When I first climbed Mt. Ritter (13,157') in my backpacking days 17 years ago, it was a major undertaking that required three days (hike in, climb, hike out). But based on my recent experience on David Harris's trip to Banner Peak, and on a note from Richard Carey on the PCS broadcast, I decided that Ritter is feasible as a dayhike. The stats for the climb are about the same as for hiking Half Dome -- 5000' gain, 18 miles round trip -- but at a far higher elevation of course. Arun Mahajan and I set out to test my dayhike theory on Sat., Sep. 27, 1997...
5:30 a.m., in the woods near downtown Mammoth... My internal clock tells me it's probably time to get up, and I open my eyes to the cold and pitch darkness. As I get out of my sleeping bag and call to Arun, a pack of coyotes breaks the pre-dawn silence with a chorus of blood-curdling screams. An omen, or just a welcome reminder that even in a state with 32 million people, there are still places where wildness reigns? In 10 minutes, we're in the car and on the way to the trailhead.
6:30 a.m., Agnew Meadows trailhead... After breakfast beside the car, we head up the trail in the grey pre-dawn light.
7:45 a.m., rest stop on the hill below Shadow Lake... The morning sun finally hits us, and we stop to take off a couple layers of clothes. The day is starting out mild, windless, and crystal clear, with groves of aspens on the hillside to the east glowing in their yellow and orange fall colors. A great day to be in the mountains.
8 a.m., Shadow Lake... Our first view of Mt. Ritter. Arun is impressed.
9:10 a.m., timberline above Ediza Lake... We wanted to get here within three hours, and we've done it in just over 2 1/2. This crazy plan is working well so far. We have a snack, enjoy the views and the morning sun, then hike up the creek into the beautiful alpine valley above us.
10:15 a.m., cliff below the Southeast Glacier... In describing the route up this cliff, Secor takes several sentences to describe a frightening series of zig-zag ledges. The correct route, at the left side of the cliff, just wanders up grassy benches and easy class-2 slabs and rubble. To find this route, start from a long narrow boulder at right angles to the creek and head due southwest, toward the prominent pinnacle about 3/4 mile south of Ritter.
11 a.m., Southeast Glacier... The snow has softened slightly in the sun, and has large suncups. We use our axes, but don't need our crampons. You could climb this section without either one by using the suncups and the scree along the margins -- it's all low angle. A party ahead of us is doing just that.
12 noon, north edge of the Southeast Glacier... The obvious wide chute described in Secor looks much easier than when I climbed it 17 years ago -- class 2-3 up scree and large, sharp-edged blocks that are characteristic of the Ritter Range. I'm a bit disappointed, and concerned that Arun might be getting bored with this climb, because I know this is the most challenging part of it. I start perusing a second chute, 30 feet to the left of the Secor chute. It's steep, narrow, dark, and wet -- the obvious choice. I persuade Arun to try this left-hand chute, and we head up.
12:30, top of the chute... "That was fun, hey Arun?" Some nice short vertical class-3 steps, with class-2 rubble in between. Feeling exhilarated, I climb up onto a pinnacle between the two chutes and enjoy the view of the glacier, the Minarets, and the beautiful alpine country to the east. Above us, a low angle scree and snow slope rises to the summit. Starting up it, our lack of acclimatization starts to hit us -- sea level to 13,000 feet in 18 hours is a bit too much.
1:30, the summit... Glad that last bit is over. Views are wonderful, especially west to the seldom-visited hinterlands south of Mt. Lyell. We can see eight large lakes to the west -- the three Ritter Lakes, Lake Catherine, the two Twin Island Lakes, and the two Blue Lakes. Views of Half Dome, the Clark Range, the Cathedral Range, and all of Yosemite north to Tower Peak are sharp and clear in the autumn light. We sign in, recline on the boulders, snack, and chat with four guys from the East Bay. They depart, and we relax in the warm, incredibly peaceful silence of this mountaintop. The weather was exactly the same the first time I was up here, in August 1980. We could easily fall asleep. But we've miles to go...
2:30, just below the summit... A guy climbing up calls my name -- it's Mike DeLorenzo. Three weeks ago he and I started up Ritter, but I decided we should turn back below the glacier because he has no balance or hearing in one ear and seemed a bit shaky on class-2 rock. Then two weeks ago, when I was leading a climb of Dana and Gibbs, I ran into him on Dana. Now here he is again, like a reappearing apparition. He's soloing Ritter and going strong for the top. I feel a bit guilty about stopping last time, because he's obviously having no trouble, and I wish him well.
3:00, on the way down the Secor chute... This whole climb is really quite easy. The rocky slope below the glacier is class-2 -- in fact, much of it has a use trail and is class-1. The glacier leading up to the chutes is all low angle except for the top 50 feet, which is still quite moderate and has a safe runout. And the Secor chute is all class-2 if you weave around and find the easiest way up it. There's no real class-3 on the route, unless you go looking for it as we did. In early summer with lots of frozen snow, the climb could be harder, but on this day it's a walk. Alan Ritter, we wish you were here. (Editor's note: After seven attempts during the 1990s, St. Louis resident Alan Ritter succeeded in climbing his namesake peak in 1999.)
3:30, back on the glacier... Nice standing glissades down the suncupped snow. We easily pass the guys from the East Bay, slowly picking their way down the scree at the north edge of the glacier.
4 p.m., alpine valley below the glacier... We refill our water bottles and have a snack. All done now except for the long hike out. We take our last close-up look at the tremendous twin peaks of Ritter and Banner, and at the valley around us, its meadowgrass and bushes taking on the yellow and reddish hues of fall. Then down into the woods.
6 p.m., Shadow Lake... Running out of energy. We stop for the last snack of the day, and our last look at the peaks. A cool breeze blows across the lake, and for the first time since early morning we put on a second layer of clothes.
7:20 p.m., 1/4 mile from Agnew Meadows... An unexpected fork in the trail that we didn't notice on the way in. Which way to the parking lot? We're tired, it's pitch dark, and we don't want to get lost right now. Arun says the right fork looks a little more travelled. We take it.
7:30, Parking lot. We made it! We wash up a bit at the handy faucet, change from boots into running shoes, and depart.
8:30 p.m. Grumpy's Restaurant, Mammoth. Enjoying hearty soup and huge salads served by a beautiful waitress, watching our choice of three different football games on big-screen TVs. It's a hard life in the PCS.