Sequoia NP - Mineral King


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Still happy in Mineral King Valley. A catastrophe waiting to happen.
Still happy in Mineral King Valley. A catastrophe waiting to happen.


Here's the proof Dumb and Dumber are two rocket scientists compared to me: on our extremely rewarding and beautiful trip to Golden Trout Lakes, we each carried a ton of gear and though we averaged maybe a third of a mile an hour going up the mountain, we enjoyed the trip a lot (more like too much) and got away seemingly unscathed. That whole trip was a dress rehearsal for this trip, to the Mineral King area of the Sequoia National Park. Having been to Eagle Lake a year before, our first true backcountry trip, we wanted to return to the scene of the crime and stay two nighta this time.

Day 0 - L.A. to Mineral King

Everything started out well enough. It was a Thursday morning, we left early and got to Mineral King quickly. Cold Creek CG was pretty crowded, but we found a nice spot, picked up the permit, then did a nice 2-3 mile hike up the valley on the Farewell Gap trail. There were lots of marmots, deer, and we saw a large bird, too. For a long time I thought it was a a female pheasant, but of course it turned out to be a grouse.

We had a really nice campfire in the evening, had some great food, then went to bed excited about what was to come. Oh, my...

Day 1 - Up the trail from Mineral King, then back and home to L.A.

Our packs were shear madness. Not only did I bring the Mamiya, but this time I included two backs and two lenses. Plus, not long ago, I acquired a used Canon 20D, which eventually became THE camera for all our trips, but here, it just added to the weight. With all the other heavy gear it was almost impossible to lift the pack. When I finally put it on, I staggered all over the place, but convinced myself that I have to be stronger than this and it will be OK.

Heeding the advice of the rangers regarding marmots, we drove to the end of the road (about a mile), dropped off Em with all our gear, drove back to the ranger station, and left the car there. Supposedly, with all the traffic there, the chances of marmots hurting the car was way lower than up at the parking lot. Then I hiked back to the road's end on the "nature trail" that starts at the back of Cold Creek CG and goes on the other side of the river. I highly recommend this trail, it's very cool.

By the time I got back to Em, I was warmed up nicely, we put our packs on and started up the trail towards Eagle Lake. For the first mile or so, the trail gently climbs on the side of the valley, going south, getting to the point where you can either continue on towards White Chief, or turn sharply right and start the serious ascent to Eagle Lake. On this mile-long stretch, we kept a slow, but steady pace. As we were approaching the junction, Em kept going out of breath, and she just couldn't catch it. We kept stopping, she got a bit better, but as soon as she took a few steps, she was out of breath again. When we reached the junction, I knew she had altitude sickness. Just two weeks prior, we were at almost 12,000', and we were fine. This was now below 9.000', but the signs were clear. She was confused, started shaking a little bit, and was breathing very rapidly. We took the packs off, rested for at least 15 minutes, and Em kept saying she wants to go on, she'll be fine. I knew this was not going to work, and after we put the packs back on, I let her take a few steps upwards past the junction, but then there was no denying it, we had to get lower. Em kept insisting she can make it, and supposedly this is a very obvious sign of AMS, too, so don't let your hiking partners talk themselves into trouble.

We turned around and headed back down, still keeping it slow, but of course going much farther than uphill. That turned out to be my demise. About a quarter mile from the parking lot, I took my eyes off the trail for a second and while walking, I looked at a waterwheel that was spouting up a bit further down in the riverbed. It wasn't very big, but it looked gorgeous. At this moment, it took the wrong step. It wasn't even very wrong. The next rock below my right foot was about 2 inches lower than I thought. When my heel finally touched the ground with a jerk, I felt like somebody shot me in the back with a gun. There was sudden, sharp pain on the right side of the vertebra, quickly spreading all over the place, feeling like my whole back has been torn apart. Em says I cried out, not very loudly, but she could hear from that there's something very wrong.

There was no stopping, though, and we made it to the parking lot. Em was still weak and panting from AMS, but at least we was not getting worse. I left here there and with nothing but my hiking poles, I practically ran back down to the car. At this point, my back still hurt, but it was kind of numb, and I knew it was in shock, I have maybe half an hour before the serious trouble starts. I got to the car, drove up to the parking lot without too much trouble, got out — and that was it. I couldn't even nudge my backpack. Em was feeling much better, and she had no trouble loading the car, then driving us home. As soon as we got lower, she was getting better and better, and an hour later she said she can't feel anything from the effects of altitude sickness.

The sorry state of me two days after the incident.
The sorry state of me two days after the incident.

By late night, we were back in L.A. My back was so bad, I could barely get out of the car and walk up a flight of stairs. I really, really don't like most types of medication, especially narcotics, so I medicated by vaping some pretty strong marijuana several times a day, for a few days in a row. That made it tolerable. The first evening was pretty bad, I remember Em almost crying when she tried to help me up and she could feel that I have absolutely no strength left in my back to keep myself upright.


For the next week, I slept on the floor. Turning from one side to the other was a serious undertaking and a hazardous adventure each time. Luckily, I work mostly from home, and though sitting at the computer was out of the question, I could keep up with work in a reasonable way.

Of course, slowly it got better, but it never went away completely. In the following two years, I had two more episodes like this, each from carrying too much weight or lifting it the wrong way, though both were much less bad and each weaker than the previous one.

This was, however, that got us seriously into light gear. A few months after this foolish thing, we sat down and had a serious discussion (actually, we didn't sit down, we were hiking on a trail in our neighborhood). We both agreed we love this and want to keep doing it. It's something that's part of us and it makes us happy. However, we can't doing it like before. So what we can try is make sure we are much fitter than before, and we can lighten the load as much as possible.

So OK, let's get fitter. That's actually pretty easy. Almost everybody agrees that the best way to get fit for hiking is doing just that: hiking. We did core exercises, but other than that just took it slow and went on longer and longer hikes again, mostly with no load on our back.
Then, let's get the gear light. Really light. But what does that mean? How much does it cost? What's the level of comfort/discomfort we're still willing to endure? I had very few clues about true light/ultralight backcountry gear. Also, money was a huge constraint. We both work, but we're very much "work to live" people, and not the other way around, and we never have much money.

Also, what do we currently have? That was an easy answer: the only truly pro, lightweight piece of equipment were our Leki hiking poles. It's a start.

For the next year, I spent countless hour researching backpacks, tents, clothing, camp stoves and everything in between. Also, I was researching websites and stores where we could get them under the list price. I remember, on the first try I put a vague list together of all the ideal-seeming grear we would need, and at list price it came to well over $2,000. No way.

Slowly, we stared acquiring things, and in April 2011, about 9 months after my back blew up, we went on a one-night backpacking trip to Joshua tree, the first with mostly lightweight equipment.

Check out the full gallery, though there aren't too many pictures.