We made a leisurely start on Friday, first enjoying a large breakfast at the "Breakfast Club" restaurant in Mammoth. Then, the four of us, Kai, Dave Erskine, Bob "The Stoic" Suzuki, and myself boarded the shuttle bus for the Agnew Mdws trailhead. The hike into 1000-Island Lake via the Pacific Crest Trail was beautiful and pleasant, particularly after we climbed out of the swarms of mosquitos that abounded near the meadows. As we approached Agnew Pass, the trail was occasionally hard to find because of patches of snow, and, later, a huge mudslide. But we eventually made our way to the snowbound outlet of 1000-Island Lake. A short hike from there located an acceptable dry campsite on a bench above the lake. We were early to bed before the sun fully set.
The next morning we arose rather late, about 5:30 AM. The night had been cold and damp, and a thick layer of frost coated my sleeping bag. The coyotes sang to us as we ate our breakfast. At 6:45 AM, we departed for the climb.
The approach to the climb was almost terrible in its difficulty, because of the 1.5 miles of continuous 1-foot scalelength suncups in the snow. Never before I have traversed such a hellish field of snow. When we finally reached the far end of 1000-Island Lake, things became much, much better. Without much difficulty, we reached the start of the technical rock, an ugly gully consisting of mixed loose rock and snow. Above the gully loomed the N. ridge of Banner, at this point a chaotic collection of towers and blocks.
The whole party found the appearance of the gully to be very demoralizing. The route description made it clear that the "good" part of the route lay beyond and above the gully. The gully itself, with its mixed snow (or ice) and rock, was beyond our abilities as equipped. To my amazement, Kai and Dave Erskine wanted to turn back! To me, the difficulty with the gully offered the opportunity to find a new, more direct and aesthetic line up to the main buttress. The Stoic was not decisive, so I went forward to explore a bit, climbing up a 4th-class chimney to gain the top of arete, then down and around easy blocks and ledges on the other (west) side of the arete. It turned out to be easy to reach the base of the next tower on the ridge, and I saw a ledge that might allow a traverse halfway up the tower. I returned to the others and related my findings, but Kai and Dave were unmoved. The Stoic was psyched, however, and so he and I left the others and continued.
With a pack on, it was a bit more difficult to negotiate the chimney up to the arete. I managed to stem it without much problem, but the Stoic struggled mightily, making me nervous because of the serious exposure. >From the top of the arete, we had no difficulty in getting to the notch below the next tower. We climbed up a bit more and roped up for a technical pitch to gain the ledge. I was able to make the ledge in my mountain boots, although the moves proved to be 5.7 that I found a little challenging in stiff and heavy footwear. Unfortunately, the ledge went around to nowhere, in terms of gaining the next notch below the main buttress. So I put on my rock shoes and continued up the face. Climbing up an exciting and slightly overhanging 5.9 dihedral/crack that rapidly used up my larger gear. The crux move required substantial calmness and character because of the absence of pro and loose rock in the crack, now larger than fist size. >From the top of the crack, a short ledge led around to more broken terrain on the west face of the tower. It looked like a easy traversing pitch would take us to the next notch at the base of the main buttress. We had nearly completed the "Direct North Buttress" variation!
I brought the Stoic up. Poor guy, he was shivering cold from the shady belay stance. The Stoic is prone to numb fingers and his climbing suffers from such. He was unable to manage the bulging crack, and had to swing over to easier terrain. When he got to the top, he noted that it was now 3 pm, and we probably didn't have enough time to do 4 more technical pitches, traverse the summit ridge and still get down during daylight. I sighed, wishing that we were a bit faster or even just a little less sensible. But I agreed to his alternative to rap down to the west, down- climb the 4th class terrain below, then follow a large ledge south to what appeared to be a much easier gully to the top, thus bypassing en- tirely the lovely looking rock on the N. Buttress.
The remainder of the climb was fun but non-technical. The downclimb was 4th class as expected, but not challenging. The ledge did indeed take us to easier terrain, a gully of clean rock that provided pleasant, mostly 3rd class scrambing to the summit. At a bit past 5 pm we reached the summit and went through the usual rituals. I attempted to get an unique photo of the Clyde Minaret as it appeared through a hole in the drifting clouds.
The descent was largely uneventful. We dropped down steep snow on the east side of Banner directly to the Banner-Ritter glacier, turning a steep part near a bergschrund on nearby rock. The remainder of the descent to 1000- Island lake was straight forward plunge stepping and foot glissading down the glacier and neighboring snowfields. Unfortunately, the hideously textured snow surface near the lake had not magically vanished. As long as we were descending, the going wasn't too bad: you basically just "danced" down the corrugated but soft surface, allowing your feet to be guided by the infinite suncups and keeping your balance amidst the chaos. But when the slope finally went away, our movements became a most wearisome trudge, with every footstep a challenge to balance and forward progress. The Stoic, in character, seemed unfazed by the hideous stuff, and I let him lead me through the torture. Finally, we reached camp at about 8:30 PM. I was so weary! It was remarkable pleasant to just sit quietly and make dinner. I slept intermittently through the night, awakened periodically by the remarkable harmonies of three snoring mountaineers.
The final day was relaxed and pleasant. We broke camp around 8:30 AM, took the shorter River Trail back to Agnew Mdws., arriving a bit before 12:30 PM. We had a pleasant break and a drink on the grass outside of the Mammoth Inn; Kai suggested that we come back again next year and try this route again. I enthusiastically agreed, thinking of completing that gully-bypass route! Despite remarkably heavy traffic into the Bay Area on I205, the Stoic and I arrived back at our meeting point in Livermore before 7:30 PM.