Sender Stories: Mt. Russell - A Weekend in the Sierras - Sender One Climbing

Words and Pictures by Amy Huang

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“On August 12, 2019 I had set out with some friends to do Mt. Russell, 14,094 feet. By then, I had been lead climbing at Sender One for nearly a year and felt extremely comfortable hitting class 3 and 4 terrains. I had also done Mt. Kenya (see previous blog here), which was class 4 and required rope and trad climbing.

In 2016, I got invited to a friend’s trip to Mt. Russell only to be dis-invited due to a fall-out.  To add insult to injury, my friend said that I did not have the skills to do Mt. Russell. I was outraged. How can my friend tell me what to do?  I was already top roping at Sender One for nearly one year. I had already done the big hikes: Mt. Whitney, Cactus 2 Clouds Trail, San Gorgonio, Santiago Peak and Mt. Williamson. How bad could Mt. Russell be? All I heard about was its scary knife’s edge that was one foot wide and that people could fall to their death on either side.

I shrugged my shoulders. I had never been afraid of heights or exposure. When I heard that one of my hiking friends, Peter, was interested I was keen to go.  Peter met this guy named George who also wanted to do it. George was very experienced, as he had hiked over 3,000 peaks since the 1980’s. It appeared that George wanted to get a permit with 4 people.  So I recruited a 4th person, Clark on a Facebook site called California Peaks. Clark had a solid climbing resume.

So the day came when Peter and I planned to drive to the Lone Pine visitor center to get the permits. When we arrived at the visitor center, it was 8:30AM and it had already been open since 8AM.  That meant that there were already people before us. The woman at the counter taught us to keep checking the website to see if anyone dropped out of their permits. If so, then we could take them and secure our spots.  She told us that there were no guarantees for the walk-in permits since we were also competing with people from other centers.

My friend was checking online for 15 minutes and then gave up. I felt disheartened that we may not be able to do Mt. Russell. I kept trying as if I were in a trance. Finally, after about 40 minutes, I found that 4 permits were available. I shrieked in excitement and we quickly made the reservations.

We met up with George and Clark later that day to discuss our schedule. Our plan was to get up at 4:30AM and start the Whitney Mountaineer’s route, and then turn off to the Carillon Pass and head up toward Mt. Russell. We slept in the truck at the Whitney portal, which was about 8,374 ft above sea level.

At 4:30AM, we met promptly at the trailhead. We started going at an extremely accelerated pace and I was becoming breathless. Despite that I had a caffeine gel to feel energized, I was slowing down. We had several stream crossings and it was extremely steep.  Plus, there were a few times we went the wrong direction and we needed to redirect ourselves. Sometimes George would wait for me, and other times Peter would. It seemed like Clark, who was in his mid 20’s, was a speeding demon.

When we got to Boy Scout Lake at 9:00AM (half-way point) Clark was concerned that we were going too slow and would not be able to return through the tricky sections of the route before dark. Clark suggested that I turn back since I could not keep up the pace with the group. I refused. George was saying that he could not go at my slower pace, and Peter was calling my pace “demoralizing.” I was more determined to prove them wrong.

It turned out that Clark and George raced ahead, and eventually Peter could not keep up with them and fell asleep. I was left behind, but I was yelling and Peter woke up to my cries. He had thought that I had turned around and given up. He was already dejected.  I told Peter that we still had an opportunity and that we could still do it. I said that it was early in the day and that we could take as many breaks as he needed. Eventually we found out that Clark and George had taken us on the wrong route again so we had to reverse our direction.  We had to go up through sand that slowed our steps. By 11AM, we were able to see Mt. Russell a mile away.

When we got to the ridge, we had a mixture of emotions. I was excited as I enjoyed rock climbing, heights and exposure. Peter was terrified because he was afraid of heights. We decided to set our packs down to shed weight. I led the way, and I could see where there appeared to be a path across the rocks. We had to go to the west peak, which was the tallest part of Mt. Russell. I felt like I was floating in air, as I sometimes had to trust that my hands and feet were touching a solid section behind a wall as I brought my body around it. Some parts were sketchy, and I felt at one point my grip loosen and the hair rising on the back of my neck. Sometimes it felt like we were bouldering. We saw Clark and George on the way back from the peak. I kept climbing and got to the highest point at 3:30PM.  I saw that there was a summit register. I called out to Peter in joy saying that he was close to the top. He immediately followed me, and laid down on the summit block.

Peter and I took some pictures and then we knew we had to head down this ridge before it got dark. I was very thirsty, as I had left my pack. I began sucking on snow, and Peter made fun of me because it probably had germs.  But I smacked my lips in satisfaction. He started sucking on snow too, and pretty soon, we were acting as if chunks of snow were precious pieces of watermelon.

When we got to our packs, it was a relief. I drank water from my pack and also had dinner. We started hiking away from Mt. Russell and then down the Carillon pass.  There was one point my pack was actually dragging me off the cliff so I had to make a decision to release it, otherwise I would fall off the cliff with my pack. I lost my phone as well.

There was a time when Peter went far ahead and I called out to him not being able to see him. After calling out many times, I began to cry thinking I was in the wilderness by myself. I was hoping someone would find me. I thought Peter had left me to die on my own. I was being dramatic but I was sobbing and feeling helpless. Finally, he came back to me and demanded to know why I was on the ground.I told him that I was crying.  

We continued to find our way back with our headlamps on. Unfortunately, the well-established trail would fade away when we reached the streams. Sometimes Peter thought we had to cross the streams to get back on the trail. Both times, I was really scared to get sucked into the rapids. My hiking boots and socks got seriously wet. I told Peter we should wait until daylight to find our way back. Peter was resigned to the fact and we laid on the ledge shivering and we huddled together for warmth.

The next morning, we still could not find the trail back. We had to call George (luckily Peter had 8% battery) left on his phone. George eventually found us and led us back through the stream in a way that had not been straightforward. It took us an hour to get back to our cars. 

If we were to do Mt. Russell again, we should have camped at Upper Boy Scout Lake, the halfway point at 11,500 ft.  Then we would have summited the next day, and then returned to our camp, and leave refreshed the following day. Mt. Russell had made me a better climber. When I go to the gym, I no longer get sketched out easily when I am afraid of falling on lead. I think about Mt. Russell and how I had almost lost my life when my pack went over the edge. I definitely think these outdoor experiences serve to enhance our experiences when we return to climbing indoors”.