Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mt Ritter, 2006

In June of '06 Dave Rivas and I split town for the east side Sierras with the goal of climbing Mt. Ritter (13,140 ft). Ritter is one of the "must do" climbs of the Sierras and has a rich history of killing climbers despite it's Class 3 rating. I had first laid eyes on Ritter from Mammoth Mtn Ski Resort and it's stature, and the neighboring peaks, the Minarets, looked so alpine that I just knew I had to go there.

We were on the 395 passing Ridgecrest when a significant obstacle presented in the form of CHP cruisers forbidding further north-bound travel due to a brush fire 70 miles up the road. The gods were making us work for this. After sitting around for 15 minutes slurping fountain drinks from a nearby gas station I went to the truck and pulled out the state map. Viola! We could get around the roadblock by detouring through Death Valley and coming back to the 395 at Big Pine. Brilliant!
I had never seen Death Valley (the name puts me off) so this was an unexpected bonus adventure. Rolling through at 80mph doesn't count as a visit, but the 120 degree temperature at sunset felt authentic. Descending into the Owens we could see the fire which had caused our detour. It wasn't much by So Cal standards. We over-nighted at the Keohe hot springs south of Bishop.

I'm big on acclimatizing for altitude so the following day we took our time seeing the sights and eventually spent the night at almost 11,000 ft. Rivas hadn't seen the Owens River Gorge so we drove off-road out of Bishop, taking the trails that follow the rim of the Gorge, which is just a titanic slash in the floor of the valley. We regained the 395 at Hot Creek Rd south of Lake Crowley and continued north to Mammoth. Gazing at the peaks on the left it was obvious that the East Sierra had suffered from a poor snow-fall year and we wondered how that would affect our climb.

After a nice afternoon at the Whitmore hot springs we drove into Mammoth, picked up some sandwiches and headed up Lake Mary Rd, past the resort to the Minaret overlook on the crest. The overlook provides a terrific view of the saw-toothed Minarets and Mt Ritter/Banner Peak. We gnawed on the subs while scoping out our route up Ritter and generally had a pleasant afternoon. So pleasant, in fact, that we decided to spend the night there.

AM coffee in hand, we drove back to Mammoth's ski area base, locked the truck, and shouldered our packs. We took the bus down the narrow winding road that descends to Agnew Meadows, our jump-off point.
The fist day of any trip is usually a grind and this time was no exception. The packs were heavy and the trail was steep. We had quite a bit of elevation to gain from Agnew Meadows but in the end I would rate that day as pretty easy. The trail was gorgeous and it climbed past a gushing waterfall, lush meadows, thick pine forests and stands of fern. It was possibly the most beautiful forest I had seen in the Sierra and I felt that we were above the trees too soon. Most folks who climb Mt Ritter make their base camp at Lake Ediza which was sufficient motivation for us to keep ascending until we reached the bench immediately beneath the Ritter/Banner Saddle, the route we would climb. We had good water, good weather, and a noisy tribe of marmots to throw rocks at. Life was good.

We left camp in the pre-dawn and were strapping on crampons at sunrise. The slope our route ascended was 40 degree snow increasing to 50 degrees near the Saddle which we crested without difficulty. The Saddle itself is a sway-backed ridge connecting Banner Peak to Mt Ritter and we quickly traversed it. After climbing a brief section of 60 degree ice we started the rock climb. The route took us on some interesting twists and turns around, over, and through granite buttresses and chutes and finally to the summit ridge. Upon the summit Dave and I played tourist, signed the register, took the pictures, etc... Midway through the descent we started taking rain which stayed with us much of the afternoon. We both agreed that Ritter had been an easyish but fun and interesting climb. Well worth it.

The day after the climb we descended to Lake Ediza and departed the trail heading south over rugged country. We planned to overnight under the Minarets in order to scope out future climbs and to enjoy an extra day in the back country. After picking a bivy site on Iceberg Lake we set up camp, relaxed a bit, and then rambled up the flanks of Clyde Minaret. Before long we were halfway up the peak, poking around and taking in the sights. That afternoon and evening provided extraordinary alpine views and one of the finest sunset light shows I'd ever seen. We slept like tired children with not a care in the world.
After a late start, we rolled out, headed toward Red"s Meadow and the bus ride out. We picked up the John Muir Trail at the Devil's Postpile which is an intriguing rock formation of pentagonal columns of basalt. It is very close to Red's Meadow and easily accessible to tourists which explained the crowds. Even more obnoxious people in loud shirts with flashing cameras awaited our arrival at Red's. We had intended to have lunch there but couldn't bring ourselves to dine with the lesser mortals at the snack bar. Besides, they didn't sell beer. Lunch in Mammoth became the order of the day followed by a pleasant night under the crackling high-tension power lines at the Keohes.

On the drive home we made a brief detour at a place called Fossil Falls which is just North of Little Lake off 395. This is a strange and lonely place. When ancient lava flowed down the Owens Valley it created some unusual formations of iron-colored basalt. Fossil Falls is an amphiteater and canyon full of lava tubes, holes and strangely shaped protrusions in otherwise empty desert. The place is undoubtedly home to about a million rattlesnakes. After a few minutes in that furnace we resumed our journey home.The Ritter trip was another fine adventure under our belts.

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