Banner Peak 12936′
Total Time: 11 hours
Roundtrip Mileage: 19.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 7126′ (according to my GPS, although this seems high)
Trailhead: Agnew Meadows, pit toilets, water, trash, bear boxes. Shuttle required 7AM-7PM in the summer.
The second day of climbing in the Sierras would also be my last day solo, with my best man Justin meeting me the following day. I had debated for a long time on what I should climb, considering summits in the Palisades, Yosemite and Evolution region. I ultimately settled on an attempt at the Ritter-Banner combo, which along with the Minarets, are the most prominent summits on the Mammoth skyline. And since the Mammoth skyline would serve as the backdrop for my wedding reception, I like the idea of pointing to them out to guests as they trickled in.
To tag both summits as a dayhike is certainly not novel. In fact Sean O’Rourke climbed both plus Clyde Minaret in only 12 hours, a very impressive feat. My goal was to try for just the two summits in 12 hours via the Ritter-Banner saddle, descending Ritter’s SE Glacier route. I camped off Mammoth scenic loop road and woke up at 4AM to drive to Agnew Meadows, my first time at this trailhead. With the drive in, organizing my gear, and some quick morning rituals, I set out under headlamp a bit after 5AM. With a long day ahead, I kept setting small goals, my first to hit the junction for Shadow Lake in under an hour. I hiked quickly through the dark, losing a surprising amount of elevation as I dropped to the the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. The trail was sandy and dusty from pack mules, and I reached the turn off in 45 minutes from the start. Crossing the bridge over the middle fork, the trail started to switchback into a shallow canyon up towards Shadow Lake. Halfway up to the lake, I was able to shut off my headlamp, enjoying the exposed rock and cascades feeding into the middle fork.
Reaching Shadow Lake, I had my first view of Mount Ritter for the day, looking surprisingly far for a planned 12 hour day. Hiking along the lakeshore, I made a wrong turn on the JMT thinking I was one junction farther on my map, but realized my mistake after about 5 minutes of heading in the wrong direction. The next goal was Ediza Lake, and I was determined to not take a break before then. While it looked quite close on the map, switchbacks and a meandering course along streams made the hike from Agnew Meadows to Ediza Lake over 7 miles each way. I reached the lake in just under 2 hours, and gave myself my first break for the day. Over the years, I’ve passed 100s of lake throughout the Sierras, and probably have become a bit jaded with them over time. But Ediza Lake is the most beautiful lake in the Sierras I have ever been too.
The lake is flanked by towering rock on every side, with Mounts Ritter and Banner looming to the northwest, and the Minarets to the southwest, all reflecting dramatically across the calm surface. It’s no surprise that the shores were dotted with tents- backpackers enjoying the pristine alpine lake, and mountaineers using it as a basecamp for all three summits. I passed a number of people breaking down camp, and several, noting my ice axe, asked about my plans for the day. When I responded with the Ritter-Banner combo, most would shake their head and mutter, “good luck” with some serious judgement in their voice….
A good use trail continued past Ediza Lake to the unnamed tarn at the base of the SE face of Ritter and Banner. It was here that I felt like I was finally making some progress, taking the trail along the grassy slopes to the tarn. I stopped to top off on water, and was surprised at how warm it was already. I could see the snowfield leading to the Ritter- Banner saddle, thankfully still in shade, but started to worry it would melt before I reached it.
To even get to that point would require another 1000′ of trailless ascent to the base of the snow field through loose talus. Already having flashbacks to the horrible talus on University Pass the day before, I was worried my progress would slow considerably. But I found the rock surprisingly solid, and was able to reach granite slabs halfway up that brought me nearly to the start of the snow with minimal grief.
At this point, still fairly early, the sun was shining and there were only a few scattered clouds, all looking innocent. I started to feel like I could definitely get both Ritter and Banner, maybe even have time for Clyde Minaret! But after strapping on my crampons and stepping onto the snow, those thoughts were quickly dashed. Despite the early hour, it was warm enough for the snow to be extremely slushy, and as the grade quickly steepened, it became the equivalent of climbing mashed potatoes.
Each step I was at risk of sliding back down to the start, not really at risk of hitting anything, but destroying any progress I had made. It quickly became clear that this was going very poorly, and I tried to reach the granite benches below the saddle to transition back to rock. I awkwardly crossed the randkluft, and despite the broad rock benches, found the climbing to be more difficult than I wanted. About 20′ above the snowfield I found an old rappel station, further evidence that the climbing was becoming over my head. I found a ramp that lead around and up next to the snowfield, which had melted to a 1-2′ snow bridge in it’s narrowest part in the steep gully.
The rock next to the snow was loose, but I was able to use my ice axe on the outside edge of the snow to hold myself as I slowly worked upward on the loose steep rock. A lot more struggling and thrashing eventually brought me to the saddle, taking at least an hour and a half to ascend the few hundred feet of slush. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I wouldn’t need to descend by that route, with the plan to go up and over Ritter.
But at the saddle, I realized that plan might not be a reality. I was so focused on climbing up to the saddle, I had not noticed the dark clouds that had built over the Mammoth Lakes basin, heading directly in my direction. Not willing to go empty handed after the struggle up, I decided if I could only get one, it would be Banner, in the interest of not having to climb up to the saddle on a future trip, the SE Glacier Route on Ritter being a much easier ascent route. Without taking a break, I continued straight upslope on Banner, using an intermittent use trail at times, and scrambling up and over a number of slabs, ultimately taking about 30 minutes of fast climbing from the saddle to reach the summit.
Not 10 seconds after I reached the top, the thunder started, seeming to be centered somewhere around Mammoth Mountain. With the slopes of Banner blocking my view to the east, I didn’t realize how quickly the storms had moved in, and they were basically upon me, all before noon.
I quickly signed the register and moved off the summit to less exposed slope, feeling a bit more comfortable closer to the saddle. The clouds seemed to settle directly over Ritter, and I knew continuing on would be extremely foolish. Although the decision was clear, it did not make it any less painful. Looking at the north face of Ritter, the route to the summit was clear and seemed straightforward, and I was extremely frustrated knowing that if it had not been for weather, I would have had them both. I was equally frustrated at the thought of descending that steep, slushy mess, and scrambling loose and steep talus in the rain. The thunder and lightning continued as I hit the saddle, and when I reached the upper tongue of snow to descend, it started raining. The upper part of the snowfield, while still extremely loose, seemed to hold my weight a little better, having been in the shade for most of the day. Since ice doesn’t conduct electricity, I wanted to try and stay on the snowfield as long as possible, but when I hit the steep and narrow section, I started to slip and bailed back onto the rocks along the side. I regained the snow field at the exit from the gully, and with a clearer run out towards the base, I started to glissade down. But in my mad dash to get down from the saddle, I had not bothered to put on gloves, and as the ice cut my bare hands as I slid down, I reflexively let go, send me sliding 200′ nearly to the base, my ice axe stuck in the snow well above.
There was no question, between the lightning, active rain and slushy conditions, I was not going back for it, having bought it 4 years ago for $30. The rain slowed by the time I reached the edge of the snowfield, and 30 minutes later, the sun was shining above as I reached the tarn. I was somewhat happy to see dark clouds sitting directly over Ritter and Banner, reinforcing my decision to leave.
With thunder still in the area, I kept up my pace, finally taking a break below treeline for the first time in several hours since the summit of Banner. At this point it was nearly 2:30, with the snow sections taking significantly longer than expected. I felt getting to the trailhead by 4:30 was still manageable to keep it under a 12 hour day, but I would need to keep a good pace, especially with the uphill into Agnew Meadows from the Middle Fork on the return. But with my fiance and a good chunk of visitors arriving into Mammoth that afternoon, I was somewhat determined to get there. So after working around the boulders at the edge of Ediza Lake, I half-jogged along the trail to Shadow Lake, cutting the occasional switchback to shave time. It took me around an hour to reach the junction with the trail to Agnew Meadows, followed by a good amount of cursing under my breath as the trail climbed slowly out of the canyon back to the trailhead near the meadows. I reached the car at 4:32, beating my 12 hour goal…. although with only one of the two peaks…. I suspect that I may have been faster going up and over Ritter as I would have avoided the sketchy snowfield that took up over a quarter of my total time between the ascent and descent. I’ve since talked to other climbers about the route, and they have echoed that late in the season the conditions are really horrible and not recommended, although it is certainly climbable any time of the year. After hitting the trailhead, I drove back to Mammoth Mountain Inn to meet my fiance and head to dinner in the village at Gomez’s to fuel up for day 3 of climbing….