That morning I filled my camelback with water from a flowing river nearby, added my Aquamira treatment drops, then waited the specified 20 minutes before drinking. To my surprise, the 2 liters of water was nearly frozen solid. This cemented our decision to exit Shepherd pass.
Photo by @xelanil
Despite the fact that our camp was fairly low compared to the average altitudes we were at hiking at, it was extremely cold that night. At 8 am, our thermometers read 5F. That's at 10,500 ft, our lowest campsite, in the sun. That meant the temp could have been below 0F before dawn.
Photo by @xelanil
We all froze that night. Our sleeping bags weren't rated for those temperatures. I saved a NOAA weather forecast to my phone for that elevation on the day we departed on our journey. I pulled out my phone and reconciled our recorded temperature and the forecasted temp:
Clear, with a low around 29
The forecast was dangerously inaccurate. We were equipped for such temperatures, but another night at that elevation would be torture. And we had no guarantee that the temp would not drop even more. We eagerly embarked on our exit from the Sierra high country. Photo by @xelanil
It was absolutely beautiful that morning. The storm days before and the cold front that followed cleared out all the smog and dust. The sky was a perfect blue.
Our fears of Shepherd pass were realized when we dropped into a chute that consisted of a loose talus field. Snow on the trail made navigating the steep terrain quite dangerous. By my estimates, the terrain was YDS Class 3, possibly Class 4 at the top. A class 4 fall is usually fatal. We had to be extremely careful.
To our surprise, the chute was littered with elk body parts. Maybe 50 elk died in this chute.
My theory was an avalanche took out a heard in the winter before, and the snow had finished melting this September-October. Fresh coyote poop filled the trail. Coyotes must have ravaged the recently unfrozen dead Elk bodies.
It was a relief to finish the steep terrain. We spend the next five hours descending the remaining 6000 ft via hundreds of switchbacks. Although we had another day left, there was not a single suitable area to camp in the remaining 10 miles. The trail was 1 foot wide at most and on a 60-degree mountainside the whole way down.
We made it to the 6000ft trailhead around 8 pm. We were 45 minutes by car from our closet vehicle in Onion Valley. The last few miles to the trailhead was a 4x4 road. Getting a ride was impossible at this hour where no taxi service operates.
We had 5 days of food and fuel, so camping at the trailhead on Day 4 was comfortable, especially because the trailhead was much warmer than our last camp, about 4500ft higher in altitude.