Even though I've spent most of my peak-bagging efforts on 14ers, Mount Ouray has always been in the back of my mind as a mountain I wanted to climb. The new 13er guidebook from Roach and Roach gives several routes, and since I've mostly run out of nearby, moderate 14ers, I decided this would be a good weekend for Ouray.
Weather permitting, of course. It had been snowing off and on in the mountains most of the week, but it apparently hadn't amounted to much. I did have some concerns about high winds. As it turned out, I didn't fully consider the clothing situation and almost had to abort the climb to avoid hypothermia.
The drive is a little over 3 hours and I left Boulder at a little after 3am. I bought one of them new-fangled LED headlamps last week, but I started hiking too late to use it. My planned route was the East Ridge from the Roach*2 guidebook. They warn that the trail is a little sketchy in places, and I sure brought that issue to life!
There is no trailhead marker, but the trail indeed starts at the edge of the parking turnout. The trail begins in a grove of aspens which are now denuded of leaves and in hibernation for the long winter. The initial part of the trail is easy to follow, but it didn't take me very long to lose it. Luckily, the terrain is easy but I still cost myself some time and effort. Interestingly, although I did not follow the standard route up to treeline, I did eventually find a trail of sorts up through a very nice hanging gorge on the south side of the basin.
I could hear the wind at times, and a cap cloud was trying to form right over Ouray's summit. By the time I got to treeline, I was getting into some pretty good gusts. Unfortunately, my off-route adventure prevented me from going all the way into the "Devil's Armchair", the appropriately nicknamed eastern cirque and upper basin. (From a distance, it really does look like a 2000-foot tall armchair!) But, since I was on the correct side of the basin to reach the eastern ridge, it was actually a slightly shorter route. (That's why I give 8.0 miles RT instead of 8.4) There was some light snowcover in places below treeline, but not enough to be an issue.
At about the time when I needed to angle up to the ridge (~11800ft) I got into the first instance of very high winds. I hadn't measured anything much over 40 mph up to that point, but I found myself in gusts to 60 mph. The temperature was around freezing, so while it was a beautiful sunny day, it was rather cold. I had the following outer clothing: balaclava, 200-weight Polartec pants, insulated shell pants, 200-weight Polartec jacket, parka (shell and insulated zip-out liner). At this point, I had on everything but the zip-out liner. I also had glove liners and Polartec overmitts. Unfortunately, I wasn't very smart in packing and didn't bring my second balaclava, nor my shell mittens, and I was not wearing heavy socks. My "ski" goggles would have also been nice, especially since I was wearing clip-on sunglasses and the wind kept trying to rip them from my face. Later, I ended up taking them off at times and hoped I wouldn't end up with sore eyes the next day from the sunlight reflecting off the 25-50% snowcover. I gave some consideration to my situation, but decided to at least continue to the ridge.
The ridge has a climber's trail all the way to the summit, complete with switchbacks. Good thing, because the wind was usually 30-40 mph and mostly in my face (except on the switchbacks). It was strong enough to impede my progress when it gusted, and I was getting cold. But, I still judged that I was OK, and a retreat would be strongly downhill and with the wind.
However, a second moment of doubt was still to come. About 500ft below the summit, I ran into 50-60 mph winds with some gusts to 65, and I was getting genuinely cold. Not just hands and feet and face, and I was worried that I was losing core temperature. I finally put on the zip-in liner (over the shell), so I was wearing every article of clothing I brought. That's not a very desirable situation, and I suspect that if I had still been 1000ft below the summit, I would have turned around. Under these conditions I was about 30 minutes from the summit, so I decided to press on for a few more minutes and see if I warmed up a little.
The final bit of clothing did help a little, so I no longer felt like hypothermia was trying to set in. Plus, the wind actually decreased as I approached the summit! The proto cap cloud had completely dissipated.
Finally, I reached the summit. Hip, hip Ouray! (Sorry, really bad pun; it's pronounced as if there's a "y" in front.) The wind was only around 20 mph, so I was a little overdressed after getting out of the high winds. The summit was mostly covered in a thin layer of snow, but I found a dry place to sit in the summit rock shelter (a second shelter was filled with snow). I only spent 10 minutes on top, just enough time to eat and shoot a panorama on my camcorder. Visibility was good and some of the ranges are starting to get some snowcover. Ouray gives good views of many major ranges, so it would have been nice to have spent some time trying to identify distant peaks. Despite the hardship, it only took 4 hours 5 minutes for the ascent. On the other hand, that's a rather long time for me for 4 miles and 4300ft of gain on easy terrain.
Going down the trail was much easier, mainly because I didn't have a persistant headwind. In fact, the wind actually decreased quite a bit while I was descending, and I don't think I had gusts much above 40 mph. I had to gradually remove layers as I descended, and ended up wearing what about I would for an alpine start of a summer hike.
I decided to try to backtrack my ascent route, but never found find the vague entrance to that gorge. So I ended up whacking my way down the south side of the drainage to 10,900ft, until I finally decided I was being stupid. Once that was decided, I headed straight down to the center of the drainage, which wasn't too bad, and hit Grays Creek at around 10,400ft. Naturally, the main trail was immediately on the other side of the creek. I think this was below the point where I lost the trail on the way up. Anyway, this left me with just a 20 minute stroll to the trailhead.
In some sense it seemed like it took 8 or 9 hours for the round trip, but it was actually just a bit over 6.5 hours. It may have been short, but I earned this one!
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File last modified: 28 December 2004