Having grown up just below the Sierras, backpacking and hiking has always been something that I loved. Recently, my love for the two-day backpacking trip has been reignited after meeting two new friends who feel the same; Nathan who I met slacklining at the park and who just came home from three years in the back of his truck making maps for the Bureau of Land Management – and Tyson, who also just moved back to town from years of living in Bishop climbing every rock in sight. So naturally I invited the two on a backpacking trip into Mineral King Valley, a place both of them grew up hiking.
The valley is technically inside Sequoia National Park, once a silver mining town in the late 1800’s boasting a population of 2,000. It’s now a much smaller and less trafficked park, and the 25 mile unmaintained windy road helps to keep the traffic and tourists away, leaving plenty of room for anyone to come at a moment’s notice.
There’s something different about Mineral King Valley, tucked away inside the borders of Sequoia National Park, and the final long winding turn drops you in at 7,400 feet into a shocking change of scenery. The valley feels like a different world, full of a separate variety of life far from the rest of the surrounding forests. Mineral King is full of aspen groves, corn lilies, waterfalls, and loads and loads of chunky little marmots ready to steal all your food if you’re not careful.
We began our steep journey uphill with a pep in our step and the anticipation of something new. Though the valley was familiar, we had thought we would be some of the the first people in this season, if not the first to reach White Chief Peak at 11,150 feet, and traverse the ridge line between Eagle and Mosquito Lakes covered in snow. All together, just a mountain and a hop over -should be easy, right?
Nothing grows a friendship faster or stronger than trusting someone’s judgement with 40 pound packs on your back in less than desirable conditions: icy, snow covered steep ridge lines, and high altitude farts. Despite the conditions, the three of us quickly began cracking jokes and naming the Marmots we chased away from camp together. While crossing the most exposed parts of the ridge line in what should have been the most uncomfortable sections, we found ourselves at home on the steep areas of slate and granite, taking in the unbelievable views of Eagle Lake and ice covered Mosquito Lake around the corner.
The solitude offered in the backcountry of this park is surreal. It can give way to conversation and thought which takes a group of people from acquaintances to friends for a lifetime in a matter of hours. The “best moment” of the trip was impossible to choose. Was it the first day lounging around camp chasing Marmots away from our food, or the second day making a dash for the White Chief Peak? Was it scrambling up rocks surrounded by four feet of snow, the traverse of the icy exposed ridge line above Eagle Lake, or scrambling down to the lake for dinner? Or was it the late night hike out to our car praying that no Marmot had made a home in the engine compartment of my trusty Hybrid?
Ultimately, the “best moment” doesn’t matter – it’s all the moments added up that make the trip truly memorable. In sections where it would have been easy to look down say “nope”, and turn around, we remained motivated. In the end we pulled into the parking lot late around 10pm just over 48 hours after our start on the trail, we were back in the car (and Marmot free) flying down the mountain towards home and a warm shower.