117 Years Later: Mt. Ritter via West Slope Route in 2009

Sierra History:
First ascent of Mount Ritter via West Slope Route

Theodore Solomons, August 20, 1892

Theodore S. Solomons is credited with the first ascent of Ritter via the West Slope route in 1892. His original report was published in the Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 3, January 1894, pp. 61-84, under the title "Among the Sources of the San Joaquin". It is not entirely clear what were his original intentions and expectations, but he ended up ascending West Slope, and coming back via the North Face route, and down to Lake Catherine. His base camp was somewhere above "an island-dotted lake lying at the northeastern base of the Ritter group" [Thousand Island Lake]. We join Solomons as he approaches North Glacier Pass, pp. 67-70 [comments in square brackets are mine]:
Banner Peak, from camp.

Plate VIII. Banner Peak, from camp.
(From an elevation of 11,500 feet).

Following up the rivulet which flows down the northern slope of the mountain and empties into the lake, I camped at the highest patch of grass, where a clump of stunted tamarack bushes provided shelter and fuel (Pl.VIII). Next morning I slung the camera and four plates on my back and started up the mountain. The route to the summit is a go-as-you-please one, but very trying, at best. On our first expedition [several weeks earlier, with Joseph N. LeConte and Sidney S. Peixotto] we kept well up on the slopes of Banner Peak, crossed the main glacier [Ritter-Banner snowfield] slantingly and tackled the precipitous side of Ritter instead of going to the very head of the glacier, from which point the final ascent is most easily made, as we afterward discovered. We soon found ourselves in the same predicament as that alluded to by John Muir in a description of his ascent of the mountain twenty years ago. We reached a point on the almost vertical cliff from which it seemed equally impossible either to continue the ascent or to descend. We did not experience that sudden inspirational agility which came to Mr. Muir just in the nick of time; but by great care and good management—as we prided ourselves—succeeded in accomplishing the ascent [...]

On the present expedition I climbed along the bed of the stream which feeds the lake, jumping upon large, angular slate boulders, surmounted the final barrier of rocks [North Glacier Pass] which damps up the lakelet into which the glacier flows [Lake Catherine], and on the shore of the lake took my first photograph. On our former visit this lakelet was partially frozen. Small icebergs floated on its bosom, and the ice and snow which nearly covered it were a beautiful cold green. The lake is drained on the west by the streams which form the north fork of the San Joaquin. In climbing around the northern and western base of the peak quite a chain of similar lakelets are encountered, located on a kind of circular shelf or terrace. Above towers Ritter's dark and frowning cliff, while below the waters of the lakelets plunged down the steep mountain-side, uniting their several streams in the gorge below. In several cases these streams, before leaping over, had burrowed through the snow which still filled their channels, forming tunnels through which a man might easily pass.

The southern glacier of Mt. Ritter.

Plate IX. The southern glacier of Mt. Ritter.
(Elevation, 12,500 feet).

The last of these lakes [Upper Ritter Lake] is a beautiful sheet of clear water, filling a basin of smooth, solid rock, having the western face of the peak for its eastern shore and the southern glacier as its source supply (Pl.IX)

The latter glacier exhibits several small but interesting crevasses, a well-defined ice cascade and other curious features, but it is not so extensive a body as the northern glacier [i.e., Ritter-Banner snowfield above Lake Catherine].

Being unable to walk around the lake, I was obliged to ascend the cliff [??], my intention being to cross the backbone of the mountain, a little to the north of the summit [did he mean south of the summit?], descend to the head of the main glacier [Ritter-Banner snowfield], and then make straight for the camp, which I hoped to reach before dark. In gaining the summit of the cliff [the ridge above the West Slope], nearly twice as much time was consumed as I had calculated upon. It was ten minutes of six, and, instead of an easy descent to the northern glacier, I found myself on the edge of a perpendicular cliff, which walled in the third or southeastern glacier. (Pl.X) This is undoubtedly the body of ice referred to by Clarence King as located in a "deep cul de sac opening southward on the east slope of Ritter, and covering as area of 200 yards wide by about half a mile long". The view was wild almost to a suggestion of cruelty.

Looking southeast from Mt. Ritter.

Plate X. Looking southeast from Mt. Ritter.
(From an elevation of 13,000 feet).

There remained one unexposed plate in the camera box, and, realizing that I was in for it anyhow, and that a few more minutes could make little difference, I set the tripod on the edge of the cliff—the only possible place—then leaned over and drew the cap off the lens with one foot swinging in air. If my shoe had fallen off, which I am thankful to say did not happen, it would have dropped something like a thousand feet before touching the rock.

My only hope of descent lay in first climbing the remainder of the way to the summit, which I reached in ten minutes. By taking to the glacier [Ritter-Banner snowfield] at the nearest possible point, and running down its ridgy surface at full speed, I managed to make the upper edge of the rocks [North Glacier Pass] just as the sun had set and the long shadows had deepened, and merged into twilight. Climbing the highest boulder, I fortunately caught a glimpse of Whitney [Solomons' mule], a black speck in the distance, and, setting my face squarely in his direction, commenced a race with darkness. I kept right on, over slippery surfaces and boulders, across patches of snow, jumping from flinty edges, over icy cataracts, turning neither to the right nor left for fear of losing that precious direction; and, just as it became too dark to see to jump—I fairly ran into the mule.

Next morning we passed down the slope of the mountain to the lake, with its hundred islets, and wound among little hillocks of brown and red volcanic rock along the northern side of the lake. The basin is so broad and flat, considering its location in the very heart of the summit region, and the mountain rises so majestically above it, as to form an almost ideal Alpine landscape. One unconsciously looks along the shore of the lake for the ubiquitous Swiss Hotel...

117 Years Later: Mt. Ritter via West Slope Route in 2009