For anyone who has read John Muir's account of the first ascent, or the accident report from the 1969 climb on which four Sierra Club climbers lost their lives, the north face of Mt. Ritter has a serious reputation. So it was with some determination that seven of us hiked in to attempt it on the morning of Saturday, September 30. The group included David Harris (leader), plus his colleagues Cora Hussey, Roy Shea, and Alfred Kwok from the Claremont colleges in Pasadena, and Zander Brennen, Nicolai Sapounov, and myself (Jim Ramaker) from the Bay Area.
We left Agnew Meadows at 8:30, hiked down into the aspen-clad valley of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, then up the beautiful trail past Shadow Lake to Ediza Lake, where we arrived about noon. Along the trail, we met a wild man from Belgium named Paul Wilms, and invited him to join our group. I later found out that Paul works for the same company I do in an office about 100 yards from mine.
On the hike in, we had discussed the possibility of attempting Ritter that afternoon, but after lunch, the group drifted into listlessness, setting up tents and taking naps. Later on, most of the group took an easy hike south to Iceberg Lake at the foot of the Minarets, while I strolled north into one of my favorite places in the Sierras -- the wonderful alpine Valley between Ediza and the foot of Mt. Ritter. While exploring the creek, meadows, and cliffs up there, I ran into a solo climber just down from the north face of Ritter, who gave me some tips about the route. I also ran into a young couple planning to bivy on the south face of Ritter with nothing more than fleece jackets and an old wool blanket. The "gentle wilderness" of the Sierras is often forgiving toward fools -- the low temperature that night was an amazingly warm 45 degrees -- about 20 degrees warmer than you'd expect at 10,000 feet at the end of September.
Our group of eight gathered back in camp around 5 p.m. for an early supper, and by 7 we were all in our sleeping bags. Maybe one reason climbing trips are so enjoyable is that they sometimes let us revert to childhood -- we get to play all day and then go to sleep at 7 p.m.
But things were different on Sunday morning -- David had us up in pitch darkness at 5:30, and rolling by 6:30. We strolled up the valley toward Ritter as dawn flamed the east faces of Banner, Ritter, and the Minarets, and by 8:30 we were at the cliffs leading up to the Banner-Ritter saddle. David and Nicolai zig-zagged up the rocks in the center of the cliff band, while the rest of us climbed the easy snow couloir at the right end, which was frozen neve but pitted with sun cups and no more than 35 degrees steep.
Gathering at the saddle, we realized that Alfred was suffering from altitude sickness and lagging behind, so we decided to split the group, with Paul, Zander, Nicolai, and I going ahead to scout the route. David straightened out our confusion about the left- and right-hand gullies described in Secor -- the left-hand gully heads up from the highest snow of the North Ritter Glacier, while you enter the right-hand gully via a 30-foot long ledge leading right from about 100 feet below the highest snow. The glacier leading up to the gullies was icy, but again pitted with suncups and no more than 35 degrees steep, so a self-arrest would've been pretty easy.
I led up the right-hand gully, which gave us fun class 2-3 climbing on solid rock and rubble-covered ledges. With a bit of care, it was possible to climb without knocking anything down. It was a warm, clear day with a light breeze, and except for Alfred's sickness, the climb was going great and proving much easier than expected. At the top of the right-hand gully an arete leads left, and on the other side of it we were surprised to find a class-1 scree terrace. We strolled up that until it and the arete were blocked by a large tower. I climbed past the tower to the left and came to the top of the classic north face route, with its class 3-4 headwall and an ice-covered ramp leading up and left.
Paul checked to the right of the tower and found a broad class 2-3 gully leading up to the apparent summit. Could this be it? He, Zander, Nicolai, and I scrambled up the gully and topped out at 11:30, just 20 feet left (east) of the summit. We were amazed at how easy the climb had been -- about 80% of the rock was really class 2, and there was not a single move I'd call exposed. Obviously, we went a different way from John Muir, approximately following the "Starr Variation" to the north face described in Secor.
David, Cora, Roy, and Alfred soon joined us on top, and we relaxed in the warm sun for the usual photos, snacks, and identification of distant peaks in the clear fall air. After an hour or so, it was down the scree slope to the southeast and down the loose but easy gully onto the Southeast Glacier. Alfred was really suffering, and David, Cora, Roy, and Paul stayed back to help him out. Zander, Nicolai, and I waited for them for an hour on the rock island in the middle of the southeast glacier, then talked to Cora and Roy and decided to hike out, figuring that Alfred would feel better as he descended. Zander, Nicolai, and I had a nice hike out in the late afternoon, getting back to camp at 4 and out to the cars just after dark at 7:30.
Meanwhile the rest of the team was having a bit of an epic. Cora took a short fall in the gully above the southeast glacier, bruising her hip so severely that she later started going into shock. And Alfred continued feeling very unsteady. David, Paul, and Roy rallied the team, and Cora, in a lot of pain, recovered enough to hike out carrying all of her gear. The five of them hiked out by headlamp and got to the cars at 10:30 p.m., then went to the hospital in Mammoth to have Cora looked at. David, Cora, Roy, and Alfred finally got home to Pasadena at 5 a.m., just in time to start another work week. Mt. Ritter treated us to a great climb in beautiful conditions, and to another lesson in mountaineering -- even when the summit is won and the descent seems easy, the unpredictable can happen and we need to be prepared.
Michael Gordon adds:
Always in the front of my mind is that the summit itself is only *halfway* there. Most accidents in mountaineering occur on the descent. One can never let their guard down just because they've summited.
My report on the North Couloir of Mt. Thompson demonstrated this - the descent took nearly twice as long as the climb, and was far more dangerous.