Hiking Mt Russell and Mt Carillon in California

Notes by piero scaruffi | Other California destinations | California hikes | The Sierra mountains

Mt Russell is 4,294 meters high. The eastern approach starts from the Whitney Portal (same as the main Whitney trail). After a few minutes, take the North Fork trail (Whitney's mountaineering route). See the description of the North Fork trail till the Boyscout lakes.

Eastern approach

There are two main ways to get to Mt Russell from Whitney Portal:
  1. After you reach Upper Boy Scout, bear right around the lake and walk up the canyon. Mt Russell is right in front. After two waterfalls and a dry lake, you reach a sandy plateau. (There is a use trail on the right/eastern side of the canyon). Then scramble up the scree and the rocks. The route winds its way clockwise (northeast) to the top of the gully. Mt Russell is on your left all the time. You surface right at the base of the east ridge, near the saddle between Russell and Carillon.
  2. Before Upper Boy Scout, a "trail" heads north up a gully. This is basically just a wall of scree.

    Initially the use trail takes you to the right of a wall of rocks. Then you should try to move back towards the center of the gully. A good reference point is a huge rock that looks like the temples at Petra: you want to end to the left of it. At that point, any direction is good to reach the plateau.
(Pictures of this hike). Either way, at the top you are on the Russell-Carillon plateau. Mt Russell is the "hill" to the left of the saddle (usually referred to as the Russell-Carillon Pass), Carillon is on your right (although you don't see its summit yet).

When you reach the upper ridge of this plateau (the saddle-like Russell-Carillon Pass), you will see two lakes: an unnamed (and always icy) lake right below Mt Russell's north ridge, and (to the right) Lake Tulainyo, the highest named lake in the contiguous USA (3906m).

From the saddle, reaching the summit of Russell involves climbing up the eastern ridge to the East Peak, and then traversing to the West Peak. Neither is easy and in between it can be deadly.
The eastern ridge is relatively easy rock climbing for about 20-25 minutes (best is to stay to the left of the ridge). Then there is a series of false summits and the exposure becomes the real issue. If the first false summit scared you, go back because it is just an appetizer. After this first false summit, move to the right of the ridge, where a use trail has appeared. Now you should have a good view of the East Peak. The "trail" stays to the right side (the side of the lakes) with good solid rock climbing, but nonetheless the drop on both sides is quite intimidating. Occasionally you need to be on top of the ridge, but mostly it is easier to stay slightly to its right, a bit lower. When this "blade" ends, the east face broadens a bit. That's the good news. The bad news is that this is not real summit: that would be the (still invisible) West Peak. By comparison with the "blade", the East Peak is an easy and safe scramble. That's the point where the Northern Ridge and the Southern Ridge connect. You can bypass the East Peak from either side and you finally get a good view of the almost flat 200 meters connecting the East Peak to the West Peak. "Flat" does not mean "easy": you need to go up and down several boulders.

Mt Carillon is much (much) easier to reach from the saddle. From right where you are taking pictures of Lake Tulainyo, follow the ridge to the right (east). There is a trail below the talus rock if you prefer sand over rock. Either way you should reach the summit of Mt Carillon in 20-25 minutes.
Milestones to Mt Russell on the eastern route and suggested times:

  • Ledges/waterfall: 1 hour
  • Lower Boyscout Lake: 2 hours
  • Base of gully: 3 hours
  • Top of gully: 4h 45'
  • Russell-Carillon Pass: 5h 30'
  • Top of the blade: 6h 30'
  • East Peak: 7h30'
  • West Peak: 8h

The two eastern routes:

(Click to enlarge)

Northern approach

If the Eastern route is too scary for you, consider a compromise: follow it to the plateau but then take the northern ridge. This is a bit longer but a lot safer.

To reach the North Ridge, take the Whitney mountaineering route to the same Russell-Carillon Pass that leads to the Eastern Ridge. However, from this pass continue straight north finding a way to descend into the bowl of Tulainyo Lake (3908m). As the "pass" is basically one long horizontal line, there are several class 2-3 routes that on can follow to drop down into the lake's bowl. Alas, this results in a loss of almost 200 vertical meters. Try to head left (north-west) as you descend so that you coast the left side of the little hill between Tulainyo Lake and its western (unnamed) neighbor. Then head north-west for the very visible north ridge. It climbs very gently south towards the East Peak of Mt Russell. The ridge is 3-5 meters wide so there is no exposure and it requires no difficult moves. When you reach the very obvious pinnacle that blocks the ascent along the ridge, move to the right about 50 meters. If you are lucky, my cairns are still there and you can just follow them. Otherwise trust the idea that you have to go around the ridge. From the ridge you cannot see the correct route. Once you have moved those 50 meters to the right, turn left and you'll see some obvious diagonal ledges that lead left (toward the ridge that you just left). Use a combination of them to ascend to the East Peak. If you are patient, you may never do more than class-2 climbing. If impatient, there are several class-3 moves that will lead you from one ledge to the next one. Avoid moving too far to the right because you get on very steep and slippery granite slabs. To be safer, you should in fact move slowly back towards the ridge as soon as you have climbed above the pinnacle. The West Peak is now visible. When you are high enough, you have a choice: continue up towards the East Peak or move slowly west (right) as you go up in order to gain the ridge between the East and West Peak. That ridge is about 100 meters and relatively flat.

When you are on the ridge drop down to the right a bit to follow the easier route to the real peak. It might be a little confusing which one if the real peak because there are several monoliths sticking up from the ridge. The real summit has a register in a metal cylinder (in 2009 there was no pen). I highly recommend that you mark the way up otherwise it will be not obvious at all how to go back. Resist the temptation to just descend vertically from the West Peak: you would have to downclimb vertical slabs of granite.

The Northern Ridge from the Russell-Carillon Pass:

The Pinnacle and the 50-meter detour to get around it:

The West Peak from the Northern Ridge:

Milestones (and my 2009 times):

  • See the East Ridge description for the route up to the Russell-Carillon Pass
  • Russell-Carillon Pass: 4h30'
  • Lake west of Tulainyo Lake: 5h
  • End of the "flat" part of the north ridge: 5h30'
  • West Peak: 8h30'
  • Back to Whitney Portal: 14h30'

Several books describe an alternative route to reach the Tulainyo Lake bowl: via the Clyde Creek from Lower Boyscout Lake. Try it only if you are tired of living. In the summer there is no water in the creek. Nonetheless it is a very steep and treacherous route. When you reach the top, you still have to figure out how to reach the pass itself (very visible from the side of the Tulainyo Lake, but less than obvious on the side of Lower Boyscout Lake.

Note of 2009: The astute route scouts had found out that one can reach Mt Russell avoiding the dreadful Whitney concentration camp (oops, i meant "the Whitney permit zone") by hiking north on the Clyde Creek from the Lower Boyscout Lake. This is a deadly steep route. The nazi guards (oops, i meant "the rangers") have now officially decided that this route too is off-limits. Basically, they just don't like people to hike Mt Russell, no matter which way you go.

Southwestern approach

Take the North Fork route to Mt Whitney up to Iceberg Lake. Look for a notch west of Iceberg Lake, the Whitney-Russell pass. Climb that "pass" and you'll be facing Russell's south face. A wide sandy chute takes you to the ridge that connects the east and west peaks. (The chute technically splits into a right side and a left side, but the left side is impassable so you can't really make a mistake). Alas, at the top of the right side of the southwestern chute you hit the headwall. The only way to climb that headwall is a narrow, scary, class-4 chimney.

The Whitney-Russell Pass from Mt Russell:

The Southern chute from Mt Whitney:

The top of the two southern chutes:

The Southern Chute from Mt Russell:

Russell's south face, Russell-Whitney notch and Iceberg Lake from Mt Whitney:

Russell-Whitney notch from Iceberg Lake:

Russell-Whitney notch from Mt Whitney:

Mt Russell's south face from the notch:

Mt Russell's southern chutes from Whitney :

Mt Russell's south and east ridges:

It takes about 30 minutes to the notch, which is not-so-easy class-2.
It takes about 30 minutes to the base of Russell's south face without losing too much elevation.
It takes about 1 hour to climb the right side of the south face.
It takes about 30 minutes to climb the class-4 route to the top.

  • Pictures of this hike
  • Weather forecast
  • Lake Tulainyo, the highest named lake in the USA
  • Video from Mt Russell
    Note: as of 2008 the unelected officials who run the Inyo National Forest (with your tax money) have extended the "Whitney Zone" to the entire Whitney mountaineering route above the Lower Boyscout lake, so that hiking Mt Russell not only requires a permit (yes, even for a day hike), but the permit is the same to hike Mt Whitney (good luck getting one). You are no longer hiking legally if you hike Mt Russell or Mt Carillon without a Mt Whitney permit (as demented as this may sound). Please boycott any initiative to increase the funding for the Inyo national forest. The more money they get, the more bureaucrats they can hire, the more restrictions they will apply and enforce. Petition your Congress representative to dissolve the Inyo National Forest and return the wilderness to wilderness lovers.

    (Do rangers enforce this law? I don't know. I cannot write whether i get a permit or not because i don't want to incriminate myself and have the FBI knock at my door for the grave terrorist offence of hiking in the wilderness. Just remember that, if they catch you, the fine is $5,000 and six months in jail, way more than for most crimes. If you think this is ridiculous, welcome to the club; but nobody is doing anything about it, and i guarantee that it will get worse: the Inyo National Forest pays absolutely no price for these obscenities and it actually keeps getting more and more of your tax money).