Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, September 24-28 2002
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Attendees this trip were: Rich Voss, Mike King, Ray Ebert, Rich Paragas, and Kurt Meyer.
Trip distance was 34 miles hitting from Mineral King Road's end: Franklin Lakes, Forrester Lake, Soda Creek, through Lost Canyon to Columbine lake and out over Sawtooth pass back to Mineral King Road.
The trip started as usual with a drive from San Diego to Three Rivers where we stayed in the fairly new Holiday Inn. If you're planning an adventure in Sequoia National Park or the surrounding areas this is a great place to kick it off. Clean rooms, a free breakfast and a computer to check your email one last time.
Once through the gripping Mineral King Road's 633 turns we self registered at the closed for the season ranger station and hit the trail head.
The trail makes its way up the beautiful Mineral King drainage from the road's end. It's mild but gains altitude deceivingly. After several miles you've already gained a couple thousand feet. We went very late in the season and Southern California is in the midst of a major drought so there was no snow on the ground. Perhaps because of these reasons we saw very little wildlife on this trip. We hardly saw any of the marmots that this area is so famous for. What little wildlife we did see we saw on the first day. A sizable group of mature and young deer tried to lunch with us. They seemed not only hungry but reasonably comfortable with our presence. We hope this isn't due to the poor practice of feeding them but who knows. We didn't feed them but we did talk to them a bit.
Eventually you turn north and east out of Mineral King and towards Franklin Lakes. The section of trail just before you get to the dam is surprisingly challenging and we took our time picking our way through here. Near the dam we passed a California Conservation Corp camp. Lots of young people looked like they were having a good time.
Franklin Lakes has few good camping areas and we got to the lake late enough that we didn't get one. We had to settle for a few semi-flat spots on the side of a slope above the water. However we had good access to the shore line so getting water wasn't the chore it can be at this lake.
The next morning we made our way up the very long switch backs that lead to Franklin Pass. This area hasn't changed a bit in the five years since we were last here. These switchbacks still go on seemingly forever… As you approach the top of the pass you are twice fooled into thinking you're at the top proper, and after a few choice words and a few more steps you are finally there and ready for a well earned break.
In years past we've been surrounded by marmots on this pass but this time I don't think we saw a single one. I believe marmots do hibernate but mid-September seemed a bit early for that. Either way after a nice, if cool, rest we were up and on the trail again.
The hike down to Forrester Lake from the pass isn't all that far, perhaps three miles, but it is one that really gives your ankles, calves, and knees a workout. Once you're below the loose sand and gravel, which is pretty fun to go down fast, you end up in the trail, which is often a creek when there's melting snow above. There are lots of big steps and drops to make your way through and there are no even or level spots in this section. You just have to grit your teeth and get through it.
Eventually you do and you then have a rather pleasant two mile hike to Forrester Lake. This portion of the trail is in duff and dirt so it is a welcome change from the rocky stuff we just left. However it can be a bit dusty.
Forrester Lake is surrounded by great camp sites and we chose a large area that could fit a group three times our size. Throughout this trip the sun set much earlier than we were used to so we were often cleaning up after dinner in the dark. This also made our nightly games a bit chilly. But we persevered and continued each night with our RatF* tournament.
The next day we headed towards Little Claire Lake, then passed it and down into the Kern River drainage. Heading down into this drainage the trail makes a lot of switch backs and loses altitude very quickly. Altitude we're going to gain back in a few days. We made a concerted effort to keep our group together and I think this made for a more pleasant trip as we could all be involved in the exchange of trail lies…
At the bottom of the switch backs the trail meanders through a very steep canyon for quite a while, drawing near soda creek then heading away from it again. After a couple of hours we finally came to the junction of the trail we were on and the one that heads to Lost Canyon, which marked our camp for the night. This camp was only about 8,400 feet and right on the river. This really helped me finally get a good night sleep as I hadn't been sleeping well and had been suffering a bit from mild altitude sickness.
In the morning Rich Voss and I were up early as usual and began to make coffee and breakfast. Rich noticed something cold hit his nose and said, "Hey Ray, I think it's raining." I looked up and saw something falling from the sky but it was rain. It just didn't look right. I noticed something land on my leg and saw that it was fluffy and white and melted after a few seconds. Being a life long Southern Californian, this was quite a strange occurrence indeed! We both thought for a second and we finally agreed what we were seeing was snow. Can you imagine? Snow! From the sky!
We decided that we would still be able to cook and eat so we went ahead and finished breakfast and watched the pretty white stuff fall.
When we left this Soda Creek campsite, we hit a very steep section that doesn't really have room for switch backs. So you gain a quick 800 feet in perhaps ¾ of a mile. It's quite steep and loose so it takes not only effort but concentration to get up this section.
At the top of this climb the trail just sort of meanders. Up, down, over there, over here. It's pretty woody so it's a nice walk. The whole time snow is falling off and on. Never heavy enough to be a problem or even stick to the ground.
We finally stopped for a break and set backpacks on a log and got out some jackets and gloves. We got there it was 55 degrees. We got chilly quickly because everyone had wet shirts from sweating. We ate, watched the snow, and talked. All told we were stopped for about ½ an hour and in that time the sky clouded up more and the temperature dropped to 50 degrees and this at around noon.
From here we headed to Lost Canyon and the snow is at times falling pretty steadily now. Lost Canyon is still one of the most beautiful places I've seen. It was pretty cold and windy as we walked through but I still really enjoyed being there again. At the west end of Lost Canyon is the 1,000 foot climb from the canyon to just above Columbine Lake, site of one of our coldest nights in the Sierra, and the snow is coming down sideways now.
We slowly and laboriously make our way up this climb. The trail starts in the trees but is very shortly above them and we no longer had any shelter from the weather. The wind came up the valley and seemed like it was trying to help us up the climb. I stopped at the top to take a picture of the Canyon with the grey clouds building above and beyond it to our leeward. I hadn't looked in that direction during the entire climb and I suddenly felt the need to get my tent up soon. And damn was it cold when you stood still for a few minutes!
Mike and Kurt found a nice sheltered area to set up the tents. We were below a small overhanging cliff with some good areas under its base to put any gear we wanted to keep out of the weather. Rich Voss and I got our tent up and put in a few extra stakes and guy lines for good measure. We then set about the task of finding a place to put gear that needed to stay dry. We also set up a kitchen area under the little cliff.
We took care of some chores and we were all just sort of waiting to see what the weather was going to do. It just kept snowing sideways. We decided to cook dinner about 5PM and I was hesitant because I didn't want to get hungry again before I went to sleep. But I gave in and cooked Rich and I dinner. It turned out to be pretty good idea because by 6:30, well before sunset, it was below 30 degrees and simply too cold for us to be outside in our three season gear any longer.
Every body got in their tents and sleeping bags and was soon nice and warm again. Rich and I played some cards and talked and took some pictures. We could tell neither of us was into it though and we eventually fell silent listening to, and watching, the snow and occasionally hitting the tent to knock down a build up of snow. We were all having some odd thoughts since none of us had experienced something like this before. The snow wasn't letting up and in fact seemed to be coming down harder and we're all yelling stuff to each other. Mike's over in his tent jokingly yelling "We're gonna die!" Initially this was funny but after a few hours and the snow hadn't let up it became less so…
I always leave instructions and phone numbers for my wife Jane, and knew that once we were overdue for one day that she'd be calling the rangers, and probably several other branches of the government, to get someone out searching for us. So I was comfortable that if we were to get stuck here by this weather that we'd only have to gut it out for a couple of days. Unfortunately we'd just eaten pretty much our last food and only had snacks and candy left. However we did have an unlimited supply of water, so again I was reassured that we'd have the resources to last quite a while if the weather didn't break.
By 6:30 in the morning the sun was just starting to rise. We could tell the snow had stopped but the tent was covered pretty well. Rich and I had to get out of the tent. 12 hours was long enough! When I got out I knew we wouldn't have any more problems. The sky was blue with not a cloud in sight and all our concerns of the night before now just seemed overly-dramatic. But we didn't and won't forget the experience.
It was about 18 degrees and it was still difficult to really do anything. Everything was covered by a couple inches of snow. I had a hard time packing. Rich V's face was very swollen and he was throwing up. Everyone else was very cold and tired as no one really slept well. After I finally managed to get everything packed up I was trying to put on my gators but I couldn't tie the string at the top. My hands were just too cold. I had to have Rich tie them for me.
We all were adamant about staying together on our way over Sawtooth pass. While we only had a few inches of snow on the ground that would be enough to make the entire rocky trail to the pass and over it potentially very slippery. The trail over the pass is also very confusing and we did pass a trail marker every once in a while and had to back track a little. After about an hour we made it to the top of the pass but it was too cold to stop for long so we quickly headed down the very loose sandy trail west of the pass.
Another couple of hours and we were standing at the cars all very ready to get to Silver City and their two public showers! That has to be one of the best feelings in the world. The first hot shower after a week in the backcountry!
This area is just too beautiful, and rugged and untouched. I hope it can always stay that way. We also learned yet again how unpredictable the mountains can be.