A fall trip to the north face of Mt. Ritter (13,157) led by Dave Harris two years ago was so scenic and enjoyable that I decided to lead a repeat trip this past fall.
After a couple of last-minute cancellations, Fi Verplanke, Steve Eckert, Mike McDermitt, and I met at the Agnew Meadows trailhead on the morning of Sat. Sep. 14. We'd slept in the woods next to the parking lot to avoid the 7 a.m. deadline for driving to the trailhead -- after then, you're required to take a shuttle bus, which is fine on the way in, but a disaster if you get back to the trailhead after 5 p.m., when the last shuttle departs.
We headed up the trail at 8:30 on a beautiful fall morning, arriving at Lake Ediza around noon. After a lunch break in a small meadow just above the lake, we considered changing our plans and doing the climb that afternoon, but lack of enthusiasm and a siesta soon put that idea to rest. Having walked past the established campsites in the trees just above the lake, we wandered up the beautiful alpine valley toward Mt. Ritter and decided to camp near the bottom of our south face descent route, which would shorten our day on Sunday slightly. At 2 we found a nice flat area next to the creek, right at the bottom of the use trail heading up to the south face route.
We lay around and rested on the grass, then watched as a helicopter circled repeatedly in front of Volcanic Ridge (11,501), the broad peak just south or Lake Ediza. After some calls from its loud hailer, it descended behind a low ridge and landed, then stayed on the ground for almost two hours. Apparently a rescue, but in an odd place, about halfway between Lake Ediza and Clyde Minaret, and not on the trail between them. Maybe someone got hurt climbing the crumbling face of Volcanic Ridge.
I strolled around the beautiful uplands above Nydiver Lakes and took some photos. The peaks were still dusted with snow from the storm just after Labor Day, giving them a more serious and alpine appearance than usual. As we were cooking supper, a solo climber from the Czech Republic dropped by -- a former star hockey player in to try Mt. Ritter. Once the sun set, the temperature dropped quickly in our exposed camp, and we were all in our bags before 8 p.m.
Sunday we got up in the dark at 5:30 and got rolling about 6:30. It was clear but cold as we worked our way up the scree toward the snowfield and couloir below the Banner-Ritter saddle. Two young lads the day before had said they had turned back at the couloir because of icy conditions, but we found nothing too challenging, though the snow was definitely icier than two years before. After a break at the Banner-Ritter saddle, we cramponed up the North Glacier. Snow from the recent storm had filled in the suncups and crusted over, providing good purchase for crampons, but in between the suncups were large areas of hard ice, which demanded careful climbing.
Thirty feet below the top of the glacier, we exited right, took off our crampons, and traversed right about 75 feet on a snow-covered ledge into the right hand gully on the north face. The class-3 rock in this gully was harder than two years before -- all of the easy little ramps and ledges were covered with frozen snow, forcing us onto steeper dry rock (crampons were not really feasible because the snow was so discontinuous). About halfway up the gully, we traversed right on an exposed ledge that was definitely class-4.
Things got a bit easier after that, and we arrived on the crest of the northwest arete at 11 a.m., just left of an obelisk-like tower. From there we crossed an easy scree terrace and a smaller secondary arete at a notch marked by a duck, then started up the broad northwest gully. Again, this section was harder than two years before, with all of the easy parts covered in frozen snow. But it was still class-3, and we worked our way up the snow patches and smooth black boulders and slabs, finally pulling over the rim just 10 feet left (east) of the summit.
Fi had had no idea we were so close to the top, and was overjoyed to be off the north face and done with the hard climbing. When Steve let us use his cell phone and she reached her son and husband back in the Bay Area, she became so euphoric that she appeared about to levitate upwards off the mountaintop.
Views were great in the clear fall air, especially south to the icy upper reaches of the Southeast Glacier and the snow-dusted Ritter Pinnacles and the Minarets. After snacks and photos, a stiff wind came up, and we headed down the south slope toward the main south gully. After we descended this loose class 2-3 gully, Steve of course glissaded right from the top of the steep snow slope down onto the Southeast Glacier.
I was amazed at the shrunken state of the glacier in September of this dry year -- the rock island in the middle of the glacier, normally about 200 feet across, had expanded into a vast ledge system over 1000 feet long. In fact, according to the bulletin board back at the ranger station, it was now possible to climb Ritter via the south face route without once touching snow. We waited on the rocks for one member of our party who was getting really tired, then headed down the middle of the ledge system, weaving around to avoid class-3 areas on the smooth, glacier-polished rock.
We then angled down past the southeast corner of the glacier and into an easy gully with a small cliff on its south side and a use trail in its lower part. Reading over non-PCS trip reports on the Web, it's surprising how many people do not take this easy route up to the Southeast Glacier, choosing instead either to ascend near the large dome 1/4 mile to the south and then do a high, rugged traverse, or else climb directly up the cliff to the north near the waterfall, as described in Secor.
By the time we took a break in camp, pumped water, and packed up our gear, it was 4:30. Our plan to get out before dark was blown, but we didn't really care -- it was actually nice to hike out a leisurely pace and watch the unfolding progress of late afternoon, sunset, alpenglow, evening gloom, and then full darkness as we hiked the last mile uphill through the forest, finally arriving at the cars at 8:45 p.m.
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