Mt. Shinn P500 CS
Ward Mountain P300

Sep 1, 2011
Mt. Shinn
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile

Mt. Shinn and Ward Mtn dominate the skyline on the far end of Florence Lake. If one is recreating at the resort or on the lake, or plying the Blaney Meadow Trail that goes around the lake, you can't help but notice these summits high above the San Joaquin River to the south. I had been to the area on a number of occasions while chasing SPS peaks, each time thinking, "I need to go up there." Today I had my chance, I was not disappointed. It was one of the finer outings I've had this year, enjoyable in almost all respects.

Having napped for almost three hours in the afternoon, I had dinner with my family and even watched some TV with them until bedtime around 9p. I then kissed my wife goodbye, telling her to expect me for dinnertime the next day. On the way out of town I stopped at the Starbucks for caffeine, then it was five hours of driving with a few quick stops in Los Banos and Madera for food and gas. The only traffic of note was the small line of cars making their way to the Table Mtn Casino in the Sierra foothills around 11:30p ahead of me. It was sad in a way to see the parking lot filled with so many vehicles this late on a Wednesday night. On another level, it was good to see the Native Americans finally getting their revenge.

It was 2:30a before I finished the long, final hour of driving over the bumpy, single lane road into Florence Lake. I pulled up and parked next to one of the bear boxes at the trailhead, put the unfinished portion of my Mountain Dew in it, shouldered my pack and started off in the dark. Thousands of stars were brightly visible on the moonless night, Orion just rising over the eastern skyline. I had more than three hours of darkness before the new day would dawn though I wasn't sure I had that many hours of trail to cover. My plan was to hike to Thompson Pass southwest of Mt. Shinn, then follow the high crest around to Mt. Shinn and then Ward Mtn. It wouldn't be the quickest way to reach the summits, but it should minimize the amount of cross-country in the dark that might be required.

It took about 40 minutes to reach the junction with the Thompson Lake Trail on the west side of Florence Lake. A dilapidated wooden sign marks the spot, the first indication that this is not a popular route. Unlike the heavily used and maintained Blaney Lakes Trail I had been following, the Thompson Lake trail sees little traffic and is no longer maintained. Ducks along the route help to keep one on the tread that is difficult to follow at night. It didn't help that my headlamp batteries were weak and my visibility into the darkness not very good. Almost from the start I found myself wandering off the trail constantly, sometimes several times within the same minute. I would look around, back track, wander about some, and usually find my way back to it. It was evident that at this rate I was not going to have to worry about it being dark when I reached Thompson Pass. And yet I found myself having great fun with this challenge. The terrain was fairly easy for off-trail travel, traversing a broad slope with generally easy travel under forest cover with little blowdown to trip one up. After about 20 minutes I managed to lose the trail altogether. Though this trail is not shown on my GPS, a second one following along Boulder Creek was, about a mile and a half distance. I simply selected this next trail junction on the GPS and used it to navigate towards. For more than an hour I wandered in this fashion in an upwards traverse across the slope. With only a paper map and compass I would have been utterly frustrated, but with the GPS I was blissfully happy and enjoyed the nocturnal rambling immensely.

When I reached Boulder Creek I was mildy disappointed to find this second trail was in no better condition than the one I had been supposedly following. In fact I walked right by the trail without recognizing it as such, and only after I ran up against the creek did I find it with some searching. For the next several miles to Thompson Lake I did a decent job of following the trail, and since it was depicted on my GPS I could correct left or right to find it again if I lost it for any length of time. It was just growing light out as I passed by the lake and an empty campsite I found at the north end. The trail up to Thompson Pass was hard to follow even in the growing daylight, but it mattered little since the slope was more or less uniform and just as easy to hike up with or without the trail. It was 6:30a before I reached the pass, the only sign or marker I found there was a duck atop one of the many boulders. It was a short distance from the pass to the edge of the crest where I got my first view of Mt. Shinn. The sun was just rising and could be seen far to the north alighting atop the Clark and Cathedral Ranges in Yosemite as well as the Ritter Range just to the east. Lost Lake and Florence Lake were still in shadow in the foreground.

It was very easy hiking along the crest, roughly west to east. Where the north faces were often sheer cliffs of glacier-fractured granite, the south side of the crest was far gentler with a friendly mix of sand and granite under a thin forest cover. Hiking in the shade up to this point, the sun finally caught up with me as I went over the hump of Pt. 10,640ft about a mile southwest of Mt. Shinn. I had a good view of Shinn's West Slopes described by Secor as class 2 along with the intervening terrain. It looked to be easier and faster to drop down to the small meadow southwest of Shinn rather than continue along the crest and approach along Shinn's South Ridge. I had a good view of this ridge as well and it appeared quite serrated and at least class 3, perhaps more. I decided to tackle the easier route from the west, then leave the South Ridge for my continuation to Ward Mtn.

Dropping off the crest from Pt. 10,640ft was easy enough over immense slabs that lead down towards the meadow. After crossing the meadow I started up the southwest slopes with an ascending traverse leading towards the summit. This proved more difficult than the advertised class 2 as I found myself on no small amount of class 3 rock, though it was generally good quality and enjoyable. (The class 2 routes can be found in chutes starting north of the meadow, directly west of the summit.) By 8:20a I had found my way to the top of the summit blocks atop Mt. Shinn. The views stretched north into Yosemite and south as far as the Kaweah Divide where the primary summits could be distinctly identified. Between these two extremes to the east is a panorama of hundreds of peaks throughout the John Muir Wilderness and SEKI National Park. Mt. Humphreys, the iconic peak overlooking the town of Bishop in the Owens Valley, could be seen poking up behind these other peaks. A glass jar contained a handful of papers, most all of them from attendees of USCS's Wilderness Orientation program, dating back only a few years. I added my name to a random scrap and put the jar back where I found it.

The descent off the South Ridge proved to be the best part of a day. It is not so much a descent as it is a traverse back to the main crest to the south. The rock formations along it remind me of the wave features on Matthes Crest in Yosemite. The scrambling was class 3 for most of the 25 minutes I was on this short stretch of fun rock. The exposure on the east side is vertical, even overhanging in places. The west side is easier, but there a a number of places along the ridge that are committing, without escapes off either side. I was able to stay within 20 feet of the ridgeline in all but one place that was near the end of the traverse, and for that I dropped about 30ft down on the west side to get around it. The rock was solid, coarse granite that was loaded with chickenheads to make even the exposed, nearly vertical moves comfortable.

Back on the crest, I continued east is a large arc. One can easily walk right up to the cliffs that drop down hundreds off feet to the snow and talus below, but doing so can certainly make one nervous. I kept a more respecting distance from the edge in case a sudden gust might come up or, more likely, in case I accidently tripped while taking in the views. There are two features I found in this portion of the crest that I found most impressive and held me up for further investigation. The features are large cracks, 2-4ft in width that rend the cliffs their entire height of about 200ft, extending horizontally into the cliff edge perhaps 50-100ft. A skilled climber could use one of these features to chimney their way up from the bottom. The gap was small enough that I could easily jump or even step across it, but the amazing depth made me nervous in doing so. There were periodically large chockstones that had dropped into and then wedged themselves at various points in gap, lined up like pearls on a string. I took a number of photos of these formations before moving on.

Ward Mtn is simply listed as 'The West Slope is class 2" in Secor. This is usually reserved for trivial summits, but Ward proved to be decidedly non-trivial. Viewed from the crest, the summit appears to be a series of closely-spaced summit blocks at the south end of a short summit ridge. The South Ridge facing the crest looks daunting because of the smoother features seen in the upper third. The West Slope looked class 2 as advertised. I approached from along the crest, descending to a shallow saddle just south of Ward Mtn that did not require the loss of much elevation. I started up the easier rocks at the base of the South Ridge and sort of just kept going from there. The rock was much like that on Shinn, solid, rough granite with plenty of chickenheads. By manuevering around a handful of obstacles, I reached a point high on the ridge where the options suddenly became limited. The chickenheads helped me up an exposed section just west of the ridge, only to be confronted with a 15-foot class 4-5 section that had no easier bypass. There seemed to be plenty of holds on the rock above, but they were not to my liking and I wasn't feeling bold enough to give it a try. I retreated back off the ridge by another means that presented itself, then moved over towards the West Slope where I finally gained the summit ridge.

There are three blocks of approximately equal height. The highest of these by my quick study appears to be at the south end, the hardest to reach. I had to drop down about 30ft on the east side and across a ledge of sorts before being able to reach it. Most of this was class 3, some of it pretty stiff, so I don't see how the mountain can be dismissed simply as class 2. I found no cairn or register but I doubted others hadn't been there before me. I had a PVC register that Adam had given to me a few weeks earlier and this seemed like a good summit to leave it on. He had coopted the register, book and pen from a summit in Nevada that already had another register. When I opened the pen to make an entry, I quickly found myself awash in blue ink that had somehow leaked out of the casing. I stared at the pen in disbelief, trying to figure out if it was salvageable, but that simply allowed more ink drops to land on my pants and the cover of the register book. I should have found something to wrap the pen in and tucked it away in my pack, but in my momentary panic I simply tossed it a great distance to keep the ink from enveloping me like the blob. Somewhere in the rocks below the pen is awaiting its next victim. My guilty conscience expects someone to send me a Wilderness Alliance photo of an injured marmot whose fir had inexlicably become matted and taken on a blue hue.

The views from the summit are similar to those on Mt. Shinn with the exception of the eastern view. In that direction, one can see the whole of the glacially carved San Joaquin River valley, the river clearly visible more than five miles away as it rises to the split where Piute Creek goes north into Humphreys Basin and the Evolution/Goddard Creeks go south. Above this fork, Pavilion Dome rises some 4,000ft from the waters below. To the northeast, the PCT can be seen carved into the north side of the valley as it climbs towards Seldon Pass further north.

My intention had been to follow the Northwest Ridge down from Ward towards the San Joaquin River and Florence Lake, and initially that's where I headed. There were a series of ducks along the ridgeline as I descended the first several hundred feet, evidence that others had not only explored the summit but felt a need or desire to help others in their quest. Finding these ducks more annoying than helpful, I knocked them over as I came across them. The blocky ridge gave way to a loose talus slope leading down the north side of the mountain. To the left was a saddle with the northeast ridgeline, the west side of which led down to Ward Mtn Lake. As the NW Ridge looked to grow blocky again, I changed plans and decided to head down to the lake, maybe take a swim, and follow the outlet down to the river nearly 3,000ft below.

Though steep, it was easy enough to get down to the lake over class 2 terrain. I had not seen a single mosquito all day, but at the lake's edge I found enough to deter me from taking a swim and subjecting most of my body's surface area to these pests. Heading northwest, I dropped below the cirque holding Ward Mtn Lake and descended hundreds of feet over granite slabs under light forest cover. This would have been ideal had it gone on for the remaining 2,000ft down to the river, but alas we don't get to design the terrain on our ramblings across these lands. At the steepest section around 8,800ft a small stream went down a series of exfoliating granite slabs for about 600ft. The water was cold, though not icily so, and I took about 20 minutes to strip and clean myself in the brisk waters that ran across the warm granite exposed to the sunshine. Not quite as refreshing as a swim, but an enjoyable break nonetheless.

At around 7,800ft the slopes began to level out to flatter terrain in the vicinity of the river, the forest cover growing more dense. There was a huge amount of blowdown strewn about the forest floor with large tree trunks lying haphazardly, sometimes stacked three high like so many Pick-Up Sticks from the game we played as a kid. This stuff wasn't so much fun, however, as I slowly made my way through the morass, stepping carefully over a zillion obstacles, wondering if I was going to twist an ankle or have some other mishap in the process. I eventually reached the edge of the river and found the going easier. Where the river had cut through eons of granite, it left banks of granite slabs that made for good travel. Even with the inevitable ups and downs and getting around minor obstacles, it was far better than the forest mess I'd just left.

I followed the south bank of the river for perhaps half a mile until I came within sight of the footbridge built for the Blaney Meadow Trail. Three fishermen were a short distance upstream from the bridge fishing in the white water created by a 20-foot drop in the riverbed. They were perhaps 30 feet above the water, fishing on either side of the cliffs formed there. As I was passing by, one of their poles took a sudden bend downwards and in less than a minute he had pulled a good-sized trout that looked to be about 12 inches long up to his perch. I gave him a thumbs up from across the river, got a wave in return, and then continued on my way.

It took another hour and a half to make my way about four miles from the bridge back to the north end of Florence Lake and the trailhead. Aside from the three fishermen, I saw no one else until I was back to the day use area on that side of the lake. It was about 3:30p, making for almost 13hrs on the day. It was a few hours longer than I thought it might take, but I still managed to get home before 9p and see the family before the kids went off to bed. I went to bed shortly thereafter as I found myself growing suddenly tired and in need of some make-up sleep. It was such an enjoyable day that I was already thinking about where I might go the following week for another day trip to the Sierra...

Tom Hilton comments on 09/06/11:
Great report. I love that area--there are some very nice off-trail lakes, and I've never run into anyone else while exploring there.

The first time I descended from Ward Mtn Lake I did roughly what you did, and wound up in the same down-tree hell, but there's a much better route that I found on subsequent visits: traverse WSW between 9200 & 9400 around the northern spurs of Mt. Shinn, drop to the Mt. Shinn Lake outlet stream at around 9000, cross and descend through easy forest to the granite flats around 7700 east of Boulder Creek. That takes you back to the Thompson Pass Trail (such as it is), and it's easy from there.
Karl Fieberling comments on 09/07/11:
Nice report. I was there 30+ years ago, the tree dead fall was there back then, kind of guarding the area. Those deep cracks on Mt. Shinn are the most impressive I've ever run across (or jumped across). I also remember really liking that little jewel of a lake below Mt Shinn, and catching some big fish in Ward Lake where I camped.
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