Hooked on Mt. Russell – Fishhook Arete (5.9)

Fishhook arete as seen from the summit of Mt. Whitney

Sandy:

When I heard Rick’s plan to do technical rock climbing at 14000 feet, I honestly felt quite nervous. I have hiked to the summit of Mt. Cayambe, 19,500 feet in Ecuador and experienced how thin air can affect the alertness of mind and balance of the body. While most people start hiking from Whitney portal, later in the afternoon to avoid the sweltering sun, we wanted to keep it casual therefore we started hiking at about 10:30am. There was an occasional cool breeze to our rescue and natural water fall for showers. Our packs weighed to be 36 and 33 lbs.

The turn off that goes to lower boy scout lake

Since there were people standing in front of the sign on the trail somehow we missed the turn off and went ten switchbacks up before checking the topo. Well, we high-fived for bonus elevation gain, came back to the turn off point, got soaked in the waterfall, and started on the steep rocky terrain. There are several creek crossing so we didn’t bother carrying anything more than a BeFree filter bottle. The hike started off steep heading up towards Lower Boyscout, and slowly become less and less steep over time. By far the sketchiest part for me was hiking over slabs with a heavy pack, which took some getting used to.

Fried by the sun

We reached Upper Boy Scout with plenty of day light remained to setup tent, fill water and cook. We found great company and had an interesting dinner time conversation with another party who had retreated from the mountaineer’s route on Whitney and a solo adventurist who had been leap frogging with us during the hike.

If someone offers to take a picture, how can I say no

Plan for next morning was to wake up really early, move camp to iceberg lake and then do the loose and sandy approach to the base of Fishhook Arete. For the first time in my life I got a glimpse of the sunrise through the mountains, which is something that I have painted numerous times.

Picturesque sunrise seen from upper boy scout lake

We were elated by the fact that we had a great night sleep and we didn’t feel any affects of altitude. I quickly associated this acclimatization to spending four nights and three days in Tuolumne which is at about 10,000 feet. I commended Rick for his fantastic planning skills.

Moving our camp to ice-berg lake
Follow the obvious cairns
Keeler needle looks majestic

After choosing a campsite and taking a water refill we quickly headed to the pass above iceberg lake that takes us to Mt. Russell. The following picture is taken from the other side of the pass while Rick has already descended the pass.

The descend after the pass on the approach to Fishhook Arete

We were at the base of Fishhook at about 10:30am. Of all the eight pitches, I think pitch 1 is the most challenging — steep and sustained. As I followed the pitch, I noticed that friction is your best friend on this climb. This is by far one of the most exfoliated rock I have ever climbed.

Pitch 1

Pitch 2 is fairly exposed and requires traversing. I was unsure how much I would be leading on this climb but after the first pitch I fell in love with the rock and felt compulsive to lead the next pitch. I mostly stayed on the left rail and traversed right towards the end. I think I had placed probably three pieces total on this pitch, two .75 and a #1. Someone had probably emptied their chalk bag right at the base of pitch 3 so I was sure that am not lost. I quickly belayed Rick up.

Pitch 2

Pitch 3 is a hand crack with some face moves but definitely felt less sustained than pitch 1. Rick led it fairly quickly and I was able to hear him as he yelled “off belay”.

Pitch 4 is low fifth but like most low fifths in Tuolumne, its not just a walk. I had to climb a fun overhang hand-crack for a couple moves to get to easy terrain. We split this pitch into two: instead of down climbing right away, I found a ledge with a fixed nut. After Rick got to the anchor, I placed a #2 and #3 while being lowered off to the ledge where pitch 5 begins. Rick confidently down climbed the 5.8 hand crack. Its not very long but could be daunting to people who aren’t as beastly as Rick. Is he secretly practicing Peter Croft’s technique to milk a crack?

Pitch 4

Route finding on pitch 5 isn’t very hard. I pretty much led for the entire rope length and followed my nose.

Pitch 5

After following pitch 6 I regretted to have not led it. This pitch offers so much variation: Hand-crack, off-width, smear, face moves and some blocky terrain, all with the threat — but not the realization — of chimney technique. Really enjoyed this pitch.

Pitch 6 chimney
Looking down from the belay of pitch 6

Pitch 7 is another interesting route-finding pitch. Mostly easy terrain with some vertical face climbing without pro (or at-least I didn’t find any good pro). Rick told me that I had passed the belay station for pitch 8 and continued about 40 feet into pitch 8. In the picture below there is a huge ledge right below the last hand crack of the climb. But I ran out of rope and couldn’t make it to that ledge so I had to setup an anchor on an intermediate crumbly ledge right below the good one. I used a .5 and .4 to build the anchor.

Pitch 8 sweetest hand crack as a reward

Rick placed another .5 above my anchor and quickly continued up to finish pitch 8. Since I hadn’t placed much gear on pitch 7 therefore the gear transition was fast and he hung the back pack at the base of the hand crack. I really enjoyed climbing the last hand crack — it’s at a corner therefore I jammed my left foot and both hands, then smeared with right foot. There are a few small knobs on the right face which works really well to move up.

Looking down from the summit

Mt. Whitney as seen from the summit of Mt. Russell
Looking west from the summit of Mt. Russell
Making a rope backpack at the summit
Jenga towers looking towards east from the summit

We rejoiced the summit view for a couple minutes and started heading down. After a bit of exposed traverse and some short down climbs we reached the rap station. This rappel deposits you right below all the steep stuff. After a few sandy glissades and some class 2 terrain, we were back on the trail to the pass.

Fishhook seen in warm dusk light

We got back to the tent before dark as I had anticipated. The rock on this route will remain in my memory for a long time. To finish off the night we treated ourselves to some delicious chana masala and laid down to rest for the next adventure.

Gear notes :

Double rack from .3 to 3, DMM offset nuts. 8 single slings, 2 double slings.

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