slopes to the Russell-Carillon col, where my climb was meant to begin in the first place. Little did I know, it would come and visit me again later that day...
As I slogged up, I caught sight of someone coming up behind me through the corner of my eye, at twice my speed. Soon she had caught up with me. It was a woman, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes. A human presence after my solitude and precarious moments took me aback. We exchanged a few words summarizing where we had each come from, but I must have communicated like a caveman. Soon we were soaking in the glorious vista from the Russell-Carillon col, looking down at a half-frozen Tulainyo Lake. What a season! In August? Two more of her friends caught up with us soon. They looked happy, full of energy, casually dressed in jeans and small packs, and had just hiked up from Upper Boyscout Lake. I was still wearing my helmet, had an ice axe strapped to my larger pack, and probably looked like an idiot. I was physically and emotionally spent. I was at the base of the climb that I had come for: Mt. Russell’s East Ridge.
After a quick snack, Tim (one of the group) and I set out on the ridge. He was a proficient scrambler, and shot off ahead, leaving me behind. I followed, out of breath, still not feeling 100%, and taxed by earlier events. The ridge was spectacular and worthy of its reputation. Good quality rock, stellar views, and a Class 3 path always opened up as improbable as it looked from a distance. I wished I could have enjoyed it more, but I had passed the critical point of reserves. I was climbing simply to get to the summit – not for pleasure any more. The climb had a spicy move or two, but was straightforward and nothing compared to my earlier antics. We were at the summit before midday.
Tim’s friends soon followed, as we sat down, watching the crowds gathering on top of Mt. Whitney, talking California 14ers, and hatching ideas for trips to the Palisades the following year... I knew I had a long way down to return to camp. I refueled, and set off when I could postpone it no longer.
No way (down)
I decided to stick with my original plan for the descent: go down Russell’s North Ridge, walk along the shore of Tulainyo, climb to Cleaver Col and then descend it on the other side back to camp. The first part of the ridge descent went smoothly. Reaching the lower, East summit of Russell, I then headed down the North Ridge. My taxed state was becoming evident. The climbing was not difficult, but my appetite for exposure had worn away and it was grinding. I had to weave my way between the actual ridge crest and ledges on skier’s left a fair amount, trying to see a clear way down. The way didn’t open up till I was quite low down, adding to my tiredness (the mental, more than the physical). I realized that I was craving an easy hike back to camp when the deep suncups on the shores of Tulainyo came as a blow. I was spent. But I was far from camp – or so it seemed – and I still had to climb and downclimb unknown territory. The pitfalls of a circular route! You never pass the same point twice. For the first time, I started comparing the hours of daylight left to how long it might take me to make it back to camp. Plenty, right? Right??
Maybe – if only I had known which point in the col to shoot for. I knew that the right gully to descend didn’t start at the low point exactly. I ventured a guess and climbed up. The slog took longer than I thought it would, but it was a dead end. There was a gully on the other side, but it looked precipitous. Back to the map. It should be the next one over. Back down to the lake. And back up the col, hopefully to the right point this time… Keep moving. Keep breathing. This isn’t the time to give in to tiredness. What’s that I see over there? A cairn?! Finally. This must be the right gully down. Another cairn over there. These ledges seem right. OK, I got it. Just follow the… cairns? Where did the last one go? I can’t see them any more. Who needs them anyway? They are bad form. This gully is loose as s**t, but it has to be the way down. There’s no one down there, so the hell with all the rocks I am dislodging. I can see camp! That’s my green bivy sack! Let’s just get down.
Wait – is the gully cliffing out on me? Come on now, are you serious? So close to being done and now this? What the f***... I must be paying for past sins. Now, listen here, you are not to repeat this morning’s stupidity, understand? Loved ones are expecting you back. They don’t deserve bad news. You WILL NOT attempt to downclimb something unless you are ABSOLUTELY SURE it will go. Now, this gully, if I face in and go... forget it. It won’t go. If only I had a rope to rappel, this would be over in a flash. Well, yes, but you don’t. Clever, aren’t you? Decided to go light. Well done. What about the next gully over? Can you get over to that? That offers a way out lower down. Yes, but how to cross over to it? The sides are vertical walls. Out of the question. What about these ledges here to the left? OK, let’s give them a try.
Why are you tormenting me like this?? A 10ft vertical drop at the end of the ledges when I’ve come almost all the way down from them? This can’t be true. There must be some holds here. No. C’mon, what about if I... no! No stupid moves, remember? What if I just jumped?? Forget it. Back to the gully. Something will give. Take another look. OK, so what if I skirt the middle of the gully which cliffs out, and instead traverse over high, to the other side, and then go down that series of steps into… That might be doable, except it might not. OK, one more time, traverse then... No. Don’t do it. If it looks questionable, it probably is. You will only go down if you find a safe way. Well, what’s left? I am running out of options. Climb back up the gully and find another exit? You’re at a dead end here. God damn it. What will it take to get out of this wretched climb? Camp is a stone’s throw away. If you’d gone up the same way in the morning, maybe you’d know how to descend now. With a rope, I would just… You don’t have a rope! Get over it. What’s that over there at the ledges that you tried a few minutes ago? It looks like a gap in the boulders. Could that offer a bypass to the frustrating 10ft drop? Fat chance, but do you have any other brilliant ideas right now? Not really. Go and check it out. It’s tight. Pack off. Squat. Squeeze through. Retrieve the pack. Did I skirt the drop? Could it be that... Yes! That’s it! I cannot believe it! I am free!
As joy and relief filled me, something came at me and almost hit my face. It was so close that I felt its wake. It was a hummingbird – literally right in my face. This is insane! Once again, like in the morning, it had come right when my troubles ended and the plug was being pulled on stress and adrenaline, as if to say "don’t worry – I’m here to take care of you". The same feeling of a presence overcame me as in the morning – my grandma. Only this time it came more as a relief than a shock. Could it be? Why question? Why explain? Why analyze? For once, just go by what you feel. And there was no question as to what I felt, and whom I felt close by.
The sun had dropped behind Mt. Carillon. Not more than an hour of daylight left. It was time to pack up camp and head down as much as I could and at least sleep better at a lower elevation. Sleep did not come easily that night, nor was it restful. I was still too drained. Patchy phone reception meant that not everyone got the sms I sent about me being OK until the next morning, causing undue worry. I bushwhacked down an off-trail gully directly to Whitney Portal, emerging at the trail a few minutes from the end. It was over. I looked at the hikers at the Portal, wondering what their weekend had been like. I stocked up with caffeine at Starbucks and persevered with the long 8h drive home, processing what had happened. Life would not be the same again. I had come close. Something didn’t quite feel finished though. As I took the last corner home, the final piece fell into place. The emotion started pouring out. My eyes welled up. I walked up the steps, opened the door, hugged my fiancée tightly, put my shame of crying aside, and let go.
Even though the shame of crying was easy to put aside, the shame of having gotten myself into that situation that weekend was not. How close did I really come to serious injury or worse? It is hard to tell. I was under stress. Maybe that made the incident on the headwall seem harder than it was. Maybe I had the recovery move in the bag. Does it matter? Even if I did, it could have gone the other way. The fact remains that I was hanging from my fingertips for a couple of seconds, with a serious drop below. Was it worth it?
For me, no. Why come so close? Leaving so much to luck is not acceptable to me. That was never my intention when I set out to do the climb. I did not go there for the thrills of hard free soloing. I ended up taking risks that went beyond what I consider acceptable, and relying on luck (and perhaps technical ability to make up for lack of mountain sense).
Everything I write in this story is true. I am not trying to be melodramatic. I write it as a reminder to myself, and hopefully as entertainment and perhaps a warning or lesson for others. For some, this might be a story by a soft rookie who got scared on his first hairy free soloing experience. For others, it might be a story of a narrow escape. For me, it is a series of unacceptable errors, a big lesson, and an experience that will always stay with me.
Here’s what I think I did wrong, and I invite your input and feedback (some of these alone may not have been errors as such, but in combination they were compounding errors):
- I was alone
- I was not feeling 100%
- I ventured into uncharted territory with no information on the terrain
- I opted for the easier looking gully rather than the more exposed looking ridge – a common mistake and illusion
- I had no rope to escape by rappeling
- I let myself repeatedly execute climbing moves that ended up harder than they looked, misjudging the difficulty of downclimbing them
- I followed a circular route that never retraced its steps, so was without the benefits of prior knowledge on the descent