An epic in the making. Gordon had wanted to climb Mt Russell since we were thwarted back in June. He had been unable to participate in the two subsequent visits I had made over the summer. I was agreeable if we attempted the peak via a new route: the North Ridge. Bob and Miguel had climbed the ridge as part of the Sierra Challenge so I had some valuable information on this seldom climbed route. We had a slim window of good weather for Veteran's Day so the hike was on.
Gordon and I at first dawn -- Cleaver Col route behind us (Nov 06)
We met Joe from Las Vegas at 4AM and began hiking shortly afterwards. Doing the North Fork of Lone Pine in the dark was a new experience. But my multiple trips over the summer, including Bob Rockwell's shortcuts, stood me well as we hit Lower Boy Scout lake in a little over an hour. At that point, we turned north into unknown country and began hiking up the slope to the cirque below Cleaver Col. Fortunately, the sun came up about half way up and warmed us up. The col came into view shortly afterwards, flanked by the buttresses of Mt Carillon and the sheer vertical face of the Cleaver, and we steered directly for it. We hit the top of the col just after 8AM, right on schedule. From the top of the col, the grandeur of the Tulainyo bowl opened up in front of us. The north face of Carillon, the sheer face of Mt Russell's East and North ridges, and the beauty of Tulainyo Lake.
The Russell-Carillon Pass w/ Whitney behind. Cleaver Col is in the lower left. (Nov 06)
I wanted to climb the Cleaver as a bonus as it was a quick traverse and several hundred feet above us. Gordon and Joe declined, saving themselves for the assault on Russell. As they began to descend to the south shore of Tulainyo, I began the ascending traverse of the Cleaver's west face getting myself into position to climb the easiest route, a Class 3 approach up the north ridge. From there, granite ledges made the climb to the summit pleasurable. The views were astounding including Mt Whitney framed by the Russell-Carillon Pass. I could see Joe and Gordon circumnavigating the south side of the lake over boulders and snow. I dropped back down the mountain but instead of going all of the way down, I began a northward traverse about a 100ft above the lake. I was contemplating the possibility of repeating my June climb of Tunnabora Peak but the scree traverse wore me out and reminded me of “Tunnaboring’s” nickname.
The Cleaver's south ridge and west face (Nov 06)
Our Attempts Repulsed
At about 11AM, I joined Gordon and Joe at the top of the easy portion of Russell’s north ridge. Here we would begin the real climbing. Bob had advised to stay right of the ridge if we wanted to keep the climbing to Class 3. As I wasn’t sure how low to stay to the right, I began the first of several attempts that would be rebuffed. Joe had suggested traversing horizontally but I felt if we stayed nearer the ridge but avoid the pinnacles, we would be ok. A 10ft Class 4 face climb got me to the ridge but the other side was shades of Giraud Peak earlier this year. An 8ft long finger crack and no foothold to mention could continue the ridge climb but fully exposed over the 500ft+ vertical wall above the nameless lake. I retreat and now attempt a flake that mimics Bear Creek Spire’s class 4 wall. Not to be so I retreat again and Joe attempts to force a traverse over. Dead end so now I drop down to a ramp full of snow that is level with the position from we started. One hour of precious daylight is already gone.
Gordon ascending slabs on Russell's North Ridge. (Nov 06)
Success at Last
The ramp was the correct path although it took me some time in the knee-deep snow to forge a path. Class 3 rocks finally reached and we go vertical! I now start traversing as I climb, using my ax to clean every foothold and handhold of the snow that has accumulated there. About half way up, I let Joe lead and we aim for what we think is the low point between Russell’s two peaks. Gordon decides his own fate and continues climbing upwards toward the ridge. I realize that our goal is incorrect (notch is west of Russell) and now both Joe and I turn upwards. Joe makes the ridge just below the east lower peak while I aim a little further west and top out opposite the South Face Right Side chimney route. Gordon joins me a couple minutes later and within 10 minutes, we’re standing on the summit.
Tuleinyo Lake and the Cleaver from the summit (Nov 06)
The Descent Part 1
What I had planned on taking only an hour ended up taking us three due to the numerous false starts and the snow accumulation. We were tired but elated as we congratulated each other, signed the log, and took group pictures. We began the descent of the East Ridge at about 2:45 with only a couple of hours of daylight left. I had hoped on descending the entire route in daylight but knew it was now a futile wish. Joe led the way trailblazing the knife-edge route and forcing a path through the snow that covered what little trail there was. Gordon, the youngest and probably strongest of us, had slowed down and I knew that altitude and lack of fuel had sapped his strength. When we reached the Russell-Carillon Pass where Joe waited for us, we stopped and made sure that Gordon refueled himself. The wind was up and the sun was almost down behind the Whitney massif as we resumed our trudge across the high plateau.
Gordon descending the end of Russell's Class 3 East Ridge (Nov 06)
The Descent Part 2
With just twilight remaining, we began the descent of the 2000ft high scree valley above Upper Boy Scout Lake. With about 1000ft to go, our daylight ran out and we switched back to our headlamps. At this point, I retook the lead using my previous experience. I was unsure how well we would do because even in daylight, the trace trails can be easy to lose. However, I was having a lucky day as I was able to follow the trace trail all of the way down to the lake and then to Clyde Meadow. The wide granite gently sloping face, which the route shares with the North Fork creek, was covered with solid ice on its lower half. We finally donned our crampons (not used to this point) and carefully edged our way down first the ice and then the snowy trail to Lower Boy Scout Lake. At the lake, we removed the crampons and descended the remainder of the trail, repeating what we had done in the morning before dawn.
We're almost to the Russell-Carillon Pass (Nov 06)
At 8PM, we stumbled off the Main Whitney trail to our vehicles, tired but elated. An arduous but successful 16-hour day garnered Joe and Gordon the summit of Russell. I earned my third summit of Russell this year, each by a different route. We celebrated our victory with a late pasta dinner in Lone Pine before starting the long drive back home.