When you're hiking in the backcountry of a national park, plans change.
Ours change at the snow field. It stretches downslope at a dizzying angle for hundreds of feet, covering the only hiking route through what is otherwise a congregation of sheer cliffs and steep fields of car-sized boulders. Made slick by dropping temperatures and shade from the ridgeline above, the field resembles an ice skating rink that has been tilted by 30 degrees. I can see our destination thousands of feet below, but I can't see a safe way to skate there. Besides, I'm too tired for more adventure.
Rewind six hours. Chris Jordan-Bloch, Earthjustice's multimedia producer, and I are standing at a trail junction in California's Sequoia National Park, just above the Mineral King valley—the birthplace of Earthjustice, saved from development by its first court case. A sign points the way that most hikers take: Monarch Lakes, 4.5 miles. But carved into the sign by some hiker's knife, a different arrow and description points to our path: Hell Trail.
The first word proves far more accurate than the second. The unmaintained trail disappears after a few hundred feet of elevation gain, and the next 2,000 feet of vertical climb is a slog over steep and rugged terrain.
Hell Trail leaves us burning. Lungs and legs are on fire by the time we reach Glacier Pass and throw down our 65-pound packs, laden with camera gear for documenting the beautiful area that Earthjustice preserved decades ago. Chris settles himself on a rock and sets up the tripod. I crawl over Glacier Pass to find our route down, but I find the snow instead.
In frustration, I rename the ridge "Glacier Impasse" and scramble 30 feet back up to the saddle exhausted and dejected, mulling over what to do next and how to break the news to Chris.
"We can't get over the pass," I say. "There's a huge snow field blocking the way. We'd have to climb on top of it, hold onto our bags and slide down that thing. I think that's a terrible idea."
"Uggghh. Ok. What are we going to do?" asks Chris, plainly perturbed.
"I'm not sure," I defensively respond, dread mounting that we'll have to trudge back down the way we came, a total defeat. It's 5pm. Flat ground is far away. All of a sudden, our meticulously planned trip is starting to fray. How did we end up in this situation?
Rewind 36 hours. Chris and I are in the Mineral King ranger station discussing our plans with the affable, elderly ranger on duty.
"I've heard that a lot of climbers use the unmaintained trail to Glacier Pass as a faster route to reach the Kaweahs," I say, trying to sound in the know.
"I wouldn't say 'a lot'," the ranger quips, punctuating his reply with the hint of a chuckle.
"But people do it, right?"
"Yeah. There's probably some snow up there now." (The definition of understatement, in retrospect.)
"Do you think it's doable with heavy packs? We've got a lot of gear with us."
A slight pause. "It's doable."
Not doable. Not with two 65-pound packs full of expensive camera gear. Not without ice axes to save ourselves once we start sliding uncontrollably down the snow. Even though I might have hoped for wiser counsel from the ranger, I have nobody to blame but myself, and I am starting to wonder if Chris is going to spare me from making a decision about what to do by sending me down the snow field, head first.
I squint at the map, elevation lines scrunched tightly together, curving all around the area where we sat. The terrain looks scary enough on the map, relegated to two dimensions. In 3-D, it is a whole different story.
But then, a path forward emerges.
"It looks like the trail over Sawtooth Pass is really close to here," I say excitedly. "If we can find it, we can hike by Sawtooth Peak and reverse the loop we were planning to do."
Chris gives a curt nod between sips of water and I spend the next 20 minutes traversing the ridge, comparing map to terrain to find the trail. Turns out we are practically sitting on it. When we realize that, a marmot—as if on cue—pokes its head up from behind a rock and snickers. It sounds that way at least.
We trudge our way across the steep slopes towards Sawtooth Pass, taking care as we find purchase in the loose pebbles that serve for a trail. When we finally arrive at the pass, breathing heavy and stooped from the weight of our packs, folly has turned to fortune.
Stretched out before us is one of the most spectacular high mountain views of the Sierra Nevada I've ever seen. Gnarled peaks encircle Columbine Lake, 12,343-foot Sawtooth Peak the most prominent among them. Mt. Whitney—the highest point in the lower-48—is lit up 20 miles to the east. Behind us, the western ridge above Mineral King looks like a golden crown.
As we watch the sun set, giddily taking pictures and video of the fading light that is dancing across rock, lake, tree and valley, we retrace our path that day and get to thinking that Mineral King has a long history of changing plans.
First it was the miners. They came to the valley after a Tulare County farmer named James A. Crabtree discovered silver ore in 1873. Big plans were made to mine it out of the newly christened "Mineral King Mining District." By 1879, hundreds of miners were working claims in and around the valley. By 1882, they were gone.
The steep slopes, snowy winters and "rebellious" silver (it had a high lead content) ultimately drove them out less than a decade after they had arrived. In the decades that followed, the imprint of that short mining boom was enough to twice keep the valley from inclusion as part of Sequoia National Park—established in 1890 and enlarged in 1926.
Big plans for the granite crown that towers above the valley, jeweled in white snow, didn't come again until the middle of the century. Smitten by skiing, Walt Disney wanted to turn the Mineral King valley into the world's finest ski resort, equally equipped to deliver a world-class experience to summer visitors.
But the truth was that visitors to the valley didn't need Disney to deliver them a world-class experience. It was already there, and the ski resort threatened its character.
Disney's plans ultimately created a firestorm of controversy and propelled conservationists to a new kind of wilderness: the courtroom. Earthjustice—founded in 1971 as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund—was born in the legal fight that protected Mineral King. Earthjustice's monumental victory in its first court case blocked Disney's plans and led to Mineral King's inclusion in 1978 as part of Sequoia National Park. The seminal case also yielded an even sweeter prize: it helped to establish the precedent that citizens have a right to engage the courts in matters of environmental protection.
Thanks to that visionary work, Chris and I can enjoy the valley and document its wonders in a state of minimal impact. When the sun finally sets, we cross Sawtooth Pass with a look over our shoulders to the undisturbed slopes and bowls that would have been overrun with ski infrastructure and skiers. To say that it is beautiful is an understatement worthy of that ranger in the valley below.
As we hike down the east side of Sawtooth Pass, we have every intention of camping near the shores of Columbine Lake. Its waters, darkening rapidly in the absence of sun, look close enough. But things below tend to look flatter than they are—particularly in fading light. Within minutes, the graded trail gives way to an undulating sea of granite. We pick our way along carefully, headlamps blazing the way forward.
And then, a reprise on the day's theme: snow. The trail disappears under a large patch of it, and where it emerges again is anybody's guess. We try to find it, but our failure is made plain by a series of increasingly risky maneuvers. We shimmy along steep edges and drop down head-high granite faces—all things that are tricky enough with heavy bags during the day. They're far worse at night.
We pause to catch our breath and scan the terrain. Chris takes a sip of water from his Camelbak, but then the familiar sound of a straw pulling at the last drops of liquid infiltrates the quiet night. His water is spent.
We drop down a granite chute and find ourselves in a small clearing. Chris walks left and is met by a 30-foot sheer drop. I turn right and find a similarly daunting situation. In front of us is the best route: a slab of rock 40-feet wide that drops off at a 45-degree angle.
I open the map but can't compare it to the dark terrain around us. Sighing in frustration, I turn to my own Camelbak for comfort. It is short lived. Within a few sips, my water is gone.
"I'm thirsty," I say.
"Me too," Chris hoarses back.
Parched and out of water, we stand together contemplating that granite slide as the moonless night settles in around us, swallowing the lake below and us with it …
Continue on to the next exciting installment: Part 2: Hail Trail and the Bloodthirsty
How will Sam and Chris get out of this pickle of a situation? Will they emerge with all their limbs intact?
In the summer of 2011, Sam Edmondson and Chris Jordan-Bloch backpacked through Mineral King. Their goal: to capture in words and images the magic of a place saved from development by one of the earliest legal fights on behalf of the environment.
Read the behind-the-scenes story of their journey to gather the video and photo materials for this website.
Above: Sam fills up on water.
Inset: Sam and Chris's route on this first day.
Sam was an Earthjustice clean air campaign manager who worked on strengthening air quality standards in communities across the country.