Mount Ritter, Banner and the Minarets form the jagged crest west of the resort town of Mammoth Lakes. There are numerous climbs on these airy peaks. The rock is dark and fractured with glassy surfaces. The rock is steep and edgy to climb on and surprisingly solid. The large alpine lakes with the backdrop of the turreted peaks makes this a spectacular and popular area. Mount Banner forms a dark throne sitting over Thousand Island Lake and the north arete forms the sky edge of the right side of the peak. This is the climb.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s Vern Clevenger and I spent months in the High Sierra. Our primary residence was Tuolumne Meadows. We glacier polish edged our way to ridiculously inadequate bolt stances where we would let go and drill for our lives.We escalated our need for more adrenaline by making dashes into the higher Sierra to make long ridge traverses or climbs
like the North Arete. As was often the case our ideas for climbs coincided with each other and neither of needed convincing that the North arete would be a great day in the hills. We parked the car early in the morning at Silver Lake. I pulled out the rack and a short 9 ml rope, our standard high country climbing equipage. Vern wondered why we’d need anything for a class 4 climb
and I wondered how the North Arete could only be class 4. We stowed the rope and rack and walked the 12 miles to Glacier Lake Pass and the base of the steep jumble of rock that made up the arete. I started climbing and Vern asked “if I had lost my marbles.” I reminded him that it was his idea to leave the climbing equipment behind. We shared my chalk bag and had a great climb together.
We thought that this was a first ascent but recently learned that Jim Koontz and Sarah Haynes made the climb in August of 1950. This surprised me. At one time Richard Leonard (first ascent Higher Cathedral Spire and former Sierra Club director) told me that he had instructed Koontz in the use of piton and rope the same month and year on the nearby Koip Crest.
The climbing on the arete is typical High Sierra fare. Steep, sometimes loose, often easy, the crux exposed, a relief at the summit register, unless of of course the snow on the descent is hard…. I never climb in the High Sierra with anything but a 120 foot 9 ml rope, 3 Friends, 6 stoppers, and 6 slings. A longer rope leads to longer pitches which need more pro and a bullhorn to communicate with your partner.
Permits: Wilderness permits are available through Inyo National Forest (see contact below).
Special Concerns: Easy walking around the north shore of Thousand Island Lake leads to easy travel to Glacier Lake Pass. Lake Catherine is just west of this Pass. The toe of the arete forms the south side of the pass. As with all High Sierra climbs a plethora of route options exist before, during and after the climb and although someone may be a solid 5.8 climber at a gym or on well trodden climbs this does not insure success on an alpine climb. I’ve seen Yosemite Valley hard men reduced to whimpers on loose exposed class 4 or icy glissades. Descend to the Ritter-Banner saddle and follow the low angle glacier back to Glacier Lake Pass.
Access: This climb can be done in a long day from Silver Lake on the June Lake Loop (Highway 158 west of Highway 395). From Silver Lake follow the trail past Clark Lakes to Thousand Island Lake. For those making this a 2-day trip Thousand Island Lake is the place to camp. A haven for food stealing bears.
Guidebook:Climbing California’s High Sierra: The Classic Climbs on Rock and Ice
, by John Moynier and Claude Fiddler. Falcon Publishing; 2nd edition (December 2001), $30
Contact: Inyo National Forest, (760) 647-3000; http://r05s001.pswfs.gov/inyo