The last time I did the North Fork hike, we climbed the Mithral Dihedral on Mt. Russell in an epic day from the car. The approach over Whitney/Russell pass was brutal, and I wasn't able to fully enjoy what turned out to be one of the best routes in the Sierra. At the time, wretchedly belaying in a corner that never seemed to come into the sun, I remember seeing an astonishing crack on the clean white face to the left of the Mithral, fully engulfed in sunny goodness. I promised myself I'd be back, hopefully at a more leisurely pace and in warmer circumstances.
According to the Porcella/Burns "Climbing California's Fourteeners" (THE book to get for technical routes on these peaks, by the way), the crack was called StarTrekkin'. I had almost forgotten how good the crack looked until I saw it again in the latest Black Diamond catalogue (Summer 2003, page 21). Mithral Dihedral has some of the best rock I've seen in the backcountry, and this crack is just 30 feet away from it, so we figured it would be classic as well. We weren't disappointed.
Andy had never climbed Mt. Whitney before, and I'd always wanted to try a complete east face route, so as a warm-up on our first day we tried the Great Book (IV 5.9). The route turned out to have plenty of wide cracks and some bad rock, so we bailed onto the East Face route at the top of the Washboard. Tough day, and we got back to our camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake pretty late that afternoon.
The next day we slept in and then made a leisurely approach to the base of Mt. Russell. The hike wasn't nearly as tough after a few days of acclimatization, and in an hour and a half we were at the start of the climb below the south face. StarTrekkin' shares the first few pitches of the Mithral Dihedral, climbing some moderate cracks and corners. The route then breaks left out of the dihedral to gain the obvious finger and hand crack straight up the middle of the white face for three pitches.
The route starts with the crux, a 5.10 finger crack through a bulge with great protection. Andy cranked right through it and kept going, up to a hanging belay. My lead continued straight up the amazing hand crack for another pitch, to a place where the crack broke up a bit. I put in an anchor and we were faced with a choice. Up and slightly left the crack widened and continued to the ridge. Up and slightly right, the crack became a seam for a 30-foot section before opening up into hands again. Andy gave the left crack a look, didn't like the wide, and went for the right.
The weather was deteriorating, with snow from an afternoon thunderstorm already beginning to fall on the Whitney summit. Always the brave belayer, I encouraged Andy to keep moving up the right crack because I was hoping to get off the mountain before the blizzard hit, and because that was the route shown in the Black Diamond catalogue. Now I know that catalogue pictures don't always give the best beta.
Only after Andy was committed did he realize how hard the climbing would be. Protected only by a #3 HB brass nut, he had to make a series of technical moves connecting small pockets and sidepulls - definitely the most impressive high-altitude rock lead I've seen. Maybe it was the altitude, but this pitch felt suspiciously like 5.11 when I followed it. To keep this route at 5.10, I'd recommend taking the left crack where the main crack splits about 120 feet below the ridge.
After Andy's lead we were on the ridge, and a couple more simulclimbed pitches got us on top just as the snowflakes started to fly.
Now, I've been accused of always saying my latest Sierra climb is the best I've done, and that's probably true because I love climbing Sierra granite so much. So here I go again: StarTrekkin' is one of the best routes I've climbed in the range. It's rare to find such a long crack of consistent size anywhere, much less on an alpine peak.
Andy Magness and Craig Clarence (writer)
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