I think I know when the transition occurred that let loose the question. The template for the question is: “You are getting older – do you think you should …?” I refer folks who ask this question to a more literate response than I would be inclined to supply.
Lewis Carroll, first two and last two verses, "You Are Old Father William" You are old, father William, the young man said, And your hair has become very white; And yet you incessantly stand on your head-- Do you think, at your age, it is right? In my youth, father William replied to his son, I feared it might injure the brain; But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none, Why I do it again and again. ... You are old, said the youth, one would hardly suppose That your eye was as steady as ever; Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose-- What made you so awfully clever? I have answered three questions, and that is enough, Said the father, Don't give yourself airs! Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff? Be off, or I'll kick you down stairs!
I decided to head to Mineral King for a solo backpack in August of 2012. I had not backpacked the area since July, 1989 although I had returned for day hiking and photography a number of times. A few folks who were aware of the plan but not my history felt they had advice to offer me on the advisability of my intentions. To quote General McAuliffe at the Battle of the Bulge, “Nuts.” Which is also a more literate reply than I would be inclined to supply.
Before proceeding further, a quick note is in order. This post contains a number of photographs and other graphics that are viewed with optimal resolution outside of the surrounding text. Hence, the embedded images all open in a new browser window when activated by a mouse click or equivalent gesture.
My history with Mineral King dates to the early 1970s. At one time, and I remember parts of the controversy well, the Mineral King Valley was slated to be developed as a ski resort by Disney. I am perfectly happy that the winding, cliff-hanging 25 mile road that gains 7,000 feet from Three Rivers remains a sometimes rough, in some places unpaved barrier to high volume traffic. The valley is now entirely protected inside Sequoia National Park. For me the place is a hiking photographer’s paradise. It is the only place outside the Southern Los Padres that feels like home range to me.
I arrived in Silver City in the afternoon of August 19, 2012. Silver City sits about 18 miles up the Mineral King Road just short of the valley proper. I had a cabin reserved for two nights to stage the take-off for my trip. I am a regular in Silver City and although it is under new management, they still make Fruit of the Forest pie with Connie Jones Pillsbury’s recipe; the new owners are preserving an important legacy. The pies were an addition to the repertoire of the store in the 1980s as I recall. I do miss sitting at the tables behind the store talking with Forrest Jones, who no longer appears to be involved with the operation, but times change and the new management appear to be keeping the nature of place intact.
I headed to the ranger station in the valley the next day to pick up the Wilderness Pass I had reserved. The attending ranger provided the normal warnings about backpacking alone (I had filed an itinerary with responsible people and I was carrying a Spot unit), gave the customary bears and food briefing (I had my Bearikade canister and scent proof bags) and warned about some atypical thunderstorm activity (that got my undivided attention; I did have a good tent and head to foot Gore-tex but I took some time to run my lightning safety training through my head). Subsequent to this ceremony I spent some time wandering about acclimatizing to the altitude.
At 7:00 AM August 21 I was headed along the Farewell Canyon trail to Franklin Pass and beyond. The pass was eight miles distant and 4,000 feet higher but the climb is fairly steady the entire way. I was packing a Panasonic GH2 micro four-thirds camera, Gitzo 0530 carbon fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-25 ballhead, 7-14mm, 14-45mm, and 45-200mm lenses. An array of parts necessary to shoot multiple row panoramas was part of the kit as well. I carried the camera in a chest pack with the 14-45mm lens attached to facilitate quick access for snapshots along the trail.
I reached the junction of the trails to Farewell Gap and Franklin Lakes / Franklin Pass in reasonable time and stopped long enough for a documentary shot. I headed toward Franklin Lakes where I planned to refill a water bottle and move on. When I reached Franklin Lakes threatening clouds were forming so I paused as briefly as possible. As I climbed toward the pass I had to balance the threat of storm against the possibility of great light for photographs. I went for the pass.
I wound my way up the contours and switchbacks above Franklin Lakes and was pleased that I was not terribly affected by the altitude as I approached 11,800 feet. I reached Franklin Pass and traversed to the view east. I had a breathtaking sky to complement the magnificent landscape below. If I had that kind of luck in Las Vegas I would be a rich man but the riches of this day were sufficient. I deployed the camera and tripod and switched to the 7-14mm lens for a few wide angle shots.
I changed back to the 14-45mm and set it to 17mm. After mounting the calibrated panorama system on the ball head I attached the camera in portrait orientation. I took a series of shots across an arc of approximately 210° first with the system leveled and then at -15º. Rain appeared to be moving in from the Whitney crest to the east so I worked as quickly as possible and then hustled down the backside of Franklin Pass to Forester Lake where I planned to set up camp and shoot some photos back towards Franklin Pass.
I arrived at Forester Lake under clearing skies; the rain appeared to have missed me. I set up my tent and arranged camp at a spacious spot on the north side of the lake The clear sky lacked dramatic light but sometimes that can be mitigated by a colorful mountain sunset. I hauled camera and tripod to the east side of the lake and found a spot to shoot back toward Franklin Pass. After shooting a series of wide-angle sunset shots I moved to a spot on the east side of the lake where I could set up a panoramic photograph that would sweep the entirety of Forester Lake.
Photographic mission complete, I stowed the picture-making paraphernalia in the spacious but remarkably light two person tent I acquired before this trip, set up my stove and boiled water for dinner and coffee. I had not pitched the tent previously, which violates a backpacking rule I had faithfully observed for many years: “test gear before field use.” Was this apostasy or reasonable flexibility? The correct answer is apostasy, but the point is moot. There was no problem. The temperature was quite mild so I sat outside for a long while contemplating the stars and my current peaceful solitude while drinking more coffee. Finally I secured the lid of the Bearikade, placed it in an appropriate location per the published Bearikade orthodoxy and stowed my pack and boots in the vestibule of the tent. Then I sacked out very comfortably.
About midnight I was awakened by the impact of a few raindrops on the fly of the tent. I stepped outside in a light sprinkle and was greeted by lightning flashes well east over the Whitney crest. I returned to the tent, zipped the rainfly entrance shut and made sure my gear in the vestibule was well protected. I dozed off for an hour and was again awakened. I was on the inside of a Ginger Baker drum solo; a driving rain and some sand grain sized hail were the drumsticks pounding the rain fly – drum head. A band of very fast moving thunderstorms passed across Franklin Pass for the next hour with the attendant light show and booming noise. I am accustomed to the classic Sierra Nevada thunderstorms that appear in the afternoon and are gone by night. I now understood what the ranger meant by atypical thunderstorm activity. The thunderstorms moved on, the rain slackened to nothing and I comfortably resumed my sleep mission.
In the morning the rain was gone. I packed up as quickly as possible, dealing with the still-wet rain fly as well as I could. I was headed to Little Five lake #2. I had to climb to Little Claire Lake, descend Soda Creek Canyon, climb over a ridge and drop to the head of Lost Canyon, climb out of Lost Canyon and descend to Big Five Lake #1, ascend a final ridge and drop to Little Five Lake #2. Garmin Base Camp indicated a total distance of 15.7 miles with a total elevation gain of 3,741 feet and loss of 4,539 feet. I do not believe the total distance was much over 13 miles, and the Harrison Map agrees with my gestalt, but I have not attempted to reconcile the difference.
The day started clear but while traversing the ridge out of Soda Creek Canyon clouds began to form followed soon by the sound of thunder. I pushed on toward Little Five Lake hoping for some dramatic storm cloud light at sunset while simultaneously hoping not to be caught on an exposed ridge during lightning activity. I tried to be strategic to avoid this but mostly just hustled down the trail. I guess hustling down the trail qualifies as a strategy.
The hike to Little Five Lake #2 was not without incident. I crossed a log jam at the northeast corner of Big Five Lake #1 to pick up the trail. After I crossed the log jam I decided to consult the GPS which was hanging from my pack belt by a carabiner and lanyard. Except it wasn’t. No carabiner, no lanyard, no GPS. Backtracking and searching in the brush was fruitless. I usually double attach such peripherals but I remember thinking “Oh, hell, what can happen.” I found out, but I should have known. Two years previously while hiking a different trail in the Mineral King area a GPS case clipped on my shoulder strap popped off and took the GPS contained within down a steep canyon and into oblivion. Score: Mineral King: 2, my GPS devices: 0. Anyway, I had map and compass and the ability to navigate old school (which meant mostly follow the trail in this case).
I arrived at Little Five Lake #2 and found to my delight a pipe running from a spring that had been placed for use by the ranger occupying the yurt style field station and any other wanderer who happened by. I had the storm cloud-filtered light I wanted so it was a matter of waiting for some dramatic sunset color. I scouted for a location to set up the tripod and found a vantage northwest across the lake toward Black Rock Pass.
The ranger stationed at the yurt seemed fascinated by the process I went through setting up the tripod, leveling the system, setting the lens elevation with the micrometer adjustment and attaching the remote release. She had me describe the purpose of each step. In the process of explaining the technique and discussing such issues as distortion with an ultra-wide angle lens it occurred to me that this all might seem a bit weird in an obsessive compulsive sort of way. Then I noticed she was wearing a Star Wars sweatshirt and a Brown University hat which really didn’t explain anything, but I noticed it nonetheless. I took a series of sunset shots and headed back to my camp spot to boil some water for dinner and coffee. And more coffee.
The next day broke warm with but a few stray clouds. I climbed the 1,000 feet to Black Rock Pass and arrived with the sun at a very bad angle for photography. The potential for panoramic photography is immense from the pass so I filed that away in memory for next year.
I descended 4,000 feet in nine miles to a designated camp at the intersection of the Timber Gap trail with Cliff Creek and spent a comfortable night there. I suppose I could have climbed out over Timber Gap and headed home but I had no reason to hurry. I took a few long exposure shots of the creek but there wasn’t much to work with.
The next day I climbed the 2,400 feet to Timber Gap over a well graded two and a half miles and then dropped into the Mineral King Valley and walked the short distance along the road to my car.
When I arrived at the parking area, at about 10:30 AM, there were two young fellows standing outside an SUV with some nice looking backpacks apparently ready to head out on a trip. First they ate what looked like a bag of trail mix. Then they sprayed on some sun block. Then they ate some oranges and drank a bottle of something. I sat in the shade letting the car ventilate and cool while I drank the last of my Cliff Creek water; the two young guys kept eating and fiddling. I hope they eventually hit the trail and stopped burning so much daylight but when I drove away they were haunting the parking area. Maybe I am getting older in a “get off my lawn” sort of way.
I stopped at the Silver City store for a sandwich, root beer, pie and ice cream. Then I started the drive down the Mineral King road to Three Rivers. Soon I would be back on a jet airliner to points east. I have decided to consider this backpack a photographic reconnaissance with a number of missed opportunities noted. But, as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan might have said long ago, “wait ’til next year.”