Weather or Not...Mt. Ritter

18-22 Jul 1997 - by Alan Ritter

Cast of characters:

Yehuda Ben-David, Nancy Wolfe (Oakland CA)
Ed Milner (Ramstein AFB, Germany)
Tom Milner (Albany NY)
Alan Ritter (St. Louis, MO) (de facto leader)

Monday, 14 July...Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake

After several failed attempts at the eastern approaches to "my" mountain, we were determined to try Mt. Ritter from the west side. The group met at the Agnew Meadows trailhead on Monday, 14 July and headed up the High Trail toward Thousand Island Lake.

Wildflowers of myriad hues greeted us on the slope above Agnew Meadows, including these spectacular tiger lilies. The views of Mt. Ritter, Banner Peak, and the Minarets from the high trail are unsurpassed, and showed another good snow year, quite comparable to last year. (Not surprising...both were about 400-inch years at the nearby Mammoth ski area.) With binoculars, we picked out a couple of climbers attempting Mt. Ritter via the southeast glacier route.

Several of us (Nancy, Yehuda, myself) are regular backpackers, while Ed is a frequent participant in "Volksmarches" in Germany, but Tom ("man-mountain") hadn't been hoofing it since his Boy Scout days, and clearly suffered as a result. Nonetheless, everyone made the 10-mile hike into Thousand Island Lake in greater or lesser degrees of comfort.

Tuesday, 15 July...Thousand Island Lake to Ritter Lakes

The next morning dawned clear and calm, with Banner Peak reflected in the nearly- calm lake. We packed up and prepared for the next leg of the trip. This would be a much shorter, but more strenuous, hike, involving some snow climbing plus much off-trail scrambling. Tom wisely opted out of continuing over North Glacier Pass and on to Ritter Lakes, preferring instead the relative comfort of remaining at Thousand Island Lake.

The four of us set out to hop over the low ridge between Thousand Island Lake and the valley leading up to North Glacier Pass. There were only occasional patches of snow around Thousand Island, but the snow in the valley started about 10,500' and was continuous up to the pass itself at about 11,200'.

The valley itself is an easy snow climb...possible in boots, but certainly easier for us with crampons. The view of Thousand Island Lake from the upper reaches of the glacier is spectacular.

Upon reaching the pass proper, we were presented with a striking view of the west side of Ritter and Banner towering over Lake Catherine. At 11,000', Lake Catherine was still over 75% frozen, and the snowdrifts in the lee of the granite domes to the west and south of Catherine extended from lake level nearly to the tops of the domes.

We made slow but steady progress down the steep boulderfield between the pass and the lake, and worked our way around to the west of the domes. From there, the view out over the canyons is dramatic, especially when you realize that the bottoms of the canyons drop from the 11,000' level of the lake to less than 9,000' in a fraction of a mile. As is evidenced by the photo, Mother Nature has contracted with Walt Disney for exterior decorating...we spotted this incredibly balanced rock on the west side of the domes...hard to believe a melting glacier could so delicately balance several tons of rock in an isolated point like that.

We intended to camp near the southernmost of the Ritter Lakes. However, this proved to be a more aggressive plan than we were able to achieve...class 2 boulder hopping gave way to class 2 and occasional class 3 rock scrambling on the margins of the domes, and at one point, we reached a chute down the southwest side of the southern dome which required lowering our packs and a 50' pitch of solid but exciting scrambling down to the next broad ledge below.

From there, we could look down to one of the Ritter Lakes, nearly totally frozen, a couple of hundred feet below us. We continued around the second dome and found a dry spot to camp between the dome and the flanks of Mt. Ritter. The moon shone brightly as we settled down for the night, planning our assault for the next day.

Wednesday, 16 July...Planned Summit Day

Summit what are all these clouds doing here? We awoke to a sky full of cirrus and cirrostratus clouds stretching in bands as far west as we could see. Yehuda opined that the pattern looked like it would develop into some serious weather by afternoon and that we should not climb. In addition, he was concerned about our rather exposed campsite should the weather develop into thunderstorms, since there was nothing but rock and a few low bushes around, making us rather tempting targets for lightning.

We dallied until about 7:30 a.m. before finally accepting that the clouds were there to stay, packed up camp, and headed back to Thousand Island Lake. Rather than repeat the previous day's steep scramble, we opted to take to the snow piled up in the lee of the dome. This proved better, although the last few feet to the top of the drift were steep enough that Ed resorted to cutting steps rather than trust kicking our crampons into a 50-degree-plus slope. We made it safely, surveyed the crack (drifted over) where the cornice would eventually fail, and scurried down the rock on the other side of the dome.

The climb from there up past Lake Catherine to North Glacier Pass was familiar but no more comfortable...the boulder field has just enough loose, tippy, rocks to make for nervous boulder hopping with full packs. By the time we reached the pass, the overcast had become solid, although it had not lowered to the peaks. We stopped and talked to several other climbers who were either planning on doing Banner Peak that day or thinking about heading to the back side of Ritter, so we gave them what intelligence we could about finding their way to the appropriate point on Ritter Lakes. The walk down the snow from North Glacier Pass was a comfortable slog with crampons. With the cloud cover, the snow did not soften too much, and we reached the rocks near the waterfall which marks the headwaters of the San Joaquin River without incident.

There we stopped for snacks and to pay our respects to the grave and memorial to the two German climbers who died on Banner Peak in 1934. Looking over the vista of Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake, we mused that it might be a good place to spend eternity. When we returned to our first campsite, Tom was waiting for us, hoping to hear better news about the climb than we had to report.

As we prepared dinner, we were treated to a spectacular view of a bank of clouds sculpted by the wind, hanging over the ridge to our east. After dark, the wind came up and remained high all night, moaning in the pines above our heads.

Thursday, 17 July...The Trek Back

Thursday morning, we awoke to worse weather than had chased us back from the west side of the mountain the previous day. The cloud base had lowered nearly to the summits, and occasional bands of clouds flowed through the Ritter/Banner saddle, at 12,000'. With the wind still howling through the trees, it was apparent that we had made a good choice in leaving our exposed campsite on the west side of Mt. Ritter, even though Wednesday would have remained dry for the climb. If the clouds were dropping any moisture at all on the west side, those boulders up from Lake Catherine to North Glacier Pass would have been doubly treacherous.

Disappointed, we packed up camp and headed back to Agnew Meadows, opting this time to take the River Trail back, rather than return via the High Trail. The rapids and waterfalls along the river were picturesque, recommending that trail for anyone who has not walked it before. With the cooler weather and occasional breeze, even the mosquitos were tolerable most of the time. Reaching Agnew Meadows, we retrieved the cars and drove back into Mammoth Lakes, looking forward to hot showers and real beds. A farewell dinner at the Ocean Harvest restaurant put a pleasant cap on the trip.

Friday, 18 July...The Trip Home

Friday morning, Ed, Tom, and I packed up, ate breakfast at Blondie's (best waffles in Mammoth!), and headed back to Reno to catch our flights back east. Nancy and Yehuda made their own way back to Oakland. Once again, weather had interfered with the climb...tough to work around when long-distance travel and six-month leadtimes for wilderness permits are involved. However, a week spent in the mountains is better than any week spent at work, so the time was not wasted, and Mt. Ritter will be waiting for us again next year...Yehuda and I are ready to try it, probably from Ediza Lake via the Southeast Glacier, and Ed is willing, depending on his plans to visit the states again next summer. Full moon weeks in 1998 will be following the July 4th weekend, and again the first week of August. ...we'll be back...

Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak from Thousand Island Lake

back to July 14

Banner Peak reflected in a calm Thousand Island Lake. The summit ridge of Mt. Ritter is visible just to the left of the summit of Banner Peak. That "interesting cliff" appears in the left part of the photo. North Glacier Pass is hidden behind the ridge sloping down from Banner near the right edge of the shot.


The Ritter Range from the High Trail

back to July 14

Mt. Ritter, Banner Peak, and the Minarets form the "Ritter Range". The two named peaks are at the right side of this image, with Banner Peak (12,890') the rightmost peak, then Mt. Ritter (13,143'). Mt. Ritter was named by Josiah Whitney after Karl Ritter, a 19yh-century German geographer under whom Whitney studied in Berlin.

The Minarets appear as the jagged ridge to the left of center. Minaret identification is per illustration in Secor's "The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails". The stream flowing down in waterfalls in the lower left is Shadow Creek, the exit stream flowing out of Shadow Lake. The lower image is a full-width shot...pan over to see the rest of the range.

Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak from the High Trail

back to July 14

A different view of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak, from the High Trail approximately opposite Garnet Lake. The dark cliff in front of Banner is an interesting is separate from Banner, and measures about 600' from base to top. Wonder if it's climbable? (Serious class 5 climbing at least!)

Wild tiger lily along the High Trail above Agnew Meadows

back to July 14

The wildflowers were much in evidence as we climbed the switchbacks from Agnew Meadows and headed north along the High Trail. I had never seen tiger lilies like these in the wild, being more familiar with the cultivated varieties in my grandmother's garden 40+ years ago.


Disneyland in the Sierra...

back to July 15

Running across a 2-meter-high rock balanced this precariously made us want to look around for an E-ticket ride from can a glacier manage to gently set a rock down on a point like this in perfect balance?

Canyons to the West of Mt. Ritter and the Ritter Lakes

back to July 15

Looking to the west and south of the granite domes, one is presented with this wide-open vista of canyons and valleys stretching to the horizon. The vertical drop from the domes into the canyons approaches 2500' near the Ritter Lakes area.

The northernmost of the Ritter Lakes...still frozen in July

back to July 15

As we approached our campsite, we could look down on this, the northernmost of the Ritter Lakes. Even in mid-July, it was still almost totally frozen and snow-covered. The vertical relief in this area is much more dramatic on-site than it appears from the topographic maps.

Approaching North Glacier Pass, about 11,000'

back to July 15

Yehuda and Ed approaching the top of North Glacier Pass. This is about as steep as the snowfield gets...still an easy walk-up in crampons and quite doable in boots.

Nancy and Yehuda Seated at North Glacier Pass

back to July 15

Lake Catherine, still mostly frozen in mid-July, from North Glacier Pass. The northwest butress of Mt. Ritter is the prominent cliff to the left in this photo. It is truly a striking feature, rising as a sheer cliff out of the lake nearly 1,000' before sloping out into a ridge leading to the summit of Mt. Ritter.

Headwaters of the San Joaquin above Thousand Island Lake

back to July 15

At about 10,500', Yehuda, Ed, and Nancy make their way onto the snowfield filling the valley leading up to North Glacier Pass. The official headwaters of the San Joaquin River are in the cliffs to the right and out of this photo.

Lake Catherine, Granite Dome, and Boulder Field

back to July 15

Looking down and to the west from North Glacier Pass shows how rugged the boulderfield is from there down to the shoreline of Lake Catherine. The granite dome on the other side of the lake, to the left in this photo, rises 75 feet or more above the lake surface. The exit stream from Lake Catherine flows somewhere underneath the well-packed snow to the right of the dome. The cornice on the drifted snow has a very visible crack near the top where it will eventually fail, yet there were people walking along the snow at the bottom of the drift. We chose to go around and behind both this dome and the taller one to the south of "interesting" choice...

Incredible wind-sculpted clouds over the Mammoth Mountain ridge

back to July 16

This bank of clouds developed over Mammoth Mountain and the ridge to the north and persisted well into the night.

Glacier from Ritter/Banner Saddle down to Lake Catherine

back to July 16

This view of Lake Catherine and Mt. Ritter shows that huge buttress or shoulder which comes off the summit ridge, slopes down a bit, then drops precipitously about 1,000' into Lake Catherine. To the left is the glacier leading up from Catherine to the Ritter/Banner saddle, the typical route up to Banner Peak from Thousand Island Lake (via North Glacier Pass) and the beginning of the classic John Muir route up Mt. Ritter.

Sunrise over the Sierra

back to July 16

The old sailor's saying "red sky in the morning, sailor take warning" came to mind as we arose to this sunrise. A shoulder of Mt. Ritter is silhouetted to the right, with the taller of the granite domes to the south of Lake Catherine to the left.

A cloudy view across the canyons...

back to July 16

Looking to the west, each bank of clouds appeared thicker and lower than the preceding one. With the shadow of Mt. Ritter still hanging over the canyon, we decided to bail out and head for shelter.

The grave site and memorial marker to two German Climbers

back to July 16

As you head up from Thousand Island Lake toward North Glacier Pass, watch to your right. Immediately below a waterfall from the cliffs above the valley, you will spot this stone cairn with the bronze plaque. It is a sobering reminder that the mountains can be singularly unforgiving.

The boulder/talus slope up from Lake Catherine to North Glacier Pass

back to July 16

Ok, you caught me...this slide is out of sequence, shot the previous afternoon, but serves to illustrate the rugged nature of the slope from Lake Catherine up to North Glacier Pass. Those blocks of rock range from breadbox to bathtub size and many are marginally stable, making for tricky footing with full packs. There is no "good" way through...just less "bad" ways here and there.

Clouds closing down on Ritter and Banner

back to July 17

Note the stream of clouds flowing through the Ritter/Banner saddle at about 12,000', visible to the left of and behind Banner, and in front of the summit ridge of Mt. Ritter.

Back to civilization, showers, and real food...

back to July 17

Left to right: Yehuda, Tom, Alan, Ed, Nancy

Banks of clouds pouring over North Glacier Pass

back to July 17

About this time on Thursday, the weather confirmed the wisdom of our conservatism in heading back early the previous day.

Cascades on the San Joaquin River along the River Trail

back to July 17

Waterfalls and rapids abound along the River Trail, with a new one every couple of hundred yards...photographers be forewarned to bring extra film!

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