Oh dear God! Not Shepherd Pass! (An Odyssey on the JMT)

October 27, 2017

Shepherd Pass
The odyssey that is the Shepherd Pass Trail is told here to serve as a warning for those of you who will venture out backpacking into the wilderness looking to take a ‘shortcut’ rather than follow the tried-and-true. Sometimes the path less traveled is such because it is a dangerous business.

This past summer my husband and I attempted to thru-hike the John Muir Trail (we didn’t complete the thru-hike due to extraordinary snow conditions, but that’s another story). We started in the south at Horseshoe Meadows and hiked up over Cottonwood Pass, which is an entry point to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). We then traveled north to intersect the John Muir Trail (JMT), trekked east to summit Mt. Whitney, then back again to continue northbound on the JMT.

Our schedule was falling behind because we were hiking much slower than anticipated. We knew that we would be traversing some of the tallest mountains in the continental United States; however, when mapping the itinerary, we didn’t take into account the difficulty of the obstacles we had to face.

The morning of our Mt. Whitney summit, I had issues with my stomach, so I wasn’t feeling very well. The ascent up the 14,505 ft peak took its toll on our bodies. Although the trudge up what seemed like Mount Doom was uneventful (except for almost falling off the mountain), I woke up with a fat lip and had no idea how it happened.

The morning after Whitney, I was still feeling fatigued from the previous day’s 12.4-mile excursion. We encountered an exceptionally tough stream crossing where we had to hike an extra mile out of the way to find a safe spot to ford. The winter’s record amount of snowpack had swollen all of the creeks to dangerous levels, and we didn’t want to take the chance and get swept away to our deaths (there were two drowning fatalities in the Sierra this year due to the hazardous conditions). In the quest for a more prudent passage, my husband got his feet all wet, and we both were eaten alive by mosquitos. He slogged through the remainder of the day’s hike with waterlogged, heavy boots while I complained pretty much the entire time about the barrage of the buzzing little bastards who somehow were finding their way into my head net. We only did 6 miles this day.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Did I mention that there were SO MANY DAMNED MOSQUITOS!!!

To be able to meet a rendezvous for resupply on time, we decided to exit the JMT via Shepherd Pass Trail rather than our planned route out using Kearsarge Pass Trail. Mt. Whitney kicked our butts, and we didn’t think that we would be able to hike over Forester Pass, the highest pass on the JMT at 13,153 ft, two days later. If we did continue at the pace we were currently going, we would never make our pickup for the ride to Independence. Also, we had spoken with hikers who’ve already gone over Forester, and they said the north side is full of snow. For safety reasons (lack of strength, no ice axes, amount of snow, and the elevation of the pass), we decided to skip it and exit out over Shepherd Pass instead so that we can make it to Independence for our scheduled zero-day. This choice would be one of the biggest mistakes we would make during our expedition.

Unbeknownst to us, Shepherd Pass (topping at 12,000 ft) is a sparsely traveled pass known for its steep and gnarly scree-covered ‘path’ down. It’s a 6,000 ft and very long, grueling descent over about 13 miles. Much of the JMT and its entry/exit trails are navigable by livestock/pack animals; however, the Shepherd Pass Trail is generally impassable to livestock above about 10,800 feet, due to a persistent snowfield, steep terrain, and talus-covered path.

After opting out of detouring to the Tyndall Creek ranger station, which was .6 miles off the trail, we soldiered on to the Shepherd Pass Trail junction; the first mistake we made. If we had stopped at the ranger station, he/she would have probably told us to not take the Shepherd Pass, given our aversion to steep snow.

"The Dead Marshes" on Shepherd Pass Trail
“The Dead Marshes” on Shepherd Pass Trail

We turned right onto Shepherd Pass Trail and started up a long gentle incline to the 12,000 ft pass. The first 3 miles were pleasant, but the tricky trek through otherworldly marshes had us circumventing numerous snow fields to avoid falling into hidden creeks and pools. I dubbed the area ‘the dead marshes’ for its resemblance to that which served as the resting place for the dead bodies encountered by Frodo in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The scenery was breathtaking, and the marshes were fascinating; I’ve never seen anything like it before in my entire life. I, at this point, felt this alternative route was definitely worth it and was an adventure that I was glad we didn’t miss. I was happy not to have to climb Forester Pass and struggle down the snow-covered behemoth.

We found a wondrous place to camp just before the pass. We felt like we were in another world, secluded off the main path, with views extending far and wide in all directions. The 360-degree panoramic views were picturesque, like one of those dreamy Instagram profiles of wanderlust travelers who depict nothing but the glamorous perspective of the image they’ve captured.

Of course, as was the way of many of my travels in the backcountry, people mysteriously appeared out of nowhere as soon as I took my shirt off to change into my camp clothes. We were literally, in the middle of nowhere, when two men appeared from over the mountain on the opposite side, completely off trail. Dumbfounded as to where they came from, I said to my husband, “Are you [f-ing] kidding me? Where the hell did they come from?!” It never fails. If I ever find myself in need of assistance in the wilderness, all I’ll have to do is either drop my drawers or get naked, and someone is sure to turn up. Geeze.

Shepherd Pass Trail Campsite, just about 3 miles off the John Muir Trail (JMT).
The phenomenal view at our campsite on Shepherd Pass Trail

My lips now have blisters on them and hurt like hell. I thought that they must be wind or sunburned, a byproduct of the elements on Mt. Whitney.

The next morning, as we moseyed on to traverse the pass, we were met by a 700-foot vertical chute of snow (it wasn’t actually vertical, but it was unnervingly steep). However, we were fortunate enough to have a softer white substance to pass over rather than have to worry about skidding down on the scree. We faced the disturbing prospect of heading down the snow or turn back, make our way to Kearsarge Pass, and miss our scheduled pick-up. Both of us chose to press on and pussyfoot over Satan’s shelf and plod down the decline of death with our nonexistent mountaineering skills and second-time use of crampons, a terrorizing experience that has scarred me permanently by instilling a fear of traversing steep snow.

We looked over the precipice to determine the best route to take as the ‘trail’ was blanketed with snow. There were footprints, zig-zagging widely across the void where the preceding steps of men (and livestock) were thrust back to a time long forgotten. We also saw impressions marking a line, daringly, straight across the plunging embankment and to what looked like a place where you would just disappear into an abyss from which you would never return. Neither of us was sure which set of prints were from the two men who came the night before but were in disbelief that they had successfully negotiated this terrain so late in the day. For sure we thought that we would find their cold corpses at the bottom of the leviathan, but we did not.

Shepherd Pass Summit on the Shepherd Pass Trail, just a little over 3 miles off the John Muir Trail (JMT).
Looking over the precipice from the top of Shepherd Pass. What you don’t see in this pic is the ‘vertical’ snow chute, which is shown in the image at the top of this article.

We strapped on our crampons and made our way down. We didn’t follow the tracks that were already there but tried to forge our way down what we thought was the most ‘gentle’ approach. It was not gentle. With each step, my legs trembled, and my lungs struggled to supply enough oxygen to my racing heart. I gripped my trekking poles tightly, afraid of losing them down the mountain where they would never be retrieved again, making my fingers numb. Having no idea what I was doing, I dug deep with my crampons, slamming my feet down as if I were trying to crush some enormous cockroach. I figured if I were to impale the snow, I unquestionably wouldn’t slide. I rooted my poles into the firm, pristine, white frozen crystals, careful to retain three points of contact at all times. Again, I had no clue as to what the proper method for traversing steep snow was, but my strategy seemed like a sound one (except for the fact that we weren’t meandering across back and forth to lessen the effort used).

“One does not simply walk into Mordor.”—Boromir, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

We made our way to the edge of the chute where there were some rocks we could scramble down. From far away, they didn’t look like they would be all that difficult to maneuver; however, as we got closer we realized that this task wouldn’t be much more manageable than what we were already dealing with. The boulders shifted under our weight, and now we feared being pinned between them. We took our time and shuffled across the minefield on our rear ends, with our immense packs strapped to our backs, resembling giant tortoises ambling over uneven terrain.

Three-quarters of the way down, I ripped my pants on one particularly pointy crag. I did not just cut a hole in my pants, but tore the whole ass out of my pants; so now I had an ass cheek entirely exposed. The gradient of the remaining section was gentle enough that we could glissade safely without the use of ice axes (which we didn’t have). Trying to glissade down a mountain with one butt cheek exposed is not a pleasant experience. With a frozen, reddened, and painful buttock, I finally reached level ground and rejoiced.

Descending Shepherd Pass. The summit is just a little over 3 miles off the John Muir Trail (JMT).
It took us about 2.5 hours to make it down that first descent, never mind the other 9 miles we needed to hike down the mountain. In this image, I am smiling, but in reality, I was absolutely terrified.

This experience was heightened by the additional 6,000 feet we needed to descend to reach Owens Valley. Shortly after our initial horrifying descent of Shepherd Pass, it started to hail. The small compact projectiles pelted us as if we were being fired at with BB guns, forcing us to turn back to the only place we saw where we could pitch a tent. We were cold and wet, but we did end up getting a good night’s sleep after the torment we endured that day.

The next morning, we left camp at about 7:15 AM, and we hurriedly pressed on, determined to get off of that godforsaken mountain. We encountered another, much less terrifying, snow chute and two snowfields. I was so pissed off about the previous day’s nightmare, that I practically ran across all of them, just to get them over with. My husband took a more cautious approach.

Click to enlarge
This is pretty much sums up how I felt when descending Shepherd Pass. Still image from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The remaining journey down Shepherd Pass Trail was by no means easy. We had to ascend another 500 ft again before it all shifted to downhill, which initiated a steady release of curse words out of my mouth. My blistered lips, which oozed through the night, were now baking under the sun, which seemed to shine in our faces the entire way down (even with our sun hats on). In addition to that, the skin on my legs was turning a bright shade of crimson since I now had to wear my shorts to avoid mooning anyone who we might see along the way (luckily I had a spare pair of drawers). I was just miserable. I’m not sure if it was the trial that this mountain seemed determined to put us through or if it was the fact that I had gotten my period, despite taking birth control to prevent that from happening.

After numerous attempts to call, I was finally able to reach our contact in Independence, Cris “Strider” Chater of Mt. Williamson Motel & Base Camp. I desperately needed to tell her that we would not be able to meet her at Onion Valley Campground for pickup, but would need her to come to Shepherd Pass Trailhead instead. When I told her of our location, she exclaimed, “Oh dear God! Not Shepherd Pass!” I explained to her why we were there instead of Kearsarge Pass Trail and she lamented that we endured what we did.

“You guys don’t look tired!”—Cris “Strider” Chater

Strider warned us of the four major water crossings we would encounter, all in the last mile of the trail. They turned out to be just as swift as she had mentioned and since we were hiking deep in a chasm cut by the eons of flowing water, we were prevented from taking any way around to find a safer route. We had no choice but to cross where the trail intersected the streams, but luckily, we emerged unscathed. I previously had a terrible fear of water crossings; however, that fear disappeared after the ‘Shepherd Pass Ordeal.’ Water crossings were now a piece of cake compared to what we’ve already had to do.

At 5:45pm and we finally made it down to Shepherd Pass Trailhead. I called Strider and waited for her to come get us. When she arrived, she said, very nonchalantly, “You guys don’t look tired!” I smiled and gave a little chuckle. We said hello to her dog, Indy, put our packs in the back of the truck, and proceeded to exchange horror stories. Strider told us the tale of her experience on Shepherd Pass, and it was just as abhorrent as our account…apparently, when not covered in snow, the initial descent down Shepherd is covered with equally terrifying ​scree and talus.

“I discovered a plethora of bruises all over my butt cheeks, as well as some severe chafing in-between those flesh muffins.”

We finally reached Mt. Williamson Motel & Base Camp—it was like heaven! Strider treated us each to a beer and generously washed our disgusting laundry (remember my period?) We were finally able to take a hot shower, scrub the grease out of our hair, and sleep in a real bed after 8 days. In addition to the discomfort that I had already been experiencing elsewhere on my body, like my scorched lips and reddened legs, I discovered a plethora of bruises all over my butt cheeks, as well as some severe chafing in-between those flesh muffins. Although disgusted, my husband lovingly spread some Joshua Tree Hiking Salve on my raw flesh. What a great guy! (As a side note, I highly recommend bringing a small jar of the stuff with you when you venture out on a hiking excursion. It’s awesome!)

Ultimately, it took us two days to come down through Shepherd Pass Trail; however, we at least made a name for ourselves. Strider said we would be going down in her hall of fame for that one.

We took a 5-day hiatus to venture to Mammoth Lakes so that I could see a doctor about my lip. She said it could have been a cold sore outbreak; the altitude and UV exposure will do that. She wrote me a prescription to treat my condition and sent me on my way. We were feeling weak, aching, and tired, so we got massages to recuperate.

A day later, my husband’s lip started doing the same thing, and he cursed me for giving him herpes. We went back to the same doctor I had seen, and she came to my defense. She said that the majority of the population have unwittingly been exposed to the virus (by merely drinking out of the same cup as someone else), it just lies dormant until something triggers an outbreak. I don’t know what the truth is to that, but I’ll accept her explanation.

We would continue on the JMT, but I was damaged for the rest of the trip from the ordeal. Any steep snow we encountered after that, my legs would feel unsteady—I was psychologically broken—it was that terrifying! I can honestly say that the ‘Shepherd Pass Ordeal’ was one of the most awful experiences in my life.

So, if you find yourself out on the JMT and are looking to find a place to exit…please, for the love of God, do not take Shepherd Pass Trail!

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12 Comments
    1. This is one of the passes we service with pack stock. In a normal yr we shovel out the chute. In a dry year, we clear out the debris. In one of heaviest snowpack yrs, we didn’t even think of it. Knowing the terrain and trails is a must. Fortunately you made it down without serious injury. Enjoyed reading your story of your adventure. You write very well. Best regards, Ms. Dee , Sequoia Kings Pack Trains.

      1. I can’t imagine horses/mules going up there, but I suppose with four legs it’s more stable than with two! Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    1. I often get a cold sore breakout after exposure to high altitude UV radiation. The only defense I’ve found is constant application of a sunblock type chapstick.

      1. I was told by the doctor to bring Abreva, so from now on that’s part of my high altitude first-aid kit (in addition to sunblock for the lips.)

    1. The disasterous sufferfest adventures we survive are always the most memorable and the funnest to talk about when we’re somewhere warm, dry, rested and safe. I’ve always found that during and after these events, I never felt more alive and gratefull to live the active outdoor lifestyle!
      Hurah!

      1. Mark, yes this is true! Those trying moments may not be enjoyable while they are being endured, but they turn out to be the most rewarding when overcome!

    1. So, just yesterday my friend and myself finished exiting the JMT via Shepherd’s Pass. Your story was painfully familiar. We opted to not seek the ranger’s advice at Tyndall Creek and press on. We were worried about my moderate case of persistent altitude sickness over the past days, my worsening knee pain, and our low food stores. In the end, we made the call to exit via the Shepherd’s Pass Trail.
      Everything was going slow but typical until we reached the summit of the Pass. There were two rangers sitting there enjoying lunch after working the trail from Tyndall Creek who added that this was the fastest way down from the mountains for sure. Sometimes, I now wonder if these words were said with more sarcasm than empathy.
      It was as we started to head down the very narrow, scree lined, and hardly recognizable switchbacks that I learned my partner had a very dangerous and paralyzing problem with the narrow ledges. She pushed on and overcame her hesitation over the length of the trail out of no other real choice, but it was the most harrowing experience of either of our lives. I will say that she was incredibly strong and has more determination than any person I’ve ever met.
      We passed the several corpses of mule deer from the prior year (believed to be from an avalanche) laid out near the bottom of the initial descent, and the very real wildness of this place struck me like nowhere else has. There were several points along the path as we made our way back up over the final ridges that I was silently praying for my partner to keep moving because of the barely lodged debris just a few feet above out heads. In one case, I saw an entire uprooted tree lodged maybe four feet above us by a couple of small boulders and a pile of loose scree. Combine all of this with the desert heat and lack of water sources for some miles on our final push out, and we were just deliriously happy for the trailhead parking lot. I think things would have been much more dire if not for the kindness of other hikers along the way who not only helped us make the initial descent, but also spared an extra bit of water on the driest section. It was one of the most challenging trails with a full pack that I have ever attempted, but also both beautiful and a wonderful testament to the hiking community at large. Agreed-this path is not any easy shortcut.

      1. Oh my! In a sense, I’m relieved to know that it wasn’t just us being overly sensitive to the situation, but at the same time I had goosebumps reading your account. I’m glad you and your friend were able to make it down safely. Welcome to the ‘Shepherd Pass Survivors Club’! 😉 We endeavored again this year to complete what we started last year, but have been thwarted by the fires and are not able to continue NOBO to Happy Isles. We are currently in Mammoth trying to decide what we are going to do. We were actually just talking about this again today…if we had to go in or out of Shepherd Pass again, which would be better? We’ve decided that we would not like to attempt the pass again unless ABSOLUTELY necessary! No, thank you!

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