The Russell Project — Page 8

Mount Russell - South Face

South Face Downclimb

Along with the East Ridge, Mount Russell's South Face-Right Side is one of the few Class 3 climbing routes on the mountain. The operative word being climbing, of course.

If you're used to interpreting Class 3 rock as scrambling, you'll find the South Face takes the already stretched Class 3 designation of the East Ridge and bumps it further a notch or two. Well, my friend Bob observes, At least the handholds look good.

Mount Russell - South Face Chimney Talus on the South Face Mount Russell's South Face Mount Whitney's North Face

When I down-climbed the South Face for the first time (on my earlier solo venture), I was stopped by two climbers who'd just ascended the Fishhook Arete.

They'd been unsuccessfully scouting the South Face-Right Side from above, and wondered if I knew where the Class 3 downclimb was.

I didn't, but I at least knew where the downclimb was supposed to be.

I'd memorized a few features from photographs before my climb.

Nonetheless, the route we ended up choosing felt a lot like Class 4 work—an unwelcome finish to an already difficult day.

The South Face-Right Side's difficulties are concentrated at the ridgeline, where climbers must ascend (or descend) a 60-90' headwall.

Much of this imposing feature is exposed, technical rock.

Since I'm now leading my two friends, I've put more effort into ferreting out that elusive Class 3 passage (though in truth I have my doubts about its existence).

The key seems to be finding a chimney that drops diagonally from the west side of the headwall—staying a few yards away from the headwall itself.

R.J. Secor notes that the headwall can also be passed via the chimneys to the east, though these routes may be no better.

Any way you slice it, getting down involves a solid 80 feet or so of near-vertical climbing, good hand-holds or not.

When we finally reach the giant talus field below, it's time to breath a huge sigh of relief.

This is the first safe ground we've stood upon in hours.

Aside from the short headwall section, the remainder of the South Face is just one big scree slide, so out come the trekking poles.

Climbers have noted that ascending Russell's steep, loose South Face can be quite tedious.

It's not much fun going down, either. Trekking poles can be of great assistance here, as they allow you to transfer weight off already-protesting legs. Additionally, the poles make it easier to keep your body mass forward, preventing a nasty backwards fall when your feet suddenly slide out from under you.

Down, down, down we go.

Though it's not much good for my morale, I can't help thinking about the 6000 vertical feet we must descend to reach the car. Also popping up now is an altitude-spawned headache, and a tinge of accompanying nausea. Both will vanish once we reach Lone Pine—but that's a long way away.

Our resident astro-geologist lightens the mood by demonstrating how to generate long-traveling echoes. With the proper vocal modulation, he succeeds in getting an echo off Mt. Whitney's north face—quite a nifty feat, proving that science does indeed have occasional practical value. Meanwhile, I'm eyeing the various notches along the Whitney-Russell saddle below, trying to guess which one will lead us to Iceberg Lake with the fewest possible complications.

next: Iceberg Col

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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