When Denny and I began talking about this trip in the summer of 2008,
we courageously scheduled it for the first week after Labor Day 2009.
Many things could change in a year, and I thought the odds that we both
would be available during that particular week, and that weather would
cooperate, were less than slim. However, Denny was much more optimistic,
and he even added a note about the forthcoming trip to his book that
came off the printing presses earlier in 2009. Well, he won!
By the second week of September 2009, we had all our obligations cleared,
and were on our way to the mountains, Denny from SoCal, and
I from the Bay Area. The forecast for the Sierra was exceptional
for mid September: mild weather and no storms in sight. The final
good omen was that on the morning of our scheduled start, the stringent
summer control of the Minaret Summit Road auto traffic
had been lifted, and we would be able to drive
in and out with our cars whenever we wanted. We obtained our wilderness
permits a day earlier, and at about 7:45 am, on September 10,
we left Agnew Meadows and hit the High Trail to Thousand Island Lake.
I have been hiking a lot over
the summer, and felt well prepared. It soon became clear that
Denny was in shape for the challenge.
But we would need more than just energy and
strength on this trip. Climbing Mount Ritter always requires a good dose
of luck, no matter which direction one takes. Our plan was to
go around the mountain, then scramble up its west side. Route finding
is always tricky on that slope, and we also lacked any information
on snow/ice conditions on the final segment of
the route. 'Are we going to make it?' was one of questions in our minds as we
began zigzagging up the first steep section of the trail...
All photos by Denny.
See all pictures from this hike
(just pics, no description).
Check also unmarked
and marked topo maps of the area, and a very
interesting GPS generated map of our route from Lake Catherine.
After an hour and a half on the trail, we stop
at an excellent viewing area, just across from Shadow Lake
and the Shadow Creek Basin. East sides of Ritter (center)
and Banner (right) basking in the morning sun.
However, this is not the side where our ascent will take place.
We are hiking around those two peaks, and plan to climb Mount Ritter from
its back (west) side.
We reach Thousand Island Lake at noon time. Mount Ritter is now hidden behind
Banner Peak. Also hidden is North Glacier Pass, in the gap between Banner
and the South Ridge of Mount Davis (right). The valley leading to the pass
is the head of the San Joaquin River (Middle Fork).
We will take a rest on the other side of the lake, near the inlet.
We take a forty minutes break at a small meadow, about
100 feet above the southwest end of Thousand Island Lake.
Denny's GPS navigator shows the distance from the trailhead as 10.4 miles.
We logged 4:08 hours of moving time (5:28 hours of total time on the trail),
and had a good moving speed of 2.5 miles per hour. Our altitude is
9933 ft (3028 m), and the air temperature is 71 F (22 C).
Another nice view of Banner Peak from our rest area.
Up, towards North Glacier Pass.
Lake Catherine (about 11034 ft) and the Ritter-Banner glacier.
View from the pass (about 11152 ft).
Near the outlet of Lake Catherine.
We found a good camp ground a short distance downstream.
We made 12.4 miles (the last 2+ miles off trail)
in about 8 hours. The GPS device breaks this hike up into
about five and a half hours of walking time and two and a half
hours of "stopped time". According to the GPS,
our camp is at 10951 ft (3338 m).
The plan for today is successfully accomplished!
Buttresses on the
northwest ridge of Mount Ritter from Lake Catherine. The summit of Ritter,
our goal for tomorrow, is hidden behind the ridge.
Sunset from a lakelet west of Lake Catherine, where we set up our base camp.
Nice view, but a wrong lake! This is the most northern
of Ritter Lakes and is slightly
off the straight line between Lake Catherine and Upper Ritter Lake.
We veered too much to the west from our intended path. Our real goal is the
lake visible in the upper left corner. We had to take a sharp turn left here,
and then we returned to the correct path.
Now above the 'correct' lake. This is the lowest of Ritter Lakes,
and the lowest point on our route today.
The water level of the lake is marked on some metric topo maps as 3311 m (10863 ft).
We have to descend to the lake, and then follow its right (west) bank to a
creek on the opposite (south) side. The creek comes down
from Upper Ritter Lake (not visible).
A look back from Lake 3311 to the terrace from which the previous
photo was taken. This is a steep and slippery slope if you stay in the
middle (yellow line). It is much better to climb via the rocky
edge of the slope (green line), particularly on your way up, when
you go back to Lake Catherine.
Altitude gain from Lake 3311 to the summit of Mount Ritter is
almost 2300 ft (about 700 m).
Up by the small stream that flows down from Upper Ritter Lake to Lake 3311.
Upper Ritter Lake: The water level of this lake is marked as
3377 m (11079 ft) on some topo maps.
View south from Upper Ritter Lake: "Peak 3734" (12344 ft),
an impressive craggy peak on the long southwest ridge of
Mount Ritter. While the current climbing literature
gives credit for the first ascent to
Mike Loughman and Steve Arnon in 1964,
the peak was probably first climbed almost hundred
years earlier, in 1875, by James Mason Hutchings
of Yosemite fame. See his diary entry for September 16, 1875.
We are now ready for the "step 4" on the map: ascent into the "lower bowl". Find
a more detailed description of various phases of the climb indicated on this map
on a separate page.
West Slope of Mount Ritter from Upper Ritter Lake.
Once you are in the lower bowl,
observe a V-notch to your right (south). The "notch" is
actually the bottom of another bowl ("upper bowl"),
which leads you to Ritter's South Ridge in the next phase of the ascent.
However, don't try to reach the notch directly from here.
Instead, continue up the lower bowl, until you get to an easily
identifiable rocky outcrop in its higher part, then use a system of ledges
to traverse almost horizontally back to the V-notch.
A look down from the upper part of the lower bowl.
This side of the mountain is still in deep shade in September.
There was less shade when I was there thirteen months earlier.
The sun's angle is what makes a big difference between August and September.
Now in the upper bowl, and climbing towards the ridge line.
South Ridge of Mount Ritter, and its West Slope (view from the west).
Observe the saddle between the summit
of Ritter and the pinnacles on the south part of South Ridge.
The west slope route exits on South Ridge slightly above and to the south
of the saddle. From the exit point, you hike down to the saddle, then
make the final ascent to the summit along the ridge line.
Although this was not my first time on this route, I still managed to miss
the proper exit, and led us a bit too high, to a peaklet
at the ridge line (see the previous photo).
From our false exit point, we enjoyed a
wonderful view east over the crest.
This is Mount Ritter's Southeast Glacier (left) and a ridge that marks its
southern boundary. I'll call the ridge "East Rib" in what follows.
Cecile Lake and Clyde Minaret are seen in the background.
This is a south-facing slope below the Ritter summit,
viewed from our false exit. We will retrace our steps,
then take the correct (a bit lower) exit to South Ridge.
View north from the correct exit point. The saddle is less than 200 steps
downhill. We will then take the slope close to the ridge line, and be at the
top in about 20 minutes. The worst of the route finding is over.
View west from South Ridge: Upper Ritter Lake from which we started
our ascent. Farther behind are two Twin Island Lakes (about two miles
away). In the upper center of the picture is an
unnamed lake (about 2.5 miles away) below Electra Peak.
(Twin Island Lakes)
Our route and a more popular Southeast Glacier route merge here.
Just a few more minutes to the top. View south from the slope:
Southeast Glacier and East Rib
in the foreground, Clyde Minaret and Michael Minaret farther behind.
The earliest photo of East Rib, taken on August 20, 1892, by
His original caption reads:
Looking southeast from Mt. Ritter. (From an elevation of 13,000 feet).
Find more about
A closeup: East Rib and parts of Southeast Glacier, with Cecile Lake
in the background.
At 13143 feet (4006 m), and nothing higher for miles away.
After a well deserved lunch, we succeeded in taking a photo of
the two of us together at the summit. Mount Lyell is behind us.
Reading summit registers is always a great fun. No one was here
since Labor Day.
Banner Peak from the summit of Ritter.
Lovely photo of Mono Lake over Banner, and of Reversed Peak (center, in shade).
We stayed on the summit for about an hour. No wind, and very comfortable
temperature. I had a look at the ramp that is used when approaching
the summit from the Ritter-Banner saddle. It is much wider and
more manageable than I thought it would be. However, we didn't have
helmets or ice equipment (both needed on that route), and we decided to
use West Slope again on our return trip.
Balancing glacial erratic rock, near Lake Catherine. How much longer?
View of Banner Peak (left) and rocky northwest ridge of Mount Ritter (right),
from our base camp.
Since there were still several hours of day light, I took the opportunity
to climb Mount Davis later in the afternoon.
There is more about this route in an earlier report. The route is rated class-2 under ideal conditions, when there is no snow or ice on West Slope. The best time to climb would be August or early September, after a low-snow winter. In an average-snow year you may still find steep snow fields in the upper bowl that quickly shift the rating to a higher category. After a heavy-snow winter, it's probably not a good idea to use this route if your goal is to find a relatively easy approach. You can check the historical snowfall data from Mammoth Mountain to estimate if a winter was a low-snow one.
Another factor to consider when selecting this route is its remoteness. If you are injured or need help on one of approaches from the eastern side, it is likely that somebody would find you relatively quickly, because the eastern routes are well-frequented in summer time. On the other hand, the West Slope is rarely visited, and weeks could pass before another party travels to the area. Although satellite phones probably do work on West Slope, there is no reception of any kind on your regular cell phone. You are more or less on your own.
Finally, if you think of using an eastern or northern route to get to the summit of Mount Ritter, and then plan to return via the West Slope route, be aware that a lot of route finding is involved if you have never climbed the West Slope before, and you may, for example, run out of daylight. It is probably easier to find the proper route if you start from the bottom of the mountain than if you start from the top. Allow extra time to find the right chutes, bowls and ramps on your way down, and don't hesitate to retrace your steps if you get to a section that is clearly beyond class-2.
Be sure to check the Ritter Range weather forecast before your trip.