Well, after contracting a serious case of Sierra fever on our first trip to the Sequoia National Park, we boldly decided to go on our first ever backpacking trip. I did my best to be as prepared as possible, but there's nothing like the first time...
To give you a bit of a background: growing up in Europe, I went on countless camping trips and hiking treks, but none of these were truly in the backcountry. My uncle took me fishing quite a few times to several rivers, and we went to places inaccessible by car, but we never had to walk more than 2-3 miles with our gear and it was never at altitude. The camping was kind-of backcountry, but there was always a small village no more than half an hour's walk away where you could stock up on supplies.
Regardless, many of these trips were wild enough to have an idea about what awaits us in the Sierra. I also knew to do my homework, so I made sure I learned the regulations and what conditions to expect. Not being allowed to make a fire was a first, too.
Even back then I knew weight is more important than anything, and I fully knew all of our gear is very, very much not suitable for backpacking. However, we were not in a position to just go out and stock up on lightweight equipment on a whim.
As a location, we selected Mineral King, Eagle Lake to be exact. After reading about various parts of the park, Mineral King seemed like a very nice and remote place. There used to be a lot of mining there, and mostly because of this, the area was not included in the Sequoia National Park when they established it in 1890. Mining operations eventually declined, end after fighting off several attempts to develop the area, including one by Walt Disney to turn it into a ski resort, it was annexed into the Sequoia NP in 1978. Now it's a heavenly sub-alpine valley with huge peaks towering above it and a starting point for many great trails.
We decided on Eagle Lake because it seemed like a relatively short (but steep) hike. 3 miles or so and 2,2000' feet of elevation gain with our heavy gear. Ouch.
The campgrounds at Mineral King cannot be reserved, and we learned that they get pretty busy during the weekend, filling up quickly. We could get a Monday and Tuesday off, so we went up there on a Sunday. For various reasons, we couldn't leave L.A. until noon, and then there was a wildfire next to the freeway around the Gorman exit of the I5, slowing things down further. It was almost 4pm by the time we got to Three Rivers.
To get to Mineral King, you have to take a side road from Three Rivers (about 3-4 files before the Ash Mountain entrance of the main park). Mineral King is only 24 miles from Three Rivers, but take at least 1.5-2 hours to drive this distance - it's so narrow and winding. I grew up on roads like this (actually, much worse), I like driving on them a lot, and the scenery is amazing. It winds up and up in the canyon, first in foothill chaparral and oak, then in the pine forest. There's a park entrance about 9 miles in, but it's rarely staffed. You have to pay your entry fee at the ranger station up in Mineral King.
At around 17 miles, there's the first campground, Atwell Mill. It looks very nice, but we never had to camp there. Then there's the "metropolis" of Silver City, an enclave of a few dozen buildings, all built before the place became a national park. It's mostly lovely cabins, plus a "resort" with a restaurant, small store and rental cabins.
Almost at the end of the road is Cold Springs campground. It's relatively big and while most sites were occupied, we found a nice spot. There's water, but no showers and no flush toilets. Just as we like it.
In close proximity there's the ranger station, which was closed by the time we got up there. One more mile up, the road ends in Mineral King Valley. There are another dozen or so cabins, and beyond that, the wilderness.
We settled in, then went for a walk, saw our first marmots, watched some deer stroll by, and ate a nice big dinner. I had no illusions that the next day will be hard.
Early in the morning, we picked up our first-ever wilderness permit from the ranger station and started packing.
If I'm looking at that gear from a few year's distance, I'm almost getting a heart attack. Em had a huge, old internal frame Lowe Alpine bag, packed to the brim, with a cheap (and heavy) 7x7 Northwest Territory tent hanging from on the outside.
I had a Lowe Pro photo bag, again huge in size, again packed to the brim with a Guide Gear (very heavy) mattress attached to the bottom and an old two-person Coleman sleeping bag (super heavy) attached to the back. Inside the packs, we had a Coleman burner (yes, that huge one) and a gas can. At least I had the brains to take a can that was half empty. But, to cook fish, we took a small aluminum plate and a small pot for boiling water.
All the clothes we took with us were non-technical, heavy garments. We both wore heavy, cheap hiking boots bought from Big5. To top this, I took my proud and joy, the Mamiya RZ67 with one lens and one back.
I'm not sure how much each pack weighed, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. Oh, and we didn't have hiking poles.
Thus equipped, we drove up to the end of the road and left the car there. Mineral King Valley is infested with marmots. They may look cute, but they are ferocious rodents and one of their favorite pastime is to crawl up the engine compartment of the car from below and chew on all the hoses and cables. There are several warnings at the ranger station and the trailhead about marmot-proofing your car before leaving and checking it before starting it up again. The store in Silver City is quite funny, there are all sorts of cables and hoses next to the usual grocery and camping items.
Many people secure their car by wrapping it in chicken wire. It looks pretty ridiculous, but it's very effective. Another low-tech method is to simply leave your hood open. The light getting in makes the engine less cave-like, and the marmots don't crawl up there as much. We used this latter version a few times and never had problems. If we'd go there all the time, I'd get the chicken wire.
The trail to Eagle Lake takes you south, following the valley for the first mile or so, gently rising above the floor by a few hundred feet. The views are spectacular. Then the trail turns west and starts climbing seriously. It's up and up and up. With our stupidly heavy packs, we took breaks every few minutes.
At least we looked at the weather forecast, and were prepared for rain. Clouds have been gathering in the morning, and about 1.5 miles into the hike, the rain got us. It was not very heavy first, we put on softshell jackets and big nylon bags over the packs. The warm rain was pretty refreshing actually.
For the next hour or so, the rain kept starting and stopping a few times, and we just took our time, going very slowly. We weren't even doing a mile an hour, but that was OK.
About a mile from Eagle Lake, it really started coming down. Pea-sized hail fell first, then it turned into a pretty serious downpour. My softshell jacket got soaked in a minute.
Regardless, both Em and I were in high spirits, enjoying ourselves tremendously. It wasn't cold, our main gear was kept dry, and heavy pack or not, we were having a blast. Not much before Eagle Lake, there's a big headwall where the trail climbs sharply among big granite boulders. We got lucky, the rain stopped and the clouds thinned a bit. This is not the place where you want to be when there's a chance of lightning. It's on this section where the trail passes 3,000 meters in elevation. For us, it was a big psychological boundary, having never been at this altitude before. Where we come from, the highest mountain is way smaller.
Past the boulder field, there's was bit more walking and climbimg to do, but soon we got our reward: the first glimpse of Eagle Lake. Of course, it started hailing and raining again.
I left Em in the relative cover of a big tree and started looking for a campsite. A few were already taken, and of course, I was in a hurry. Back then, I didn't know, or didn't remember, but you're supposed to camp only on the other side of the trail from the lake, you're not allowed to set up between the trail and the lake. However, the only reasonably flat spot I found that was not full of water was right there. I got Em and in the big storm, we set up the tent. We did a reasonable OK job, with very little water entering the tent during setup.
In a matter of minutes, we were inside, got into dry clothes and were having a great time. The crappy little tent held pretty well, with only a few drops of water seeping trough the rainfly. Had we gotten there much earlier, I'm sure the whole tent would have been soaked through. However, the rain stopped soon, and the sun came out. Quickly, we put every wet item out to dry and set out to explore the area.
Eagle Lake is gorgeous. It was triply gorgeous for us, this being our first time in such a place, at such altitude and with some pride at having weathered the storm pretty well. The light was perfect and I set out to take some pictures with the Mamiya. I had two rolls of film, and only later did I realize that I put the first one in upside down. This means you're not exposing anything. It was 100% my fault, but of course I'm blaming it on the elevation and the excitement. So the first batch of pictures simply didn't happen.
Then I wanted to fish, and it turned out I forgot the fishing pole in the car. OK... Luckily, I had the reel and all the hooks, baits, etc. This place is right at the three line, so most of the vegetation is pine. There are no bushes or trees with long, thin branches to fashion a fishing pole out of (plus, it's a national park, you're not supposed to do that anyway).
I found a spot on the shore where all the trout where hanging out very close to a big rock jutting out into the water. It was actually right next to our tent. So I baited the hook and hand-cast the thing into the water. It's impossible to cast far this way, but I didn't have to. In half an hour, I caught four small brook trout, just enough to compliment dinner.
The night was cold, but we were warm and dry and ecstatic to be there. Around midnight, we heard some big animal moving around which could have been a deer or a bear. We shouted a few times and it went away.
The sounds of rain awoke us early in the morning. It was only a drizzle, though, so we went back to sleep. I woke up a few times, checked the tent, but kept dozing until around 8am. The light rain was still going on, so we had breakfast in the tent. By then, it stopped and we could move around. A marmot came close, and I tried (and failed) to take a picture of it with the Mamiya, but Em got a shot of me trying.
The weather cleared very nicely within an hour, and by the time we were breaking camp, the sun kept coming out for a few minutes at a time.
We gathered our still heavy packs and headed back. We found the car untouched by marmots and slowly drove down the mountain. We both had sore backs and sore shoulders from the heavy packs, but we could not have been happier.
Years have gone by since, but we keep mentioning this trip. It was a first in many ways, and it was hard, but only because of our own mistakes and poor decisions. Regardless, we had a better than great time. In a way, it may have been too great and not hard enough, as we didn't learn, and did make some of the same mistakes a bit later again, with pretty serious consequences.
A great article about the story of Disney and Mineral King can be found here.