“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.”- Anatoli Boukreev
With only two weekends left in calendar winter, Konstantin and I heard the mountain gods calling us to get to church more. Konstantin had become quite religious this winter, including a pilgrimage to the cathedral of the Palisades (see this Pullharder TR), but my religion so far this season was limited to some lesser religious sites in Joshua Tree and SoCal.
So we set out for a winter ascent of the church of Mt. Russell via the classic Fishhook Arête. Whether or not you consider so called “winter ascents” separately, the Winter Club does, so here’s the report. The route is 8 pitches of 5.9 on very solid rock, allowing for not especially steep, though sustained and beautiful climbing, and summiting at an elevation of over 14,000’. Konstanstin knew the route, having climbed Fishhook Arête before in summer. So he was to get the hard leads…and I’d have to catch any hard falls. My only other time on the peak was when we had paired up on another route on Mt. Russell’s south face (Star Trekkin’) last fall.
Thursday night (March 10, 2011) found us driving from San Diego up to the trailhead, refueling on exclusive Charles Shaw wine and Russian sardines. (At least one of us, you can guess who.) We stopped several miles short of Whitney Portal due to road damage from recent storms. While this made the approach longer, it was more of an inconvenience as the road was largely clear and easily hike-able. The road was legally closed but we were even able to drive around the barrier and save ourselves a mile or so of walking until 1/4″ of ice stopped our mighty Honda Fit in its tracks. Good pilgrims walk but we’re not of the most zealous kind of religious climbers so we were happy to cut off that little bit of walking.
After waking up at leisurely 7am on Friday we loaded up and hiked 5 and a half hours to our camp just below Iceberg Lake. As often the case, on this good weather weekend Whitney area was a zoo full of people acclimating on Whitney for Everest, Peru, and other high altitude areas. Though the approach is easy, my heavy pack was exhausting me. This would just make summit day feel easy and fast by comparison and nonetheless, we were still faster than the other parties, notably those paying the big bucks for an upcoming Everest ascent. We were in camp mid-afternoon and in bed by 4pm after Konstantin greased up his guts with yet more sardines as a sacrifice to the weather gods.
A long night’s fitful sleep and a sunrise wake up to a quite windy morning brought lots of anticipation. We would bring our rock shoes and try to climb the route free, but knew well that 5.9 in winter in those conditions was often the arena of aid. And you know what aiding on a holy free route would mean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boQHYBhlOcs . Winter or no winter, to aid a free route would mean we have sinned, and should be punished by the climbing gods. So we wanted to please them and climb it free.
For reasons which seemed to make sense at the time, and ostensibly to save weight, on summit day we brought a single set of crampons between us and no ice axes. It would work out well as long as we could kick steps on the way up on the approach. Also, we would need the snow to be soft enough on the way down so one crampon for each could suffice. This meant that we would need to finish within the daylight to descend safely down to the camp with this setup.
We set out and after a couple hours, we cleared the pass to find the base of mount Russell melted to the point that there was no longer full snow coverage in the descent gulley. This made our spirits higher since we had only one crampon per khram that would make a descent on a steep snow a bit sketchy otherwise.
The high for summit day was forecast for mid-20s with winds at 20+ mph. Not ideal conditions, but Konstantin is from Siberia, and I tried to pretend that I am too! Upon getting to the start of the route, clouds still covered the sky and our toes quickly went numb. My fingers were halfway numb as well. It was impossible to climb the near vertical 5.9 first pitch in gloves, so we sucked it up, put bare skin to icy rock, suffered and pulled harder.
Kostantin led P1 quickly, clean, and free. I have never seen him scamper faster, not even on Mesarim jugs on toprope. Shaking out became warming the hands up and keeping blood flowing. This method of quickly climbing followed by periodic warming was the case for the first 4 pitches; after this the sun came out and the arête dipped behind Mithril dihedral, blocking the wind and making things pleasant for the latter half of the climb.
Belaying was done in mittens and 2 sets of gloves, and with another set of wool socks over my climbing shoes that were already stuffed to the max with wool socks.
I led the even pitches, and the second pitch was more a matter of staying warm in the shade rather than any technical challenges (mid-5th). Now it was Konstantin’s turn for the crux 3rd pitch, which we were both fearing. Many people, including Konstantin, think this pitch to be more like 5.10 in the summer due to the route finding difficulties. However, being much less sustained than pitch 1, we both found it easier than p1, no problemo. I’d go with committing 5.9; the two difficult sections are short, as is the whole pitch. The only issue was the crux hand jam deep in snow, which though only 10 seconds or so made for an intense burning in the fingers. This mandated a 3 minute pause to warm up the fingers down by my cahones-withered by the cold but still large and very hot- once I was safely past the crux. I led the meandering 4th pitch where the fierce wind blew one of my beanies right off my head and down into the chasm below.
We warmed up in the sun at the belay ledge after p4 and had a snack. Konstantin said we would be able to aid the remaining pitches if necessary, but we wanted our devotion to be pure, so there was never any need. We had gotten that far free, so we’d finish it free… We did the somewhat sketchy downclimb from the belay ledge, then followed the arête to the top. We did a few alterations to the supertopo at the end of the route based on what seemed like the best way for the conditions.
The sunnier weather meant we could actually enjoy the last few pitches. We made 5 pitches out of the last 4 due to a chimney issue- Konstantin burrowing through a chimney, under a chockstone that I didn’t want to follow with the pack, and preferred to untie and solo the chimney outside. Several other fun moves, including the 5.8 wide section (my lead), got us to the top.
We finished the route in 4.5 hours, both free, no falls, and took mandatory summit shots. The wind and sun were good enough for Konstantin to worship on the summit in the ceremonial natural clothes of the mountains, sun-drenched in glory, showing off his excellent San Diego tan.
We made the descent in haste in order to descend the steep parts before the snow became bulletproof with the falling sun. Needing only one rappel from just east of the East Summit, we then made our way back to the pass and down to camp, still in the light! The round trip summit day was under 10 hours, camp-to-camp. We even were able to drink from a couple water puddles melted in the sun before they froze back up. This time, we stayed up till 6pm before dozing off. Sunday was dedicated to a quick and easy hike-out to the car and Pizza Factory for post-religious ceremony festivities and meal!