Ansel Adams Wilderness
To the top, 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.
When I read this passage by John Muir, put into stanza by Gary Snyder, I needed to know more about the mountain in reference, Mt. Ritter. A quick Google search revealed a jagged cone with a steep north face and I was hooked. If you’ve ever skied at Mammoth or seen a video shot there, Mt. Ritter and its adjacent neighbor, Banner Peak, are the unmistakable rulers of the skyline. They, along with the Minarets make up much of the Ritter Range, a subgroup of the Sierras.
The Ritter Range is set in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. With a namesake like that it must be a picturesque area. Having such an impressive mountain resting among such splendor, I couldn’t resist and planned a trip for Columbus Day Weekend. The idea was to backpack to Ediza Lake, camp the night and summit Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter together.
Alli and I drove up from LA on Friday afternoon and stopped at the hot springs on 395, outside of Mammoth Lakes, for a soak and the sunset while our friend Ken drove up from San Diego. There was the South African mountain biker from Tahoe with his dog Ramsey. He talked about crime in South Africa and his restaurant in North Lake. There was the couple from Yosemite. She worked for the Forest Service, he worked for NatureBridge.
“Have you heard of it?” he asked.
I had just had an interview with NatureBridge a week earlier to work in their San Francisco headquarters. We laughed at the coincidence.
“Only in an Easter Sierra hot spring,” he said.
We finished our beers and bid the gang adieu. Ken had already made it into Mammoth and was waiting. We met him at Giovanni’s Restaurant and Bar for pizza. I had also recently interviewed at Mammoth Resort to write copy and the coincidence of our trip had me feeling like we were checking out our potential future. Stepping out of the car we felt the sting of cold, the new autumn sting that feels good. For two kids from New England living in Santa Monica, it felt like going home.
Over pizza we discussed our plan: hike seven miles to Ediza Lake, get an alpine start the following morning acending the glacier to the saddle between Ritter and Banner, climb the class 2/3 southwest face of Banner Peak, return to the saddle, climb the class 3 north face of Ritter and descend down the west slope. We finished our pie, grabbed our permit from the ranger station night box and drove up behind Mammoth Mountain to the Agnew Meadows Trailhead, near Devil’s Postpile. In the dark parking lot we sat on a massive downed tree, drank wine and told stories. We spent a contorted night sleeping in the front seat of our cars, waking in need of a stretch at dawn.
In the cold morning we set off downhill on the PCT. Ken spotted a mule deer from a distance only a hunter could see, grazing in the meadow below us. At mile 1.7, the trail splits onto the River Trail. Aspens were glowing yellow, giving a vibrancy of autumn to the landscape. The trail gains less than 1500’ over its seven miles making for a very pleasant hike. After branching onto the Shadow Lake Trail, we climbed the few granite switchbacks, following the Shadow Creek up to Shadow Lake, a fantastic alpine lake with huge views of the following day’s objectives. We stopped for a smoke and some trail mix on a long rock reaching out into the lake, sizing up our challenge.
The second leg to Ediza Lake was gorgeous, tracing along the creek cascading over granite blocks into wide baths, past golden meadows, through Jeffrey pine groves and under jutting rock. The trail was level and we moved quickly. As we got toward the lake we passed a couple with their dogs on a day hike. The man was a tough looking local with a firefighter’s mustache and two pretty huskies. He noticed the ice axes on our packs.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“Ritter,” I said, “and Banner.”
“Going to do 'em together?”
“You bet,” I said.
“Ever been up there?” he asked suspiciously.
“Nope.” He was judging our competency.
“Look out for the wind. Supposed to be up to forty-five miles per hour tomorrow,” he said.
“Oh shit,” I said.
I thanked him for the bit of advice. I thought he may be playing us to hedge our caution but we took the forecast to heart. I’d read clear and calm until that point.
We eventually reached Ediza, a basin of jagged mountains and minarets, skirts of scree fields and pine forest, snow and wild running water running to the clear turquoise lake. It is known as one of the finest lakes in all the Sierra, allegedly Muir’s favorite. It's best to access camping on the right side of the lake, crossing the creek and leaving the trail to crawl along the boulders near the right hand shore. It's slow going but much shorter than circling clockwise.
We set up camp and had some butterscotch brandy. Ken and I hiked up a use trail above the lake to a point where we could see Ritter, Banner and the saddle between them. We were able to see the whole route to the saddle: the class 3 cliff band and the class 2 go around, the two glaciers above. We made quick notes of the route we’d find in the dark the next morning and ran back to camp. We made backpacker meals, drank some more brandy and hung out by the lake until bed.
The wind picked up around midnight and shook the tent with an intermittent beat of sound and motion. You’d hear the gust over the mountains in stillness and then the tent would rattle during the silence and so forth for hours. At 4:00 am my alarm rang, I kissed Alli goodbye and promised I’d skip Ritter if the wind was bad.
Ken was up too and we convened outside the tents, considered coffee but declined and were up the trail. The path sputtered out above the tree line less than a mile from our campsite and we were out on a wide field covered increasingly by loose talus the higher we climbed. It’s smart to follow the river as far as you can, staying to the right of it. It eventually run into a gully that one will want to stay high on. We made a mistake in the dark, staying much higher than necessary which made the leg up to the glacier longer and more tedious. By daybreak we’d reached the first glacier. This entire field up to the saddle was once one large glacier but due to climate changed, the two are now separated by a thick band of rock. We took a break and put on our crampons. It was a treat to be moving on snow after clawing around loose boulders for the past hour. We made it to the rocky split in no time and I kept my crampons on, quickly making it onto the upper glacier below the narrow, snowy couloir above it. This was the most fun part of the climb. The chute exceed 45 degrees and I got a small taste of mixed climbing as I clung my points to snow and rock and chopped into the wall with my ax.
At the 12,000 foot saddle we rested. Banner's west face rose to the right and looked simple but tiring. Ritter’s north face shot up from the left. It was windblown and icy and the ramp of consolidated snow that starts the north face route was sheer blue ice. The wind howled through the channel and we discussed skipping Ritter. We had no protection and decided we’d reach a verdict after Banner, which we planned to summit first anyhow. We slowly made our way up Banner, a long class 2 scramble over an endless field of talus. I tracked left, to a ridge where rock seemed to hold better while Ken stayed in the middle. The summit, or at least a false summit was visible the entire time and it felt as if I wasn’t moving, taking just over an hour to climb the rubble to the summit, seeing the Ansel Adams Wilderness and all its famed lakes below. Behind me I saw the Sierra Nevada spread out across the skyline and I was freezing my ass off. The wind was blowing like hell and I ducked into a protected corner to drink some water. Not wasting time, I started down. I saw Ken as he neared the summit and we made and gestures saying, “Whatever, down there, cold, tired, k.” After thirty minutes of careful scrambling I was back at the saddle. Ken was down shortly thereafter and not much was said about Ritter. The wind was whipping, the route was iced up and we didn’t have any rope. Banner, though technically easy proved more than the appetizer I had predicted. Ritter, the entree, would have to wait. We would not repeat John Muir’s first ascent. I would not climb with his “preternatural clearness.”
We bailed back down the couloir and within an hour and a half we were back at the lake. Alli prepared some charcuterie and we soaked our feet in the water before packing up.
“I’ll be back,” I said. I had another interview with Mammoth coming up and I was hopeful to call this wilderness home, hopeful I could try my luck at Ritter as I pleased. We hiked away from the lake through the gorgeous wilderness as the season turned colder. There was a sense of inertia in our lives, reflected in the weather and the place.