Mount Davis (#55), Banner Peak (#56), and Mount Ritter (#57)
Day 47, Mount Davis, Banner Peak, and Mount Ritter
Mount Ritter and Banner Peak are true Sierra icons. They are steep, tall, and proud peaks, their distinct shapes clearly visible from many other nearby summits, as well as the Mammoth Lakes area. Anchored together by a high col, they stand together as reigning monarchs of the northern Sierra. They are two of my very favorite peaks in the world.
Last winter, I had an excellent experience skiing both peaks in a day. This time, I planned to up the ante by throwing in a third peak, Mount Davis, as well as an ascent of Ritter’s steep and technical North Face. I had spent many hours planning my route for the day, meticulously drawing and comparing many variations. After much debate, I ultimately decided on the route which I will describe here.
I started the day in the predawn dusk from my camp at lake Idizia. I climbed quickly towards Ritter and Banner.
Just as the rising sun illuminated their towering figures, I contoured around to the north, gliding past the aptly named Thousand Island Lake.
A short climb put me at Lake Catherine, tucked away in a small, wonderfully alpine cirque.
From here, an easy climb led up to and across Davis’s large summit plateau.
A final scramble gained the summit. What Davis lacks in prominence or interesting climbing, it easily makes up for in spectacular views.
It was an unusual treat to see the west faces of Ritter and Banner, their “back side”. Unlike many Sierra peaks, these two present steep and rugged forms from all angles.
Eager to go commune with them, I quickly descended Davis, a combination of fun skiing and easy, flat gliding. This is one of few peaks that may be truly easier in winter.
In no time, I was skating across Lake Cathrine, throwing skis on the pack, and booting up towards the Ritter/Banner Col.
I hoped to repeat my descent of Banner’s SW face. The only problem was, the face is hidden from nearly every angle, including immediately below it. The only reason I had made the effort to ski it previously was because of its striking appearance from the summit of Ritter, virtually the only good vantage point to scope the line. Today, I’d be climbing Banner first, and was going on blind faith.
I reached the col and, gazing up Banner, saw nothing but talus.
I debated leaving my skis behind and easily running up to the summit in trail runners, but knew that, if I did so and found the ski line to be in, I would deeply regret it. Instead, I picked my way across the unstable talus in ski boots, hoping for that unlikely strip of snow to appear.
Sure enough, just as I began to get frustrated with the tedious travel, a narrow strip of snow appeared. It was littered with exposed rocks and ice but lead continuously upward towards the summit. I eagerly booted up. Each time I thought it was coming to an end, an unlikely passage revealed itself. Ultimately, I was able to link continuous snow to about 50’ below the summit!
I dropped my skis and clambered to what looked like the high point. Upon reaching it, I realized that the true summit was the other tower. I was suddenly hit with a wave of deja vu, and remembered making the exact same mistake last winter. I quickly climbed to the true high point.
From here, I was treated to an excellent view of my next segment of climbing and the crux of the day: the North Face of Ritter.
While the route is only 3rd class in dry conditions, it was currently plastered with snow and ice and appeared quite challenging. I eyed a couple of potential ascent options, then returned to my skis.
A few minutes of fantastic, tight, and exciting skiing, followed by the traverse back across the talus, deposited me at the col and the base of the face. I took a lunch break and studied the route. It certainly looked doable, but definitely wouldn’t be easy. My other option was to ski down and around to the more moderate SE face route, but this would require a significant amount of extra elevation gain. I decided I was up for the challenge, donned crampons, and started up the steep, snowy rock gully.
Climbing rock in crampons has always been a weakness of mine, but as I climbed this line, I found myself carefully and deliberately finding and trusting small, technical foot placements. I even found myself enjoying the tough conditions!
In many places, the rock was covered by a thin sheet of ice, and required chipping it away to find secure holds. I climbed slowly and methodically, surmounting crux after crux. At the top of the gully, I was presented with two options: a ridge of technical, loose looking rock, or a long, exposed traverse on very steep snow to the standard exit ramp. I opted for the snow traverse.
What ensued was certainly the most difficult and engaging snow climbing I’ve ever encountered. The snow was deep and loose, and as steep as 60 degrees in sections.
I stayed laser focused and continuously sidestepped my way across it without hesitation. I reached the exit ramp without mishap, and climbed up and out of the dark steepness and onto the flat, sunny summit.
I immediately felt a massive release of tension throughout my mind and body. I soaked in the warm sun, proud of my effort and excited for the coming descent.
I didn’t linger as long as I would have liked, but the hour was late and I still had many miles to go before I could sleep. I dropped in on the familiar descent, carving fast turns in golden sunlight with a spectacular view of a sea of mountains.
Some talus downclimbing was followed by thousands of more feet of fast, fun turns, depositing me right back at my camp and completing my loop for the day. I packed quickly, remembering my epicly long slog out from my last Ritter trip.
Fortunately, unlike like last time, my skis were still fully intact, and the exit went fairly smoothly. The snow was, expectedly, patchy and annoying, and there were many miles of flat walking, but I still managed to reach Agnew Meadows before dark. However, the true crux of the day remained: 3 miles of uphill road walking back up to Mammoth. I settled into a rhythm as I slogged my way through the darkness. The travel proved to be quite meditative and even pleasant. As I neared the top of the climb, I emerged from the forest, and was treated to an excellent view of the range illuminated by the moon, snowy peaks sparkling under the stars.
A wave of gratitude washed over me as I relived the last three days: speeding down from Iron Mountain, climbing high on Clyde Minaret, spotting the wonderfully improbable ski line on Banner Peak, and emerging into the sunlight from Ritter’s north face. A complex trip, months in planning, executed with near perfection. It was beautiful.
Minutes later, I skated past the eerie glow of the Minaret Summit ranger station and glided on out to Mammoth, where Ayelet greeted me with warm pizza (the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten) and a ride back to my van. I slept happily and soundly.
Note: the end of the activity accidentally includes the van ride from the ski resort into town.
View the activity here.