The hike up to Upper Boy Scout Lake is a good solid haul so once you get there why not do two peaks instead of one. Certainly Mt Whitney is the goal of many climbers but Mt. Russell is an often overlooked alternative. Mt. Russell is Mt. Whitney’s often forgotten neighbor to the north, and will offer a great view of where you were the day before. You’ll also see the highest-named lake in the country, Tulainyo Lake, straddling the border between Inyo and Tulare counties.
The two peaks have very different characters.
Whitney is a big solid mountain and while a straight-forward ascent you will find a lot of others along the way.
Mt Russell is a much more delicate peak with intricate ridges and a far more spectacular summit. Mt. Russell is ascended by very few people so you will probably have the top to yourself. This is one of the most wonderful ridge routes to a summit in the Sierra. This route is certainly not hiking, but then the difficulties are not so great as to require technical climbing skills.
We think that this is an ideal pairing – like chips and salsa, gin and tonic, or pie and ice cream!
The best guidebooks are Supertopo’s “High Sierra Climbing” by Chris McNamara and Peter Croft’s “The Good, The Great, and the Awesome”.
Get them from Maximus Press.
We highly recommend that you spend at least one night at moderate altitude (higher than 8,000′) just prior to the trip. Spending a night at Whitney Portal or the Cottonwood Campground would do the trick.
Return to Whitney Trips
Day One: The Approach
We start our climb at the 8,640 foot Whitney Portal and stay on the regular Whitney Trail for less than a mile before heading up the steep North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. The trail here is non-maintained and rough with creek crossings and rocks to scramble up and over. We traverse the “Ebersbacher” Ledges above the creek and drop into the serene setting of Lower Boy Scout Lake (10,335’).
We usually reach Lower Boy Scout Lake (10,300’) in time for lunch and gain Upper Boy Scout Lake (11,200’) by mid afternoon. We take a good rest there and gather strength for the final hour push to camp Iceberg Lake. This is a very hard day with a gain of over 4,000’ so be prepared for this and remember to save energy for the climbing day. But it sets us up well and makes the remaining two climbing days shorter and easier.
Day Two: The Whitney Climb
This route offers a mostly non-technical way to and from the summit. We make a predawn start and head across slabs to the main gully. There is some easy un-roped scrambling in this area before we arrive at the base of the final 1000 feet to the notch.
The condition of this section depends very much upon the time of the year. In early season it will be snow-filled and may require the use of crampons, ice axes and rope. In late season the snow has melted out and we are climbing loose talus and sand. This section is strenuous and the fact that you are nearing 14,000 feet becomes apparent to the lungs.
Finally we arrive at the notch 300 feet below the summit plateau. The final section may involve the use of the rope. Although intimidating from below the angle eases and we find that if you can get to the bottom of the final section you can most certainly get to the top. Once above this step we drop the rope and helmets and wander over the near-flat plateau to the summit of the lower 48 states.
To return we retrace our steps, again being roped up for the section below the summit and in the gully if there is snow, and arrive back to camp in the afternoon in time to nap and rest up.
Day Three: The Russell Climb
We do not have to get as early a start as the previous day so we can sleep in a little. But we will be on the approach to the Whitney Russell-Col early circling around Iceberg Lake to the talus and sand approach to the Col. On the west side of the Col we descend some, stopping to admire the views to Arctic Lakes west of us and Upper Boyscout Lake from an adjacent notch.
We climb large easy talus along side of the impressive curing spine of Fish Hook Arete until we arrive at our rope up point. Easy 3rd and 4th class takes us to the ridge joining the East and West summits of Russell.
We traverse carefully along the ridge arriving at the blocky summit. We can look back to where we were yesterday marvelling at how two peaks so close to each other can be so very different. Out return is the same way and aim to get back to camp in time to relax in the sun and be surrounded by the highest mountains in the lower 48 states.
Day Four: The Descent Back to the Portal
We return down the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek and plan to get back down to the trailhead in time for a lunch of the famed burgers and fries at the Whitney Portal Store, before heading home tired but satisfied.
Elevations and Distances
Trailhead to Lower Boy Scout Lake: 1.9 miles, 2060’ of gain, 60’ of descent
Lower Boy Scout Lake to Upper Boy Scout Lake: 0.8 miles, 1040’ of gain, 30’ of descent
Upper Boy Scout Lake to start of technical section: 1 mile, 2090’ of gain, 0’ of descent
Start of technical section to the Summit: 0.45 miles, 720’ of gain, 110’ of descent
Summit to Iceberg Lake: 0.9 miles, 173’ of gain, 1610’ of descent
Iceberg Lake to Camp: 1.2 miles, 30’ of gain, 1310’ of descent
Camp to Trailhead: 2.7 miles, 90’ of gain, 3100’ of descent
Technical climbing skills are not required but prior backpacking experience is recommended as is experience at altitudes above 12,000’. This is a physically demanding trip and you should be in good condition and have the ability to traverse broken uneven slopes with a moderately heavy pack.
Price includes guiding, permits, group climbing gear, tents, kitchen gear, breakfasts, lunches and dinners (you bring hot/cold drinks and snack items). Scheduled dates include USFS trail fees. Private programs do not.
Local accommodation is not included.
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Mount Russell Map
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