Return to Ritter

20-21 Sep 2003 - by Jim Ramaker

After a restful night in the woods behind the campground in Mammoth Lakes and a quick snack at Schaat's bakery, Chris Franchuk, Scott Kreider, and I drove down to the Agnew Meadows trailhead for another one of my fall trips to Mt. Ritter. We were joined there by Wes Burrows, Mumtaz Shamsee, and Aurelijus Vijunas.

A word to the wise: the Forest Service user fee for driving down the Agnew Meadows/Devils Postpile road is now $7 a person or $20 a car (whichever is less). You have to drive in before 7 a.m. if you want to avoid taking the shuttle bus, and there is usually no one in the fee booth at that hour, so the fee is not a problem in the morning. Apparently, you can also avoid the fee on the way out in the evening if you depart after 7 p.m. or so. According to the person who took our $20 on the way out, the $160,000 collected last year all went to pay for the shuttle bus service, which I assume is needed because the road is only one lane wide in places, and can't handle any heavy traffic.

The six of us departed from Agnew Meadows at 7:40 a.m. and kept a nice pace on the familiar trail down to the San Joaquin River and then up the hill past Shadow Lake to Ediza Lake, where we arrived about 11. We continued on to a camp in the beautiful valley below the Ritter's southeast glacier, about 1 mile beyond and 800 feet above Ediza Lake. Since it was still only noon, we discussed attempting the climb that afternoon, and the consensus was that people were willing but not enthusiastic about the idea. Since some enthusiasm is a good idea on this climb, I suggested we do it Sunday morning as originally planned, when we'd be better acclimatized and much less likely to get caught out after dark. For the rest of the afternoon, we power-lounged or took short walks across the beautiful alpine plateau towards Nydiver Lakes. After an early supper, we bedded down shortly after 7 p.m. on a mild, star-filled night.

Sunday, Aurelijus roused us at 5 a.m. and we were rolling before 6, using headlamps for the first few minutes. After the tedious scree slopes at the head of the valley, we arrived at the snowfield below the Banner-Ritter saddle about 8 and cramponed up it. The steep snow chute at its upper right edge was melted away into a narrow causeway less than 10 feet wide, with deep moats on both sides. At 8:30 we arrived on the saddle, always a morale booster on this climb because you can finally see the north face up close and the summit ridge above it. Crampons came off for a few hundred yards of scree, then went back on for the upper section of the north glacier. Every fall, this snowfield seems to get smaller as its lower edge rises further up the scree, and we had to climb only about 200 vertical feet of snow to get to the ledge leading over to the right-hand gully. At the present rate, by 2010 or so the north face of Ritter in fall may become just another Sierra scree slog and rock scramble, without the sections of steep hard snow that now give it a more alpine character.

At least on this day, the snow slope was hard and icy with even some sections of water ice, so it got our full attention as we climbed up it, some of using front points and the picks of our axes for greater security at the steepest parts. After taking our crampons off again, the right-hand gully went quickly, with moderate but loose class-3 in the lower half, and steeper, beautifully solid class-3 toward the top. Six people is a bit many for a gully like this, but everyone climbed carefully, everyone wore helmets except for the irresponsible leader who forgot his, and while we knocked some stuff down, we had no close calls.

From the top of the gully, we followed the arete leftward instead of going slightly right onto the easier northwest face, where I had gone on two previous ascents. After a bit, I popped through a notch and spotted the scree ramp described in detail in Bob Burd's recent trip report (which also includes some great photos). The ramp looked fairly easy, so we followed it leftward across the top of the north face, then went up a steep, loose, gravelly section of it that had some small, avoidable patches of ice. Some of us climbed class-3 rock at the outer edge of this last ramp to avoid the loose crap. Earlier in the year, this ramp could be icy, though you might be able to avoid the ice by climbing on the class-3 rock. I was expecting to hit some big air somewhere on this unfamiliar part of the climb, but at the top of the ramp, a few more easy class-3 moves put us on the summit ridge, with the top just a few hundred feet of easy scrambling to our right. We arrived there at 9:45, a full two hours earlier than on my last climb. It was so mild and windless that we relaxed on top for over an hour, indulging in the four usual summit activities -- photography, snacking, reading the register, and lying around.

For the descent, I decided to try "Owen's chute" for the first time, and it was quite pleasant -- much shorter, lower angled, and more wide open than "Secor's chute." Though less direct, it was a better choice for a group of six. Down on the southeast glacier, we found it also quite icy, and we put on crampons to walk down it despite its very low angle. After passing by the hideously steep and narrow "Arun's chute" about 50 feet left (west) of Secor's chute, we got to the large rock island in the middle of the southeast glacier about noon and took another nice break. This glacier is also getting noticeably smaller, with a full 200 feet of scree showing between the top of the glacier and the bottom of Secor's chute. One can only wonder what these glaciers looked like when John Muir made the first ascent (solo) in 1872, following a route similar to ours (except that on the north face, he almost certainly went straight up the left-hand chute). As we sat there, water poured off the glacier in torrents.

Suitably refreshed by this beautiful alpine rest spot, we headed down to the exit gully below the southeast glacier, which due east of the south edge of the glacier, or from below, northeast of the large tower south of Ritter. We cruised down the glacially polished slabs, down some grassy ledges with a few remaining wildflowers on them, and finally down the faint use trail, arriving back at our camp at 1:30 -- a highly enjoyable climb on a beautiful, Indian Summer day. A leisurely hike out got us to the last hill heading up from the San Joaquin River just as the afternoon shadows slowly climbed up the slope and cooled it off, and by 7:30 p.m., we were sitting in Grumpy's restaurant in Mammoth Lakes, watching Mumtaz polish off a well-deserved double supper of burger plus jumbo burrito. As a still somewhat inexperienced leader, I couldn't have asked for a better climbing team.

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