Friday, November 6, 2009

A tussle with Mt. Russell

Sure, Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous* United States, but after climbing it twice (or even twice in one day), one begins to look around for other challenges.  What one sees when one looks around from the summit of Mt. Whitney is the precipitous southern wall of Mt. Russell.  At 14,086 feet, several hundred feet lower than Mt. Whitney, Mt. Russell is sometimes dismissed as just another fourteener in the Sierras.  But R. J. Secor's description of the peak can get one's attention: "This is the finest peak in the Mount Whitney region.  It is high and beautiful, and none of its routes are easy".  It got my attention.  In early October, I recruited several people to join me for a Sunday climb of Mt. Russell's classic East Ridge.

As we approached the weekend, the weather forecasts got progressively worse.  By Friday, the forecasts for the Sierras called for 50 mph winds with gusts up to 100 mph on Sunday.  That was enough for most people in our party to cancel.  But I had not been to the Sierras in over six years, so it was going to take a lot more than talk of 100 mph gusts to discourage me. 

On Saturday, I made the 5-hour drive to Lone Pine from Orange County and picked up my reserved day-hiking permit.  I then drove up to Whitney Portal at ~8,300 feet and found my reserved campsite at the full campground.  To my surprise, the two guys in the adjacent camp site were also from Orange County.  Not wanting to drive all the way back down to Lone Pine for dinner, I thought I would see if the Whitney Portal Store was still open, and if so, have a look at the menu. Wanting a solid and "safe" meal the night before my big outing, I was a little wary about eating a burger and fries at the unfamiliar Store.  Fortunately, the meal was perfectly satisfying and filling.  In addition, I sat around the communal table and chatted with several interesting people (more from Orange County), including Larry Goldie, the owner of North Cascades Mountain Guides, who had just completed a 12-hour car-to-car ascent of Mt. Whitney's East Buttress.

Returning to my campsite after dark, I was glad to finally meet James Russell, who would be accompanying me the following day.  James Russell, as it turns out, is a celebrated young scientist back home who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at UC-Berkeley.  And his last name certainly augured well for our climb.  After a horrendous night's sleep, in which I laid wide awake all night listening anxiously to the regular jet engine-like roar of the wind gusts, I stumbled out of my tent at 4:00 AM and began packing up.  By 5:00 AM, we were hiking up the trail by the light of our headlamps.

The first major obstacle we encountered was the dangerous Ebersbacher Ledges.  Knowing that the ledges were narrow, precipitous, and hard to find in the dark, we had done our research and easily spotted the crucial entry point by headlamp.  Thereafter, we moved carefully and had no trouble on the ledges.

Happy times near Clyde Meadow before the sand/scree slog.

The second major obstacle was the dreaded scree slope which begins in earnest at around 11,200 feet and eases at around 12,800 feet.  The drudgery of this steep sand slog exceeded all expectations.  Since most steps up this slope are followed by a downward slide of half a step, it really involves about 2,400 vertical feet of unrelenting misery.  The only positive experience I had on this seemingly interminable slope was the realization that the wind had dissipated and we probably had a good shot at the summit.

Above the sand/scree slog with the East Ridge of Mt. Russell in the background.

After the steep sand/scree slope, it was a relatively quick and easy walk to the saddle between Mt. Russell and Mt. Carillon, where one is simultaneously confronted with the sheer north face of Mt. Russell and the surprisingly huge Tulainyo Lake (alleged to be the highest lake in the United States, or something like that).  Upon reaching the saddle and being promptly overwhelmed visually by the dark blue of the vast lake, which contrasts sharply with the prevailing tan color of the surrounding landscape, James exclaimed, "What the hell is that?"

Tulainyo Lake

By this point, we were both very tired, but glad to get off the sand and onto some solid granite.  The solid granite of the east ridge quickly narrows to only a few feet in places, with terrible exposure on either side.  The east ridge is rated 3rd class, which means that (1) you need to use your hands to climb, (2) there are always good hand holds if you stay on route, and (3) the consequences of falling are such that you wouldn't want to fall.  In many places on the east ridge, the consequences of falling are such that you really, really wouldn't want to fall. 

The East Ridge of Mt. Russell as seen from the Russell/Carillon Col.

Upon arriving at the first really steep and exposed section, it occurred to me that we might not make the summit.  It looked sketchy and I was tired.  But we picked our way along the right side of the ridge and, although the exposure held my attention, the climbing was quite easy.  Further along the ridge, and at about the point where I was quite ready to be done with the ridge, I arrived at the crux.  Staring at this narrow and frighteningly exposed section of the ridge, I despairingly thought it was impassable without taking more risk than I was willing to take.  After all, I am a family man.  But my despair was unwarranted as moments later I followed James around to the right on what seemed to be easier ground. 

The East Ridge of Mt. Russell as seen from the summit.

After a few false summits and many short breaks to catch my breath, we stepped onto the summit at around 2:30 PM.  I was exhausted and my summit portrait, which I will not post because I look considerably less happy than someone is supposed to look in such a place, shows it.  Somehow James had the energy for exuberant summit poses, even though I suspected that he was similarly drained.

Russell on Russell.

Given how steep and exposed our ascent of the ridge was, I had reservations about descending.  But we picked our way along the ridge and before too long we were back to the safety of the sand.  My expectation of a quick descent did not come to fruition, as James experienced constant cramping in his legs that made it temporarily impossible for him to straighten his legs after bending them.  Some hours later, after negotiating the Ebersbacher Ledges in the fading light, I became the slow poke as my new shoes, which were one size too small, began crushing my toes.

Returning to the trailhead at around 7:30 PM -- after ascending and descending almost 6,000 vertical feet over the past 14+ hours -- neither of us had the luxury of relaxing.  I still had to make the ~5 hour drive back to Orange County and James had to figure out how to get back to San Francisco since his ride had (for reasons I won't get into here) left without him.  After contemplating a variety of scenarios for getting home, some involving me doing things I really didn't want to do, James opted to stay at the new hostel in Lone Pine, which is owned and operated by the owners of the Whitney Portal Store.

It pleases me to say that this story has a happy ending as I managed to get my daughter to pre-school (almost) on time the next morning and James made it back home the following night.  Now for the moral of the story: climbing a mountain with someone whose last name is identical to the mountain's name is a recipe for success.

*Word Challenge: Use "contiguous" in a sentence that has nothing to do with the United States.


JimQPublic said...

Speaking of mountains, if Australia is a continent, how come the highest point of the continent is Puncak Jaya? It's on New Guinea which isn't even contiguous with Australia?

con·ti·nent   /ˈkɒntnənt/ Spelled[kon-tn-uhnt]
–noun of the main landmasses of the globe, usually reckoned as seven in number (Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Australia, and Antarctica).
2.a comparable landmass on another planet.
3.the mainland, as distinguished from islands or peninsulas.
4.the Continent, the mainland of Europe, as distinguished from the British Isles.
5.a continuous tract or extent, as of land.
6.Archaic. something that serves as a container or boundary.

Sam Page said...

Good question. There is a lot of debate about which mountain is the highest on the Australian continent.