Mt Ritter and Banner Peak rise as twin summits at the north end of the Ritter Range. Topping 13,000 ft, Mt Ritter is the higher than any other peak to the north in the Sierra Nevada and is the second most prominent peak in the entire range (after Mt Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental US). Just half a mile northeast, Banner Peak is only 60 feet shy of the 13,000 ft mark but it is Mt Ritter’s twin in almost every way. As Richard and I saw from Reversed Peak, the two summits mirror each other with an unbelievable symmetry.
I’ve long been interested in climbing Mt Ritter and twice showed up to Mammoth Lakes with the intention of hiking the peak, but back down both times for various reasons. Now, with some more experience under my belt it seemed reasonable to attempt a summit of both peaks. Considering the distance to get to the bottom of the climb it made sense to consolidate these hikes, and something about the manner of these peaks made it feel wrong to summit one without summiting the other.
I managed to recruit Chris for a day hike of the two peaks and we met in Mammoth Sunday night on a remote forest service road where we planned to camp for the night. We assembled our gear, opting to pack crampons and ice axe and to leave our skis behind. We knew we were likely to encounter snow along the route, but it was also likely to be at least 5 miles of hiking before hitting the snow line. We set our alarms for 4 am, planning to have breakfast and hit the road by 4:30 so that we could be hiking by 5 am.
We ended up arriving at Agnew Meadows just after 5 and by the time we were packed and ready to go it was 5:15. Twilight had already begun and we had no need for headlamps. The trail out of Agnew Meadows soon trended downhill and we decided to jog down toward the bottom of the canyon. We passed a few small lakes and ponds before finally arriving at a bridge crossing the Middle Fork San Joaquin. The river was flowing swift and was obviously higher than normal, but it was still hard to believe that this was the river that would eventually form the lower half of California’s Central Valley.
After crossing the San Joaquin we started the climb toward Shadow Lake. Chris and I remarked at how well developed the trail was. South down the canyon we saw Mammoth Mountain catching the first rays of sunlight, the gondola cars glinting as the sunlight bounced off them. East across the canyon, San Joaquin Mountain and western of the Two Teats were still high above us.
We arrived at the outlet of Shadow Lake at 6:30 and took in our first view of Mt Ritter and Banner Peak, reflected in the glassy surface of the lake. We had a long way to go before we’d stand atop those summits but neither of us were deterred.
Chris made a pit stop shortly after reaching Shadow Lake and I continued ahead solo, as I was still a bit out of shape after taking time off for my foot injury. After rounding the lake, the trail followed the creek closely. The creek’s course was steep and every couple hundred feet it cascaded down a series of drops. I wondered if the creek was always so splendid or if this was only its condition in early summer.
In some places the valley flattened and the creek, still overflowing, was placated. It flooded lush meadows thick with wildflowers, not losing any urgency but calmer nonetheless.
As I approached Ediza Lake, the snow which had been minimal so far started to become more persistent. I waited up for Chris who was still behind, as I was worried the snow was too firm for him to easily follow my tracks. We continued upward toward Ediza Lake looking for a way to cross the creek since most of the routes we had researched suggested traversing the south shore of the lake. Several hundred feet downstream of the lake there was a wide section of creek we’d be able to cross but neither of us were eager to wade through a creek so early in the morning. As we approached the lake, however, we saw a snow bridge crossing the creek.
I clamored up the snow toward the bridge while Chris took a more conservative route up the rock to the north and through some willows before we both arrived at the bridge. We cautiously crossed the bridge without incident and arrived on the south shore of the lake.
The snow on the south shore was firm and fairly steep. Chris didn’t feel super comfortable and neither did I. I decided to climb uphill along some rock before dropping back down toward the shore where we eventually found the trail. The lake was 95% frozen and the snow along the shore was noticeably suncupped. We found a rock island amidst the suncups to stop, have a snack, and don our crampons before continuing on.
We traversed the lake clockwise and agreed that we would have been better off staying on the north shore of the lake. After climbing a small hill we arrived at a canyon below the peaks. As we turned into the canyon I saw some texture ahead that looked like avalanche debris before eventually realizing that I was seeing miles and miles of large suncups!
The suncups were about a foot deep and a foot wide, but the ridges were still quite wide and the snow fairly firm so we didn’t have too much trouble traveling across them. Where possible we’d follow the large runnels which were less featured. A large sheet of snow sat on a ledge below Mt Ritter and was apparently occasionally shedding chunks of compressed snow down the mountain which embedded themselves in the snowfield. Chris was keeping a good distance ahead of me and found large piece of debris which had appeared to shelter the snow below it giving the appearance of the bottom two thirds of a snowman. He set about crafting a head to put atop the torso while I caught up.
After an eternity of traversing the suncups, we reached the head of the canyon and started the climb upwards. We’d noticed that there were three separate pitches composing the climb, each appearing to increase in slope angle with the final pitch being a steep couloir which ran up to the saddle. Chris, still ahead of me, was approaching the top of the first pitch and said that he was postholing a bit, so I decided to head for the bare rock which I hoped would be easier to climb than soft snow.
I arrived, took off my crampons and started the climb. The rock was not difficult climbing except that it was at a steep angle, polished smooth by millennia of glacial action, and my trailrunners were wet. I didn’t end up putting much time into Chris and, after reapply my crampons, probably was just as fast as he.
We started up the second pitch, surprised to find it was much less steep than it had looked from a distance. Chris had suggested that this pitch would be a no fall zone but, now that we were on it, we agreed that it would be quite easy to arrest a fall here. We noted several large rocks lodged in the snow beneath Banner Peak and opted to stay a bit further left than we might otherwise have done.
As we approached the couloir, I was grateful that it still held so much snow. This looked like a promising route to the saddle. The cliff band to the left did not look easily climbable and there was a large glide crack growing along the base of it which would make the transition difficult. Even in the couloir several large glide cracks stretched toward its center from the cliffs on either side.
The wind started to howl down the couloir and I had to shout up to Chris to ask him to set a smaller bootpack. I wasn’t feeling great and the large steps he was taking was making it extra difficult for me to keep up with him. The slope was a manageable 35 degrees up until fifty feet from the top where it kicked up to 50 degrees. I was glad I had my crampons and poles but decided it wasn’t worth pulling out my ice axe. Soon we were atop the Banner Ritter Saddle, Catherine Lake gleaming at the bottom of the other side!
We had discussed the order of operations on the climb and I’d said that I’d rather climb Ritter if we could only make it up one of the peaks. After some discussion though, we realized that the north face of Ritter was probably going to be the crux and that it might be easier to descend off the Southeast Glacier rather than returning down the north face to the saddle so we agreed that it made more sense to climb Banner first and scope out the route. We headed up to the bare rock on the south face of Banner Peak and stripped our wet shoes and socks, putting them out to dry in the sun.
We had a slow lunch, trying to give time for our gear to dry while eying the north face of Ritter. It appeared that someone had recently booted the face which could make our climb significantly easier. The bootpack seemed to disappear about halfway up though, and it was unclear where to go from there. We agreed that we should be able to climb the rock between to gullies to gain the ridge, but then it looked like a traverse across a hanging snowfield to gain the summit.
At 11:45 we started the climb up Banner, leaving our axes and crampons behind to save weight. We didn’t find any trail, but the talus was fairly stable and easy going. I still wasn’t feeling great and was starting to become a bit exhausted. Chris found a cairn along the left ridge and we were able to gain the summit along a mostly class 2 route at 12:30 pm.
Mt Ritter dominated the view southeast, but the views south and north were incredible and vast.
We signed the summit register and took another leisurely lunch break while evaluating the route up Ritter. From this perspective I was still skeptical of the traverse to the summit. Secor had written of an alternate route along the west face but I remembered it being long and convoluted. Feeling a bit weak, I told Chris that I’d rather not make the attempt. I knew that I could push to the summit, but I was also wary that we might hit an impasse and have to backtrack down the steep face. If we had skis I might have been more gung ho about it but I wasn’t super confident in my ability to downclimb steep snow in trailrunners when I was tired. In a year when it seemed like all of my friends were taking helicopter rides off the mountain, I felt okay erring on the side of safety. Chris agreed that the route wasn’t obvious and that if I wasn’t feeling 100% he was okay calling it a day, so we started back down the talus toward our stashed gear.
After regaining the saddle, Chris was reluctant to glissade down the steep couloir and instead preferred to downclimb the cliff. I tried to convince him that I’d seen a scary bergschrund with no obvious route between rock and snow but he was undeterred. We decided to split up. I would descend the steepest part of the chute while he watched and then he’d start the downclimb of the cliff. When I arrived at the top of the chute though, I realized it was much less steep than I’d remembered. I encouraged him to come have a look and he agreed that it didn’t look that bad. I glissaded first, somewhat inelegantly and Chris followed shortly.
Now that we were off the steepest snow and there were fewer consequences, we took a raucous descent of the snowfield. I was surprised by how much fun glissading was! The only other time I’d done any real glissading I was wearing shorts and badly brush burned my butt. Pants made the affair much more enjoyable! Of course skiing would have been much better but the suncups would have made skiing all but impossible.
We made rapid progress down the suncups and I was feeling a bit better knowing that we were pretty much home free, although I was disappointed that we didn’t make both summits.
We took a route toward the north shore of Ediza Lake and soon found ourselves following some week-old tracks. Based on the tracks it seemed like a group of two had been through and were eagerly doing standing glissades at every possibled opportunity. Chris and I were inspired by the tracks and took the opportunity to practice our standing glissades as much as possible!
We arrived at Ediza Lake and found the route much easier than that we’d taken in the morning. Looking out on the lake we were surprised to see several dozen trees laying on the ice! Chris and I were confused as to how these trees could end up out there before deciding that the tall slope above the north shore must have avalanched and carried these trees out onto the lake in the middle of winter!
We arrived back at the outlet and found that part of the snow bridged I’d climbed on only hours earlier had collapsed! We both opted to avoid the snow entirely in favor of the rock! Later on as several groups of backpackers headed toward the lake we tried to encourage them to do the same.
Soon we were back on the easy trail. The geology of this area was astounding — I’ve never seen so much glacially polished rock!
Although we still had five miles to go the hike went quickly. Coming down the switchbacks from Shadow Lake which I’d agreed were so well built, I was now annoyed that they couldn’t be steeper. Nonetheless we soon arrived at the San Joaquin. Chris decided to take a faster pace now and he dropped me, although he was in sight for most of the rest of the hike. I passed by the small ponds and lakes we’d visited twelve hours earlier and found they were now swarming with mosquitos. Had I the effort, I probably would have started running. Instead I prayed for wind and swatted them when I felt them on my arms and face. We arrived back at the cars around 6 and headed up to Minaret Summit to make some dinner and watch the sun set on Mt Ritter and Banner Peak. I was annoyed we hadn’t made both summits but grateful for a good friend, good weather, and a great day in the backcountry!
- 1% snow coverage at Shadow Lake
- 50% snow coverage starting half a mile below Ediza Lake
- 99% snow coverage starting at Ediza Lake
- Snow bridges rapidly collapsing
- Suncups about 1 foot deep, 1 foot wide, large ridges, aspect and angle dependent
Elevation Gain: 5,400