Thursday we left Agnew Meadows at 6:10am. Arriving at Ediza, we bypassed the lake on the right (N) side. There is an excellent trail which leads straight to the small lake above Ediza, at the foot of the Banner saddle. We arrived there at 10:30am. We took a lunch rest. It is always hard to get going again for the peak in the middle of the day but this was a tough group and we were on our way to the saddle by noon. As we were ascending toward the saddle, we could hear some distant thunder. Reaching the steep snowy couloir below the saddle, the thunder noise was more pronounced although no lightning was visible. We decided to make it to the saddle and try and get a look at which way the storm was going. We got there at 2pm. We could see rain and occasional lightning about 0.5 miles directly West of the saddle. We watched it for about 5 min and it was clearly moving toward us fast. The consensus was let's get the hell out of here and no one complained about leaving Banner. We were back to camp around 3:30pm. It never rained that afternoon but we kept hearing the thunder for the rest of the day. It was also rather chilly for late August.
Friday, we thought we had a chance at Ritter if we could make it up and down before the afternoon thunderstorm. We followed a SE glacier approach. We took some inspiration from some of Jim Ramaker's trip reports. From camp, I spotted a route that starts at the lowest grassy patch, then heads slightly right up a short rock/dirt chute. The chute has a striking smooth vertical slab on its left (South) side that one can see from camp. We exited the chute and continued slightly right. The general bearing for the route is the prominent pinnacle South of Ritter. At 3400m (that map is in meter), we were just below the cliffy ridge that borders the SE glacier on its South side. We headed right (North) from there toward the bottom of the glacier. We found we could skirt the glacier on its right side and reach the main chute. I believe this is the route described by Secor. To avoid some nasty slippery scree and dirt, I recommend staying high above the edge of the glacier rather than directly next to it.
We never had to use our crampons. Someone had taken a fatal fall on the glacier a week before and this motivated me to err on the side of caution. The glacier did look fairly bare. The unfortunate climber did not have crampons or ice axe and I could see how it would be next to impossible to stop on that surface without equipment.
The chute was straightforward and not too lose. We all had helmets which provided a safety margin. There was just a very small patch of snow below the summit ridge. We reached the summit at 10:15am. We had a moderate pace all the way and took nice breaks. We did not hear thunder as the previous day but it was cold and windy in the evening. We took our time on the way down plus a long lunch break and were back to camp around 4pm.
After 2 hard days, we were not quite up for trying Banner again on the third day. To make the return more interesting, we decided for the cross-country route via Thousand Island Lake. Kirsten suggested we leave early and wait until the sun was up for breakfast. We were on our way by 6am. We contoured on the North side of Nydiver Lakes. The pass between Nydiver and Garnet is steep and bouldery on the Garnet side. Fortunately it is also short. We stopped 1h for breakfast in the Garnet lake basin. It was sunny but still windy and cold. We tried After Thousand Island, we took the JMT to loop back to the Agnew Meadow trail above Shadow lake. One could also get down directly to the river trail from Thousand Island and it may be a faster way back as it would be a fairly graded walk down along the river. I was concerned it might also be boring views.
We took a 45 min lunch break and were back to the cars around 3pm. I had drawn the Thousand Island route into TOPO and gotten 11 miles (+1500') from Ediza to the trailhead but it seemed to take longer than that. Checking the Tom Harrison map which has mileage markers, the loop comes at 13-14 miles. It is basically a whole day affair and not everyone might enjoy it after 2 hard days of climbing. The views are well worth it if you have time and energy for it though. Also well worth it are the free showers at Reds Meadow campground, further down the road from Agnew Meadows. They are rudimentary at best but still make you feel great after a hard long day. Thanks Steve Eckert for pointing these out.
Trip participants: Stephane (Leader) + Kirsten Mouradian, Alex + Cathy Giudicelli, Robert Yang.
Robert Yang adds;
It was an excellent trip, pics are on the web here : (sadly, didn't bring enough camera memory, so no JMT shots from the last day)
An aside: my experience with Sierra Club PCS folks up until this point had been that they are kind of, um, conservative about gear. So I brought a solid T-rated ice axe, 12-point steel crampons, and my old heavy marmot-chewed bomber desert pack, figuring that there might be some glacier travel on bare ice. I didn't bother to ask Stephane what he was bringing, since it was kind of short notice and we were all busy.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the trailhead to find that Stephane and Kirsten had hiked the JMT the "Ray Way" and were equipped with basic axes, aluminum crampons, and Golite packs, and we never had to set foot on the SE glacier. I have since learned the mantra "speed is safety".
BTW I would have liked to attempt Banner from the R/B saddle in the morning on good solid snow, but not solo. As it happens, the last day's x/c hike was excellent and scenic.