The Southeast Ridge of Mount Russell (III, 5.9) is a classic alpine gem of a route that gets relatively little traffic or mention by guidebook authors. There are 7 different guidebooks for climbing on Mount Russell in my library and the route is listed in 3 of them. There are surprisingly very few details about this route that I could discover in these books, or from internet searches, so I figure this might be useful for someone.
A conversation in Bishop with prolific Sierra rock pioneer Bob Harrington led me to invite one of our regular SMG guests to explore the Southeast Arête. First climbed in 1974 by Fred Beckey, Greg Thomsen, and Ed Ehrenfeldt, this is the ridge on the Sierra Crest that divides the drainages of Arctic Lake from the “North Fork of the North Fork” of Lone Pine Creek. This ridge is accessed quite easily via Iceberg Lake and Whitney-Russell Col, but it is arguably nicer, just as efficient, and far less populated to hike up the drainage above Upper Boy Scout Lake toward the Southeast Face of Mount Russell. From below the Southeast Face it is easy in snow-free conditions to traverse to the northernmost col via class 3-4 and directly to the start of the route. Ascend from the near the toe of the ridge via any number of nice start variations. The climbing on the ridge is largely on coarse and knobby alpine granite that starts with enjoyable easier pitches that do not feel very far off the ground. As the guidebooks point out, it is easy to escape the lower route with a short rappel or downclimb to the west. In one spot about 1/3 of the way up you can literally walk off into the sand and bail, but this is where the fun climbing on the ridge begins! The rock becomes more compact and solid, and the route becomes surprisingly complex, presenting many options. The best line stays closest to the ridgecrest and weaves around sharp spires up excellent yet short finger and hand sized cracks, flakes, and blocks that sometimes involve steep and committing moves, yet never feel stiffer than 5.9. As the ridge ascends past the halfway point, escape becomes a bit more involved but only slightly more so than from a climb like Matthes Crest in Yosemite. The route continues up some fantastic and airy pitches along the exposed edge of the Southeast Face and the steep drainage that leads down to Upper Boyscout Lake. The ambience is arguably finer than on the south and southwest facing routes, and perhaps has some of the very best viewpoints that can be found anywhere on the mountain. Expect to do at least one very short rappel along the way at a break in the ridge. Finish via a finger crack that leads to just below the east summit. Tag the east summit for sure, and consider going over to the true west summit too, then enjoy the fun descent down the East Ridge and the Russell-Carrillon Col to return to Upper Boy Scout Lake.
The Southeast Ridge route is a great and classic-style alpine climb, but don’t just take my word for it. Venerable and prolific Sierra guide, Bela Vadasz, calls it “one of the best in its class in the Sierra!” A 50m rope is more than adequate because longer pitches tend to create rope drag on the coarse rock towers and serpentine path of travel over and betwixt them. Conversely a light alpine rack to a #3 cam is adequate. A good option for a 1-day trip if you are relatively fit and pre-acclimated. The south to southeast aspects are perfect Sierra destinations early or late summer and into autumn, because the sun hits early and stays on all day. It is unfortunate that we do not have that many classic southerly facing high alpine climbs in the Sierra, which makes climbs like this one that much more special. If you have already done some of the other popular climbs on the south side of Mount Russell, or if you just want something a bit more adventurous, be sure to put this one on your list for future visits. Happy climbing! ~Howie