Madera County High Point Trip Report

Mt Ritter

Date: October 1-3, 1999
Author: Edward Earl

I had been contemplating an ascent of Mount Ritter within a few weeks, but sooner is better owing to the lateness of the season and the fact that the first California winter storm will put the Sierra Nevada range out of commission for non-winter ascents, so I decided to go for it immediately.

I called my friend Adam Helman, who had also recently expressed an interest in Mount Ritter, and by Friday afternoon (10/1) we were cruising up the Owens Valley toward Mammoth Lakes. We spent the night pulled off the road near the now closed-for-the-season McGee Creek Campground.

Saturday morning (10/2) found us at the ranger station to get a permit (no problem since the quota period had expired), and then we paused briefly at Minaret Summit View Area for a panoramic view of our target: an impressive 13,143' high and precipitously steep dark-colored mass of volcanic rock. A climb of Mount Ritter is exciting and inspiring but not the death-defying proposition that North Palisade is.

Shortly after 9:00 AM we were headed on foot up the San Joaquin River and past a succession of scenic alpine lakes: Shadow Lake and Ediza Lake. From the latter a nearly continuous use trail led us up a gully to a small basin at the foot of Mount Ritter itself.

We arrived at about 1:30 PM and set up camp here. I used part of the free afternoon to scout out the next day's route. First I backed away from the route to get a better view of it, then I actually climbed the first portion of the route as described in Gary Suttle's book, "California County Summits". I was slightly concerned about the possibility that one of the boulder-filled chutes would be harder than it looked and block our progress should we take a wrong turn, but the news was very good: the route was actually more doable than it appeared from below, and within what seemed like a matter of minutes I had scampered like a rodent up to a rocky perch some 700' up the route. We had dinner, sterilized some water for the next day's climb, and turned in for the night with new-found confidence that we would summit the next day.

Sunday (10/3) dawned clear, crisp, and slightly hazy. We retraced the route I had climbed the previous afternoon, then traversed over rounded slabs around the foot of a small glacier to a steep chute. The footing on this portion of the route became increasingly unstable due to the scarred tracks of previous climbers, but we managed it without incident.

The chute continued upward to a saddle from which a talus slog led to the summit, which we reached at 10:30 AM. The route is officially rated class 3, but I found it to be no more than class 2 if you stick to the scarred tracks of previous climbers. However, there are many places on the route where it is possible to avoid the bad footing by climbing nearby rocks. If done this way, it becomes class 3 but is easier and safer than class 2.

We spent nearly an hour at the summit, which has views from Yosemite (including a piece of Half Dome) to White Mountain to an interminable array of peaks extending down the Sierra crest to the south.

The summit register contained the signature of the 69-year-old recent California county high point completer Marilyn Mendelssohn, who noted that Mount Ritter was her 57th CA county HP (the 58th and last was Mount Lyell).

The descent was pretty uneventful, except that there was one spot below the chute where I decided to avoid a section of loose crud and swish down the snow instead. I did so while Adam continued down the scree and talus. This was a questionable decision, as the not-so-soft snow near the top of the not-so-gradual slope made things a little dicey without crampons (which I had, but it would have taken more time than it was worth to put them on). Adam reached the point where we reconvened a few minutes before I did.

We reached camp at about 2:30, where Adam rested and drank to deal with a serious headache and I treated more water and packed gear. Finally we departed and made good time on the hike down the trail, arriving back at our car in the gathering twilight.