This trip started out as a planned backpacking trip with my backpacking partner/friend Maria to go out of June Lake, CA and hike to Thousand Island Lakes. But after seeing the picture of Banner Peak that looms over Thousand Island Lakes the thought of climbing Banner Peak took over my plans. After some research I found the best approach for a solo ascent would be out of the Mammoth Mountain ski area. After a lot of research (mostly at summitpost.com) I planed to climb the west face via the Ritter/Banner saddle.
Maria and I left on Wednesday night around 6:30 pm and started the long drive to Mammoth Mountain. This involved going through Yosemite via highway 120. We finally arrived in Mammoth Mountain around midnight. After a cold night (reminder, do NOT sleep on a big air mattress without any insulation on a cold night) we got up and went into town for breakfast. After a nice breakfast (Belgium waffle with whipped cream and strawberries) we headed over to the ranger station to pick up our permit. We had no problems getting the permit and found out the mandatory shuttle bus was no longer running. This was great since we now could drive into Agnew Meadow to start the hike.
We arrived at the ranger entry station and were told some sad news. Agnew Meadow and all the areas beyond the entrance station were closed to overnight parking! This was not good news since Agnew Meadow was 2 3/4 miles from the entrance station! We realized that there was nothing we could do about it so we drove into Agnew Meadow (elevation approximately 8300 feet). We dropped off the backpacks and I drove back up to the entrance station to park the truck. I started walking down from the ranger station (approximately 9100 feet) and it seems I looked undesirable since the 7 vehicles that passed me didn't feel like picking me up. Approximately 50 minutes later I arrived back at Agnew Meadow to begin our 6 1/2 mile hike to Ediza Lake.
The trail started with some level hiking then began a descent down to 8000 feet. After a mile or so, we began our 800 plus foot ascent up to Shadow Lake and our break. Shadow Lake had great views of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. After a well deserved lunch break we continued our hike up to Ediza lake (elevation around 9300 feet). We set up camp on the east side of the lake which seemed to be right beneath Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak.
The alarm went off at 5:30 am and I got up to make breakfast and get prepared. At 6:30 am I started hiking up the trail towards Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter. A hour of hiking brought me to the meadow below Mt. Ritter. It was still dark but sunrise was coming quickly. Banner Peak looked impressive in the morning light. From here on it would be climbing on talus slopes. Talus slopes are comprised of boulders. These vary in size. The boulders in this area varied from the size of walnuts to the size of motorcycles. The fun part was that any one of them could move and it didn't matter what size they were. This required concentration and balance on how you walked. I continued up the talus slopes to the glacier (a very small glacier, more like a snowfield, but it was complete with a small bergschrund) with the saddle above it. I finally was able to put on my crampons and begin the climbing up to snow/ice couloir that headed up to the saddle between Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. I climbed up approximately 200 feet up the couloir and was not happy. The couloir was steep, but the problem was the water runnels that were vertical grooves that ran down the couloir. These made the snow/ice irregular with sections steeper than the rest. I felt I wouldn't have any problem making it up to the saddle, but was concerned about coming back down this gully. After a few minutes of agonizing over the possibility of not making the summit, I observed what appeared to be 3rd class ledges that ascended up from the glacier to the saddle. I decided to attempt this route instead of the snow/ice gully. After traversing over to the rock, I had to climb over a short bergschrund to climb up onto the rock. 3rd class ledges led over to the base of Mt. Ritter. From here I was able to continue up along other 3rd class rock. The run part was picking which rocks to hold onto and stand on. These ledges were filled with loose rock. After some route finding I was able to to reach the saddle (elevation approximately 12,000 feet) at the base of Mt. Ritter. From here I was able to view the west slope of Mt. Banner and my route to the summit. From the saddle there were great views of Ediza Lake and Nydiver Lakes and the west side of the saddle down into Lake Catherine.
After a short lunch break, I started up what appeared to be the never-ending talus slope that comprised the west slope of Banner Peak. Here it became more of a battle of stamina as the effects of elevation became to come into play. I found I had to stop and rest frequently to catch my breath. But it seemed I was getting closer and closer. I found that I needed to traverse towards the north to follow a route to the true summit (Banner Peak is comprised of several "summits", but only one is the true summit). After what seemed to be forever (guide books say 35 minutes, I took almost 50 minutes) I reached the summit (elevation 12,945 feet)! I sat down and tried to take a self-portrait and pictures of the surrounding area. I had a great view of Iceberg Lake, Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, Ediza Lake, Shadow Lake, Nydiver lakes, the north face of Mt. Ritter, and Mono Lake. As I started to leave I noticed the summit registry was sitting underneath the summit block I was sitting on. I quickly signed the registry and started the long descent.
I found I had used up a lot of energy and the descent seemed to go on forever. The constant concentration on my steps (a bad step could result in a slip or fall, and being alone at 12,000 feet with a twisted ankle or worst was something I didn't want to consider) was taking it's toll on me. After what seemed forever (actually about 30 minutes) I reached the saddle. Here I found "John from Lafayette" and "Frank from England" who had just finished climbing up the snow/ice couloir. They also did not enjoy the conditions, but pushed on none the less. After some encouraging words they headed up for the summit and I continued my descent. After some careful routefinding I was able to get back onto the glacier. A quick descent led me once again back to the talus slopes which continued forever back down towards Ediza Lake.
I arrived back in camp around 3 pm totally spent and exhausted. After a quick dip of my feet into a cold stream I found the tent, took some I/B and laid down. After about an hour of rest, I felt better and it was dinner time! We did another quick walk around the camp area after dinner and then it was time for Cribbage and bed.
In the morning we broke camp and headed back out to Agnew Meadow. The 6 1/2 mile hike out took less than 3 hours but I found my legs were still tired from the climb. We had just taken off our packs at the road leading up to our vehicle when a car came by. This driver was more friendly and I was able to get a ride back up to the truck.