Mt. Davis P750 SPS / PD

Mon, Jun 30, 1997
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 5 6 Profiles: 1 2 3
later climbed Sat, May 31, 2008

Terry and I were camped at Thousand Island Lake, a large, beautiful lake right at tree line in the John Muir Wilderness, about 8 miles west of June Lakes. I had wanted to climb Mt. Ritter for some time now since I had first viewed it from the top of Mammoth Mountain some years before, and it seemed this was a good spot from which to make an attempt. It had good campsites, well-protected under the trees, beautiful views, and strategically located. I had planned ambitiously, hoping to also be able to climb Mt. Lyell and several other peaks in the four days we planned to spend here. As usual, I had planned my climbing itinerary too ambitiously. I had spent the previous day off attempting to reach Mt. Lyell from the east, but by 1p I had just reached Marie Lakes and was 2000ft and almost 2 miles short of the peak. So I had turned back, and had to put it off for another day. I hadn't given myself more than a 50% chance of getting to Mt. Lyell, knowing it was a difficult approach and some miles from our camp. Mt. Ritter was another story, as this trip had been designed around climbing this peak. Today was the day for the attempt on Mt. Ritter (can you see where this is going?), which was only about 4 miles from where we camped, and little more than 3,000 feet of climbing. Secor describes a class 2 route from the west side by Ritter Lakes, seemingly the easiest route to the peak. There was still plenty of snow about as it was only late June, but I was hoping the western side of Mt. Ritter would be somewhat free of the white stuff due to its afternoon sun exposure (ha!).

We woke up leisurely in the morning, preparing breakfast and getting ready for the trip. Terry had planned to join me only as far as the west end of Thousand Island Lake, from where he would make a leasurely trip around the lake and return to camp. The day hike to Mt. Ritter was less than 9 miles round trip, but the 3,000ft of climbing was more than Terry cared to do while on "vacation". The weather was starting to threaten as we were getting ready to go, so I decided against my waist packs and instead brought my pack with all the warm clothes I had. "Be Prepared", wasn't that the Boy Scout Motto? Besides, I'd rather haul an extra 20 pounds if it'll keep me warmer. Around 8a we started off, hiking along the shoreline. We weren't hiking five minutes when it started to hail and snow. It was almost July, and it was snowing. Out came the heavy jackets, the hats, the gloves. We took pictures and stopped to see if this was for real. That first dump lasted only about 10 minutes, but it was enough to lightly coat the ground. On we went, and after a mile we came to the end of the lake and parted ways.

My route was all cross country from here, and took me up an easy slope to the North Glacier Pass. Normally this would be an easy walk I supposed, but today it was anything but. The wind was blowing directly down from the pass into my face, and the weather seemed to be getting worse. When the strongest gusts would come I had to turn around and face downhill to keep the snow from stinging my face and blowing me over. It would let up briefly and I would quickly turn to climb another twenty steps before the next gusts would come. My heavy jacket covered me to my knees and I had Gortex pants on to boot. I had a wool hat and three pairs of gloves so I stayed plenty warm. In fact it was an interesting balance between hiking too fast (and getting too warm) and hiking too slow (and getting cold). The top of Mt. Ritter had been obscured by clouds since early on, but now even Mt. Banner (in the foreground and 500 feet lower) had its top in the clouds. The last half mile up to the pass was completely on snow and with the wild weather it seemed more like January than late June. I've been in Canada at the top of Whistler and Blackcomb in January in nicer weather than I was getting today.

At the pass I had a wonderful view of Lake Catherine on the other side as well as the large glacier running up to the Ritter-Banner saddle. Lake Catherine was mostly frozen. As I climbed down to it, I started debating the best route to the south side Lake Catherine. I could possibly go across it, which would provide the shortest and easiest route, but the scariest. The safe route was to go around to the west, but that was much longer and over boulders and snow (yuck). I had crossed frozen lakes in the past, but never partially frozen ones. It was unclear to me how stable the lake surface would be, and travelling alone I was rather concerned about having an accident. Would I get stuck on an ice floe? Would a hidden weak spot suddenly reveal itself and plunge me into the freezing waters? Just how stable are these ice chunks on the water as a lake is beginning to break up? These were unknowns to me, and being alone I was apt to question my own judgement. I finally decided it was more fear than real danger and decided to attempt the lake crossing. I stepped gingerly, tuned to sense any movement in the ice, giving a wide berth to the open water areas, and gingerly stepping over cracks that seemed to be everywhere. I took a very long time, probably as long as if I'd gone the alternative route. I studied the ice carefully and poked at it constantly with my ice axe. I felt much better when I had reached the far side, but in retrospect there wasn't anything that indicted the ice was unsafe. I probably could have ridden a bicycle across it, but I wasn't going to regret having wasted time on being careful.

My route took me around the Ritter Lakes to the west side of the peak. This set of four lakes were completely frozen over and looked like they might remain so for another month at least. There were walls on three sides and a large glacier feeding the lakes from the southern end. There was snow covering everthing, and it felt more like I was on an arctic expedition than a summer hike in the Sierra. It was easy enough to avoid walking on the lakes, as there was relatively easy traveling on the lakes' east sides. At the southern most lake, I was looking for a couple of talus fans described by Secor. I couldn't find either one. With so much snow, it was impossible to pick out anything resembling a talus fan. So I started up a snow slope that I was guessing to have talus underneath, but it soon got much steeper and much less safe to climb (I had an ice axe but no crampons). Looking up, I could see only what I guessed was halfway to the summit, as the clouds were getting a bit lower still. I read and reread Secor's description, but could make nothing of what I could see in front of me. I imagined myself climbing up into the clouds along an unsure route and what might happen if I managed to get to the top and not find the same way back. Enough. Time to turn back. Ritter could wait for a future attempt.

Walking back alongside the Ritter Lakes, I contemplated my second "failure" in as many days. The two bigs mountains I had wanted to climb were not to be. Despite this and the foul weather I was having a really fun time. I think it was because I was able to immerse myself in this frigid environment in a relatively safe and playful way. I was only a few miles from camp and a dozen from civilization, and I was pretty comfortable in my winter wear. It was still relatively early, not even 12p, so I decided to climb Mt. Davis as a consolation prize. It was class 2 from North Glacier Pass, and because it was more than 800 feet lower than Mt. Ritter, it seemed a more reasonable goal considering the weather. An amusing reason to choose Mt. Davis was that it was the surname of my companion Terry, and we had joked earlier about climbing "his" peak. (There was no Burd Peak anywhere in the Sierra that we knew.)

I walked along the west side of the Ritter Lakes and admired the view to the west. Roger, Electra, and Foerster Peaks were in the foreground across a deep valley, with Twin Island Lakes about halfway up the far canyon wall. The whole area looked stark and remotely isolated. Those peaks are about the farthest points from any trailhead in this part of the Sierra, and for this reason alone I wanted very much to go visit. Perhaps some other time.

Once back at Lake Catherine it was pretty straightforward to pick a route up the southeast slope of Mt. Davis. Because of its southern exposure, it was free of snow for the first half of the climb up. Near the top the route to the peak heads in a more westerly direction, and followed a wide snow gully up to the peak. It was about 1:30p when I reached the peak, but there were no views to be had. I was in the clouds now, all the warm clothes on again (I was able to remove them for the first half of the climb up to Mt. Davis where it was steepest and I was working the hardest). I didn't even bother to take out my camera, but I did find a register to sign and stopped briefly for a snack.

Heading back was lots of fun, as I got to do running glissades on the upper snow portion, and scree slides down the steeper sections of the lower half. Once I was back to North Glacier Pass I suddenly became aware that the sky to the east (toward camp) was perfectly blue. The weather system that I had "enjoyed" all day was a rather local phenomena it turned out. Climbing down the north side of the pass and towards camp the weather rapidly improved. By the time I got back to camp after 3p, the weather had dissipated altogether and the top of Mt. Ritter was completely free of clouds. Terry had had a very different experience as he had wandered around Thousand Island Lake. It had turned pleasant around 9a he reported, and had even taken a several hour nap out on a rock sunning himself. It turned out that this was the only bad weather we had all week. Even so, I decided against a second attempt the following day as there was still too much snow on the western side, and if it was going to prove a class 2 climb, it would have to be late August or September.


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