Mount Russell's East Face

Publication Year: 1990.

Mount Russell’s East Face

Charles Townsend

WE HAD SEEN THE PEAK both from Hunter and Foraker—it stood out like a shark’s fin on the horizon—and the Washburn photos in the rangers’ notebooks got us even more fired up. Mount Russell had been climbed three times, and by two different routes, but Dave Auble and I were attracted by a potential line that split the dramatic east face. It boasted five thousand feet of unexplored terrain and shot up in a straight line from the glacier to the summit.

Unfortunately neither of the established routes offered a viable descent for us. They both simply point the wrong way and would leave us far from Base Camp. In both 1987 and 1988, we had been daunted by the prospect of becoming committed to the increasingly steep and poorly-protected face, knowing that the only logical descent involved down-climbing the entire route. Nevertheless, we went back to the east face this spring, armed with some hardware, bivouac gear and information gleaned from two previous forays on the lower part of the route. We found that if we trimmed down the food and fuel and left the tent behind, a small paraglider would just fit into each pack. The paragliders opened up new options, but we still told our pilot to look for us at the foot of the northeast ridge, in case we couldn’t—or wouldn’t—jump. It is flat enough to land a Cessna there and so we figured he could bump us down to Base Camp, and we’d pay him more or something.

The first day saw us gain the Douglas Boulder—an obvious snowy shoulder that defines the base of the route—and work up endless slopes to Camp I at 8000 feet. We were still on familiar terrain on the second day, but this time we blew past our previous Camp II and found a more sheltered spot. We were already even with our former high point and into the sculpted rime that characterizes the entire upper route. Nowhere, save the Wishbone Arête, had we encountered such volumes of the stuff. It built up in frothy, feathery layers that exaggerated the size of whatever it clung to, resulting in grotesque, overhanging, unconsolidated heaps of crud. It was sort of pretty to look at, though.

Time did not pass quickly that second night. The relentless winds kept the bivy bags flapping with a steady noise all night, and we had to keep vigil for spindrift leaks. Dave had been coughing and hacking during the whole climb and he was getting pretty hoarse by now. The consolation was that he couldn’t sing. That man can retain the same annoying tune in his head for weeks at a stretch.

A whole day of unusual mixed climbing followed: snaking up gullies of green, cement-like water ice, looping horns to protect tenuous rock pitches, flicking the rope behind odd projections of rime. Dave’s offer to lead the worst run-out, spark-inducing mixed pitches met with little argument. After several hours, we reached the imposing Tower of Rubble. What a grand feature: a spire of loose rock stacked up at a ridiculous angle with scattered icy bits that somehow held it together. A slender ridge, The Tightrope, linked the tower to the main face and so we shinnied across it, straddling the knife edge as we went. The dizzying drop helped keep us alert. Just above, at about 10,500 feet, a notch carved from the ridge gave us a decent, if exposed, place to spend a beautiful night.

In the morning, Dave and I were reminded how tedious it can be to break camp when each piece of gear is just asking to be dropped. Clip this in; unclip that. The problem with steep faces is that you never can relax and toss your hat over there in the snow. It leads to a prolonged anxiety that’s not so evident anywhere else.

We had hoped to summit the next day, but our pace slowed as the climbing became more intricate with each pitch. There is a huge, exposed amphitheater up there that funnels down to the Luge Run, an uninterrupted gully to the right of our route that would dump you out on the glacier nearly five thousand feet below. We had watched debris, including one of our flukes, exit the face via that route. Just looking down there made us feel nauseous. It also encouraged us to hug the rime towers to the left. Like Hobbit Couloir back home in New Hampshire, we were just able to squeeze through a tiny slot in the rock, half stemming and half chimneying. Thankfully, it popped us back onto the ridge proper, and we reckoned it was in the bag.

No such luck! In fact, the final ridge proved the most memorable of all. Faced with an endless series of rime-encrusted gargoyles, we began to chip away at them, protected by little more than the classic Alaskan belay: “If you fall down that side, I’ll jump down this side.” The vertical crud resisted orthodox technique, and by pawing at it again and again, we just made it steeper. Nor would our tools stick in the marbles overhead. Additional insult was added by the constant shower of junk that we raked down on ourselves; it filled the space behind our glasses and poured down our collars.

The worst of these gargoyles required a sort of overhanging girdle traverse. Dave pointed out that he’d be left dangling if he fell while seconding that bit and so I slid the prusiks I’d borrowed from him back along the rope before I got too far along. From his belay straddling the ridge, he could only watch me flailing and wonder which of us would have a tool shear out and be launched backward off the overhang. What a grunt! It slowed us so much that we had to bivouac in deteriorating weather about five hundred feet short of the top. Lots of snow fell that night which produced serious shivering, but the summit day dawned clear. Dave still couldn’t shake his cough; he said he felt like a refugee from a TB ward.

A solid, green-ice gully led up from our last bivouac on the face; it ended at a tiny saddle between two tottering gargoyles. Dave belayed there, digging himself in and driving his tools horizontally into the crud. The cleft over his head was tight enough to stem, and that got us atop the last tower guarding the upper slopes. One more snowy bridge was taken à cheval, and everything seemed to merge together. We knew we were close. Dave led through and arrived on the summit where we actually felt comfortable enough to unrope for the first time in five days. We lounged in the sun and shot photos of our new view to the west, lingering on top for more time than we usually allow ourselves.

While it might have been possible to launch from the summit itself, swirling clouds indicated that conditions were not appropriate for flying. We started down on foot. Dave was out in front when suddenly the rope went tight. I looked up, but he was gone. It was the first time that either of us had ever gone into a crevasse past the armpits. I could feel him squirming around like a fish on a line, and so I figured he was all right and just needed time to work things out. He eventually emerged, spluttering, snow-covered and furious. I was elected Crevasse Dowser for the rest of the day and led off down the ridge in failing light.

After a single rappel off an ice cliff, we found a level bivy spot on a tiny promontory overlooking the head of the glacier. It was about a thousand feet down from the summit, and it looked as if a long day would get us down to the base of the northeast ridge where we could wait for a plane. The view was spectacular, since our prow dropped away on three sides. It was a beautiful night, and our spirits were high.

We awoke to a storm that lasted five days, during which it increased to a fury that we hadn’t believed possible. We never moved from our perch in the bivouac bags. For at least one entire day, the wind rose to such a force that we could not even communicate, though we sat shoulder to shoulder. We had only a few hard candies left and grew weaker and more dehydrated as the storm wore on. The feeling of being completely disoriented began to overwhelm us both. Our sense of time became distorted and the whiteout erased any visual reference point. The whole situation was surreal. Even our fear, being so prolonged, was more like numbness.

With all that time to sit and think, we speculated that Mount Russell’s position at the extreme southwest comer of the Alaska Range might account for its unusual weather and that odd rime formation. Neither of us knew much about such things, but we found it interesting to hear Adams Carter later describe similar weather that his party encountered on the northeast ridge of the peak in 1966 when they were “driven off by a horrendous storm.” In all his climbing, it was the only time he can remember ever saying to himself, “This is survival.” Twenty-three years later, we felt the same way.

We were several days overdue by the time the storm abated, but having been spotted from the air, we were reassured that local pilots and the Denali Park Rangers were aware of our situation. One rappel off a bollard started us heading down to the notch, where we began several hours of slogging along the level portion of the ridge. Fatigue barely let me lift my feet. Dave was burdened with the dual task of plowing a waist-deep trench and then all but dragging me through it. We continued until near the 10,000-foot level, where we found a launch site and probed it out. Dave unrolled his paraglider, waited for the right wind and launched, carefully avoiding a narrow crevasse near the lip.

When it was clear that he had landed, I pulled up my chute, took a few steps and went off the edge. There was a sudden drop, followed by a reassuring lift of the wing, and I was airborne. Sailing directly in front of the face, I was too distracted by the lure of Base Camp to enjoy the incredible view of the route. Before long, I landed in a heap near Dave a few hundred yards from the tent.

Ten days on the hill; eight minutes in the air. Sitting at Base Camp and enjoying our bottomless cache of food and beer, we stared back up at the face. The frothy rime was in shadow now, and we tried to pick out the features of the route. Two pounds of fig newtons disappeared in minutes. Still looking up, Dave seemed puzzled by something. Finally he asked, “Can you still call it alpine- style if it takes three years?”

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range.

New Route: Mount Russell, 3557 meters, 11,670 feet, East Face, Summit reached May 11, 1989 (David Auble, Charles Townsend). Descent from 10,000 feet by paraglider.