Ritter, Banner, Carson Bowl

Skinning across Thousand Island Lake

While the Sierra are known for their white or golden granite, the Ritter Range is made of a much older black metamorphic rock. The granite is generally solid and therefore draws climbers from around the world, but the Ritter rock is fractured and frequently frightening. I first climbed Ritter in 2010, via the route John Muir memorably described when writing about his first ascent of the peak:

Ritter from Banner

The tried dangers beneath seemed even greater than that of the cliff in front; therefore, after scanning its face again and again, I began to scale it, picking my holds with intense caution. After gaining a point about halfway 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. 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 mountains, and my mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke. But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel, — call it what you will, — came forward and assumed control. 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 have since climbed most of the Minarets that form the southern part of the range, and with a few exceptions have been struck by their variable and unpredictable rock quality.

Mount Ritter itself is also a classic ski by its southeast glacier, normally approached from Mammoth Mountain via the road to Agnew Meadows. It can be done this way in a long day, but is notoriously unpleasant thanks to the frequently-boggy Meadows and a long road-slog back over Minaret Summit at the end of the day. So when John mentioned an alternative approach from June Lake, I was intrigued. Not only could I check a long-sought goal off my to-do list, but I might actually have fun doing so. Better still, John was willing to do it for a third time and, in classic style, wanted to add on Banner and Carson to fill out the day.

Dawn on Banner

With the stars thus aligned, we set off from the Fern Lake trailhead slightly after 3:00 AM. The Rush Creek trail is never useful: in the summer it is faster to walk up the cograil, while in the snow one can climb straight up left of the creek below Carson Peak. We hiked through the woods for a few minutes, then found the end of a slide path and put on crampons, efficiently gaining elevation while avoiding small cliffs by headlamp. We were looking for a low-angle route above Agnew Lake leading toward Agnew Pass, and found it without much difficulty. Unfortunately part of the west-facing traverse had been wind-blasted, exposing loose and shockingly unstable talus. Traversing this at night in ski boots was unpleasant, and the sound of the slope above me shifting when I stepped on some rocks was disconcerting. Fortunately this stretch was relatively short, and by the end of headlamp time we were skinning through rolling terrain toward the outlet of Thousand Island Lake.

San Joaquin poking through

From near Agnew Pass, we glided generally downhill toward the upper San Joaquin River, which was just beginning to poke out between deep snowbanks in a few places. We reached the lake just as the sun hit us, too late for perfect alpenglow photos of Banner’s impressive north face, but still appreciated the awesome scenery and deep snowpack as we skinned across the lake. We made a few transitions crossing Garnet and Whitebark Passes, finding some strenuous booting up the latter, then made our first good turns past the invisible Nydiver Lakes to Ritter’s base.

Pre-installed bootpack

By now the east-facing snow had been cooking for awhile, but fortunately there was a fresh skin-track and bootpack from the day before. A group of three skiers had apparently come in from Mammoth and suffered mightily, excavating a knee-deep trench up the first steep headwall. We gratefully took advantage of their work, sweating our way up to the flatter section where the pieces of glacier supposedly reside. We continued following the fresh skin-track up the far-left chute, taking off our skis to cross some final rocks to the upper face. Here we rested and admired the view; while the Minarets look like a single steep, rotten mass from this angle, Point 12,821′ and the pinnacles extending south of Ritter are striking. Farther south and down we could see Shadow, Ediza, and Cecile Lakes, all still solid white under snow.

Skinning upper face

We continued following the skin-track up the lower-angle upper face, eventually emerging on the summit ridge east of the peak. At last we could see Ritter’s precipitous north face, and the southwest chute we planned to ski on Banner, which looked in fine condition. We booted the final few feet to the summit, then set down our packs for an extended break. The peaks to the west around Foerster Peak were solid white, being on the leading edge of this snowiest section of the range, and we could see far down the San Joaquin and out to the west. We had vaguely contemplated skiing the north face directly to the Ritter-Banner saddle, and it seemed like there might be a line heading northwest, then booting back over a ridge, but I was not up for that level of steep and consequential skiing on hard snow, so we clicked in and returned the way we had come. With 3000 feet of elevation to lose on a variety of aspects, the skiing was variable, with heavy snow on the upper face, good corn in the east connecting chute and on the shaded side of the glacier, and deep sloughing glop lower down. A couple of skiers were just about to start up the lower headwall as we skied down it, but they wisely thought better of that after watching the small wet slides we kicked off.

Back at Ritter-Banner saddle

Sliding as far toward Banner as we could, we put skins back on for the long, hot, sheltered climb back to the Ritter-Banner saddle. I anticipated this being grim, but it felt surprisingly painless, perhaps because I was distracted by the scenery and company. The final climb through the choke next to Banner got a bit sketchy, with non-supportive slush over a hard crust, and I had to make a precarious transition to skis near the top to get enough support not to slide back from whence I came. From below, we confirmed that the north line on Ritter would go, but it looked less fun than what we had skied. From the saddle, we booted across some terribly slick talus to reach the southwest couloir. This was frustrating, as it would have been easy and mindless wearing running shoes in the summer. We must have looked like newborn colts stumbling across it in ski boots, and John took a solid fall, though he suffered no permanent damage.

Good turns on Banner

Once past the rubble, it was a straightforward boot to just below the summit, where we stashed our skis for a bit of boot-scrambling to the summit block. I was disappointed not to find the 2010 register from my first climb, but I signed the new one, and took an identical photo of Ritter’s north face, albeit with much more snow. Looking the other way, I could see all the way to Carson Peak and the head of Rush Creek, the white expanse of Thousand Island Lake, and the two thousand rugged feet of Banner’s steep north face. By now the sun had cooked the southwest-facing chute, so the ski down was soft but not yet sticky. Unlike John’s previous two times, the constriction at the base of the chute was filled in, presenting little difficulty.

Banner and San Joaquin

We continued northwest to Lake Catherine, finding good skiing beneath Banner’s north face, then had a gloppy skate across the lake to North Glacier Pass. The south side of the pass was scoured mostly bare, but the slope on the other side was buried, and we had a fast ski back to Thousand Island Lake, in my case marred by a wipeout when I caught an edge on the somewhat grabby snow. Though it was strenuous to skate back across the lake, it was much faster than skinning, and avoided a transition before descending the upper San Joaquin back west.

Carson Bowl view

Finally switching to skins, we roughly followed the summer trail back to Agnew Pass, gaining a long ridge and plateau leading back toward Carson Peak. We were over twelve hours into the day, and I was beginning to feel worn down, with tired legs, sore feet, and a probably-burnt nose. There was one final battle with krummholtz and scree beyond the pass, as the southwest side of the ridge had been melted and scoured. This part began to feel endless, and a final descent and 300-foot climb to the head of the Carson Bowl had us both retreating into our own heads.

Devil’s Slide

The view from the head of the bowl, however, instantly cheered us up. June Lake is at the southern end of an odd valley with exits at both ends, wrapping around Reversed Peak. From this vantage, it looks almost like a photo taken with a fisheye lens, and the afternoon light on the lakes, with Mono Lake in the distance, gave the terrain more definition and warm colors. The bowl had just gone back into the shade, and the slightly-refrozen snow made for fine skiing. The traverse around right to the head of Devil’s Slide was slightly obnoxious, but we were both blown away by the perfect corn in the 1500-foot gully. From the top of the bowl to the avalanche debris at the base was twenty minutes of the day’s best skiing. I hardly even noticed my fatigue or the subsequent minor swamp-thrash back to the trailhead. We savored the day for awhile, then John took off to drive back to the Bay Area, while I happily crawled into my car for the evening.

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