Lessons Learned on Mt. Russell

I got a call from my long-time alpine partner with the news that he was going to be in California for spring break and – in between engagement plans – he had some free time.  He then asked me if I would be down to drive 10 hours to Lone Pine for a shot at a cool summit. This was a no-brainer question for me; of course I was!

Nathan and I have climbed all over together. We have climbed scrappy multi-pitch routes in the City of Rocks, ID, sat in our tent for days at the Cirque of the Towers hoping for good weather, and practiced our drytooling game on the loosest choss pile I’ve ever seen down in Provo Canyon.  Now that Nathan was getting engaged, we wanted to do a last hurrah with the newly discovered free time.  As soon as I left work, I drove 700 miles down to Lone Pine, CA where we planned to meet.

However – like all good adventures – there was trouble.  Due to significant rockfall during the winter, the roads were closed and under construction, which delayed our plans for a day and added an extra 3 miles to our approach.  Neither of us being great backcountry skiers, we fumbled and guessed for a while before getting into a rhythm. And to top it all off, the sleeping pads we relied on to keep us warm and off the snow decided to rupture.  Carefully-arranged backpacks and coiled ropes are a poor substitute for Thermarest pads, sleep was rare that night as we shivered on top of the snow. 

Originally, we had planned to summit both Mt Whitney and Mt Russel during our 4 day window.
With the reduced timeframe, we opted for Mt Russell’s East Ridge only.  While normally a 3rd class scramble in the summer, a winter ascent consists of 1,500’of snow and climbing on loose unconsolidated powder, all while facing exposure on the ridge in stiff AT boots, creating a serious outing.  Around 1:00 pm, after a cruxy 5.6 slab, we decided that continuing on the ridge would put us outside of our return window and above our safe climbing threshold, so we made the painful decision to bail.  While frontpointing down bullet-hard snow with loaded packs and ultralight axes, our decision to retreat was reaffirmed. 

After another cold night without pads, Nathan and I were eager to wake up and get an early start on the day.  We jumped the gun a bit in our haste and started skiing down on icy snow.  Although a rough way to start the morning, the snow eventually turned into perfect corn and the views coming down were beautiful.

We ended the trip with a ritual Chile Colorado burrito at Amigos in Bishop, then started the long drive home to Utah.

Gear Used

Vaude Zerum 58: Ultralight, but with a comfy suspension system, the Zerum carried all of my skiing, climbing, and camping gear, even with the lid removed. 

MSR Windburner 1L: We had to melt all of our water from snow, which takes a lot of fuel.  The MSR Windburner is very efficient and works well even in the wind, when you really want hot water quickly.

Grivel Stealth: Superlight helmet with full head coverage; perfect to protect from rock and ice fall while helping to keep pack weight down.

Grivel Haute Route Axe:  The lightest axe that Liberty Mountain carries.  The Ghost or Flame axes from Grivel would have been much better, but they have not arrived yet.

Grivel G12: These are the standard for mountaineering crampons.  I was tempted to use an aluminum crampon like the Air Tech Lights, but the chromolly steel provided better security on the rock scrambles.

Grivel Ares:  Most of the times that we had harnesses on were while walking or scrambling over easy rock.  The open design of the Ares harness allows for a much more comfortable stride.

Edelweiss Discover 8mm: We went with the Discover over the Beal Opera – one of my favorite ropes - as it was slightly thinner and came in a 30m section.  For scrambly ridges like this, 30m was more than sufficient. 

Thule Stir 15L: Comparably light in relation to other summit sacks on the market, but at a much lower price.  I could stuff this in the bottom of my pack and grab it on summit day.

Cypher Logic Approach Shoes: I used these on the hike up to the snow, then stashed them when we switched to skis.  I wish I had brought them up the climb as well, because they would have been perfect on the ridge.

Outdoor Designs Diablo GTT: Perfect gloves for the approach and manipulating tricky ski bindings.

Justin Fisher is a climber, adventurer, and internet sales rep at Liberty Mountain

All photos courtesy of Justin Fisher and Nathan Robinson


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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. That's awesome! Looks like some amazing views and mountains. To bad you couldn't make it to the top.