The Russell Project

Embracing Exposure on Mount Russell's East Ridge

Atop Russell's East Ridge

Sierra legend Norman Clyde, who made the first ascent of Mount Russell via the East Ridge, wrote that Russell 'delights the heart' of a mountaineer.

14,088-foot Russell, in the California Sierra, is a climber's mountain, blessed with an abundance of good rock, stirring ridgelines, and sheer granite faces. Having successfully scrambled up the Mountaineer's Route on nearby Mt. Whitney, hikers might expect they'd be ready for Russell.

Mount Russell's South Face Climber, Fish Hook Arete Mount Russell's East Ridge

But not so fast: all of Russell's moderate routes push the limit of the Class 3 rating, passing firmly beyond mere scrambling to actual, exposed climbing.

I got my first taste of this difference on Russell's East Ridge.

The climbing is varied and sustained, with a vertigo-inspiring plunge of over a thousand vertical feet immediately off each shoulder.

It is the unique beauty of this route that the climbing, while challenging, remains legitimately in the realm of the Class 3 rating despite the extraordinary verticality.

Passing along the ridge, it takes only modest skill to move from rock to rock, yet one feels all the thrills of a true Class 5 rock climb, including the ever-present siren of the void below.

Add to this the sublime quality of Russell's rock, and it is easy to understand why mountaineers love the route: it is a heck a ridge.

Upon climbing it solo, I was so moved by the experience I was compelled to return a few weeks later to do it all over again. To better fix the memories (and better photograph the ridgeline), I decided to recruit a few good climbing partners.

My sales pitch was simple: the route could be done in a day, requiring little more than good scrambling skills and a tolerance for airy vistas. That was perhaps a somewhat nefarious mixture of accolades and omissions, but it succeeded in grabbing the interest of my best friend, Robert, and his father Hugh, an astro-geologist of no small notoriety.

Each of us was no stranger to adventure. As kids, Bob and I had cut our teeth climbing hundred-foot Ponderosa pines in our hometown, against the express orders of our parents. Bob's dad, meanwhile, had more than his share of Sierra climbing adventures in his youth, including an epic North Palisade attempt that sent him crawling all the way down the glacier on his belly to keep from falling through unusually soft snow.

Mixed together with the magic of Russell's austere granite, it seemed certain our eclectic group would guarantee a memorable trip.

next: Stars and Science

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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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