A skitter up Ritter

2-4 Sep 2004 - by Brad Kopp

What to do for Burning Man weekend 2004? The usual, of course - go climb a rock.

So off I go straight from work on Wednesday night, putt-putting across the Bay Bridge at 7:30 and turning on the afterburners, arriving in Toulumne Meadows at 11:30 in the nearly full moonlight, where I stopped to dig a cold one out of the back and make a couple calls along the lines of 'nyah, nyah, guess where I am right now, it's f-ing beautiful!'. Pretty annoying, really. Up and over Tioga Pass, take a right to go south, then discover that with no one on the road it's quite easy indeed to hit 110 on Highway 395. Go up through Mammoth Lakes, and pull into Agnews Meadows at 1:15 am. Record time, you betcha.

Slept in the back of the truck, then got packed up Thursday morning and hit the trail at noon.

Windy and a bit chilly on the trail, although sunny enough. The trail wound down through aspen and cottonwood to the river bed in the valley, then turned up to the switchbacks which would lead to Shadow Lake. I'd forgotten lip balm but was provided some by a couple guys from Chico who were coming out after a few nice days in; they'd gotten to the Ritter/Banner saddle the day before but had been blown down by 60+mph winds. Apparently the last 4 or 5 days had been very windy - there was a high pressure system moving in - but I trudged on, hoping it would settle down soon.

Shadow Lake was lovely, but I was aiming for Lake Ediza, which was also gorgeous, if a bit crowded.

So after a 7 mile hike in and up @1,700', I arrived at a big beautiful basin above Ediza, surrounded by peaks with a fine glacier stream flowing through it all. The new boots had caused some irritation on my right heel but some loosening up (including a couple nips of whiskey) had things feeling better all around. As the sun dropped behind Ritter, so did the temp; it went from 50 degrees to 30 in a handful of minutes. I bundled up, got a brew on, and tore through some beef stroganoff with noodles, disgustingly fast. Retired around 9:30 and slept pretty well.

Up at 8. Scrambled eggs with ham and red & green peppers for breakfast, including a few drops of some Tabasco packets I'd brought, plus toast. Hell yeah, that kicked the bejeesus out of the usual accursed oatmeal. While cleaning up and readying the daypack, I looked up at Ritter with some trepidation; that north ridge looked kinda steep, and there was a lotta snow in that gully to the saddle; although I had borrowed a nice titanium ice ax, I only had instep (4 point) crampons, so I was a bit apprehensive about how it would go up there. Only one way to find out, punk.

Off I went, only to realize how generally poor my acclimatization was...there was more shortness of breath and huffing than I'd had on Shasta and Lyell. Oh well. Just keep walking, up into the cirque beneath the two peaks, across scree and larger rocks...up onto the slope under the saddle an hour later, where I started hearing voices...no, just a couple of guys behind me, catching up steadily. We all stopped for a snack at the edge of the snowfield beneath the saddle; they lived in Mammoth and were headed for the top of Banner. Armed with only an ax, they moved very slowly and cautiously, digging steps up the snowfield. Laced very tightly, I found that the mini-crampons were extremely helpful.

Pretty warm and very bright on the snowfield. The sun had warmed it to the point of slushiness, and hearing a couple loud rock falls elsewhere was not comforting at all. I stepped up my pace in the narrow gully and hugged the walls when possible, finally emerging on the saddle (12,000') a half hour later. The best part? No wind! Looked like the weather was going to be stable for the day. Sweet.

Snack time. Then, a look up at the north face; big-ish, and kinda steep-ish. Good. There was a glacier leading up to the chutes of the face, and I trudged up to the start of it, put the cramps on, and checked it out; icy. Really icy. Let's keep our heads very much in the game here...I spiked my way up it, ice ax looped around my left wrist and ready to bite hard if any slippage started, but progress was smooth and steady. Upon reaching the rocks, I edged over onto them and relaxed, removing the crampons and taking a couple of pictures. Nice up here. And nice to have that ice behind me.

Next, the chute. John Muir, during his first ascent of Ritter in 1872, apparently selected the middle or the left chute, and here's how it worked out for him: 'I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. There would be a moment of bewilderment, and then a lifeless rumble down the one general precipice to the glacier below. When this final danger flashed upon me, I became nerve-shaken for the first time since setting foot on the mountain, and my mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke. But...life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense...Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete...I found a way without effort, and soon stood upon the topmost crag in the blessed light.'

Of course, being Muir, he pulled it off. I'd read that the right chute was the way to go, so I packed the ax away deep in my pack where it wouldn't hinder me on any hairy sections, and began ascending. Yeah, this was a steep enough place, but there were lots of handholds, and I moved up steadily without fear. Upon exiting the top of the chute, I looked down and got a pic; it captured the angle pretty well. Fun section.

On to the actual north face. It dropped off down and away to Catherine and Ritter Lakes, which glowed teal and green in the bright sunlight. I'd like to view them from up here only, thanks. I kept my weight into the rock and moved from hold to hold at a measured pace, keeping three points of contact on the rock at all times. The moments where I made awkward moves or had my weight improperly shifted had me gently cursing my carelessness, for while there were more handholds than I could ever use, a slip or tumble would cause a most unpleasant bouncing down 10 feet, where I would repeat the process until extinct. Still, I felt no fear. It was a perfect day and I was moving well. A bit short of breath at times, but feeling more and more like a part of the mountain with each yard upwards. I traversed over onto the face a bit and wondered just how much further the top was; I had to be at at least 12,800' or so...what the heck? Well, only one way to go here, so onward, non-Christian soldier. But I knew I was close I could almost smell it. And than I heard it - a loud exuberant 'oh my God!', from above. People on the summit! I was close. I relished the thought of popping up with a 'what's up, doc?' or similar smartaleckism, and it wouldn't be long now.

It wasn't. I topped out over the final rise and felt my spirit do the same. Mount Ritter, 13,157'. 2:30pm. Clear, calm, sunny, 70 degrees. Brilliant.

On top already were Joe and Lynn, a darling mid-50's couple from Mammoth. They'd slogged up the rock-strewn SE glacier route and arrived a few minutes earlier, she still giddy with the beauty of the locale, and I joined her rather quickly. What. A. View. The conditions were just perfect, and visibility was good; I could clearly see Mount Starr and the back of Half Dome to the west, Mt. Conness, Mt. Lyell and Mono Lake to the north, the White Mountains to the south east, Mammoth Mountain and the Minarets to the south down into the King's Canyon area...the whole glorious 360 degree spectacle. Tremendous.

We had some lunch and chatted about our climbs and excursions, relaxing on top of our little slice of the world. After a bit, they headed back down the SE glacier while I stayed back to take some pictures and sign the summit log, but I couldn't help periodically interrupting myself with whooping and shouting; it was just too good up there! Pure happiness kept grabbing me and shaking me like a puppy, and I fought none of it. And it was great to look over at Lyell and say hi...the beloved site of such a significant personal achievement one year before.

I'd had a nice hour on top, but it was getting time to head down. Really hard to leave...I said my thanks and a prayer or two for peace, then slowly began picking my way down the rocky talus. Down through the lower chutes on the SE side, a little bit of inclimbing but nothing too strenuous. I caught up with Joe and Lynn at the bottom of the glacier, they were moving slowly as her toes were hurting. We sauntered down together, talking outdoor stuff the whole way. Temperature still nice, view still wonderful.

Plenty well acclimatized now as we reached my tent. They were heading all the way back to Agnews Meadows, the maniacs, so I gave them some Goldfish and beef jerky, we exchanged contact info and warm wishes, and I was supping whiskey a few minutes later with my boots deliciously off. The chili beef macaroni died a noble death w'in my peckish gullet as the sun painted the peaks golden red, the temp did its nightly plunge, and I settled back in my mummy bag, not too tired but exceedingly content after an absolutely perfect summit-laden Burn Day. The burn continued its wane, and I dropped off around 11 and slept quite well.

Gas gave out the next morning, so no oatmeal or hot chockie. Oh well, salami sandwich for breakfast, I didn't care. I zipped down like a wood nymph, making great time (when I wasn't stopping to talk with all the cool outdoorsy folks I encountered). The left knee started to complain a bit around Shadow Lake, but whatever, we'd be back before too long, and I had great memories to fuel me. The warm windless day had me starting to smell like a barnyard and the flies grew thick as I huffed back up the canyon, but I could hear the beer and pizza calling me like homing beacons, and who was I to disobey? Their aim was true, and I threw my pack off at the truck and found that the beers in the back were still very cold from the night before, so I tossed one back and exhaled mightily. Ain't farting around up there just the best?


Stark Raving Brad

click to enlarge ritter-summit.jpg

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