Mount Russell (August, 2011)

Mount Russell from the east
Mount Russell is one of my favorite and I believe one of the finest peaks in the high Sierra. This was the second time I went to the top of Mount Russell (the first being back in 1992 or so). This time I went with my Son Alex on a 3 day backpack up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek.

A quick note out of sequence. The photo on the right is Mount Russell viewed from the summit of Mount Carillon. After we climbed Russell, we decided that since Carillon was so close, we would "stroll" over to that summit also. We were rewarded with a fantastic and unique view of Mount Russell (not to mention Tulainyo lake) and were glad we invested the extra energy.

We climbed the east arete route from Russell-Carillon pass. This is pretty much the edge you can admire in the photo on the right. Like any good mountaineering route it looks impossible.

All of the written route descriptions I have read (Secor, Porcella) are confusing in some way, so -- having just done this two days ago I thought I would try to clarify some things.

Some notes on the published route descriptions

We began our climbing day from near Upper Boy Scout Lake in the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, which I believe is what most people do. Porcella talks endlessly about Whitney--Russell saddle in connection with this, which is quite misleading. Secor emphasizes that Whitney--Russel saddle is not the low point between Whitney and Russel above Upper Boy Scout lake, but rather the notch immediately northwest of Iceberg Lake. Clearly Secor and Porcella are talking about two different things. I believe Porcella calls the pass near Iceberg Lake, "Iceberg col".

Either way though, Whitney-Russell saddle has nothing whatsoever to do with how most people climb routes on Mount Russell, and there is no need to cross the Sierra crest unless you want to do the route from the north exactly as Clyde did it, which virtually nobody wants to do. So, just forget all of this and pay close attention to what I am going to tell you next.

What you want to do is to ascend the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek to Clyde Meadow - just below Upper Boy Scout Lake. From there you climb a broad sandy slope to the north, which narrows to a steep chute with lots of scree and talus. At the top of this you find yourself at the edge of a large flat "plateau" and hike across and up to Russell-Carillon pass. From here you follow the ridge west to the summit of Russel. This is route 22 in Porcellas book, but note that when he says to follow the description in route 23, he really means route 22a.

There is an even better way, and we used it on this ascent (although we descended the usual route described above). We hiked above Upper Boy Scout Lake, passing the lake on the right (north) side, and then following a trail through the boulders and talus to a short cliff band as Porcella describes. We saw nothing at all like the small lake he describes, nor were we tempted in any way to wander left onto class 4 rock.

The class 3 couloir

At the top of this steep section, look to the right and slighly over your shoulder (to the northeast). There is an obvious narrow couloir with scree and talus. It is the only passage that looks like it could possibly be class 2 (see the photo above). It is straightforward to ascend this chute to its top where some class 3 moves over large rocks leads to a more open area. From here, it is possible to simply continue up and to the plateau that leads to Russell-Carillon Pass, but we found it more enjoyable to turn left into a branch chute that allowed us to climb class 3 rock (we were getting tired of loose talus). This also leads to the plateau.

All of this seemed quite straightforward, but we met and spoke with two parties who had attemped this variation. Both had given up on the attempt due to confusion about the route. I believe the second party had continued past the couloir and then climbed the lower part of the south face route, backing off when they found themselves blocked by class 4 rock at the headwall.

It is worth noting that Norman Clyde made the original ascent of the East Arete route starting from the north side of the mountain near lake Tulainyo. There is no telling how he got to this starting point and it doesn't really matter, most people don't do the route that way. They aren't missing anything apart from the view of the north face of Russell, which is quite something actually.

Views along the arete

The arete itself

All of the above relates to how you get to Russell-Carillon pass. Once you get there, the rewarding part of the route begins. You head west, staying near the top of the ridge, or somewhat below the top on the north side. The climbing is quite exposed, and a careless person could certainly get themself killed. I found that any time I was doing anything at all difficult, there was a better way and I just needed to look for it, perhaps backtrack and find the best route. This is a very exciting and worthwhile route. The west summit is the high point.

The approach

We spent an enjoyable 3 days in this area, climbing this route on the second day. The first day we hiked to a camping spot above Upper Boy Scout Lake on the way toward Iceberg Lake (we hiked in with 20 and 25 pound packs in 8 hours). The second day we spent 10 hours ascending and descending the peak. The third day we hiked out in 5 hours. Young and athletic parties could certainly move much faster, but we enjoyed ourselves. We were surprised by how fast we could move with light packs and the now excellent trail.

Above Upper Boy Scout Lake

The North Fork

I had visited this area almost 20 years before this trip and was astonished at the changes. There is now an excellent trail that almost anyone can easily follow. Where we used to crash through brush in the lower part of the canyon following a faint path, there is now a superb trail and branches have been neatly cut off. Beyond Lower Boy Scout Lake there is a good trail, with a plethora of utterly unnecessary cairns and ducks, some of which are immense. We got rid of as many of these as we could spare the energy to destroy. This area is clearly wildly popular and getting far more attention than I ever would have dreamed, those using it need to strive for a light touch.
Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

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