Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Bitch of A Climb: Mineral King to Monarch Lake

Date: August 1, 2016
Place: Mineral King, Sequoia National Park, Three Rivers, California
Coordinates: 36.446535, -118.594293
Length: 4.6
Level: very strenuous

This is the first of a 5-post series describing my 5-days backpacking trip with my friend at the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park last August. This post, as would be the next 4, is very long with many photos. Be warned :-)

When I descended from Franklin Lake on the final day of my backpacking trip with my daughter last year I knew it won't be long before I would go again to backpack Mineral King. This summer both my chikas were to attend the week-long 4H camp and this was my opportunity. At first I thought I would go by myself but as the trip time drew near I found a partner - a friend from my family hiking group.
I dropped my chikas at the 4H Camp bus pick up placer and as the last bus went down the hill I saw my friend's car coming up. She took a few moments to say goodby to her family and to see them off, and then we were off.
Mineral King is a long drive away from the bay area, the final lag of which is a 25-miles narrow and winding road which we drove in a pitch-black darkness. We found a vacancy at the Cold Springs campground - exactly the same place I had spend the night at with my chika on the previous year. At 8:00 am we were at the rangers station to get our wilderness permits and to listen to their instructions.  An hour later we were at the parking lot. Then it took us two and a half hours more to wrap the car (for fear of marmots chewing it), to eat breakfast, and to do the final packing. In short (or long), it was already near noon when we finally hit the trail.
Cars wrapped up in fear of hungry marmots
The trail I selected was up Monarch Creek, over the Sawtooth Pass, and eventually coming back down at Timber Gap. Everyone who saw my plan had suggested we'd do it in the opposite direction, to avoid doing the Sawtooth in the upward direction. That included my friend, who looked aghast at my plan but managed not to sound that way. I argued in favor of my plan, recruiting my bad knees in support of not wanting to hike down such steepness. My friend, for whom it was the first backpacking experience in a long while, and in this kind of terrain eventually accepted my arguments and went along with my plan.
Our first day lag as captured by my GPS
A few steps up the trail my friend decided to return her camera to the car, trusting that I'll share the photos I took with her. My camera hung heavily on my neck but I had no intention of leaving it behind. I had preferred taking fewer changes of clothes. While relying on a single camera had not affected our trip at all it did become a serious issue for the documentation of our experiences later on.
Much later on. In the meanwhile, we were going slowly uphill, struggling with the weights of our packs, the heat of the day, and the thin mountain air. Thankfully the views were already spectacular and were only improving with each step.
Cascades of Monarch Creek
Mineral King sits at an altitude of 7,400 feet, which is already higher than any other place I had been at that summer. Same goes for my friend - neither of us got any altitude acclimation prior to this trip. Already on the first lag of our ascend I took every possible excuse to stop and take a breath, like photographing this lizard hiding under a manzanita bush.
The manzanita, like all other shrubs on that south-facing slope, looked lush and plump. It was a good year for the southern Sierra plants. Some of the manzanita had pink blisters growing on their leaves: these are galls made by aphids.
Gallson a Manzanita shrub

It felt as if we were progressing in an ant's speed. When I looked down, however, I saw that we were gaining altitude quite rapidly. Before long we could look deep into the Farewell Gap where I had hiked with my young chika on the previous year.
A view of the Farewell Gap
It was early in August and everywhere else summer has burnt up most of the bloom, but the High Sierra was ablaze with wildflowers.
Sierra False Bindweed (Calystegia malacophylla)
And as there were so many wildflowers everywhere, so were butterflies. There were many butterflies fluttering about, but in the heat of the day they were all hyperactive and wouldn't sit still. Still, I got lucky a few times. Nearly all the butterfly I've seen on that trek were of species I have never seen before.
Clouded Sulphur Butterfly 
One of the things I wondered about was that many of the plants that I've seen blooming there on my yesteryear's late August trip were already in their fruit stage this year, nearly a month earlier in season. I hypothesize it may be due to the relatively higher temperatures that we've experienced over the past winter and spring.
Broad-leaved Lotus (Hockasia crassifolia)
We completed a lag of switchbacks and curved into the canyon. The trail continued going up but for some distance the slope was somewhat milder. After turning the curve I could see far on the horizon the point we were aiming at - the formidable 11,500 ft Sawtooth Peak beyond which (so I've been told) heaven lies. When I planned our route I had in mind to cross the Sawtooth Pass on our first day, and on that post of our trek I was still hoping we'd make it.
Sawtooth Ahead!
Mariposa lilies - the first I have seen in two months - dotted the trailside. It was great to see this genus again when all the lower elevation lilies have seeded already.
Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) 
Presently our trail crossed a small brook that was flowing down the nearby slope. The vegetation near the water was very different than what was growing on the mountain face. The creek plants were lush, broad-leaved and generally not prickly. They also grew very thick, and many of them were in full bloom.
Bigelow's Sneezeweed (Helenium biglovii) 
That creek crossing was a very good place for a longer break. We dropped our packs to the ground with great relief. Before I sat down, however, I took a few moments to explore our surroundings.
Chirping in the bushes caught my attention, and with some effort I managed to spot the singer and even managed to take some photos. At Papa Quail identified the bird in my photo as a MacGillivray's warbler, a bird I that he had never seen before. Perhaps he will join me too on my next trip to the mountains :-)
MacGillivray's Warbler 
A small grove of pine trees stood near the creek crossing and a much commoner bird - an American robin - patrolled the area and watched us warily.
American Robin

A few columbine were blooming at that spot. The same species, crimson columbine, I first saw at Lassen Volcanic National Park and in many other places since, including the Bay Area. I was happy to see them, as I always do, but I was still below 9000 ft and within the realm of the familiar.
Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
Two came down the path. They too thought that place to be a good resting point. They sat near us and we chatted for some time. They were coming down from the mountain, at the end of a week long trek. Both were in their late 60's, and very familiar with that region of the Sierra Nevada, having trekked there numerous times. They had even climbed Mount Whitney a few years back, after crossing the Sierra Nevada from the west - a trek I still dream of doing some time.
Arrow-leaved Ragwort (Senecio triangularis) 
Eventually it was time to say goodbye and move on. The men hoisted their mostly empty packs on their altitude-conditioned bodies and trotted briskly downhill while we heaved our full to the brim packs on our already aching shoulders and started slowly uphill. Once again I took every chance to stop for a photoshoot. The flower in the photo below, however, provided me with a very good excuse to stop - it was a fuzzy-looking larkspur of a species I've never seen before.
Mountain Marsh Larkspur (Delphinium polycladon)
We were considerably higher now. A view down to the west showed Mineral King and the road leading to it so far below that we couldn't distinguish the man-made structures in the valley. The horizon sky was hazy and the murky air hung over the foothills and the Central Valley. I was very glad to be above it all.
View to the west 
But we still had way to go and some more altitude to gain. The time ticked away and for the first time my friend started voicing her doubts about us getting over the Sawtooth Pass that day. I was still hanging on to the hope that we might so I merely grunted, committing to nothing. But At this time I was the slow one, gasping for air with each step, and stopping to photograph each and every plant, as if for the first time.
Sulphur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum)
When it comes to milage, I'm a bit of an over-achiever. Or perhaps it's my denial of my age and of the some deterioration in my overall health and fitness in the last couple of years. I tend to plan my trips as if I was still in my twenties, and while most times I manage to follow through, more often now I pay for it by suffering all kinds of after pains. Now I was eating the dust of my friend and wondering if I didn't bite more than I could chew. My body was already aching all over and I wondered if I would be able to walk at all on the morrow.
Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)
I wasn't about to give in to these depressing thoughts, though. Not when spring was everywhere around me, reminding me constantly of why I wanted to go up the mountains to begin with.
Pink Alum Root (Heuchera rubescens) 
All of a sudden I received a sudden boost of energy from an unexpected source. My friend, who was at the lead, pointed out something moving in the bushes ahead. I raised my eyes in time to see a covey of mountain quail fleeing into the vegetation. Mountain quail! I moved forward faster than I thought possible with that heavy pack I was carrying, but the quail were already gone. My adrenaline, however, lasted for some good time after that. Nothing like the excitement of wildlife encounters, but I'm glad it wasn't a bear.
Fleabane (Erigeron sp.) with a fly

Soon after we had another encounter, not so fleeting this time. As we started switchbacking again we saw around the turn a marmot standing on a stump. It didn't bolt even though we came quite close to it. Maybe it was used to humans, or perhaps it was busy doing something else, as the pile of droppings under that stump suggested.
Yellow-bellied Marmot
The slope gentled again and was leading us through intermittent woods of pine and juniper. More and more now we would see bare slabs of rock poking thought the topsoil and the vegetation. Opportunistic plants grew in the rock crevices. In some cases those plants were very big indeed.
Sierra Juniper (Juniperus grandis)
We went on and on, and still weren't covering the distance fast enough. It was getting later int he afternoon and my friend finally showed signs of slowing dow. Her backpack was bothering her greatly, not so much the weight but the pressure it was putting on a certain point of her lower back. She stopped frequently to adjust the pack this way or that, but still couldn't find the magic setting where the pack would sit on her just right.
Lemmon's Catchfly (Silene lemmonii) 
We entered another grove of trees and another segment of switchbacks, and once again sat down for a  longer break that included getting off the backpacks and eating some food. At that stop I finally admitted aloud that I didn't think we would make it over the pass that evening.
As we were sitting there, a small family passed us by. A man carrying a heavy pack and two young boys, 7 and 3 (I asked) the youngest carrying nothing and the oldest carrying a small pack. They were headed to Monarch Lake and they were planning to stay there for two nights. We chatted for a couple of minutes and then they wooshed by and within a minute disappeared from our sight.
 Brewer's Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce breweri)

I stared, gaping, after them. Yes, they did tell me that they had spent some time in the mountains on the previous week so they were more acclimated than us to the altitude, but still. And yes, the father did look half my age and in top shape, but still. Humiliated beyond measure I got to my feet and gritted my teeth. I already knew that we wouldn't make it over the pass that evening, but I was set on reaching Monarch Lake, at the bottom Sawtooth.

We struggled along. The man that had passed us with his young boys had been on that trail before and had told us that the trail goes around the curve of the mountain and then it levels off. It seemed ages until we finally reached that point. But then we were out of the woods and the view opened up.

By then I also started feeling strongly want of air. I was panting like a dog in a dog day and my pulse was rapid. I checked in my mind the symptoms of altitude sickness but didn't feel any. I was strained beyond my usual limits, but nothing more serious. I relaxed and allowed myself to enjoy the view and the new wildflower species that I was seeing literally with each step.
Wooly Groundsel (Packera cana)
We passed another small grove of trees on our way and there, under a downed log, we saw a most amazing fungus. We stopped for a good while to appreciate the fascinating organism and I even knelt down to get a close-up but apparently my hands were shaking or something because sadly most of my photos of the thing turned out blurry.

The undergrowth in that grove had a strong odor. I examined the plants closely - it was a field of Artemisia - a California relative of the sheba, a north African tea herb, and of tarragon, a french cooking herb. I wonder what the native Kaweah people used to make of it.
Alpine Sagewort (Artemisia norvegica) 
Finally we made it around the curve of the mountain, and turning the corner into the canyon at which end was Monarch Lake.
Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana) and the mountains on the other side of the canyon
Now we had our eyes full of Sawtooth again. It was closer, but looked far still. It was nearly impossible to make the thin line of our trail about mid-slope, but once we did it was a big relief to find out that indeed it was level now all the way to the lake.
But we didn't see the lake yet, and we still had to do more walking before calling it a day.
The trail stretched along the middle mountainside like a thin, faded belt, between the large rock slabs and boulders above and a steep slope of scree below. It was wide enough for one person to walk on in reasonable comfort but narrow enough to give a sensation of vertigo. Normally I don't feel fear of heights but I admit that I was a bit nervous when I looked down at the depths of the canyon below. I focused on the mats of greenery embroidered with yellow bloom that covered portions of the rubble field.  

Large slabs of rock above the trail were mostly bare except for the occasional plant-in-a-crack that appeared as if was stuck there just for show.

It was on that stretch of trail that I saw the Sierra Columbine for the first time. Many of the flowers I saw on that trip were species I saw for the first time, but it was the Sierra Columbine that truly heralded my entrance into the wonderland of the High Sierra. The first and most glorious member of the most amazing community of Alpine wildflowers I would see on this trip.
Sierra Columbine (Aquilegia pubescens) 
Every now and then we passed scree on our right, and at those places it would cover the trail and we'd have to  hop over the rocks. In one of those places spring water flowed over the trail. There was no sign of snow anywhere.

From a distance these rocky slopes looked bare but upon a closer look I could see numerous little plant cushions between the stones, many of which were in bloom.
Ledge Stonecrop (Rhodiola integrifolia) 
The beautiful, colorful patches of wildflowers cheered me considerably. I no longer felt bummed about not making it over the pass on our first day.
Rockfringe (Epilobium obcordatum) 
I was in high spirit but nearing exhaustion. When I put my mind to it I could feel myself walking with a slight wobble, swaying light-headedly under the pack's weight and placing one foot in front of another without having my goal in sight. My friend was less distracted by the wildflowers. She was focused resolutely on getting to Monarch Lake as soon as possible. She no longer complained about the pressure on her lower back but I could tell by the way she kept pulling at her pants that it bothered her greatly.
Alpine Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna)
There was little to do about the pains but to move on. The sun was dropping fast in the west, illuminating Sawtooth Peak with long evening rays. Groves of foxtail pines held fast the scree slopes and I had a vision in my mind of my younger chika and me imagining shapes in them on an August evening a year and lifetime ago.

The shadows were getting long and we were nearing the lake and nearing exhaustion as well. The pretty wildflowers kept my spirit high and I still stopped frequently for closer appreciation of them. My friend, however, was pining for the lake. At one point she turned to me and told me that she didn't think we could have gone over the pass on the same day even if we had arrived there early enough, because we would have been too worn out. I didn't argue that but the image of the little boys almost running uphill came into my mind again and teased me.
Sierra Beardtongue (Penstemon heterodoxux var. heterodoxus) 
Besides the Sierra Penstemon featured above I also saw the mountain pride - Penstemon newberryi - a very common plant that I've seen many of on the way up. Nearly all of them, however, were done blooming and looked dry and shriveled, and this one higher up, was still lush and pretty.
Mountain Pride (Penstemon newberryi)

All the way I've seen cushions of phlox, another early bloomers that were done for this year. But up near Monarch Lake I did find a single phlox plant that was still in bloom. A nice example of natural variation within individuals of a species. This is the kind of material that evolution works with.
Sreading Phlox (Phlox diffusa) 
We couldn't see the lake yet but we could see Monarch Creek spilling away from where it were. We were also beginning to feel the mosquitos that hatched in its water. We were too worn out to take the backpacks off and search for the bug repellent so we settled for hand-swatting and by the time we actually reached the lake we were both covered with bites.
The edge of Monarch Lake and the creek's spillway. 
Just before reaching the lake the trail meandered through a flooded area where we had to tread carefully to not get our shoes all muddy. The mosquito attach intensified and helped us find the energy to quicken our pace.
Mountain Monardella (Monardella odoratissima)
We finally cleared the swamped area and got on the small ridge behind which was the lake. My friend went right away toward the water while I took a moment to appreciate the majestic foxtail pine that welcomed us to Monarch Lake.
Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana) 
There are actually two Monarch Lakes, one above the other, separated by a rock ledge where the creek cascades from one to the other. The lower lake was small and didn't look very impressive, but we weren't very particular about it. The upper one was not visible at all from where we stood.
There is a sort of 'established' camp site near Monarch Lake. In a higher area about a hundred yards away from the water there is a flat surface and a bear box - a large metal closet with a bear-resistant latch where campers could store their food and other smelly items. Not far from there there was a crumbling board wall behind which was a pit toilet in disrepair that smelled horrible. Although instructed by the ranger at Mineral King to camp at established places whenever available, the place didn't look (or smell) appealing at all. We did keep our food in that bear box and we did use that pit toilet, but our tent we pitched below, near the lake (keeping the minimum distance required from the water and in an area that was clearly used before for camping).
Monarch Lake
We had little day time left so we didn't do any exploring there. we also didn't have much energy left. Just enough to make dinner and put our things in order. while we were doing all that the sun suddenly set. I grabbed my camera quickly and caught the final rays before the sun vanished behind the rock.
Sunset at Monarch Lake
Almost immediately the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees. Another thing that caught my eyes was that the fish in the lake started jumping up in the air, I assume to gulp more oxygen. That was quite a show.
Trout Oxygen Dance
A doe that we've seen skirting the lake before now approached us. Without any signs of fear she walked right through the campsite, nibbling at the vegetation and looking at us curiously every no and then. The evening was so peaceful and the doe fit into the scenery just perfectly. I'm glad my camera was sensitive enough to capture all that after the sun has set.
Black-tailed Deer, a doe
Our camp was low in the rocky bawl of Monarch Lake, and as the sun dropped lower behind the horizon the line of sunlight on the eastern slope above kept rising higher and higher. Suddenly a bird showed up on a large boulder above us. It was a sooty grouse - a type of wild chicken. She cocked her head looking to and fro, and then she decided that were weren't dangerous and flew down to the lake shore. After her flew down two more young grouse - her chicks. They spent a few moments on the lake shore and then they took to the air an flew all the way across the lake to the other side where there were a few foxtail pines, I assume that's where the grouse roost for the night.
Sooty Grouse, female
We finished tidying upper campsite and took all the food up to where the bear box was. The sunset was just beginning to happen there so we stayed there and watched the sun sinking for the second time that day. Chilled by the descending night my friend went down and vanished inside the tent. I spent a few moments more and watched the light waning away until it was gone altogether.
Good Night Monarch Lake! 
It was the end of a long and challenging day. We had hiked nearly 4 miles, all uphill while carrying heavy packs, and made it to the elevation of 10,400 ft, a net gain of about 3000 ft. Not too bad for a two sea-level not in top-shape women. That short distance we walked and that big altitude gain had placed us in a world very different from that of the woodland of Mineral King. We didn't have the time of the state of mind to comprehend it just yet - that would happen only on our second day, when we would hike an even shorter distance and gain only a little more elevation, but will find ourselves in a world like no other, a piece of heaven that only those who are willing to go on such treks are admitted to.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!

A link to the post of the second day of this trip


  1. Wow! That's one challenging hike...
    I especially enjoyed the Sierra Columbine and the majestic foxtail pine...

    1. I love challenges, particularly of this kind :-) And as you'll see in the follow-up posts the reward is enormous.

  2. Beautiful. Viewed all at full screen. The trout are eating dinner of gnats and mosquitoes. Time to get the fly rod out. ha.

    1. Thank you! I had not guessed that's what the fish were doing. Makes sense!

  3. Thanks for sharing. It's been quite a while since I've been up and we went the opposite way - up to Pinto, Spring, Cyclamen and Columbine - then up over the pass. Would love to go back. Hope those marmots left your car alone! :)

    1. Thank you! Yes, the car was intact when we returned. We ended up going over Glacier Pass to Spring Lake and tried climbing to Cyclamen Lake too but didn't quite make it. I plan to go back there again and maybe go more east.

  4. Thank you! I'm inspired to get my family up there this summer!

    1. Thank you! It's totally a worthy destination for a family backpacking trip. Kids be in good shape :-)