Mount Ritter, West Slope, September 10-12, 2009
(13143 ft / 4006 m)

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.

DAY ONE

Shadow Creek Basin from High Trail.

9:18 am
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.

 
Mount Ritter and Banner Peak from High Trail.

9:20 am
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.

 
At Thousand Island Lake.

12:04 pm
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.

 
Banner Peak from a meadow above Thousand Island Lake.

1:23 pm
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.

 
View towards North Glacier Pass.

2:05 pm
Up, towards North Glacier Pass.

 
At the Rettenbachers' grave.

2:09 pm
At the Rettenbachers' grave.

 
Lake Catherine from North Glacier Pass.

3:13 pm
Lake Catherine (about 11034 ft) and the Ritter-Banner glacier. View from the pass (about 11152 ft).

 
Ritter-Banner glacier from Lake Catherine.

3:35 pm
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).

 
Lake Catherine.

6:03 pm
The plan for today is successfully accomplished!

 
A ridge of Mount Ritter from Lake Catherine.

6:04 pm
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 at a lakelet west of Lake Catherine.

7:23 pm
Sunset from a lakelet west of Lake Catherine, where we set up our base camp.

 
 

DAY TWO

The most northern of Ritter Lakes.

8:05 am
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.

 
The lowest of Ritter Lakes, also known as Lake 3311.

8:16 am
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 slipery slope that leads down to Lake 3311.

8:34 am
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).



(Unmarked picture).

 
Talus between two Ritter lakes.

8:52 am
Up by the small stream that flows down from Upper Ritter Lake to Lake 3311.

 
Upper Ritter Lake, also known as Lake 3377.

8:56 am
Upper Ritter Lake: The water level of this lake is marked as 3377 m (11079 ft) on some topo maps.

 
Peak 3734, south of Upper Ritter Lake.

8:57 am
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.

 
Map indicating our route from Upper Ritter Lake to the summit of Mount Ritter.

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.

9:04 am
West Slope of Mount Ritter from Upper Ritter Lake.

 
A V-notch which leads to the upper bowl on the West Slope.

9:41 am
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.

(Unmarked photo).

 
Look down, towards Upper Ritter Lake.

10:02 am
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.

 
Climbing in the upper bowl towards the ridge line.

10:51 am
Now in the upper bowl, and climbing towards the ridge line.

 
South Ridge of Mount Ritter, and its West Slope, view from the west.
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.

 
View east over the crest.

11:07 am
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.

 
South facing slope below the Ritter summit.

11:08 am
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 towards the summit from South Ridge.

11:34 am
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.

11:38 am
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.

(Twin Island Lakes)

 
On the final slope, before reaching the summit.

11:46 am

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.

 
An early photo of this same area, taken in August of 1892, by Theo Solomons.

The earliest photo of East Rib, taken on August 20, 1892, by Theodore Solomons.

His original caption reads:
Looking southeast from Mt. Ritter. (From an elevation of 13,000 feet).

Find more about Solomons' trip.

 
East Rib and parts of Southeast Glacier on Mount Ritter.

11:54 am
A closeup: East Rib and parts of Southeast Glacier, with Cecile Lake in the background.

 
Summit photo of Denny and Harv.

12:16 pm
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.

 
SPS summit register is in its box.

12:34 pm
Reading summit registers is always a great fun. No one was here since Labor Day.

 
Banner Peak from the summit of Ritter.

12:44 pm
Banner Peak from the summit of Ritter.

 
Mono Lake over Banner Peak.

1:03 pm
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 rock, near Lake Catherine.

3:33 pm
Balancing glacial erratic rock, near Lake Catherine. How much longer?

 
View of Banner Peak and Mount Ritter from our base camp.

4:34 pm
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.

 
 

DAY THREE

Lake Catherine still in shade at 8 am.

8:11 am
We started our trip back from Lake Catherine a few minutes before 8 am. As we reach North Glacier Pass, the lake is still in shade.

 
The sun peeks out from behind Banner Peak.

8:21 am
The sun peeks out from behind Banner Peak. From the pass, we hike back to Thousand Island Lake, rush down the River Trail, and without any breaks continue up to the trailhead at Agnew Meadows. Several drops of rain along the way, and some distant thunder don't bother us now that we are no longer above the treeline.

 
Back at the trailhead parking.

1:53 pm
Denny finds two bottles of cold beer somewhere in his vehicle. We congratulate each other on a job well done.

 
 
 

Caveats

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, and that would 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.