On the outskirts of the Whitney Zone, towering over the the North fork and its Alpine Lakes, sits a 14,094 foot granite behemoth named Mount Russell. Known mostly for being one of California's famous 14ers, as well as the incredibly exposed ridge near its peak, Mount Russell is overshadowed in size and popularity by its neighboring peak Mount Whitney (the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States). However, for anyone who has made it to the summit, its popularity is not at all a reflection of its beauty and most who have ascended Russell will note that its East Ridge (and there are dozens of other more difficult routes) is a far more interesting climb than that of the Mount Whitney Trail, if one is up for the challenge.
This write up is dedicated purely to climbing to the peak of Mount Russell via its East Ridge, starting at the Whitney Portal and ascending the North Fork Lone Pine Creek to Upper Boyscout Lake. It involves Class 1, 2, and 3 ascensions including a massive scree field, and one of the most impressive (or dreadful) exposed ridge lines that the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains have to offer. The beauty behind this trek lies in the diversity of both its expansive views as well as its technical terrain.
Although Mount Russell is located on the border of the Whitney Zone, a wilderness pass is required for hiking along the North Fork. The most relaxing way to enjoy this hike is to backpack in from the Portal and camp at Upper Boyscout Lake to begin the second half of the ascent the following day. However, an experienced hiker with a strong physical fitness level could definitely complete this hike in one day with an early morning alpine start. In either situation, the altitude involved is something to be considered in planning your approach. Camping at Upper Boyscout Lake for a night before finishing the trek gives your body a great opportunity to get acquainted with the lack of oxygen above 10,000 feet.
For those who plan to tackle this beast in a day, it would be wise to at least spend the night at the Whitney Portal (8,350 feet) or the Horseshoe Meadow Area (10,000 feet) to allow your body to adjust to the altitudes you will face during your hike. You can achieve your hiking, parking, and camping permits at recreation.gov with the exception of Horseshoe Meadow and Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead Campground, which you can find more information for on the Forest Service Site. In either situation, reserving your permits online still requires you to drive to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine, California in order to pick up your parking and hiking permits. If this seems like a lot of red tape, just be aware that the Visitor Center is actually a great place to meet other like minded individuals with a wealth of knowledge of the area, as well as a beautifully decorated museum dedicated to the Eastern Sierra Mountains.
Lone Pine Campground | Elevation 6000 feet
We had spent the previous day relaxing at Keough's Hot Springs and admiring souvenir's at the shops around Lone Pine while we waited for the 2 o'clock permits to be released at the Visitor Center. After receiving our permits, we headed straight to camp to setup our shelters, and pack our provisions for the following day. Within an hour of arriving, we had everything ready for an Alpine start. Two backpacks were set on the table, with David's Bivy parallel to my hammock under the shade of the trees. All we needed to do was chuck everything in the car, refill our bladders, and drive 15 minutes up to the Whitney Portal. The speed at which we prepared camp was a reminder of how eager we were to bag Russell. After all, this was our third attempt to climb this peak after being halted on the ridge by rough snowy conditions and nightfall. We were hungry, and focused. Like anyone who is way to eager to fall asleep before a full day of climbing, we drank around a campfire to disorient ourselves.
Whitney Portal | Elevation 8350 feet
September 12th, 2016 -- 3:15 am. The Mount Whitney trail head was quiet with the exception of one other group taking pictures and enjoying the night sky. We kept to tradition by weighing our packs, which were a refreshing 40 lbs lighter than our previous backpacking attempts on this trail. The weather was a perfect 60 degrees and both of us had packed extremely light, wearing shorts, and bringing a minimal amount of layers. We were partially aware that this would turn out to be a mistake later but pressed on anyhow. Twenty minutes and 3/4 of a mile later, we had made the it to the second stream crossing. It is just before this crossing where an inconspicuous use trail is located. A massive rock slab stands tall to the East separating the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek from the main trail and is the beginning of Thor Peak and eventually Pinnacle Ridge. After taking a short break to delayer, we made for the North Fork.
Although the North Fork is technically not an official trail, the constant flow of climbers the route sees each year makes it fairly easy to navigate. What isn't an obvious path is heavily forest, at least up to Lower Boyscout Lake. That is not to say there isn't an almost immediate change in the difficulty of its terrain after leaving the Whitney Trail. Over the next mile, the grade nearly doubles bringing the average to 28%. After two creek crossings and a small Class 3 scramble, we had made it to the famous Erbersbacher Ledges (1.3 miles, 1327 feet climbed).
The view from the E-Ledges is magnificent in the daytime. Large granite walls surround the dense forest floor dotted with pieces of the trail. Just as you begin to squint your eyes to search for more hikers, the walls demand your attention in the Eastern direction leading to a hazy view of the Alabama Hills and Lone Pine which makes for a beautiful overall perspective of your location. In our case, there was only darkness with stars above, and a small span of city lights in the distance. A spectacle in its own rite.
The E-Ledges are unquestionably a section of the trail to proceed with caution. Although they are fairly easy to traverse, they happen to be just above a cliff side and a fall would most likely be fatal. We passed through this section fairly quickly, having done it several times and previously communicating a vision of being at some epic lookout before sunrise to enjoy the legendary Mount Whitney Alpen Glow. Lower Boyscout Lake was only a quarter of a mile away from the Ledges and we were ready for our first break in the long day ahead.
By 4:30am, we had reached Lower Boyscout Lake (2.5 miles, 2500 feet climbed). This section offers a bit of immediate relief, beginning with a leveled trail and the most calming creek crossing the North Fork has to offer this time of year. The trail picks back up on the Southern rim of the Lake and is spotted with tall pines, shaded campsites, and plenty of space for hikers to take off their pack and enjoy a short break. I expected we would probably have a seat just out of habit, but within minutes of readjusting our packs and checking our pace, the chilling morning cold sent a shiver down our spines and we were ready for our next rocky ascent.
After the ease of all that is Lower Boyscout Lake, the trail disappears abruptly under a mass of Talus, which you will climb, leap, and squeeze your way across for roughly 400 feet in a quarter of a mile. The idea here is to stay just South of the vegetation that surrounds the drainage from Upper Boyscout Lake and eventually top out on the large smooth granite slabs above. Depending on what time of year you go, climbing across the slabs could be another challenge. From Winter to Spring, this section becomes a spillway for snow melt and could be wet or even icy. That being said, I've caught myself slipping during summer months as well, so just be sure to approach with caution and you should reach Upper Boyscout Lake in no time.
At 5:22am, David and I had reached Upper Boyscout Lake after climbing roughly 3,200 feet in under three miles. We were making excellent time and just as our confidence was at its height, we heard an all too familiar howl. The Lake was exposed to the harsh winds we were dreading and within seconds, the already low 41 degree temperature dropped to freezing and we found ourselves searching for a large rock to huddle behind. The problem we now faced was that we were already wearing all of the layers we brought and it was only approaching the coldest time of day.
Our next destination was the massive scree and boulder field just North of Upper Boyscout Lake. At this point, any sort of designated trail is diminished and you are left with a shoe filled with rocks and a mind filled with doubt as you climb 1,500 feet in under a mile. Here, it pays to be extremely observant of your surroundings as you ascend. Although the route is mostly made up of loose scree, to the right are larger, firmer and more manageable boulders. Continue to follow the scree field in the general Northwestern direction, avoiding the rock walls and staying to the least steep parts of what loosely resembles a gully. At 12000 feet, we decided to take a long enough break to allow the sun to rise. The irony of climbing to stay warm was that at this elevation, a few hundred feet of ascent had an inverse effect on temperature which when combined with the wind chill, created an extremely cold environment.
We had reached the top of the scree field at 7:10am (3.6 miles, 4700 feet climbed). This Plateau overlooks most of the Whitney Zone and offers an excellent panoramic perspective of Thor Peak, and the Pinnacle Ridge leading straight to the still enormous Mount Whitney. The temperature had finally made its way up to 50 degrees and the flat terrain exposed us to another flurry of winds which despite the sunrise, still made me feel uncomfortably cold. I would soon find out why.
Although I had trained moderately as a trail runner for this and other excursions, running 15-30 miles per week, I was dragging my knuckles across the floor. Each step added another frame to a visual in my head of my pace slowing, and my stride degrading until I completed a transformation into what could only be described as a mountain climbing Zombie. Then I fell asleep the same way I'd done behind the wheel in traffic so many times before. My head fell over and I picked it back up in a brief moment of alertness before it happened again. I turned around to tell David that I probably needed to take a nap before we continued onto the Ridge, especially one that featured a section most commonly known as "The Knifes Edge". He convinced me to make it to the Saddle and I nodded hesitantly.
I awoke thirty minutes later, curled up into a ball next to the biggest rock wind block I could find with my right cheek immersed in a puddle of drool. David was sitting nearby with a look of boredom. I apologized for the wait, noting that I had only had six hours of sleep in the two days leading up to this trek. He said that while I was asleep I was breathing heavily, which explained the drool. In hindsight, I feel like the combination of sleep and oxygen deprivation had an enormous effect on my stamina causing me to crash. An issue I was extremely grateful to have corrected.
8:45am -- We had made it to the Russell-Carrillon Saddle and my hibernation period was over (4.1 miles, 5178 feet climbed). Endless 360 degree alpine scenery would dominate the rest of our Class 3 rock scramble ascent and within a few minutes climb, we would approach what was completely new territory for us both. I couldn't tell if it was the power nap or my adrenaline, but I was wide awake.
The final half mile to the summit is in my opinion as rewarding as the moment we made it to the peak, which is why I won't ruin it by providing you with descriptions of hand holds and the amount of Class 3 moves you will have to make. David and I had different ideas of what was easier and essentially took slightly different routes while maintaining a short distance from one another. Had I found myself in front of a cliff face, I could ask how his route looked and we'd tag team the mountain all the way to the peak. For the most part I stuck to the Ridge while David seemed to stay only 15 or 20 feet below on the Northern slope.
The only issue I faced on the tip of the ridge was the exposure. Leaning slightly in either direction left me staring at a 1000 foot drop and even the slightest gust of wind was cause for me to drop down and hug a rock. The exception to the ridge walking was when we made it to the East Twin Peak of Russell. Essentially every bit of the trail after this stays to the Northern slope.
At 10:33am we finally had made it to the top of Mount Russell. We searched for register and eventually found it lodged between two boulders in the surface below. Upon inspection, we found signatures from many of our friends and a few more experience mountaineers naming complex Class 5 approaches we hadn't even heard of. We cracked open our summit beer, and shared a cheers to a successful climb and the eventual goal of completing those more difficult routes.
Total Distance : 10.5 miles
Total Elevation (feet): 6,991 feet
Mount Russell via East Ridge - STRAVA ACCOUNT
(Here is what David's garmin produced)