Friday, Septemer 6th, 2019 - I sat at the Mountain Rambler Brewery bar sipping on their award winning Scottish Ale while scrolling through photos on my phone. I had just come off of the trail after an attempted seven day completion of Roper's Sierra High Route in which I lasted four days before bailing due to a number of factors. I'll save that for another trip report. I put my phone down and the bartender asked if I wanted another. I asked her to close me out. Visiting hot springs and drinking at the local pub was already becoming rather drab. My permit was still active for pretty much anywhere north of Onion Valley and although I felt comfortable bailing on the High Route because I got what I wanted out of the trip, I needed redemption. I needed to win.
The first idea that came to mind was Banner Peak. The iconic 12,936 foot mountain and its surrounding lands have a reputation for being the most picturesque in all of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. On top of that, the peak and its taller neighbor to the south (Mount Ritter), have ample routes to summit ranging from Class 2, to 5.9 most of which are widely known and easily researched online. Both peaks can be reached via the Ritter-Banner saddle which is accessed from the west or east so long as its visitor carries the appropriate gear as glacier travel is necessary throughout the year. Ultimately, I decided to stick to the Class 2 route up to Banner Peak because it included a section of the Sierra High Route. I had already done research for half the approach up to Lake Catherine, and I wanted to see more of the High Route to plan for another attempt.
The next issue I faced was that the route included snow travel and the only gear I had was for summer backpacking. Fortunately, a friend in Bishop who was also on a trek allowed me to crash at his pad. Upon returning to his house, I walked passed his bedroom on the way to the restroom and noticed his gear closet. It took me an additional hour to justify lightly perusing his toys, but it only took a few minutes to find an ice axe, microspikes, and helmet. I packed a decent kit and tried to get a good nights rest.
Use trail I mistakenly took located just north of Agnew Meadows Campground.
Saturday, September 7th, 2019 -- The red tape involved in reaching the Agnew Meadows trail head could have been a pain had I started after 8:30AM. The only way down to the parking area during the day is by shuttle but I made it down before 7 o'clock. I imagine that I missed a big obvious PCT trail sign after parking because I followed the road toward the campgrounds for a half mile where my maps showed an additional path would eventually intersect the PCT toward the River trail. I shuffled around the campground for an entire ten minutes before I found a use trail that seemed to be overgrown and chuckled at the difficulty I had committing to it. Part of me imagined that anything on a map this close to Red's Meadow would be decorated with neon signs and flashing lights due to the traffic it gets, and the other part of me wondered why I was hesitant to do less than a quarter mile of cross country travel after spending four days backpacking solo on the Sierra High Route.
Descending the River Trail toward Olaine Lake.
Within a few minutes of managing the dense forested landscape, I reached the Pacific Crest Trail. A junction just a quarter mile further brought me to the River Trail where the Middle Fork San Joaquin River paralleled the path. The trail descends into the canyon passing Olaine Lake before taking a gradual ascent toward the next junction. The Shadow Creek trail meets Shadow Lake at its east outlet and rounds its north shore where it intersects the John Muir trail. I thought about taking this route to get a look at the additional Garnet Lake basin, but for some reason I was just not feeling super pumped to be on the trail and at this point had to convince myself to get even as far as Thousand Island Lake so I decided to take the straight shot instead. In hindsight, this was a mistake since climbing to the Ritter-Banner saddle (Ediza Lake approach) from the east would have added so much opportunity for adventure to this outing.
Approaching Thousand Island Lake (9,833 ft)
Total distance traveled: 4.5 miles , Total gain: 1,234 ft.
Looking at Banner Peak and Glacier Pass from the middle of Thousand Island Lake.
An additional 2.75 miles brought on a thousand foot climb and a junction for Garnet Lake. I took a long break here to filter water and have a snack before moving further along the River Trail. The route reconvenes with the PCT and eventually plateaus at the outlet for Thousand Island Lake. It was at this point that my entire outlook on the day flipped completely. As if being on flat ground wasn't enough, the view of Banner's imposing west face from the toe of the lake is one of the most brilliant examples of the Sierra Nevada I had ever seen. The trail skirts the north shore where grassy meadows dotted with colorful wildflowers echo the textures of the small islands spanning the lake. It truly was a prime example of the eastern Sierra mountain landscape and even more awe inspiring to know that this was the source for the longest river in central California, the San Joaquin River.
Glacier Pass (11,170 ft)
Total distance traveled: 10.5 miles, Total gain: 3,761 ft
Peering up at Glacier Pass the meadows below.
About half way around the lake, the next goal became visible. The lowest point between what looked like Mount Davis and Banner Peak was Glacier Pass. I continued along the lake shore eventually reaching its northwestern edge. A use trail emerged veering further west. Although this path was pretty obvious at its start, it eventually faded as I ascended the grassy meadows. At roughly 10,600 feet the climbing began. Medium talus blocks dominate the landscape for the remaining half mile up to Lake Catherine. The morning wind was pretty rough. I told myself that if conditions persisted I would need to consider turning back at the next Lake. Two small snow patches near the pass called for microspikes and trekking poles but I eventually made it up to an incredible view of deep blue waves rippling across the surface of Lake Catherine.
Reaching the Ritter-Banner Saddle (12,022 ft)
Total distance traveled: 11.6 miles, Total gain: 4730 ft
Observing route options from Glacier Pass. Lake Catherine's northeastern shore (right).
View from the top of the snow patch in the last photo.
From Glacier Pass, I could now see why others trip reports mentioned veering left during the previous talus scramble to get a jump on the continued ascent. Steep granite slabs separated two potential routes toward the saddle which was still hidden from view. I opted for the lower concave approach which included another short snow crossing. A fifty foot steep class 2 scramble brought me to a good overview of the Glacier below the Ritter-Banner saddle. I knew that at one point I would need to drop down onto the glacier but every opportunity included loose dirt and rock which in my experience was really unsafe. Descending slopes with similar terrain (popular in the San Gabriel mountains) usually included a lot of unpredictable rock fall. I made a point to traverse as horizontally as possible. If I did create a slide, it would go down and away from where I was headed.
I reached the Glacier at 11:45 AM and scoffed at having to put my microspikes on for the third time in less than a mile, but climbing above Lake Catherine was pretty empowering. I had over come every potential hindrance and reaching the summit of Banner was now inevitable. As I reached the saddle, I heard some strange sounds and my head perked up like a deer in headlights. Someone had reached the saddle from eastern approach at almost the exact same time. I waved to him and did what I could to catch up. Patrick and I chatted for a little about the routes we had taken and he mentioned he was considering going for Ritter next. Had he given me any sign of confidence, I'd probably have joined him, but we both knew that it was getting pretty late for a double summit.
Reaching Banner Peak (12,936 ft)
Total distance traveled: 12 miles, Total gain: 5,541 ft
Patrick Voosen ascending the Class 2 scramble up to the peak.
From the saddle, the route became a class 2 slog to the peak at first consisting of smaller loose rocks but slowly building toward solid boulders. The trip report I read mentioned the summit block being further back than the visible apex and I made a slightly dramatic effort north early on. This placed me too far back and I had to manage an exposed class 3 scramble to get to the actual peak. Patrick didn't follow suit but it was fun to play around on the rocks at this height.
We took a long break at the peak where we enjoyed the panoramic views of everything from Mono Lake to the Minarets. Looking northwest, I could now see much of the continuance of the Sierra High Route taunting me. I remembered reading that one of the most untrammeled and difficult to navigate segments was between Twin Island Lakes and Blue Lake. I would need to come back and find out for myself. For now it was time to return home.
Right click, 'open in new tab' to enlarge. (from left to right) Mono Lake (background), Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, Shadow Lake, Nydiver Lakes, Lake Ediza, and Cecile Lake.
Looking west toward Yosemite National Park.
Total Distance (from trail head to summit) : 12.75 miles
Total Elevation (feet): 5,500 feet
Trail Difficulty: Moderate.
- Class 1 heavily trafficked trail up to end of Thousand Island Lake. Diminishing use trail up to Glacier Pass granite scramble. Class 2 scramble and Glacier snow travel up to peak. Traction required.