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Sender Stories: Mt. Russell – A Weekend in the Sierras

Sender Stories: Mt. Russell – A Weekend in the Sierras

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Words and Pictures by Amy Huang

We all have stories to tell and we want to hear and share them with everyone! Sender Stories is now dedicated to our members and community to share your experiences and of course, Share Our Passions, Find Creative Beta, Learn from our Projects and Send Them, See from Other People’s Perspective, and Climb Together! Sender One embraces personal experiences being told within our community and encourage all to share!

"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".

Sender Stories: Mt. Kenya – A Fast Intro to Multi-Pitch Climbing

Sender Stories: Mt. Kenya – A Fast Intro to Multi-Pitch Climbing

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We all have stories to tell and we want to hear and share them with everyone! Sender Stories is now dedicated to our members and community to share your experiences and of course, Share Our Passions, Find Creative Beta, Learn from our Projects and Send Them, See from Other People's Perspective, and Climb Together! Sender One embraces personal experiences being told within our community and encourage all to share!

Words and Pictures by Amy Huang

"My name is Amy and I have climbed at Sender One LAX since the beginning of 2017. My passion for rock climbing started when I took a Wilderness Travel Course (WTC) and climbed peak of 4377 ft. in Joshua Tree. It was then that I fell in love with rock climbing.

On December 28, 2018 I decided to rock climb up to Nelion (17,027 ft.) and Bation (17,057 ft.), peaks on Mt. Kenya. Mt. Kenya was ideal because it was the second highest peak in Africa at 17,057 ft and it required rope climbing to get to the summits.  I could have easily done rock-climbing peaks in the U.S. but I wanted an international adventure. I spent a total of 7 days hiking in Kenya.  

One of my practice grounds was Sender One LAX.  Since I have done top roping consistently for about 2 years, I decided to try lead climbing.  I took the lead climbing class at Sender One and became lead certified. Lead climbing at Sender helped me become more confident in my rock climbing abilities.

I did not know that the approach to Mt. Kenya’s rock climbing would take 2 hours from the Austrian Hut (15,700ft) on clumps of loose talus.  Nor did I know that I would be wearing my La Sportiva snow boots, which acted like “death traps” for my feet. I was told that when I got up to the second highest peak, Nelion, we would have to down-climb and cross a glacier field and use our ice axes and crampons, to get to Batian, the higher peak.  Unfortunately these snow boots were the only ones that fit my crampons. My snow boots however, were not ideal on rock as it made it very slippery. The only other shoes I carried in my pack were my climbing shoes. My snow boots made me feel like I was hauling 2 additional pounds on each leg.  

At 5AM, on December 28, 2018 after an early breakfast, we began the approach to the base of the mountain.  When we got to the start of our climb, it was 7AM. I was a bit cold changing into my climbing shoes. As I put my snow boots into my pack, I realized that they took up the majority of my 40-liter pack.  My water bladder was frozen, but luckily, I had about a liter of hot water stored in a thermos. My guide would be on lead setting up the cams and the bolts while I belayed him from below. Looking at the rock, the hand and footholds looked straightforward, I actually thought it could be possible to free-solo Mt. Kenya.   Little did I know that there were some tricky sections where I would fall. After my guide would set the route, I would tie myself in and climb up the rope and clean what he had done while he belayed me from above.  

Sometimes I had a difficult time understanding my guide so I had to have him repeat whether to “take” as there was one point he had been afraid of falling, and when he was all done setting up the route, I had to confirm with him that it was ready for me to climb.  The grade ranged from 5.4-5.8, and there were times I had to traverse to the side or down climb.      

When we had done the first 3 pitches, my guide asked me for the time.  I responded with 9:10AM.  He was concerned that we would not have the time to climb either peak. I frowned, as I did not want to fail. Determined, and probably a big mistake, I climbed faster only to fall 10 ft., flip upside down and hit my back against the rock.  Luckily, I was wearing my helmet, which protected me from concussing, and my pack cushioned my back from getting severely hurt. I decided to shed my layers so I wouldn't overheat. Since I could not fit my extra layers in my pack, I had to leave it on one of the pitches. I thought maybe it would not get too cold and the only thing I could fit in my pack was a thick long sleeved-shirt. At the time, I was only wearing one layer of pants and one shirt.      

My guide was surprised that I was able to get through the difficult sections in a reasonable amount of time. So he said Nelion was possible to summit, but not Batian which involved rappelling down, crossing the glacier and 5 more pitches.  So happily, we left our ice axes and crampons on another pitch since we would not be using them.  

We arrived at the summit of Nelion peak at 4:30PM.  Nearby, there was the Howell Hut where some people bivouac or spend the night before they continue to Batian. At that moment, I only had a thick long-sleeved shirt from my pack. 

The nightmare began as we started to rappel down 18 pitches while shivering violently as it had gotten really cold.  I asked my guide where my jacket and warm clothes were and he replied they were at pitch #9. We had a system where he would rappel down first, and then I would anchor myself and then set my belay device for rappelling. I consciously told myself that I had to make sure that I was doing things right since there was no one to check me once my guide was gone.  

As I rappelled down, I felt like dead weight as I was tired banging into the walls going down.  The scary part was that although we had our headlamps on, it was getting difficult to see clearly at night. I was crying because I was so cold, and my guide begrudgingly gave me his windbreaker to wear that reeked of cigarette smoke.  

Twice, we had gotten the rope stuck on the rock, and we had to pull down.  The scary part was that we could not see where the rope was caught and we had to trust that we could get the rope un-caught.  I used the bulk of my weight to pull the rope down, as I had run out of strength. We had finally gotten to the pitch with my warm coat but after putting it on, I was still a bit cold but I could not put my thermal pants on as my snow boots were tightly fastened and I had no energy to take them off.  

When we had finished rappelling, I was spent.  I could not walk in a straight line with my snow-boots and had to glissade down on the sand and rocks. I could no longer carry my heavy pack. My guide went to get my team to help carry my pack and guide me back to the hut, which was 2 hours away.  I waited for 3 hours in the cold and prayed that I would be alive the next morning as I pictured freezing to death. Around 3AM, my team got me and gave me warm water to drink. They brought my regular hiking shoes, and hiking poles so I could walk easily, while carrying my heavy pack. In the end, I gave them a big tip, and was grateful that I could get back to the hut and rest. I also felt very proud to have done this multi-pitch climb. I was also touched by the kindness of my team to come get me in the early morning. I was grateful to be warm again.

When I returned, I was ready to tell people at Sender One about my experience and encouraged them to take their rock climbing to a new level. I would like to encourage more foreigners to utilize reputable African guides because they really need the money. Since I paid an affordable rate with an African Company, I was able to tip their workers more.  For example, my cook was touched that I gave him a $140 tip as he could now spend more time with his family. I felt like my African guides gave me a wonderful experience, and I wanted to show them my gratitude by giving them a generous tip for their services."

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