Trip Report: The Ritter Range
July 10-13, 2018
This is a trip report for a 4-day, 3-night backpacking trip I took between July 10 and 13 around the Minarets and the Ritter Range with my Dad. Much like my JMT trip report, I’ll focus on providing the best photographs that I can and backing that up with anecdotes and brief descriptions.
After finishing up the JMT, I was planning to meet up with my Dad for a shorter backpacking trip along the 395 corridor.
Our initial plan was to head to The Palisades to try and scramble up Cloudripper and (possibly) Mount Agassiz. However, the weather had other plans. For my last couple of days on the JMT there were afternoon thunderstorms, sometimes surprisingly early in the day. The weather forecast for the duration of this trip was calling for much of the same, possibly worsening. As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoying hiking the rain, much less thunderstorms, or being confined to a backpacking tent outside of sleeping hours, I wanted to check and see if the weather looked more promising anywhere nearby.
A smoky sunset from Minaret Vista a week before.
On the morning we were to start our trip, I scanned the mountain weather forecasts from Lone Pine to Bridgeport. The forecasts generally agreed on slightly better weather to the north, with a sort of division between two patterns near Mammoth. I had three ideas in mind: the Minarets and Ritter Range in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Yosemite’s Cathedral Range, or the Sawtooth Range in the Hoover Wilderness. All good bets. I double checked on the status of the nearby Lions Fire which was still smoldering, but not smoking too much. We elected to go for the Ritter Range.
Our plan was to head from Devil’s Postpile up to Minaret Lake, camp there for a night, then continue over the saddle past Cecile Lake, down to Iceberg lake before rejoining the JMT and heading north to Thousand Island Lake. We would camp there for a couple of nights and head up to Lake Catherine to see about climbing Banner Peak or Mount Ritter on the third day. On the last day, we would hike back along the PCT to Agnew Meadows. Twenty-five-ish miles and 5,500’, which should leave plenty of time for side trips. Here’s the Caltopo map.
Of course, that all relied on us securing a permit out of Devil’s Postpile which can be difficult at times. Absent that, there are several other options for starting out along the Devil’s Postpile road that would eventually get us onto that loop in one direction or another, so I wasn’t too worried about it.
That satellite picture is a high resolution, daily satellite picture of the area from Planet Labs, I have found them to be an invaluable resource for assessing conditions.
I did some very rudimentary route research. The satellite pictures of Cecile Lake showed a bit of snow on the southeast shore of Iceberg Lake, but it appeared to be low enough down that a crossing wouldn’t be too treacherous. And of course, we had plenty of time to backtrack if it proved to be too sketchy. I didn’t bother checking for snow anywhere else, figuring that by mid-July of a below average snow year, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem.
I also checked Secor’s book (The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails is an invaluable resource for anyone venturing off trail in the Sierra) for descriptions of the route from Minaret Lake to Iceberg Lake and the routes up Volcanic Ridge, Banner Peak, and Mount Ritter. Nothing too surprising there. He says Minaret Lake to Iceberg Lake is a popular cross country route with some talus hopping near Cecile Lake, the climb of Volcanic Ridge is a straightforward sand hill from Minaret Lake, Banner Peak is class 3 ridge scramble from the Ritter-Banner saddle, and I identified two options for Ritter: the class 4 route from the Ritter-Banner saddle which I wasn’t too excited about trying as the rock in the Ritter Range is generally loose, or the class 2 West Face. Rather than try and memorize the intricacies of each of these routes, I would bring Secor’s book along as an e-book on my phone.
We were ready to roll.
Day 1: Devil’s Postpile to Minaret Lake with climb of Volcanic Ridge
10.6 miles, +4,000’
After sorting out our food and packing up our things, we headed down to the Mammoth Ranger station around 10 to pick up our permit. We didn’t run into any issues getting the one we wanted out of Devil’s Postpile. I also picked up a book to read: Shattered Air which I recently finished and really enjoyed. If you’re into search and rescue stories, I would recommend it.
We headed up to the Mammoth Mountain base camp area, bought our shuttle tickets, and rode the bus down to Devil’s Postpile. It was a nice day and we caught the bus around 11 AM, so it was pretty busy with families heading out on hikes.
I didn’t take many pictures on the hike from Devil’s Postpile up to Minaret Lake because the light was pretty bad and it was hot. The mosquitoes weren’t terrible during the heat of the day, but they were definitely around.
We saw cumulus clouds forming over the desert. They started to consolidate into cumulonimbus as the afternoon wore on. Fortunately, we had blue skies all around, so the clouds only served as added scenery in the distance.
We made it to Minaret Lake around 3:30 and checked out the north side of the peninsula that nearly divides the lake in half. I was hoping there would be a nice campsite somewhere on this peninsula, but it was a bit too steep and rocky. Instead we camped in between the lake and the little pond to the north.
After resting for an hour or two, we headed out to climb the Volcanic Ridge, a small peak near the Minarets that divides the Ediza Creek and Minaret Creek drainages. I chose this climb because the view of the Minarets from the summit is supposed to be fantastic. We tried to time our summit with the start of the golden hour, just as the sun was setting behind the ridge to our west.
Sierra Primrose on our way up the gully on the south side of Volcanic Ridge.
Dad climbing the screen in the gully with Clyde Minaret in the background. The route up Volcanic Ridge was pretty straightforward: climb the south facing gully directly north of Minaret Lake to its high point, a saddle east of the true summit, then scramble up the talus to the apparent high point. Both the scree in the gully and the talus near the top were somewhat loose, so it was a bit slow going.
Sunset looking back east over Mammoth Mountain. I believe the tall peak to the right is Mount Abbot, but I haven’t confirmed that.
The views from the summit were phenomenal, and our choice to summit late (about 7 o’clock) treated us to a fantastic sunset over the Minarets.
Just after the sun dropped below Mount Ritter (the high point just left of center) and Banner Peak (center). You can just see the west tip of Thousand Island Lake peaking out to the right.
We left the summit around 8 o’clock and headed back down. It was getting dark, but we didn’t need to break out the headlamps on the descent. When the route entered the marshy drainage near the bottom, the mosquitoes were swarming and I donned my headnet. Fortunately, by the time we got back to camp around 8:45, they started to disappear, so we didn’t get too chewed up while cooking and eating.
Day 2: Minaret Lake to Thousand Island Lake
11.1 miles, +2,400’
I’m going to devote a fair bit of the report for this day and the next to specific routes. For this day, the cross country route from Minaret Lake to Iceberg lake. For the next day, the west face of Mount Ritter and approach from Thousand Island Lake. I’m doing this because these routes were somewhat interesting, and I think others may be interested in our experience, and the condition in which we found these routes. If you’re not interested in reading about this, that’s fine, feel free to skim it or skip it entirely.
We didn’t really hustle out of camp this morning, as we only had to go about 10 miles. I figured it would only take us 4 hours or so to cover the distance, which would give us some time to lounge at Thousand Island Lake in the afternoon.
Morning light on Minaret Lake.
Morning light on Volcanic Ridge. The prominent gully in the middle is the route from Minaret Lake. It’s not as steep as it looks.
There’s a fairly prominent trail most of the way from Minaret Lake to Cecile Lake until the route turns to talus. Then it’s fairly straightforward talus hopping around the east shore of the lake to some cliffs
Looking across the talus field along the shore of Cecile Lake towards Mount Ritter and Banner Peak.
Because the basin holding Cecile and Iceberg Lakes is shaded by both the Volcanic Ridge and the Minarets, it holds snow much longer than one would expect. We encountered a snowfield while traversing Cecile Lake and a much larger one on the route from Cecile Lake down to Iceberg Lake.
The first snowfield, on the east shore of Cecile Lake was fairly steep and dropped right into the lake. We tried to kickstep across it, but there was one section where the snow was too hard. We backtracked and climbed up to the top of the snowfield. From there, we dropped down into the bergschrund, which was 3-5 feet wide and crossed to the other side through the bergschrund. I think Dad has a picture of us squeezing between a 10 foot snow wall on one side and rock face on the other. I’ll add it if I can get it from him, it probably looks funny. If we didn’t have that option, it looked like there was another route on the rocks higher up.
Looking down at Iceberg Lake from the cliffs at the north end of Cecile Lake.
We had to choose our route down from Cecile Lake somewhat carefully. From the cliffs at the north end of the lake, there was a long, very steep snowfield that dropped to steep talus below. Immediately west of this is an area of steeper talus and cliffs that we down climbed to bypass the snowfield. The climbing was easy class 3 at the worst, and there were only a couple of short chimneys that I needed to downclimb. From above, the route isn’t completely visible, but it does appear to be the best option. Additionally, the travel through this area wasn’t so difficult that strict adherence to a particular route is necessary. Later in the season when the long, steep snowfield melted, there’s supposed to be a prominent use trail through this area.
Dad crossing the low-angle snowfield on the southeast short of the aptly named Iceberg Lake.
Below the cliff bands, we dropped to some more talus and scree until we hit a snowfield that covered most of the southeast shore of Iceberg Lake. Fortunately, it was fairly level down by the shore of the lake and the snow was soft enough to make for pretty sturdy footing, so crossing it wasn’t too bad. In the picture above you can see the the steep snowfield coming down from Cecile Lake (it’s on the left side, directly above Dad) and the cliff band that we descended (just to the right of that snowfield).
The FSTopo (and some others) have a marked trail from Iceberg Lake up to Cecile Lake. There may have been one under the snow that we crossed, but you probably won’t find it until late in the season. We found that the easiest route was to the west of where the trail is marked on the map, and follows a path that is almost due north/south, directly towards the peninsula. Then, once the terrain levelled out, we followed a contour line about 20 feet above the lake until we were off of the snowfield.
Altogether, talus hopping and traversing snowfields for the 2 miles from Minaret Lake to Iceberg Lake took about 2 hours. We stopped at Iceberg Lake for a snack and to admire the fantastic views of the Minarets and the crystal clear (and very cold!) water. The rest of the hiking today was all on trail.
From Iceberg Lake, we dropped to Ediza Lake, which had some nice vistas of the Minarets. From here, we continued down the Shadow Creek drainage to the JMT and then followed the JMT north towards Garnet Lake.
Just past Ediza Lake, the trail crosses Shadow Creek in a place where there used to be a bridge. I was surprised by how swiftly the water was moving at this crossing. It wasn’t terrible, but it was knee deep and moving pretty well. Crossing this would be treacherous earlier in the season, or in a year with more snow.
A classic view of Garnet Lake.
The sky behind us was very dark from thunderstorms forming to the north.
Another classic view at the outlet of Garnet Lake. After this, we continued on to Thousand Island Lake. The storms continued to build and it rained lightly off and on for an hour or so, but that was as bad as it got for us today. We didn’t hear any thunder.
Indian Paintbrush and Lupine (I think) flowers with Banner Peak in the background.
Indian Paintbrush and Lupine with the setting sun in the background
Day 3: Attempt on the West Face of Mount Ritter
11.8 miles, +3,500’
After studying Secor a bit, we realized that to climb to the Ritter-Banner saddle from Thousand Island lake would require climbing the glacier between the two peaks, which we were not equipped for. Of the routes up Mount Ritter, the West Face was the only one we could access in a day that was easier than class 4, so we settled on that as our objective for the day. It would require we traverse the lakes and bowls around to the other side of the mountain just to get to the base of the climb. I wanted to summit before 11 o’clock or so, as I suspected the weather would get bad again today. We headed out from camp around 6, hoping that we would move faster with just our day packs.
We were treated to a fantastic sunrise over Banner Peak.
The route up to Lake Catherine was pretty straightforward. In fact, there was a use trail until it turned to talus a few hundred feet below North Glacier Pass. We had to cross one not-too-steep snowfield near the top of the pass. When we hit the talus, we just aimed for the lowest point in the saddle above and that popped us out right above Lake Catherine. We traversed the talus on the north and west shores of Lake Catherine.
Ritter Lake 10863, we would travel around the west (right in this picture) side of the lake to the snowfield leading up to the saddle in the middle, not the east (left in the picture) side as Secor recommends.
Dad climbing the snowfield up to the saddle below Ritter Lake 11079. The snow was soft enough to provide sturdy footing, and it wasn’t too steep.
Reaching the outlet of Ritter Lake 11079 meant we were at the base of our climb. I double checked Secor’s route description, which said to start up the second talus fan you cross moving south along the east shore of the lake. However, most of the lower face was covered in snow, so we picked a slope that seemed like it probably lead up to the bowl pictured in Secor’s book.
I found Secor’s description of this route fairly difficult to follow. We didn’t get off route, but I had to study it every few hundred feet to ensure we were still on course. This picture was the most helpful part of the route description, but care must be taken to orient yourself relative to the lakes in the picture and figure out where the picture is taken. The SummitPost description of this route appears to be much more helpful.
The rock in the lower bowl on this face was very loose. I tried to scramble on the largest boulders and rock bands I could find instead of the loose piles of talus and sand.
The chimney that shut us down.
About halfway up the face, the route climbs a chimney system that connects two talus bowls. The chimney is supposed to be steep, but still class 2. Unfortunately for us, it was full of snow, probably at least 3 feet of it. We didn’t feel comfortable traversing the steep snowfield at the head of this bowl as the snow had been getting harder as we moved up, or climbing up (and down) the chimney in that condition. We spent 10 minutes studying the face from below, looking for a way around, but we couldn’t find one. The rest of the face was steep, loose cliff bands. We decided to bail, a tough decision after a 4 hour approach, but the right call for us.
We sat and had a snack for ten minutes overlooking the highest Ritter Lake and the landscape to the west. I believe the high peaks to the right are (right to left) the remote Mount Ansel Adams, Foerster Peak, and Long Mountain. In this picture you can see the bottom of the snowfields we had been climbing.
After our snack, we ambled back down and followed the same route past the Ritter Lakes and Lake Catherine. At Lake Catherine, the thunderstorms started somewhere nearby, so we hustled a little bit to get off the talus on North Glacier Pass. It sprinkled on us just a little bit before we crossed the last snowfield and reconnected with the use trail.
White Mountain Heather.
With the rest of the day ahead of us and only a couple of miles to go, we took our time on the way back, stopping for lots of pictures.
Fields of Indian Paintbrush.
We startled this deer and a friend of his closer to the lake.
Pink Mountain Heather.
A California Toad.
By the time we made it back to camp, the clouds had become darker, and it looked like it would rain soon. We lounged around until it started, and then I hunkered down in the tent to read for a while. Dad didn’t mind, he said he was testing his rain gear, so he wandered around outside for a while. We used a brief gap in the rain around 6:30 to cook and eat. Because of the rain, we didn’t have any company (mosquitoes) for dinner.
After it rained, the cloud level dropped below the tops of the mountains and swirled around.
Day 4: Thousand Island Lake to Agnew Meadows
9.8 miles, +800’
Today’s agenda was an easy walk back to Agnew Meadows along the PCT. In this section of the Sierra, the PCT and JMT separate, with the JMT staying west, closer to Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes, while the PCT follows a ridge to the east, overlooking the Ritter Range.
Unfortunately, my phone was on the fritz today, and it had rained most of the night and the weather was still not very good, so I didn’t take too many pictures.
Dad hiking towards Mammoth. The bald mountain in the center is Mammoth Mountain, and the Mammoth Crest area is visible just to the right.
A panorama of the Ritter Range, from Banner Peak and Mount Ritter on the right to the Minarets and Volcanic Ridge on the left.
Lupine flowers with a Mammoth backdrop.
We made it back to Agnew Meadows without incident. I slipped on a rock and banged up my knee a bit, but I was fine. From there, we rode an empty shuttle bus (probably due to the weather) up to the cars, got sorted out, and were off on our way.
I don’t think I have as much to drone on about after this trip as I did after the JMT, so this should be a little bit more concise.
Secor claims the route around Cecile Lake is one of the more popular cross country routes in the Sierra. It’s easy to see why. A short, easy cross country section connecting two trails with beautiful scenery is fairly inviting. I would absolutely recommend this section to anyone who is interested in a bit of cross country travel. But, check beforehand to see if you can get recent pictures or satellite images. In our case, I feel the extra weight of microspikes and/or and ice axe would have been justified. The route is probably a bit easier in August or September.
The climb up Volcanic Ridge was also pretty enjoyable, despite the loose rock in the lower gully. The summit views were fantastic, and well worth a bit of slipping and sliding down lower.
The west face of Mount Ritter was a bit of an adventure. The approach is tedious, with several miles of talus hopping and little gendarmes and cliffs that must be negotiated to navigate around the lakes. I found this area about as difficult to travel than the infamous Williamson Bowl, but longer. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the summit views, but I would imagine they are fantastic. Based on what I’ve read, if I were to go again, I would try the more frequently climbed southeast glacier route.
Finally, the trail loop connecting the JMT and PCT in this area is a classic route featuring a ridgeline with impressive views of a range that connects to a beautiful series of alpine lakes. This is a fantastic day (without the Minaret Lake diversion) or overnight hike.
Okay, that’s about it. If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and if you have any feedback or questions, I would love to hear them in the comments or by contacting me directly.