Mount Russell: Altitude Sickness & Enlightenment

Mount Russell: Altitude Sickness & Enlightenment

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 36.59080°N / 118.2878°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 24, 2002
Trip Date: August 24-25, 2002


At the end of August 2002, I decided to join Bob Burd on his 2002 Sierra Mountaineers Challenge for just one day out of his ten - one peak of out his ten. The stars aligned for a climb of Mount Russell because Bob was hiking this peak on a Saturday and I wasn't in any position to take days off from work for an outing. The fact that Russell is a CA 14er that I had yet to bag was a definate plus!

Our group ended up being: Bob, David, Michael, Thad, and myself. David and Michael had been on several hikes in the Challenge already while Thad was just joining for this climb. Eventually we all separated and came down individually. I learned about what happened with everyone else through Bob's daily dispatches on

The short summary is that I ended up getting Altitude Sickness (AMS) at 9am @ 12,000', summitted anyway via a 5.4 approach variation, and ended up doing a bivouac that was very enlightening. I've been camping for a while with only a sleeping bag and no tent so it was nice to finally get a data point about camping ... without even a sleeping bag (can you still call that camping?). Although a bit cold, the High Sierra no-sleeping bag bivouac seems goes to the heart of being free in the wilderness - away from the bureacracy of pre-determined camping spots, permits, fees, etc. Something that definately deserves more exploration.

The Altitude Sickness

Having arrived at Whitney Portal at 2:20am before the 6:00am hike from the Bay Area, I really didn't have any time to acclimate. By 9:00am Michael and I were already above Upper BSL at 12,000'. I started to get a headache, knew it was AMS, and stopped to rest. Michael went on ahead while I had a banana and some Gatorade to recover. Even though I had considered giving up a few times, I did end up making it to the summit due to 3 factors:

  • Fun Class 5 Moves: If I had taken the Rockwell Variation up to the Russell-Carillon Col, I think I would have given up. It would have been too boring in my mentally weakened state. Instead, I met up with 2 guys from Irvine and we took a YDS 5.4 approach variation followed by some solid class 1 and then excellent class 3 before reaching the summit ridge. This completely avoids most of the Rockwell Variation. The 5.4 section was mostly class 4 with about 4-5 class 5 moves. The most fun for me was by far a 15 foot long low-angle open book that I stemmed up. The moves got me to stop thinking about my AMS and just have fun for a while.
  • Altimeter Games: Although I was at 12,000' when the AMS hit, my altimeter only said 11,300'. There's still quite a distance from 11,300' to the summit, 14,088' so I had considered the summit out of my reach (with AMS). When the guys I met from Irvine told me my reading was 700' too low just above the 5.4 section and that we were really at 12,700' with only 1,400' to the summit, I thought I was very close and easily commited myself to finishing the peak. Yes, there is a bit of psychology at work here.
  • Plan B: Bivouac: I don't mind going slow and I think that's the name of the game with AMS. I summited in the early afternoon and had prepared for a possible night hike out, however, in the end I did a bivouac at 10,300'. More than a little bit of that has to do with the fact I had a strong subconscious desire to try it out (see section below: "The Bivouac").
In the end, I just went safe and slow and made it to the top and down without incident. Nothing to worry about.

The Climbing

This peak was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Previous to this trip, Mount Harrington's North Ridge and the Conness East Ridge had been my favorite class 3 summits. The climbing on Russell consisted of hiking to Upper BSL and then taking a ~600' 5.4 variation (mostly class 3-4) followed by some mild class 1 and then excellent class 3 to the summit ridge proper. The class 3 summit ridge itself was also fairly nice with more exposure in certain areas though not as fun as the 5.4 approach.

The most memorable move for me was on the the approach. It was a stem that I did on a 15-20 foot low-angle open book which was just a bit harder than the 5.4 knob pulling action on the top of Snake Dike. On the way down from the West Summit, I saw a trail running almost all the way down along the ridge, over the East summit, and down to the Russell-Carillon Col but on the way up I saw very little of it and ended up doing a lot of class 4 finger crack variations that were fun. My AMS did hit me up again on the summit ridge and I found myself looking at my fingers and forearms telling them to hold together just long enough to get to the top. Also, while ascending along the very top of the ridge, I ran into a very memorable "Give Me Faith" step. There was a 2.5 foot gap between two rocks that would have been like a stream crossing (literally nothing above your feet) but if you fell, instead of getting wet, you'd take a 1000' ride down the mountain. I wasn't ready for that much air so I backed down and found an alternative route. The summit had some fine views but it was bit anti-climactic since I had been seeing bits of the view already on the way up for some time.

The Bivouac

I took my time descending the Rockwell Variation from the Russell-Carillon Col. My name for the Rockwell Variation is the "Just Shoot Me Now" chute because of how loose it is. I'm even thinking that someone should build extremely sturdy "skis" to let people ski down this choss chute. When I finally got down to Upper BSL, I couldn't find the route so I did a lot of boulder hopping and the sun eventually went down when I was between Upper and Lower BSL. I was testing a BD Moonlight headlamp and had my Princton Tec Tec 40 flashlight with me. What I found was that the Moonlight was good as a area flood light at about a 10' distance while the Tec 40 could shoot a solid beam at 30+ feet. The Tec 40 was useful for finding cairns across open rock slabs while the Moonlight was more useful for what was immediately in front of me. I put down briefly where the slabs enter the woods and where the woods turn into the large boulder field.

Lately I've been thinking that "semi-planned" bivouacs could be a cool thing and worth exploring. I think this is because I don't get out into the backcountry enough and taking the unplanned route would mean no hassles with permits or even a sleeping bag. It's a way of getting back to nature and simplicity in hiking. In fact, you don't even have to know if and where you are going to spend the night - it's that cool. I've thought about doing this in the Grand Canyon with a sleeping bag in my day pack to avoid the permit hassle but never got around to it. This time, I didn't have a sleeping bag and only had my clothes against hard granite but I thought I'd give it a shot since I was sleeping like a baby for about 30 min in the Yosemite high country several weeks ago. It did end up being just cold enough at 10,500' and 10,300' where I stopped between Upper and Lower BSL that I couldn't really fall asleep. It was certainly not as cold as when I slept at Lunch Counter on Mount Adams at 9100' last July where I had my 20°F bag and fleece but no pad. I also had much less than Whitney in April when I had my pad and bivy sack as well. By 4:30am it was hard to continue laying on the cold granite rock so I got up and started doing my sunrise dance until the sun came up. I'm thinking that I'll definately need an isulation layer in the future for semi-planned bivouacs, possibly fleece as my Marmot DriClime softshell was definately not warm enough once the sun went down and I stopped moving.

On the hike out in the morning I had gorgeous views of Whitney, the Needles, and the moon. Spending the night out under the moon alone in the wilderness in an un-predetermined spot was definately more mentally refreshing than staying in a crowded campsite or in town.


Overall, this was a great trip with great weather. It has completely opened my eyes to doing the rest of the CA 14ers in weekend trips from the Bay Area. Four down and eleven to go. On the drive home I stopped for a chicken-pesto calzone at "Two Guys Pizza Pies" in Groveland. The best I've ever had. Try it!


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