This is part 2 of a four part series.
(Don't miss Part 1: Hell Trail to Paradise)
"I can't go any farther tonight," I say. "We need to stay here."
"Here" turns out to be a thin strip of flat ground a few paces from the 40-foot granite slab that neither Chris nor I feel like sliding down in the dark.
I let my bag fall to the ground and feel relief that I don't have to walk again until tomorrow. We may not have any water, but I'd rather stay thirsty until morning than hike any more. Chris is less inclined to suffer thirst.
"I need water, bro," he says, longing in his voice. "Now."
The search begins. Luckily, it doesn't take long. Snow abounds, and around a bend a small stream is trickling out of the rocks. I realize how thirsty I am. The water cascades sharply for a few feet and collects in some shallow pools lined with soft moss before it drips off a cliff. The flow is low and the cliff is unnerving, but that spring is just about the Best. Thing. Ever.
It takes nearly half an hour to collect and purify enough water to fill our bottles, but the time is well spent and the stars are incredible company on this moonless night. After a quick dinner, we hunker down to spot constellations and drift off to sleep.
We rise with the sun and are greeted by the majesty of our surroundings. Sawtooth Peak is huge in the southern sky, the high point in a granite crown that encircles our camp. Below us and to the east, Columbine Lake is substantially closer than we thought, though a clear route isn't discernible even in the daylight. It's good that we stopped for the night.
Our itinerary is tight, but the morning is so beautiful that we take it leisurely. Most impressive are the clouds. They roll above Sawtooth into view and morph readily between animal forms. A bear's face, a cougar's paw, a hawk in flight. Higher, a lattice of whisper-thin clouds soaks up the early light, faintly glowing in orange. We watch them in awe.
The clouds are thick and gray by mid-morning, our cue to pack up and move on. After a bit of searching, we discover the trail a few hundred feet from where we camped.
"Is that a bear down there?" I ask suddenly, pointing to a brown shape moving along the shore of the lake. It disappears behind a large boulder. I can feel my heart surge. I love bears, and seeing them in the wild is always a special moment.
When the animal reemerges, Chris snaps a photo and zooms in on the viewfinder.
"That's the fattest marmot I have ever seen!" he exclaims. He's right—the bear is indeed a giant marmot. I mentally explain away my embarrassment by reassuring myself that scale is hard to judge from such a distance. Despite dashed hopes, I admire the stout marmot with genuine appreciation.
We cross the lake's outlet and encounter an elderly man scouting campsites. His weathered, open face inspires trust, so we stop for a brief chat. He inquires about the camera gear strapped to our bags. When we explain that our goal is to capture the beauty of the valley that Earthjustice successfully protected in its first case, his gratitude billows forth like the clouds above. We talk for a while about how privileged we are to see such beauty firsthand before moving on.
Thirty minutes later, we're astride the ridge between Columbine Lake and Lost Canyon—a stretch of the Great Western Divide. The view from this place into the canyon is magnificent. Steep gray walls, peppered with the deep green of scattered trees, give way abruptly to shades of bright green along the shores of Lost Canyon Creek, which flows into a dense, verdant forest in the distance. In the direction we're headed, thick gray clouds are blowing north with the wind.
We eat lunch and soak in the picture. Dessert is cut short by a bolt of lightning.
"Did you see that?!?!" asks Chris.
"Oh yeah," I respond. "Time to move!"
The sky is rolling now, as are we, downhill, as fast as we can to get to safer ground in case the storm opens up overhead. Big drops of rain splatter our backs. The lightning strikes again and we start a count: "One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand … ten-one-thousand."
The roar is enough to make me jump. It ricochets between the canyon walls, filling the space and our ears with a sense of seriousness.
The flash-to-bang calculation (5 seconds per mile of distance) indicates the strike was 2 miles away. Past time to take cover! We find a safe-looking spot in the canyon and throw up the tent, prepared to crouch on our sleeping pads in lightning position.
But the sky seems to be calming down. Patches of blue open up in the ominous gray, and the smattering of thick, heavy raindrops that pelted us during our descent disappears. Chagrined, we mill around for 15 minutes before deciding it's safe to move on. There's a blanket of clouds in the direction we're heading, but time is tight and we want to make it to the cover of the forest ahead.
We're halfway through the canyon when the adrenaline subsides enough for us to recognize the grandeur of our surroundings. To our right, Lost Canyon Creek snakes a path past mossy banks and red stone islands. The creek water is clear, pure and cold. The cloud cover, returned again, accentuates every color. Assorted reds, grays, greens and yellows all pop with an intensity obscured in bright sunlight.
We find a wide bank along the creek's edge and quietly unpack the camera gear, careful not to disturb the powerful feeling of peace that permeates the valley. After nearly 30 minutes of tranquil filming, we're finishing up one last shot when Chris feels a splat on his back. Then a drop hits the LCD screen of the camera. Then the tripod. Then my face.
"Pack it up!" Chris yells, breaking the spell just before it broke anyway.
The rains come heavy and fast, in dime-sized drops. Gear in hand, we run for the safety of some large granite boulders. After stowing the cameras in a crevice beneath a boulder the size of a two-story townhouse, we run back to get our packs.
Then the hail starts. It comes in pellets the size of nickels that sting the skin. From a full sprint, we find two small patches of dry ground beneath the rocks and hunker down, hoping to stay dry and wait it out. The hail bounces off the pebbles near our feet and melts into the ground.
"Ha!" I yell. Chris is all smiles. We're tired and cold, stuffed into a small granite crawlspace. But we're having fun.
Then fun gets wet. The rock faces, now slick with rain, send water down the shallow overhangs like heat-seeking missiles in search of dry skin. The water drips down my back and my front. No matter how I rearrange myself, the drips keep coming, steadier and somehow wetter than before. As my shirt soaks it in, my chilled bones scream out: "Set up the tent, stupid!"
I reach for the tent and take a shallow step out from the overhang. Immediately, a bright pink flash fills the sky, followed by a deafening "CRACK!"
The storm is right overhead. I've heard overhangs are a bad place to be in lightning, but is it any safer to step out and put up the tent? I spring into action, unfurling the tent in a patch of flat ground nearby where water isn't pooling. Chris and I then set a world record for tent pitching. We dive inside with our sleeping pads and crouch into lightning position. Technically, we should be at least 50 feet apart—in case one of us is struck, the other can administer first-aid or get help. But we're doing the best we can for the moment.
The storm rages for another 15 minutes. The tent walls shake in the wind and the heavy raindrops on the rainfly sound like a free-jazz drum solo.
"Let's take a look outside," Chris says as the rain subsides. He opens up the tent door on his side and looks west, in the direction from which we came. The sky is dark gray, roiling with moisture and a seeming fury. I do the same, looking east out of my door. The sky is bright blue with puffy cumulus clouds drifting north.
"Should we go for it? We should go for it. Right? Let's do it." I offer, handling both sides of an obviously conflicted conversation.
Within a few minutes, we're on the path again, darkness at our backs. Finally, we hit the forest's edge and begin a gradual descent through a mystical coniferous landscape. Light rain follows, but the tree cover is a reassuring presence. After a few miles and some tricky stream crossings—one involving a slick tree trunk laid 15 feet above the cascading creek—we arrive at a trail junction and take the path towards Big Five Lakes, our destination for the night.
We cross a swampy meadow and start heading uphill, slowed by the pounds of muck on our boots. The sun has returned from behind the cloud cover to set in plain sight. Amber light dances across the puddles in our path. Halfway up a small ridge, we encounter a twisted trunk, stripped of bark and swirled like some sort of kiddie confection. Black streaks mark the exposed wood, whose skyward face appears like the open mouth of a serpent. After such an intense storm, this pillar is a testament to nature's power. We look around and see gnarled, blackened woody masses spread throughout the landscape. This area is no stranger to lightning strikes.
As ever, our destination for the night is farther than we've conceived. We arrive well into dusk. With no time to be selective, we stop at the first suitable spot and start to set up camp. The realization that we are not alone comes quickly.
"Thwap!" goes the sound of Chris striking his knee.
"Splat!" goes the sound of me smacking my neck.
Within moments, the bloodthirsty mosquitoes descend in legions. Out come the hats with mesh netting. On goes the long underwear. And still, they find a way to get under our skin. The all-natural Citronella spray just isn't cutting it.
The blood-suckers are so bad that we eat dinner in our tent. Dessert is an unfulfilling round of rochambeaux to decide who will hang the food. A minute later I'm scouting a sturdy branch (I use the Pacific Crest Trail method—it's easiest in my opinion), while Chris kills the mosquitoes that flew in while I was leaving the tent. (Full disclosure: I lingered at the door to let a few more in.)
The light is low, the branches are high and the mosquitoes are thicker than Tom Selleck's mustache. I succeed in getting the rope over a suitable branch, but when I hoist the bag, it sticks near the limb and no amount of pulling or shaking will unsnag it. Standing there, getting devoured by the voracious, I find my eloquence overrun by a string of four-letter-words. After a few serious bites (well played, skeeters) I decide that the food is secure enough for the night—I will climb the tree tomorrow if I have to in order to get our food down.
Back in the tent, Chris asks what all the cursing was about. I swat the question away with my huffy attitude and crawl into my sleeping bag. Then we both have a good laugh over how a creature so small can make a moment suck so big. I'm nearly asleep when an unwelcome sound enters my ear: "Bzzzttt … Bzzzzttt … Bzzzzzzzzztttt." And then the bloodletting begins again just below my ear …
Will Sam and Chris be slowly eaten alive by small insects? Continue reading:
Part 3: The Fountain Wilds
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 (left) and Chris break down camp at Columbine Lake.
Inset: Their route on this second day.
Sam was an Earthjustice clean air campaign manager who worked on strengthening air quality standards in communities across the country.