We set out from Agnew Meadows at 5a, headlamps ablaze, though only for about 30 minutes or so until the new day brought sufficient daylight to negotiate the trails by. Down to the San Joaquin River, then up to Shadow Lake, arriving there at 6:20a. The sun was gloriously illuminating Ritter and Banner to the west, though both were beset by threatening dark clouds above them. Fortunately these would dissipate and completely disappear before we reached the Ritter-Banner Saddle. By 7:15a we reached Lake Ediza, and in attempting to cross the lake's outlet to the north shore, I was the only one who managed to actually fall in the water, soaking my shoes. One of the advantages of dayhiking came to bear - who cares if your shoes get wet? You can get new ones at the end of the day.
In the high valley above Lake Ediza, we came across a couple out to climb the North Face of Ritter. The warning sign we noted immediately was that the guy was carrying everything and his girlfriend was still walking slowly behind - she didn't look like she cared to be there at all. Later we found that they modified they plans and climbed Banner instead, which was more than I thought they were going to get done that day. To avoid the tedious talus on the way to the snowfield, we climbed the class 3 rocks that follow straight up, just left of the stream. This was a fun bit of climbing with delightful grassy ledges and some interesting climbing problems. At the snowfield we put on our crampons and headed up. The four of us were spread out over quite a distance as we made our way up the fairly hard, early morning snow. I arrived at the saddle at 9:40a, and two of the others were less than ten minutes behind. Matthew was moving very slowly at this time, and it was only the next day that we learned this was his first real use of crampons - nothing like baptism by fire! This was the first time Dan had climbed with us and while we waited briefly, he asked Michael and I where we planned to have lunch. We sort of looked at each other and mumbled like we didn't understand what he was talking about, and mentioned that we generally just have a few granola bars every now and then. Dan found this either offensive or incredulous, possibly both, and remarked, "You don't eat lunch? Who ARE you guys?!"
Leaving Matthew (yes, not recommended backcountry policy), the three of us headed for the summit of Banner, arriving at 10:20a. Looking across at Mt. Ritter, we spotted a solo climber nearing the top of the North Face. He was moving slowly, and seemed unsure about which way to go. Halfway back down from Banner's summit we ran into Matthew on his way up. He was about 40min behind our pace at that point. He said he still planned to climb Ritter as well, though he knew it would likely be several hours after us that he would return to the trailhead. I made sure he understood the directions up the North Face, and for the second time we left him. Back at the saddle we gathered up our stuff and headed for the North Glacier. The lower part was easy to crampon up, but the upper section was rather icy. The hardest part was trying to cross about 20 feet of ice to reach the ramp into the right-hand chute. Michael and Dan had almost no trouble with this, primarily because they were wearing more serious crampons with large, sharp pointy teeth. I was trying out a new Kahtoola "traction system", a lightweight pair of aluminum crampons that the manufacturer swears were highly recommended by RJ Secor himself. Here they were showing their limitation and I was feeling a bit sketched like I might find myself down at Lake Catherine very soon. As Michael got off the glacier, he handed his axe (via Dan) down to me, and I used two axes as ice tools to give me the extra traction I needed to traverse the icy section. I found this the crux of the entire day.
Climbing the Right Chute proved to be easy class 3 as advertised in the trip reports, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable time climbing to the NW Ridge. We were almost sad to see it end. Just before we reached the ridge we heard a voice calling to us - the solo climber that we had seen earlier had backed off and was heading back down. He had made good progress to near the top, so we wondered what he had found to back down from. We followed the NW Ridge until progress was blocked, then explored our options. The west side seemed most obvious, but less interesting. Looking around to the North Face again, we could see a fine ledge system that would take us over to the final exit from the classic North Face - a steep ramp that ran up diagonally to the NE Ridge. We decided to go for the classic finish. The ramp was partly filled with snow (ice, really), but this was avoided by some fun class 3 rock on the outside edge of the ramp. From the exit point on the NE Ridge, it was a short distance up to the summit where we arrived at 12:30p. Needless to say, we were all elated. Dan finally got a chance to eat the sandwich he'd brought for lunch, though the yogurt that had exploded all over it made it look decidedly unappetizing to Michael and I. Our granola bars seemed just fine to us.
We descended via the SE Glacier route, descending much loose talus and sand, some of it quite wet. It would have been possible to descend the entire route without touching snow as the glacier had melted back on the north side. But we chose to glissade as much as we could, the afternoon sun warming the snow nicely now, and we had long runs on several snowfields. This brought us to the top of the classic Secor route up to the SE Glacier that is very confusing and riddled with cliffs and dead ends. Fortunately I had been down this route on my previous climb of Mt. Ritter and it was easy to talk the other two into giving it a go. Without having to backtrack once and finding the route much to our liking, we were soon down off the mountain.
From there is was a three hour haul back to the trailhead, where we arrived at 5p, precisely 12hrs after starting out. Dan drove back to his home in LA that evening, while Michael and I got room in Mammoth Lakes and enjoyed a sumptuous dinner (anything would have been sumptuous after hiking 12hrs). Matthew didn't return to the trailhead until 8p. He decided to forgo Ritter's North Face since he was travelling solo, and found that the trip down from the Ritter-Banner saddle took him a good deal longer than expected - going down a steep snowchute can be considerably more daunting than going up. We were all in bed pretty early - another long day out to Mt. Gabb was planned for the following day.
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