I suppose the reason for this trip started back in 2001, a time when I was even softer than I am now. A group of 3, Scotty, Melanie, and I, took a very casual approach to climbing Mt. Ritter. We did little research, brought no maps, and weren't particularly fit.
To shorten this part of the story, we failed miserably, never even setting foot on the peak. We left from the wrong trailhead (Devil's Postpile/Rainbow Falls) and ended up at Minaret Lake. We scrambled up one of the lesser Minarets (Pridham), and headed back to the car. While our conviction may have been poor, it did not lessen the guilt associated with missing even a half-hearted goal.
Fast forward to August 9, 2004. Mono County SAR got a callout for a missing climber on Mt. Ritter. Craig Knoche and I were airlifted in an ANG Blackhawk, and we did a quick aerial search of the area, spotting an object near the base of the Southeast Glacier on Ritter. The helo dropped us off on a spur ridge at about 10,800', and we hefted our packs to check out the object. I arrived first, and the "object" turned out to be the missing climber, clearly deceased.
While waiting for the helo to bring in some recovery gear and another team, I climbed up the glacier to see if I could determine where the climber had fallen from. There were a couple of obvious impact points, and from these I could determine the line of the fall. I followed the line a ways up the glacier, but could not determine for sure where the initial fall began. The helo brought in some ice screws, pickets, ropes, and another 2-person team, dropping them off at about 11,300'. We hucked the gear up to the victim’s position, and set anchors for lowering the litter. We lowered the victim about 800 ' down the glacier to the new landing zone (LZ). We ended up bivying there, as the helo wasn't interested in night flying over that terrain, and the next morning 3 of us hiked back up to try and reconstruct the accident while waiting for our ride out. The helo arrived early, and we scrambled back down before we were able to get a real definitive start point. In the mad scramble to get all the gear and people onto the helo, I lost one of my gloves at the LZ.
As the weeks went by, the recovery team discussed various theories, and the most promising one was that the climber went up the Clyde route to gain the SE Glacier, and then when faced with the steep ice, decided to travel in the moat. The moat runs out part way over, so possibly he climbed out to go around and regain the moat further over, and slipped from there. It was bothering me somewhat that the cause was so inconclusive, so I decided to go back up and investigate this possibility, and to settle an old score with the peak.
August 30, 2004.
Scotty and I hit the High Sierra Bakery in Bridgeport, and thus fortified, headed for the Agnew Meadows trailhead. We arrived at 6:50 am, geared up, and were on the trail by 7:10. We hit Shadow Lake in 1:08, Ediza a further 1:05, and then headed up toward the glacier, Scotty filming portions of the climb with his video camera. Upon our arrival, we searched in vain for my missing glove, but it was not to be found. After a quick recon of the area, it became apparent that the moat theory was weak at best. The moat didn't go over far enough to put the climber in a position to end up where we found him. This was Scotty’s first visit to the accident site, and he came up with an alternate scenario. He felt that the climber likely fell from a notch in the exposed ridge, onto the glacier, and slid down from there, but Scotty has always been susceptible to hypoxia, it affects him sometimes as low as 6,500’, and we were above 11,000’. In the past this hypoxia has adversely affected his cognitive abilities. We had intended to climb up in the moat to look for a couple pieces of gear that we had not been able to locate earlier, but after scouting the terrain, we decided that the probability was low, so we decided to abandon this idea, and tackle the next phase of our plan.
We were not even sure if the climber had fallen on the way up or down, so we headed for the top to see if he had signed in. We arrived at the summit in 5:18 from the trailhead. Again, no luck. Either he wasn't there (likely), or he didn't sign in. Scotty rates the rock on Mt. Ritter as “extremely disgusting”, and the fresh rockfall scattered everywhere on the lower part of the glacier backs up his claim. The glacier conditions were more like late fall than late summer, and so much of the snow and ice has melted that there is much more dangerously loose talus on the lower part of the Owens route, just past (and adjacent to) the SE Glacier, junk that is normally covered by snow/ice.
From the summit of Ritter, Banner was over there just a bit... We descended the North Face, Classic Chute, and that was the lowlight of the trip. It is steep, the ledges are downsloping, and everything is loose. The ledges are covered in gravel and sand, and every footstep and handhold is an adventure. Test them all before you commit. It was quite difficult to gain the North Glacier. There was a short, steep cliffband to downclimb (likely due to the late-season low snow levels), and then we had to chop out a little ledge while holding on with one hand so we would have a platform on which to secure our crampons. The snow was gone, and all that was left was brittle water-ice with a thin surface layer of snow-melt slush. It was steep enough that I felt compelled to front-point down, just for security. Front-pointing is strenuous with flexible crampons and flexible shoes, but the stretch of ice wasn’t too long.
Once we reached the security of the Ritter-Banner Saddle, we stowed our ice gear and headed up the solid talus of Banner. It took 37 minutes up, and 22 down. Once back at the saddle, we downclimbed a series of wet sloping ledges on the east side of the saddle to gain the snowfield/glacier. We donned our crampons again, and stepped out onto the glacier. There was a little bit of snow, and it was easy to kick steps, but when the snow ran out, we were happy to have our crampons to negotiate the ice. From there it was a loose scramble back to the use trail above Ediza Lake, and then on out. That mile or so of gradual uphill right before the trailhead is a nice bonus.
I just read you trip report for the first time, (even though I have been a SP'er for a while now0 and wanted to sincerly thank you for you efforts assesing how this climber fell. He was my Father, the family still has no real conclusions as to what happened or how he might have fell. Your trip report clearly sheds some more light on a very tragic incident.
Than you very much, and for all your service in the recovery of my father.
I am sorry we did not reach a more concrete conclusion, it was not for lack of effort. I have dwelled on this accident at some length, and I still feel that the best bet was the Clyde couloir, and a subsequent attempt to cross the SE Glacier. I do have some additional images you may be interested in that I took on the subsequent trip. Let me know if you have interest. Good luck on your Ritter trip next month.
"Live it up, fill your cup, drown your sorrow, and sow your wild oats while ye may, for the toothless old tykes of tomorrow, were the tigers of yesterday"
--Tom Patey, from the The Last of the Grand Old Masters