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Part 3: The Fountain Wilds

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Written By Sam Edmondson
Photos By Chris Jordan-Bloch

This is part 3 of a four part series.
(Don't miss Part 2: Hail Trail and the Bloodthirsty)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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

This is part 3 of a four part series.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Map of Sam and Chris's trip.

Sam and Chris's complete route is highlighted in red. This part of the story covers their journey from the second campsite to the third, next to Pinto Lake.  View full-size map.

Paw icon.= campsite

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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.
Paw icon.= campsite

Morning breaks over the lowest lake in the Big Five Lakes chain. The mosquitoes here were relentless, forcing us to eat our meals in the tent. But even that nuisance wasn't enough to spoil the beauty of the place. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

Morning breaks over the lowest lake in the Big Five Lakes chain. The mosquitoes here were relentless.

See the video Chris gathered here that morning in Explore: By The Lake.

Arnica grows along the trail through Little Five Lakes. The Kaweah Range Ridge looms in the background.  (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

Arnica grows along the trail through Little Five Lakes. The Kaweah Range Ridge looms in the background.

"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 …"

Closeup of Black Kaweah (13,680 feet, left) and Red Kaweah (13,720 feet, right) from Black Rock Pass. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

Closeup of Black Kaweah (13,680 feet, left) and Red Kaweah (13,720 feet, right) from Black Rock Pass.

A stunning view from the Great Western Divide. Looking south from Black Rock Pass, Sawtooth Peak (12,343 feet, center) looms over one of the finest sets of stairstep lakes in all the Sierra: Columbine, Cyclamen and Spring Lakes. The upper elevations of the terrain that Disney coveted are visible in the right background. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

The stunning view from the Great Western Divide. Looking south from Black Rock Pass, Sawtooth Peak (12,343 feet, center) looms over one of the finest sets of stairstep lakes in all the Sierra: Columbine, Cyclamen and Spring Lakes. The upper elevations of the terrain that Disney coveted are visible in the right background.

National Park Service employees headed for Big Arroyo lead a pack of horses over Black Rock Pass. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge is in the background. Note the distinct transitions in the rock from black to red. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

The National Park Service employees Sam and Chris encountered on this day. They are headed for Big Arroyo, leading a pack of horses over Black Rock Pass. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge is in the background. Note the distinct transitions in the rock from black to red.

Dusk settles in at their camp near Pinto Lake, not long after making the multi-thousand foot drop from Black Rock Pass into the Cliff Creek valley. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

Dusk settles in at their camp near Pinto Lake, not long after making the multi-thousand foot drop from Black Rock Pass into the Cliff Creek valley.

The Milky Way spreads out over the night sky. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

The Milky Way spreads out over the night sky.
A buck nearly made off with the camera equipment when it was set out to record the stars.

See the night sky timelapse in
Walking the King's High Ways.

Sam Edmondson.

Sam Edmondson
Sam was an Earthjustice clean air campaign manager who worked on strengthening air quality standards in communities across the country.

Chris Jordan-Bloch.

Chris Jordan-Bloch, Multimedia Producer.
Chris has documented in video and photo essays topics ranging from hydraulic fracturing in Pennyslvania to the devastating effects of coal ash waste. See some of his work on Earthjustice's blog, unEARTHED.

Atop The King: Explore
By The River
Rivers across the country provide sustenance to wildlife and human communities alike. Today, many are threatened.
Explore Rivers.
Atop The King: Explore
On The Trail
Whether we hike, climb, cave or raft the wild reaches, we must do so in a way that minimizes our impact to the ecosystem.
Explore Trails.
Atop The King: Explore
Beneath The Sky
The silhouette of wild places should be traced by the slope of hills and mountains and the reach of trees and shrubs—not by clearcuts, drilling rigs and industrial development.
Explore Sky.
Atop The King: Explore
By The Lake
The serene beauty of a mountain lake is undeniably special. But even these refuges are suffering—from development, wind-drifted pollution, climate change and more.
Explore Lakes.
Atop The King: Explore
On The Mountain
Mountain ecosystems are some of the first places experiencing the impacts of climate change. Earthjustice is working to protect these ecosystems and combat the change.
Explore Mountains.
Atop The King: Explore
In The Forest
When we saved the forests of Mineral King, we started a trend for Earthjustice. Earthjustice has been saving forests for decades, achieving many significant victories.
Explore Forests.
See Also:

Standing to Sue

A look back at the birth of citizen-enforced environmental law and its profound impact on our world today.

Photo of Tom Turner. > Watch Video Interview

By The Numbers

Eight quick facts on Mineral King Valley, its history, and the legal work that saved it.

A cairn (man-made rock pile used to mark trails in the backcountry) designates the top of Sawtooth Pass.. > See Facts

Resources for Visitors

Thinking about visiting Mineral King? Take a look at some resources that may be helpful in planning your trip.

Dusk settles in at a camp near Pinto Lake. . > Peruse Resources
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Morning breaks over the lowest lake in the Big Five Lakes chain. The mosquitoes here were relentless. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice) [See the video Chris gathered here that morning in Explore: By The Lake]
Arnica grows along the trail through Little Five Lakes. The Kaweah Range Ridge looms in the background. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
Closeup of Black Kaweah (13,680 feet, left) and Red Kaweah (13,720 feet, right) from Black Rock Pass. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
The stunning view from the Great Western Divide.
Looking south from Black Rock Pass, Sawtooth Peak (12,343 feet, center) looms over one of the finest sets of stairstep lakes in all the Sierra: Columbine, Cyclamen and Spring Lakes. The upper elevations of the terrain that Disney coveted are visible in the right background. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
The National Park Service employees Sam and Chris encountered on this day. They are headed for Big Arroyo, leading a pack of horses over Black Rock Pass. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge is in the background. Note the distinct transitions in the rock from black to red. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
Dusk settles in at their camp near Pinto Lake, not long after making the multi-thousand foot drop from Black Rock Pass into the Cliff Creek valley. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
The Milky Way spreads out over the night sky. A buck nearly made off with the camera equipment when it was set out to record the stars. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice) [See the night sky timelapse in Walking the King's High Ways.]
Sam and Chris's complete route is highlighted in red. View full size map.
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