The route starts at the Upper Ritter Lake, west of the summit. Unless you are a super hero, Thousand Island Lake is probably too far to be used as a base camp. It could take several hours to get from Thousand Island Lake to Lake Catherine over North Glacier Pass, and then you would need at least another hour to reach the Upper Ritter Lake from Lake Catherine. A better choice is therefore to set up the base camp at Lake Catherine or somewhere close to it. There are several good camp sites at this lake, but some are closer to the lake or its outlet than the camping regulations allow. There are other, less obvious, but more proper camping spots in the vicinity of the lake. From Lake Catherine, go south over a rocky dome, pass a small pond to your left, then take an unpleasant talus slope downhill to the Lower Ritter Lake. From here, continue south and uphill, along the creek that comes from the upper lake. Leave the creek near its top, and take a small chute left of the creek to the Upper Ritter Lake. It takes between an hour and an hour and a half to get to the upper lake from Catherine. Going back is not much faster.
I was puzzled by the vague description of the West Slope route of Ritter in Secor's book, and had to check it for myself. It turned out that the illustration in Secor was less than adequate
, and the text, although basically right, omitted to stress the crucial step of the ascent. For those readers who are equally perplexed by Secor's instructions, perhaps the following description will be useful.
The West Slope of Mount Ritter can be described as a system of two disconnected bowls. The main challenge is to find your way from one bowl to the other. The main source of confusion lies in the fact that the second, higher bowl is not visible anywhere from the first bowl. Other than this route finding obstacle, everything else is just stamina and perseverance. If you find the right route, it is class-2 all the way to the top.
The route starts at the southeast shore of the Upper Ritter Lake (WL 3377 on metric topo maps). Climb straight up a talus fan (in an easterly direction), until, in about 30 to 40 minutes, you reach the edge of the first, main bowl. Follow the bowl up, and observe what looks like a small notch on a side ridge
to your right (south). At first, it appears that the notch is in the wrong direction (too far to the right of the main Ritter ridge), and therefore of no interest in this ascent. However, it turns out that the notch is not a notch, but actually a narrow opening where the bottom of the second (still invisible) bowl empties into a steep chute. You will also notice what look like several parallel ramps from the main bowl to that "notch". As you get higher and closer, it becomes apparent that one of the ramps is comfortably wide and leads straight to the "notch". Once you pass a rock outcrop in the upper third of the main bowl, turn right, and follow the wide ramp to that opening in the side ridge. Only now can you see, ahead and above, the entire upper bowl. There is even a use trail from days gone by through most of the upper bowl. The bowl connects to a wide chute in its upper left section, and this chute exits to the main south ridge of Mount Ritter. However, following the chute to the top would get you too high and take you in the wrong direction. Instead, as Secor suggests, leave the chute when you are about hundred feet below its top, via a ramp to your left, and exit to a lower point at the main ridge. From here, you have your first full view of the summit of Mount Ritter. It took me about two and a half hours (including plenty of rest breaks) to get from the Upper Ritter Lake to the ridge.
The exit point is higher than and to the south of a saddle on the main ridge, while the top of Ritter is north of this saddle, so you first have to follow the ridge downhill. For a moment you might be discouraged, as it may look as if the summit is much too far away, but you are actually about forty minutes, less than a quarter of a mile, and only some five hundred vertical feet below from your goal. Here you join the upper portion of the more traditional "Southeast Glacier Route". Just follow the east edge of the ridge to the top of the mountain.
On your way back, when you get from the ridge to the top of the upper bowl, you will notice a chute to your right. This is the dreaded Chockstone Chute (see below). Although this chute goes in the right direction, be smart and avoid the temptation to use it as a shortcut. Instead, take the same path that you used on your way up, go down the wide slope of the upper bowl to its bottom (the "notch"), then turn right to the ramp that connects the two bowls, and reach safely the main (lower) bowl.
What Not to Do
If you continue up the main bowl past the ramp, you will eventually reach the top of the bowl. This is the end of class-2 terrain, with plenty of opportunities for real rock climbing for those who wish to do so. However, from the very top of the main bowl, you will notice a chute to your right that looks like a good way to reach the ridge. You can unmistakably recognize this chute by a huge chockstone at its bottom. The chute is dark, always shaded, and probably covered by ice earlier in season. You may think that this is the way to go, but if you want to stay within class-2, don't fool yourself. Even if ice free, the rocks in the chute are very unstable, and you may find yourself loosing your foothold and hanging on by your fingernails while desperately trying to find support for your feet. Besides, once you pass the first chockstone, there is another one, and yet another one, and you are trapped. Eventually, this chute does reach the top part of the upper bowl, but it is not worth the effort, and it is certainly beyond class-2.
What You Should Do
You should mark clearly both the exit from the first ramp to the upper bowl, and the exit from the second ramp to the ridge. I am grateful to Secor for adding the sentence "The top of this upper chute is difficult to find during descent". Without that warning I would have had a hard time finding my way back. Unless you leave some mark at the exit to the ridge, it is really easy to miss the right spot during your descent. If you make a pile of rocks (duck) be sure to personalize it so that you can distinguish it from other similar piles of rocks. (And don't forget to remove your ducks once you no longer need them). Similarly, on your way back, you may not be certain where exactly the first ramp (at the "notch") is, unless you have marked the exit from the ramp clearly during your ascent.
There was no snow anywhere on the route when I made the trip in August 2008. Although the ramps mentioned above are likely snow free in summer even during heavy snow years, there may possibly be snow and ice in the bowls and chutes that have to be crossed, and crampons and axe may be needed. Presence of snow/ice may change the level of difficulty and the classification of this route.
A Bit of History
Theodore S. Solomons is credited with the first ascent of Ritter via the West Slope route in 1892. His original report
was published in the Sierra Club Bulletin
, Vol. 1, No. 3, January 1894, pp. 61-84, under the title "Among the Sources of the San Joaquin".
Norman Clyde, in Touring Topics
, August 1928 (Automobile Club of Southern California monthly bulletin), wrote about Mt. Ritter: "Although it has been climbed from the east, the routes usually followed
are from the west and the north". However, he also adds: "There seems to be some difficulty in following the former [i.e., the west approach], as several parties have unwittingly gotten off and missed their objective. Nor is it the most accessible side of the mountain". (Clyde's Touring Topics
article is reprinted in his Close Ups of the High Sierra
, La Siesta Press, 1962 and 1966, p. 44).
Walter A. Starr (Sr), in his article "A Climber's Guide to the High Sierra, Part II, The Ritter Range", published in the Sierra Club Bulletin
, Vol 23, No 2 (Apr 1938), pp. 20-32, describes the route with following words:
(13,162). Route 3 - Glacier Lake Pass - Ritter Lake - West Slope
. First class. First ascent, August 20, 1892, by Theodore S. Solomons (S. C. B.
, 1894, 1:3, pp. 69-70). From Thousand Island Lake proceed to North Glacier Lake (see Pass No. 1). Thence around W. side to Ritter Lake. Climb the W. slope (various routes) leading to summit.
Notes about Starr's description: "Glacier Lake Pass" is now called North Glacier Pass; "Glacier Lake" is Lake Catherine. Starr marks this route as "first class", while in the same article he describes the Mount Davis East Slope route as "second class". At present time, I would judge Mt. Davis route somewhat easier than Mt. Ritter West Slope route, but perhaps there was a use trail all the way to Ritter summit in the thirties, which would then explain Starr's classification. Only disconnected remnants of an old trail could be found today.
First winter ascent on this route seems to have been done by George Bloom, Bob Swift, and Floyd Burnette in February 1952 (Sierra Club Bulletin
, Vol. 38, No. 8, October 1953, "To Mount Ritter on Skis" by George Bloom).