This is part 3 of a four part series.
(Don't miss Part 2: Hail Trail and the Bloodthirsty)
I wake up hungry—maybe because I was food for mosquitoes all night. Now it's my turn to eat. If there were anything satisfying about eating a mosquito, I wouldn't spare a single Culcidae soul in all of Mineral King.
Next to me, Chris wakes up scratching. A mosquito alights on his nose.
"There's hardly any blood in there you greedy son of a!" he yells, swatting furiously.
So begins the day. From here, there's nowhere to go but up, quite literally—we will climb the east side of Black Rock Pass today. Word is, the view from the top will make a jaw drop. But first, there's filming to do.
Chris assembles his mosquito-proof ensemble and steps out of the tent looking like an extra from Outbreak.
"I'm going to shoot video down by the lake for a bit," he says over his shoulder. "Make me breakfast!" I can't tell whether he's joking.
Actually, I'm happy to oblige, except for the complication that our food is still stuck in a tree. I look up at the bag from 30 feet below. I want oatmeal. I want peanut butter. I want COFFEE.
Is this what it feels like to be a bear looking for human food in a campsite?
I WANT FOOD BAG!
What would the bear do? Climb the tree, no doubt. Sadly, I just clipped my nails, so I start blueprinting another recovery plan. My mind draws a large rock and then sets down its pencil, apparently satisfied. "Nice," I mutter, unconvinced.
My first attempt confirms that skepticism. The large rock I hurl skyward is off by at least a foot. It takes another 5 tries before I actually connect with the bag. Following impact, the bag spins around wildly like a defiant piñata. The parachute cord is now wrapped tighter than a French braid.
"Four letter word!" I yell at the bag. "Four letter word!"
Silence in the forest. Then the "bzzzzzzzttt" of my vampiric nemesis.
I'm grateful you're not on the endangered species list.
I do my best to extirpate the mosquitos at Big Five Lakes, but eventually I retreat to the protection of the tent, hungry and itching.
When I'm done sulking, I notice that the sun has started to shine through the forest. I wonder if the cord will slide more easily as the branch dries. I return to the bag and patiently untangle the French braid. The bag slips a few feet. Heartened, I give the line a few tugs and the bag comes zipping down and hits the ground with a thud.
Oatmeal! Peanut butter! Coffee! FOOD BAG!, growls the bear inside me.
Everything's hot when Chris returns.
"How'd it go?" I inquire.
"So good!" he says. "The lake is beautiful, but the mosquitos were unbearable! Let's get moving."
The climb begins as soon as we cross the lake's outlet. It's a steady ascent up switchbacks across the forested slope and we arrive at Little Five Lakes exhausted.
From here, I can clearly see Black Rock Pass. Gray clouds are billowing over the ridge—I wonder what's happening on the other side. If we hike up, will we get caught in a storm? There's no cover up the pass. It's all scree and boulder-fields—rugged alpine, not where I want to be when lightning strikes.
"Let's hike to the upper lakes and decide what to do from there," I suggest.
We amble up the slopes at our respective paces. I arrive at the upper lakes in the Little Five chain and unburden myself. My exhaustion level is high, as is my uncertainty. The sky is ominous, and the air feels wet with the premonition of rain.
Chris arrives a few minutes later and we decide to rest. The Kaweah Range is fully visible—not a bad sight to doze before. We bundle ourselves with rain gear in case the sky opens up while we snooze. Certain sections of the granite fit the human form like a La-Z-Boy Millennia in the making. Here's a notch for my hip. Here, a small bowl to cradle my head. And here, a gentle ridge to hold my shoulder. Sleep comes easily on these rocks, but itinerary interrupts before long.
"If we don't get up over the ridge today, we're going to have a hell of a hike tomorrow," I say, emerging gracelessly from slumber.
Chris massages the cloudiness of an early afternoon nap from his eyes, only to focus on the cloudiness of the early afternoon skies. We're both concerned about ridgeline exposure during a storm, but neither of us wants to make camp here for the night. As we debate, two hikers round a bend towards us, coming from the direction of Black Rock Pass.
"How's the weather on the other side?" Chris asks. (As a former journalist, Chris excels at asking strangers questions.)
"Cloudy, but it's not doing too much of anything," the older of the two men replies.
That's all the encouragement we need. We hit the trail invigorated, but it isn't long before the steepening, rocky slopes assert themselves. I enter into the rhythm of a sleepwalker. Move 10 paces and stop. Hunch over. Try to control the saliva as it escapes my mouth. Catch my breath. Repeat, all the way up the pass.
After an hour of brutal slogging, the pass is within reach, but I'm so deliriously tired that I can't help but burst out laughing. The last pitch must be 30 degrees or more. Each step ends up halved as I slide back from my foothold. Nothing has ever been funnier than this. I wonder if Prometheus had a sense of humor.
Chris is a good distance below. I see him stop and crane his head towards me to figure out what's going on.
"You okay?" he manages to stammer through his own exhaustion, probably puzzled by my unfolding breakdown.
"I feel like I am going to die!" I scream, spit dribbling down my chin. I shift my weight and nearly lose my balance.
"Ha!" I yell to no one in particular. I'm flagging, wondering if I'll even make it the last 50 meters.
Fortunately, adrenaline walks the last bit for me. I reach the pass and heave a huge sigh of relief. The bag comes off and the layers go on—it's windy. And beautiful. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, in fact. The Five Lakes chains are behind me, as is the dip of Kern Canyon and the rise of the marvelous Kaweah Range.
But here's the stunner. To the south is the most impressive trio of stairstep lakes I have ever seen. Columbine, Cyclamen and Spring lakes are stacked like the jewels of earth's own crown. The clouds that gave us pause surge overhead, but they stop abruptly just beyond the ridge and give way to bright blue sky in the direction we're headed. It's as if there's an invisible line in the sky that separates these two worlds—the cloudy and the clear. The clouds are moving quickly overhead, and they are perpetual, born anew from that unseen line by some meteorological phenomenon that I'm too tired to grasp (now I'm wondering if it was the ridge). They start as points, grow into wisps and then billow forth, going from white to grey as they join their recently departed brethren.
We've found the fountain wilds. I could look at this scene forever. Chris ambles up the last pitch and I turn from the panorama to see the look of joy and amazement spread across his face as he lays eyes on this garden for the first time. The light in his eyes is as beautiful as the scene that sparked it. I love the solitude of wilderness, but I love the connection with my fellow human that it fosters even more.
We stay atop the ridge for hours. From the direction we will head, a group of horses are making the ascent. They crest at the pass and their riders give a curt nod.
"Where are you headed?" I ask, attempting to make conversation.
The lead rider spits chewing tobacco across the ground.
"Big Arroyo," he replies, lilting like a cowboy. The word arroyo sounds more like "arroyuh."
I watch the caravan shuffle along. A lone horse, untethered, brings up the rear and lingers at the pass, chewing some succulent.
"C'mon!" bellows the last rider. "Heayiiip!"
The mare complies by half-heartedly walking a zig zag path over the pass—I know how you feel, I think to myself.
As the sun draws closer to the western horizon, we reluctantly shoulder our bags and descend from Black Rock Pass. The total drop to our destination—Pinto Lake—is 2,500 feet. Though I'm happy we're done with the day's ascent, walking downhill is no easy feat. It's not easy on the feet, for one. Or the knees. Or the thighs. By the time we finally make it to Pinto two hours later, my legs are jelly, wobbling with every step.
We make camp on a sunny promontory and enjoy the company of black-tailed deer. The sunset is colorful, a rich reward for the day's journey. As the stars come out, we set up the cameras to capture time-lapse footage of the Milky Way.
When we bed down, the only sound is the camera's shutter, closing and opening again every 30 seconds. But then, something else penetrates the still night. Chris shines his headlamp into the distance and turns up a pair of glassy eyes. They're embedded in a head that sports a fine set of antlers. I count 6 points in all.
"That buck is sucking on the camera strap!" Chris exclaims.
And indeed it is. Craving salt, no doubt.
We shoo the buck away, but he's back in no time. We move the camera closer to us, wondering if he'll shy away from stepping into our sphere. Peace reigns, but only for a time. We're both nearly asleep when the crash happens.
"THUNK!" is the sound of the camera colliding with the ground. Bemused, I direct my headlamp towards the disturbance and see the buck, standing triumphantly over the toppled tripod, licking the strap. As we approach, he lifts the entire apparatus—camera and tripod—in his mouth and begins running away.
"No, no, no!" yells Chris, and we're off through the night, in pursuit of the aspiring photographer …
Will the kleptomaniac deer successfully make off with tripod and deliciously salty camera strap?
Continue reading: Part 4: The Wooden Elders
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: National Park Service employees headed for Big Arroyo lead a pack of horses over Black Rock Pass.
Inset: Sam and Chris's route on this third day.
Sam was an Earthjustice clean air campaign manager who worked on strengthening air quality standards in communities across the country.