Sometime around 3:00 AM, I peered out of my tarp and saw the moon — thankfully the storm had passed, so I would be able to dry out, or at least warm up, in the morning. The mix of snow, graupel, and sleet had frozen into a hard, white sheet that anchored my tarp against the wind, and supported Tom and Matthew as they walked around in the morning. After an interminable wait for the sun to reach the bottom of the valley, I ate breakfast and packed as quickly as I could, with frequent breaks to stand in the sun and rewarm my hands.
Michael had left for Big Kaweah; the others were still deciding what to do as I followed him south along the High Sierra Trail. My original plan was to cross over Red Spur and Kaweah Basin, camping near Picket Guard. However, I was enjoying the sunny hike on untracked snow (rather than pulverized dust and horse manure) so much that, when I came to the point where I should leave the HST, I decided instead to keep strolling along the trail and visit the Kern Hot Springs and Valley, though it would mean dropping down below 7,000′. I continued strolling along the plateau in perfect brisk t-shirt weather.
Decide in haste, repent at leisure. While the hike along the plateau was pleasant, and the lower Kern is impressive with its 3000-foot-high glacier-carved walls, the hike back to Junction Meadow is endless. I stopped briefly at the hot springs, but a hot, slimy, sulfurous bath did not appeal in the midday heat. An exit to Whitney Portal was impossible, but I could at least make my last day short, so when I reached Junction Meadow before 4:00, I took only a short break before continuing 4.3 miles and 2,200′ to the JMT junction at Wallace Creek. I had to continue several hundred yards up the faint trail to get past all the JMT parties camped there.
Though it had been warm hiking up the Kern the previous day, the night was the coldest of the trip: for the first time, my CamelBak hose froze solid, frustrating my breakfast preparations. I was almost out of oats, so breakfast was a disgusting paste of oil, instant mashed potatoes, and vanilla protein powder. It only needed to last me about 10 miles over Russell-Carillon Col and down to the Portal.
My knee and shin were both stiff and painful, so I started off at a limp, but fortunately they loosened up after an hour or two, before the steeper part of the col. I was tired and slow on the hills, but had enough music to last me through this familiar terrain, and reached the trailhead around noon.