Dispatches from Mt. Russell

More Thoughts on Alpine Carryovers and High Altitude 

Water (Weight) and the Critical Choices of Pack Weight When Climbing Alpine

(Hopefully, these next few posts will tackle some of the thoughts, musings, and issues that aspiring alpine leaders/guides experience on the long road to becoming a strong alpine climber. I have taken the approach that detail and analysis will not only help people in my situation, but also help me see some of my own analytics and correct them as time goes on. May y'all find this interesting and helpful!   -Ryder)

Recently, a friend and I tackled the classic Sierra alpine route the Fishhook Arête over on Mt. Russell. The route and parent mountain are vastly overshadowed by the extra ~417 ft. that Mt. Whitney has over Russell's summit, but those who skip Russell in favor of the 'Top o' the Lower 48' are surely missing out on, what I believe, is a much better view. The Fishhook is also a more technically demanding climb than the East Face or East Buttress.

Anyways, the thoughts herein regard some considerations for planning how to pack on a high alpine climb when carrying over is the desired layout. Of course, you can gather from the previous post on Mt. Stuart that the ultimate goal is to pack light. However, there are the added factors of higher altitude and the host of climatic and physiological effects that high altitude brings; Russell stands almost 5000 ft. above Stuart's summit, meaning the air will be thinner, temperature extremes can be wider, and exposure to weather can leave you more vulnerable to the unpredictable. Granted, we are talking about mountains in two entirely different ranges, separated by hundreds of miles and many degrees of latitude, but these general parameters take in the fact that, the higher the altitude, the greater the potential more extreme variations in weather and potential physiological consequences.

This article(ish) will give you a run down of the demands for Russell in particular before stepping back to look at how these Russell-specific high altitude considerations can be translated to other travels to high altitude. Finally, I leave you with some thoughts of general mountain wisdom in the "Lessons Learned" section at the end and throw in some route beta, to boot.

Let's get down to route specifics for Russell:

The Fishhook Arête is one of the more complicated ridge climbs I have encountered so far. Sure, ridges are pretty clear in their ultimate destination, but the way to that destination is tricky. In the case of the Fishhook, the route is defined by many overlapping layers of vertical granite and a start that is often described ambiguously in climbing literature. So the feeling of 'adventure' is a bit higher and more palpable than other well-trod classic alpine routes. Straying anywhere off-route yields vicious 5.9+ steps (and perhaps one ill-advised move of 5.10)... at least that's what our variation dished out. The route we took ended up that way, following a whipper induced by, you guessed it, the combination of altitude fatigue and pack weight.

Many climbers will consider climbs of Whitney or Russell as multiday alpine trips, using an established high camp as a staging area before the route and a sanctuary to rest and reload before descending back to the Whitney Portal.

However, Russell entails a bit more of a complicated situation than Whitney. The approach is the same to Iceberg Lake. Here is the breakdown of possible staging options for summit day.

The approach to Russell simply continues around the left side of Iceberg and up and over the scree field mess to the Whitney- Russell Col before descending into the cirque separating these two Sierra giants. Establishing a high camp here presents a dilemma:

Pano in the cirque separating two Sierra giants: Mt. Russell and the Fishhook Arête on the left and Mt. Whitney's North Face on the right
1.) From the summit of Russell, returning to the high camp between Whitney and Russell involves very complicated, steep routefinding down the complex south face of Russell, often involving steep down-climbing on very sketchy, loose terrain for a few hundred feet until you hit the scree slopes. This option, while sketchy, would deposit you directly back at high camp, where you could pack up and simply head home.

2.) With that in mind, some folks elect to camp at Upper Boyscout Lake, the middle of the three lakes on the approach. This solves the problem of the descent, as the standard descent from the East Ridge and the Russell-Carillon Col dumps you back at Upper Boyscout. However, the approach on summit day will be tiresome, requiring a hike from Upper Boyscout, up past Iceberg, over the Whitney-Russell Col, down into the cirque, up the Fishhook and down the scramble of the East Ridge (exposed class 3), across the shoulder of Carillon, and down a nasty 'kitty litter' gully, to return to your tent.

3.) Camping at Iceberg--where people attempting Whitney's East Face, East Buttress, or Mountaineer's Route--would make your summit day approach shorter, but would necessitate descending to Upper Boyscout and the RE-ascending the final section of the approach to return to your camp before heading home. Any of the more 'direct' descents to Iceberg look steep, loose, exposed, and scary. Trust me, the last thing you want to do on an alpine climb is to climb up a bunch of loose crap and/or slog uphill, especially when all you can think about is a cold beer down in Lone Pine...

Okay, so after that long winded set-up, we arrive at the final option. An alpine carryover.

The pack will look similar to the setup for Mt. Stuart (see the article in "Gear Advice and Geeking"). However, the big advantage on the approach is water weight. For Mt. Stuart water is a big unknown once you are past the glacier; water will only be found in erratic snowfields near the ridge that move from year-to-year. The approach to Russell, however, means you can "go dry" for the entire approach.

You have three great pit stops before the Whitney-Russell Col: Lower Boyscout, Upper Boyscout, and Iceberg, spaced at ~1000 ft. vertical intervals from ~10500 ft. (Lower Boyscout) to Iceberg (~12600 ft.). Once over the col, there is a pretty reliable tarn in the middle of the Whitney-Russell cirque, too. In fact, it was still half frozen at the beginning of September! Being able to essentially fill up at-will for the approach should immensely cut down on what you have to carry from the trailhead.

In a more general sense, carryovers free you of the burden of most of the bulkiest camping gear and allow for a direct descent home. The tradeoff is that you must climb with greater weight on your person for the length of the route! 

Summit day gets a little more complicated.

The Arête will have no snow in the summer (I cannot vouch for spring), unless in the rare instance of a gigantic snow year (think 2011 winter with 190% average Sierra snowpack). Even then, the Fishhook is a sharp spine of rock, so snow will not linger for long in large quantities. Ergo, you will be loading up your water at the tarn on the way to the Fishhook.

I went with about 2.5 liters of water, and had ~2 liters by the time I finished the approach and started climbing. THIS WAS NOT ENOUGH. And this is the point at which the factor of altitude becomes especially salient:

1.) Rapid altitude gain is incredibly stressful on your body, no matter how fit you are (my partner and I only had a weekend to spare with a little Friday hooky because of work schedules). The best strategy in this case is to stack the odds in your favor as best you can, meaning staying (if only marginally) calorically satisfied and staying well-hydrated. Keeping these factors in check will reduce the number of stresses your body faces at any one time. When a climbers considers how stressful altitude alone is on the body, adhering to a consistent regimen of food and water intake becomes especially clear.

2.) Being on lead (the whole time) was incredibly exhilarating for me, even if psychologically exhausting. This physical and psychological burden will also increase your water needs. Leaders may be familiar with the phenomenon that, after a crux pitch, his/her heart is often racing and there is a voracious need to swig down a bunch of water. The last thing you want is to finish the crux pitch, which often comes in the middle of a route, reach for your water, and find your reserves dwindling with more technical pitches (and a descent) remaining.

Therefore, I would recommend that, on summit day for a technical Sierra rock route, water needs are the following:

  • Leader: 3L of water (~6.6 lbs.)
    •  2L for the ascent and 1 L for the (often-longer-and-more-stressful-than-you-think) descent.
  • Second/Follower: 2.5L (~5.5 lbs.)
    • .5L for the approach and 2L for the climb/descent
      • Since the follower has the added security of top rope, the same, physio-/psychological drain experienced by the leader will not be as severe.

This recommendation is for the majority of 'mortal' alpine climbers. Of course, climbers more skilled in the craft than I am will sometimes opt for less to move even faster.

So in regards to the pack in general, how can one stay so light with that much water? Here are a few suggestions on keeping pack manageable on high alpine summit days.

1.) Check the forecast and camp light. If the weather is good, ditch the bivy bag and bring 2 big contractor bags to hedge your bets. These oversized garbage bags weigh virtually nothing and pack incredibly well. They are also a great moisture barrier that will help keep your toes warm in the event of a chillier-than-expected open bivy. CAVEAT: Just make sure you keep them folded and unopened when you pack them! Unfolding and refolding them introduces lots of air, which increases the packed volume of the bags.


  • For Mt. Russell, you could not ask for a better bivy spot. Towards the bottom of the cirque there are very flat, very soft sandy gaps that are possibly among the most comfortable open bivy locations I have ever had. One of them is even squirreled right next to a big boulder to act as a nice windbreak!


2.) A weird one: look at the direction the rock tends to face, especially with corners, and orient any gear strapped to the outside of the pack AWAY from the rock. Keeping items from snagging and jamming in/on the rock will avoid nasty surprises when your shoulders start getting tired at the crux sequence...


Thoughts on Safety and Professionalism for Aspiring Outdoor Leaders

These thoughts are ones that I hope to learn from and apply the next time I go out. Here are just a few, hopefully easy-to-digest thoughts about how to approach guiding a less experienced second--a person defined as one with outdoor lead experience, potentially trad, but fairly new to the higher commitment levels of alpine climbing.

- Discussions and Communications: The approach and evening before summit day are crucial to have open discussion with your second/partner/client/'mock-client/etc.. Lay out your processes for safety by: (1.) Having them talk, out loud, about the extent of their safety knowledge. Of couse, it goes without saying that you should be always be having discussions about safety at all times. To be clear, I am not recommending that the approach/bivy evening is the time to teach them safety essentials; they should know those already. Rather, this conversation is best suited to getting you and your partner on the same page, making sure commands are clear and rectifying and major component of your safety and communication systems where you and your partner have different processes. For example, my partner, Ling, was not used to saying the other person's name after every single command in order to ensure clarity. We then established that we would always address every command with each other's name to avoid confusion with other climbers who might be on the Fishhook or over on the Mithril Dihedral.

In particular, encourage your partner to amp up their command volume ot a level louder than he/she thinks she is yelling. Chances are those with less alpine experience are more inclined to shout at a volume more appropriate for smaller crags like the Gunks rather than the huge, complex features of the High Sierra.

- Staying Calm and Professional in Trying Situations: This point is critical if you are leading a less experienced climber/client. Your partner will be looking to you not just for the experience and technical skills you bring to the table, but also for a level of protection/safeguard. Essentially, the leader must take on the role of safety supervisor to give the second more confidence to climb in exposed technical terrain; your partner/client/etc. will look to you to make sure everything is alright. As a leader, you are the 'gatekeeper' between order and chaos on the climb.

In other words: If you are scared, they will be scared. If you are panicking, you partner will panic. If you are confident, your partner will be confident.

The above statement is not to say that you simply hide your concerns from your partner. Rather, you acknowledge them directly and with a very practical attitude. If you worry that weather is coming, do not become 'dark' (no pun intended) and worrisome. Inform your partner and solicit their thoughts as to what they are most comfortable with. To yourself, acknowledge that you are fearful of a potentially dangerous situation, but, as you move from inward thoughts to outward action/execution let the outward manifestation of your fear be one of practicality. For instance, scout potential bail options before the dire need to use them arises; discuss with your partner how exactly you both will safely reach a bail option in the event weather turns climbing conditions very nasty; if reaching bail options are not immediately possible, keep your and your partners minds active in figuring out how to hunker down and wait for better conditions. Focused mental activity will keep you focused and prevent overwhelming fear from clouding your movement and judgement in the hills.  This sort of behavior will  also help both you and your partner be more efficient and safer. It will also contribute to a more assuring atmosphere between you and your partner.

Lessons Learned from Russell Trip

- Double Rope Management: Rope management with double ropes on this kind of route requires the UTMOST attention to your direction of travel. Weaving left and right around blocks is a recipe for an inordinate amount of rope drag--regardless of the use of single or double ropes. Think twice when building a 'nest of courage' before committing to a tough sequence, oftentimes the blind drive to ram in some pro will leave you with crossed ropes!!! The easiest-to-remember solution? If in doubt, stop short and belay to get a clean slate. Crossed ropes, pinched ropes, and ropes weaving about blocks and cracks are the major behaviors that invite serious risk of rope jams!

- 'Insurance Water:' Having a tad more water as a leader is critical in the tradeoff between weight and the ability to climb. The last thing you want is severe muscle cramps brought on by dehydration 3/4 up the route!

- Food/Menu Choices: Yes, packing light in terms of food is important; calorically dense (often processed and dehydrated) foods are great. However, they often come in the form of gels and bars and require a lot of water to wash down. It is very easy to get sick of them on a climb to the point of nausea (literally), something you want to avoid when a 'weekend blitz' trip already forces you to go to very high elevations very quickly. Bring some food items you know you crave THAT HAVE SALTS (Your body will crave these as they are lost through your sweat). Dried salami and vacuum-packed cheese sticks work exceptionally well, and they weigh about the same as bars and gels. Though you may have concerns about food freshness, a short carryover trip will probably be within the window of edibility.

- Water Additives: Include some Gatorade/electrolyte flavor sticks/tubes in your food cache. Add them to your water and you have another means to replenish lost electrolytes atop the salty food mentioned above.

Beta: Mt. Russell Fishhook Arête ("The 904-Mile Roadwarrior Variation")

NB: Our variation deviates from the standard start, but ultimately merges with the traditional crux pitch before deviating at the very top of the route. The standard variation will escape into the chossy scramble terrain. Our variation will remain on the arête directly unti lit end directly on the summit!

0.) Approach the Fishhook from the Cirque, aiming for a big, orange-brown fin near the lower terminus of the ridge that resembles a giant piece of toast. Scramble up the ledges (class 3) to the wall directly underneath the fin.

1, 904 Var.) Climb directly up the left-facing corner to the left of the right-leaning that some beta documents refer to as the standard start (looked sustained, thin, and exposed for the grade!). Underneath a piece of rope slung around a rock horn (fixed; also defined by a widening of the crack to the point where you can see through to the other side), cut around the horn/block (don't clip to avoid rope drag) to find a big sandy ledge. Belay from here (5.7, ~80 ft.)

2, 904 Var.) From the ledge, follow the overlap on the left side that features a crack wide enough to jam, follow the vertically layered granite overlaps halfway between the crest and the steep dropoff to the gully below, angling up and right, wherever you can to get back close to the crest. Ledges are interspersed here, so belay where you can (5.6-5.7, ~195 ft.)

3, 904 Var.) Angle up and right, looking for the easiest path heading higher on the ridge and towards the famous notch that marks the halfway point of the route. Most of the variations are, unfortunately, hard. Easier variations exist if you follow lower on the ridge. However, they will force you into the gully between the Arête and the bulk of Russell. Your choice rages from wide, dubiously protected corners to spicier, but totally protectable, finger jams and tip buckets. Belay at the flat section beneath a prominent fin the has a sheer drop to the right on an orange-brown face. (5.9-5.9+, ~175ft.)

The Lower Arête. Very easy to get lost in a sea of overlaps and stray into spicier terrain!

4, 904 Var.) Climb a polished, sharp arête, which may swing you partially out over the exposed orange-brown cliff. Surmount the awkward step above the belay and follow the most logical line, up and left. Avoid the urge to "arête hump" on the very spine of the fin here, as this will cliff you out above a really awesome, giant flat area adjacent to the famous Notch. Just before the Notch, you will need to step left across the overlap to a fingery lieback sequence. There are plenty of places to build a nest of courage before this spicy but fun sequence. Build your anchor on small gear on this huge ledge. (5.9, ~80 ft.)

Interlude.) Now, you have to descend to the Notch. From the massive ledge, you can access some downclimbing by surmounting a big block at the far end of the ledge. On the far side, there are some holds and blocks that lead down into the Notch. Beware: this variation is quite spooky and exposed!

Alternatively, you can lower off some nuts from the big ledge directly down into the notch. The lower is about 15-20 ft.

5.) The scariness/hardest stuff is over. There is one more hard-ish pitch, but it is far more fun and less spooky than the lower half of the Fishhook. From the right side of the Notch--if you are looking at it--climb up the right side, gently angling back to the center of the arête; the line of least resistance will be fairly apparent. Easy, but airy climbing will lead to a bunch of ledges. The largest ledge will be ~25 ft. below the crack/chimney. Belay on bomber gear and enjoy the view of Mt. Whitney. (5.6, ~175 ft.)

6.) All thrills without the scare. Follow blocky, mellow terrain up underneath the crack/chimney (dual nature describer in a minute). Protect with some thin gear and pull up into the meat of the crux. Hand jam with you right side and stem (super secure, especially with the opposite wall for stemming/help) where you can before pulling into a bunch of huge blocks and towers. Belay wherever is convenient. Look to minimize rope drag in this maze of blocks. (5.8, ~120 ft.)

About this feature: I have seen it described as a chimney, a crack with chimney, and even an offwidth. Of course, it depends on where you stand. What I noticed: is does not function as your traditional chimney, as the bulk of security comes from your right hand and foot jammed in the crack. It seems a stretch to call it an offwidth, too, as I could protect it with #2 and #3 cams; while some flaring sections did exist, a solid hand jam or fist jam was always within reach. Granted, I am talking as a 6' dude with a positive ape index and long fingers, so take my opinion as you will. However, I would draw this feature as a handcrack with advantageous features abounding around you.

7.) From here, the way to go degenerates into a choose-your-own adventure.

Trending left will dump you into loose but scrambleable terrain. It will take some routefinding to get to the easier stuff, but the easier stuff will lead you to the west of the summit, where you can finally traverse across a lot of broken terrain into the top.

Trending right will yield more real climbing, but will make for more scintillating routefinding and ropedrag management. However, THIS VARIATION WILL LITERALLY DUMP YOU RIGHT ON RUSSELL'S SUMMIT; no scrambling required. We took this variation.

The 7th pitch will trend up and right around a very prominent tower in the middle of the quickly-disappearing Arête. This will yield climbing along a ledge system (low 5th) the will dump you on a large, sandy ledge. Climb up and around some very large blocks underneath a mini overhang and up a small corner (awkward 5.7). You can belay just above this corner or, if rope drag is not too hideous, continue up over the next step (easy 5th, but will be a rope stretcher) to belay beneath a clean block with a hand crack in the left side. (awkward 5.7, ~175 ft.)

Me! Atop the summit with smiles and sun (it has snowed earlier)
Flexing and shameless Beta promotion...

8.) Regardless if you stopped short or continued to the block with a hand crack. Aim for the hand crack in the block. A short 3-4 move sequence will be all it takes (maybe 5.6) to surmount it. Surmount one more insignificant crack feature. Atop this, you can belay, no joke, RIGHT ON THE TOP OF MT. RUSSELL. (5.6, ~40 ft.)

Descent.) Angle east towards the Owens Valley thousands of feet below and follow the prominent East Ridge for your descent (a classic Sierra scramble itself!). Follow to the left of the ridge crest, staying on blocks and ledges. Cross over the East Peak (subsidiary of Russell's main summit) beneath it and to the left. From a distance, it seems improbable that the rest of the descent will remain class 3. Fear not! It stays that way if you stay on the left side of the crest (the right side is essentially a cliff that drops precipitously down into the back of the canyon where Upper Boyscout is located). Drop onto the Russell-Carillon Col/shoulder of Carillon wherever is easiest. You can sprint across the Carillon summit plateau, which is broad, flat, and layered with sand. At the far end of the plateau, there should be cairns marking the broad descent gully down to Upper Boyscout. Drop into the gully at the S/SE side of the plateau, and aim for the center/center right section in order to reach the bootpack/vague trail sooner. Descend ~2000 ft. down kitty litter and sand to the bushes between Upper and Lower Boyscout. Follow cairns (nicely spaced and visible) back down to Lower Boyscout, where the East Ridge Trail will intersect with the original approach for Whitney and Russell. Follow the standard trail back to the Portal.