I found out on Saturday that I didn’t have to work this week. Which is nice, not working is better than working but on such short notice it’s hard to take advantage of the time. I’ve been meaning to make a “to-do” list for times like this when I have to plan on a pinch but I just haven’t done that yet. We had plans for Friday through the weekend which put me in even more of a time crunch.
I’ve been thinking about some local projects but with the extra time thought I should take advantage and do something a little farther away. My thoughts turned to the Sierra’s and Yosemite. I stumbled across a blog a few months ago which has opened my eyes to many possibilities. his knowledge of the geography and frequency and speed of his excursions are inspiring. I also went to the library, searching for maps of trails without any luck but did find a backpacking book with twenty promising routes. I would love to reproduce many of Leor’s trip reports but my unfamiliarity of the terrain, likely solo effort and a few more hours travel each way led me to “settle” on something in the southern Sierra’s.
Although not as imaginative as some of Leor’s routes I figured Mt Whitney would be a good excursion. It’s in the Southern Sierra’s, only four hours away, I’ve never been there and the highest point in the continental 48 – reason enough for me. I didn’t decide this until two am Tuesday morning. Maybe I’m indecisive. Maybe I just wanted to find the perfect adventure.
I left my place at 11am on Tue in order to get to the Visitor Center in time to pick up my permit for the following day. The permit ended up being free because I was only going to be there the same day, which was contradictory to everything I read online but a pleasant surprise nonetheless. I spent about an hour in the bookshop, looking at different maps, routes and possibilities. I knew that Mt Russell was nearby and from talking with friends and reading climbing TR’s it seemed like a consensus that Russell was more appealing than Whitney in terms of exposure, popularity (less crowds), and other subjective measures. How could I be so close and not do them both. I also started thinking more about the Northern Fork Route, which is an unmaintained though relatively well traveled backpacker’s route that splits from the main Whitney trail about a half mile up and then travels past mountain lakes on gorgeous terrain. It definitely seemed appealing because it would allow me to summit Russell and Whitney, and would steer me away from comparatively mundane, maintained and very popular main trail . I worried about the route finding, and if the Mountaineer’s Route (the route I would have to take up Whitney should I decide on the North Fork trail) would be a wise choice without an ice axe or other gear should I encounter snow. Immediately after exiting the visitor center I made some phone calls to Kevin and Andy and asked their opinions. My mind still wasn’t made up on the best plan but at least I would be in the Sierra’s, it would be ok.
I drove up to the Whitney trailhead with still several hours of sun to go and decided to check out the trails. It would help me make a decision on routes, be a good workout and hopefully help with acclimation (the trailhead is at 8360 ft, just a little higher than where I live). In the my trunk I found some old racing flats and decided to throw them on, just to save my trainers for the long day ensuing. Once I got on the trail I loved the feel of the flats, not just obviously noticeably lighter but much less beefy than I thought I would appreciate without any noticeable difference in comfort or cushion. I ran up the main trail for about thirty minutes before heading back down and then venturing up the North fork trail. Within thirty seconds of being on this new route I was grinning from ear to ear, at least internally. Although definitely not runnable besides the first 400m it wound through overhanging trees, crossed the creek several times and involved some bushwhacking. Definitely more fun/adventurous than the main route – which agreed with my thoughts and consensus from backpacking and Sierra guru, KR. Once out of the shrubbery you ascend up a somewhat exposed slanted rock bands that eventually put you out to Lower Boy Scout Lake, which is more of a pond but beautifully serene and housed by the soaring surrounding mountains. I scrambled up the loose rocks on the north side of the lake trying to get a view of the route, but headed back down as I only had about a little over an hour left of sunlight.
|trail split for northfork|
|looking towards bishop from LBSL|
On the way back down I lost the route as it descended the rock bands down near the creek. I did find some bail wraps but determined I had gone too far. Briefly I had flashes of biveying for the night and trying to bushwhack my way down in the dark. I said a prayer and found the route back to the creek but did considerable more bushwhacking than my way up.
|lower boy scout lake|
When I got back to the parking lot I had a little bit of headache and just wanted to get some sleep. Luckily there were still camp spots available at the trailhead so I snagged one. As I was looking at the sky full of stars, my head pounding but soothed to be sleeping in the open, surrounded by pine trees and cool alpine air, I thought maybe my three hour little trek was enough adventure, but I knew there was much more to be had.
My recon work had lead me to decide on the North Fork trail. It would be different from my intention of an “adventure run” as it most likely would not be runnable. However, my reason for training and adventure running at all is for the adventure and to get out and see and experience some amazing places. The heavily traveled main route, although more runnable, would be less adventurous if at all, more peoples and less scenic. Therefore the NFT was in perfect harmony with my real goals. Also, I passed two couples and asked about the Mountaineers route and it seemed passable without ice ax or other accessories so my fear of not being able to gain the summit by this alternate route was mostly assuaged. As far as Russell I would give it shot, although there were two different approaches (head over to Russell via the East route after arriving at Upper Boy Scout Lake or continuing on to Iceberg Lake and then the Whitney-Russell col to attempt the south face) that I had read about I wasn’t sure which option would be best.
I woke up at 4:30, an hour before sunrise, feeling better and surprised at how much sleep it felt like I received. By a little after 5:30 I was charging up the trail, knowing that I would only be able to run the first half mile or so. 10 min in, I realized I’d forgot my poles. I froze and weighed the decision. After prob too much time I headed back down, only to stop and reconsider. The part of the trail I was on the day prior did not lend itself to poles, who knew what the rest would be like. After way too much time in indecision I again started to ascend and realized it was a good thing I had turned around initially because in my excitement and had run past the turnoff for the NFT.
Up to boy scout lake was enjoyable and obtained in about an hour. Although somehow I managed to take a different route through the bushwhacking and creek crossing. It just felt so good to be out and the unkown only adds to, if not defines, the adventure.
|lower boy scout lake|
Once at LBS lake I crossed over the south side and hopped across the boulder field to eventually arrive at upper boy scout lake (UBSL). There were several camps there and I was lucky to find some people waking up and who knew the area well enough to give some tips. The man I talked with suggested I could head up the eastern ridge of Russell, then down the south face to the whitney-Russell col then down to iceberg lake and finally up the mountaineers route. He made it seem like all this route finding was easy enough, I had my doubts but thought the line was the best and wanted to give it a shot.
|whiney (left), russell (right), east ridge of russell on right|
Heading up to Russell from UBSL there’s a scree field that I fought for about an hour until I was on runnable soft terrain for about ¼ mile until the scrambling began. The scree field was frustrating at times, sometimes I was four-pointing, but I just kept moving. The was a couple whom I spoke with in the middle of the scree field and one of the guys confirmed my thoughts that the southern decent off Russell could be difficult and it may be in my best interest just to head back down the eastern ridge. As I was solo, without rope and had plenty of daylight I figured this was a better option than finding myself downclimbing an exposed 5.9 or harder route in racing flats.
|ridgeline traverse of russell|
The class 3 ridgeline traverse of Russell was perhaps my favorite part of the day. I stayed mostly on the south side with views of Tulainyo Lake but there was a lot of exposure, especially on the ridgeline. The moves weren’t difficult but moving confidently and efficiently over such terrain with incredible views just feels nice. My pictures don’t come close to doing this section justice. Once at the top I took an obligatory awkward pic and headed down the same way.
|from top of russell looking towards whitney/russell col, whitney is prominent peak|
|more ridgeline traverse of russell, tulainyo lake|
|top of russell, whitney in background|
|more from russell descent, both north (left) and south faces (right) appreciated, lake tulainyo without snow|
Coming down through the scree field was much quicker than going up. Although I did acquire a lot of rocks and one of my shoes ended up tearing along the side of the heel (glad they weren’t new).
Once back at UBSL I pumped some water (the guys that I passed offered their filter outside their tent after I asked if they were just drinking the lake water). I still had a liter left, but it turns out I would use the full 3L over the final part of the journey.
I found what looked like could have been a trail over the ridge then down to Iceberg Lake. Again there were some parties camped here and I was able to get some info on the mountaineer’s route – I guess when the guide book describes something as the “obvious” route it isn’t so obvious to me.
|east face of whitney from iceberg lake, mountaineer's route heads left of vertical snow line|
I started heading up the mountaineer’s route around 12:15, just short of 7 hours had elapsed since I started and I felt pretty confident I would make it back before dark. The MR headed up a short steep scree field that then turns to scree/boulders balanced on scree. I moved steadily but gingerly so as not to pull down any large boulders on myself. Once you gain the notch my readings and fellow travelers said that you come around then bend then take the obvious class 3 path to the top. The ascent looked doable at any point, I just wanted to make sure I took the right one. I dropped down below and past some small snow fields to a point that looked like I could start heading up. Again, like on Russell, the class 3 climbing was fun, especially with the exposure, and the patches of ice added to the experience.
|take "obvious" route to top of whitney|
Once on Whitney I leisurely walked around, enjoying the expansive view and snapped a couple pictures. I then headed down the main Whitney trail where I encountered far more travelers, most whom looked at me like I was crazy for trying to run down. I found the trail very runnable although the switchbacks and various rocks made finding a steady groove difficult but to be expected in mountain travel.
I did have one misstep on the descent. There is a short section of maybe ten or so switchabcks that are only 10-15 feet long, all on fist sized rocks that made running pretty difficult. As I was descending I must have stumbled and flipped hiney over teakettle as I found myself face up on the switchback below, perfectly positioned in the middle of the trail. I really don’t know how this happened but I didn’t loose consciousness or have the wind knocked out of me. I also avoided any head trauma. I quickly jumped to my feet so as not to give all those “this guys is crazy for trying to run because he will surely fall” looks any credence. I felt a little wobbly, probably just shook up and decided to walk for a couple minutes and have another gu before continuing to run again. All I could see was some scrapes on my leg and my left thenar eminence was a bit bruised. Pretty lucky I suppose.
The rest of the decent was without complication. I’m glad I chose only to descend this way as there were much more hikers and the scenery, although great, just wasn’t the same. The last couple miles especially once past the stream, the switchbacks lengthened and the rocks became less frequent that I was able to open it up a bit. I’m still working on my downhill running and this was a perfect chance and the reason why I wanted to descend the main trail. I tried to work on lengthening my stride over obstacles rather than always stutter stepping (some advice I received during the rtrtr.) This seemed to work well and I enjoyed the speedy travel until arriving at the trailhead.
|just a scratch. lucky.|
- I really liked the racing flats more than I thought, without any noticeable setbacks in terms of cushioning. Lightweight trail shoes would be ideal, just really expensive…
- This route could go much faster. I tried to move steadily but wasn’t trying to set any speed record. I stopped several times to talk with people and took pics for a group. Route knowledge would also aid the speed.
- Figuring out the Southern decent of Russell would avoid backtracking.
- With plenty of time left in the long summer days it wouldn’t be difficult to bag several other peaks Mount Muir and Mount Clarrion
- I will return to the Sierras, they are relatively close and unbound adventure awaits.
- total time 11:27
- mileage: 20+
- elevation gain 9600’ +
- TH elevation: 8360; Mt Russell elevation: 14088’; Mt Whitney elevation: 14491’
- nutrition: 3 gus, 1 pack gu chomps, 1 power bar, 5L dialvyte