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Mineral King: The Foundation of Modern Environmental Law
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Part 2: Hail Trail and the Bloodthirsty

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Written By Sam Edmondson
Photos and Captions By Chris Jordan-Bloch

This is part 2 of a four part series.
(Don't miss Part 1: Hell Trail to Paradise)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

"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."

CRACK! BOOOOOOOOOM!

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

This is part 2 of a four part series.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Map of Sam and Chris's trip.

Sam and Chris's complete route is highlighted in red. This part of the story covers their journey from the first campsite to the second, next to Big Five Lakes.  View full-size map.

Paw icon.= campsite

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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.
Paw icon.= campsite

I look on while Sam uses his man skills to 'sweep out' the tent. Although there wasn't much water near the campsite, the view upon waking up was one of the best treats of our trip. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

I look on while Sam uses his man skills to "sweep out" the tent. Although there wasn't much water near the campsite, the view upon waking up was one of the best treats of our trip.

A crisp blue sky and puffy white clouds meshed perfectly with the ripples of the morning fish rise, making the surface of Columbine Lake look like an abstract painting. It's too bad any more weight in my pack would have probably killed me, because I could have slayed the fish with my rod and a mosquito-pattern fly. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

A crisp blue sky and puffy white clouds meshed perfectly with the ripples of the morning fish rise, making the surface of Columbine Lake look like an abstract painting. It's too bad any more weight in my pack would have probably killed me, because I could have slayed the fish with my rod and a mosquito-pattern fly.

As Sam and I made our way down to Columbine Lake, I saw this granite bowl leading up to Sawtooth Peak every time I looked to my right. Its beauty was so distracting that eventually we had to stop and photograph it. For photophiles, the sun streaks can be accomplished by shooting into the light at just the right angle. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

As Sam and I made our way down to Columbine Lake, I saw this granite bowl leading up to Sawtooth Peak every time I looked to my right. Its beauty was so distracting that eventually we had to stop and photograph it.

For photophiles, the sun streaks can be accomplished by shooting into the light at just the right angle.

Sam is either admiring the view or worrying about the ridiculous storm that would soon pound us with golf ball sized hail. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

Sam is either admiring the view or worrying about the ridiculous storm that would soon pound us with golf ball sized hail.

We got to the edge of Columbine Lake and had no idea what to expect from Lost Canyon. This photo doesn't quite capture it, but it felt so wild and special. To know that we would soon be an invisible dot somewhere down in the green patch that the river cuts through the valley was thrilling. We ate lunch here and made a time-lapse of the storm clouds moving across the vista. You can see it in the video 'Walking the King's High Ways.' (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

We got to the edge of Columbine Lake and had no idea what to expect from Lost Canyon. This photo doesn't quite capture it, but it felt so wild and special. To know that we would soon be an invisible dot somewhere down in the green patch that the river cuts through the valley was thrilling. We ate lunch here and made a timelapse of the storm clouds moving across the vista.

See the timelapse in Walking the King's High Ways.

Lost Canyon Creek meandered perfectly from Columbine Lake through the valley. Unfortunately our enjoyment of the area was somewhat marred by huge swarms of mosquitoes that attacked in between the giant and somewhat terrifying hail storms. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

Lost Canyon Creek meandered perfectly from Columbine Lake through the valley. Unfortunately, our enjoyment of the area was somewhat marred by huge swarms of mosquitoes that attacked in between the giant and somewhat terrifying hail storms.

This may have been the cleanest water I've ever seen in my life. I wish I had an underwater camera; the shot would have been worth the extra weight. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

This may have been the cleanest water I've ever seen in my life. I wish I had an underwater camera; the shot would have been worth the extra weight.

Here's one more shot of Lost Canyon. This is actually a screen grab from an HD video camera. Shortly after this there was a gap in the storm and Sam literally started running to try to stay ahead of the next hail attack. I ran after him. Although I was exhausted and confused, I started laughing. Despite the storms and the mosquitoes and the running with 65-pound packs I was still having such a great time, because the utter beauty of this place cast a magic spell over everything else. I wish I made more photos from the rest of the day, but the mosquitoes made it literally impossible to expose your hand for long enough to make thoughtful pictures. Seriously though, come see this place for yourself, and instead of dozens of pounds of camera gear, just bring a fishing pole and a book. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

Here's one more shot of Lost Canyon. This is actually a screen grab from an HD video camera. Shortly after this, there was a gap in the storm and Sam started running to try to stay ahead of the next hail attack. I ran after him. Although I was exhausted and confused, I started laughing.

Despite the storms and the mosquitoes and the running with 65-pound packs, I was still having such a great time because the utter beauty of this place cast a magic spell over everything else. I wish I made more photos from the rest of the day, but the mosquitoes made it literally impossible to expose your hand for long enough to make thoughtful pictures.

Seriously though, come see this place for yourself, and instead of dozens of pounds of camera gear, just bring a fishing pole and a book.

Sam Edmondson.

Sam Edmondson
Sam was an Earthjustice clean air campaign manager who worked on strengthening air quality standards in communities across the country.

Chris Jordan-Bloch.

Chris Jordan-Bloch, Multimedia Producer.
Chris has documented in video and photo essays topics ranging from hydraulic fracturing in Pennyslvania to the devastating effects of coal ash waste. See some of his work on Earthjustice's blog, unEARTHED.

Atop The King: Explore
By The Lake
The serene beauty of a mountain lake is undeniably special. But even these refuges are suffering—from development, wind-drifted pollution, climate change and more.
Explore Lakes.
Atop The King: Explore
In The Forest
When we saved the forests of Mineral King, we started a trend for Earthjustice. Earthjustice has been saving forests for decades, achieving many significant victories.
Explore Forests.
Atop The King: Explore
On The Mountain
Mountain ecosystems are some of the first places experiencing the impacts of climate change. Earthjustice is working to protect these ecosystems and combat the change.
Explore Mountains.
Atop The King: Explore
By The River
Rivers across the country provide sustenance to wildlife and human communities alike. Today, many are threatened.
Explore Rivers.
Atop The King: Explore
On The Trail
Whether we hike, climb, cave or raft the wild reaches, we must do so in a way that minimizes our impact to the ecosystem.
Explore Trails.
Atop The King: Explore
Beneath The Sky
The silhouette of wild places should be traced by the slope of hills and mountains and the reach of trees and shrubs—not by clearcuts, drilling rigs and industrial development.
Explore Sky.
See Also:

How The Earth Got A Lawyer

The forging of law and nature that saved Mineral King Valley and created Earthjustice.

Photo of Mineral King valley. > Read Feature

Atop The King: Explore

Wild places are connected to the greater ecosystem. Experience the diversity of Earthjustice's work

Photo of Mineral King valley. > Explore Interactive Experience

Walking the King's High Ways

Take a walk through the Mineral King Valley and experience the beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Photo of Mineral King. > Watch Video Experience
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I look on while Sam uses his man skills to "sweep out" the tent. Although there wasn't much water near the campsite, the view upon waking up was one of the best treats of our trip.(Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
A crisp blue sky and puffy white clouds meshed perfectly with the ripples of the morning fish rise, making the surface of Columbine Lake look like an abstract painting. It's too bad any more weight in my pack would have probably killed me, because I could have slayed the fish with my rod and a mosquito-pattern fly. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
As Sam and I made our way down to Columbine Lake, I saw this granite bowl leading up to Sawtooth Peak every time I looked to my right. Its beauty was so distracting that eventually we had to stop and photograph it. For photophiles, the sun streaks can be accomplished by shooting into the light at just the right angle. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
Sam is either admiring the view or worrying about the ridiculous storm that would soon pound us with golf ball sized hail. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
We got to the edge of Columbine Lake and had no idea what to expect from Lost Canyon. This photo doesn't quite capture it, but it felt so wild and special. To know that we would soon be an invisible dot somewhere down in the green patch that the river cuts through the valley was thrilling. We ate lunch here and made a timelapse of the storm clouds moving across the vista. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
Lost Canyon Creek meandered perfectly from Columbine Lake through the valley. Unfortunately, our enjoyment of the area was somewhat marred by huge swarms of mosquitoes that attacked in between the giant and somewhat terrifying hail storms. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
This may have been the cleanest water I've ever seen in my life. I wish I had an underwater camera; the shot would have been worth the extra weight. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
Here's one more shot of Lost Canyon. This is actually a screen grab from an HD video camera. Shortly after this, there was a gap in the storm and Sam started running to try to stay ahead of the next hail attack. I ran after him. Although I was exhausted and confused, I started laughing. Despite the storms and the mosquitoes and the running with 65-pound packs, I was still having such a great time because … (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
… the utter beauty of this place cast a magic spell over everything else. I wish I made more photos from the rest of the day, but the mosquitoes made it literally impossible to expose your hand for long enough to make thoughtful pictures. Seriously though, come see this place for yourself, and instead of dozens of pounds of camera gear, just bring a fishing pole and a book. [Sam and Chris's complete route is highlighted in red. View full size map.]
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