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 Ritter Range along with the Minarets. Ritter is the highest at 13,143', Banner a close second at 12,945.
The Ritter Range is set in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. If it’s named after the father of landscape photography, the man responsible for conveying so much beauty of the West to legislators and public on the east coast, sparking conservation and appreciation, it must be a sweet spot. 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. Ken was waiting for us inside.
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 down the PCT. Ken spotted a mule deer from a distance only a hunter could see, grazing in the meadow below us. At 1.7 the trail splits onto the River Trail. Aspens were lighting up yellow giving an fall vibrancy to the land. The seven miles to have only 1495’ of elevation gain 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 Sierra Lake with huge mountain views. We stopped for a smoke and some trail mix on a long rock reaching out into the lake. There was a perfect view of our goals to the right.
The second leg to Ediza Lake was gorgeous along the creek cascading over heaves of granite into wide baths, past golden meadows, through Jeffrey pine groves and under jutting mountains. The trail was level and we moved quickly. As we got toward Ediza 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, wild running water, and snow meeting at the clear turquoise lake. It is known as one of the finest lakes in all the Sierra. 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 the lake.
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 in between. 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 the tent would rattle during the silence and so forth for hours. At 4:00am 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 and passed 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. You will eventually run into a gully that you'll want to stay high on. We made a mistake in the dark, staying much higher than necessary making 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 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 couloir. At the top of the glacier it funnels through a steep couloir. This was the most fun part of the climb. The chute exceed 45 degrees and you get a small taste of mixed climbing as you cling your points to snow and rock and chop into the wall with your ax. The couloir tops out on the saddle at 12,000’.
At the saddle we rested. Banner's west face carried into the righthand distance. Ritter’s north face shot up from the left. It was windblown and icy. The ramp of consolidated snow that starts the north face route was 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 slid 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 cross the face to the summit, seeing the Ansel Adams Wilderness and all its famed lakes below. Behind me I saw the Sierra Nevada spread out against 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.” In 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 an appetizer than I had predicted. Ritter, the main event, 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, intent to return. Within an hour and a half we were back down at the lake. Alli prepared some meat and cheese 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.