Mount Ouray (13,971 feet) — A Review for Hikers with Joint Disease, Joint Replacements, or Neuromuscular Deficiencies

© 2013 Peter Free


23 July 2013


Photograph of Mount Ouray west ridge for Peter Free review of the hike up the summit.

View of the west ridge of Mount Ouray, showing the peak, 22 July 2013.


Panoramic photograph of the view from the summit of Mount Ouray for Peter Free review of the hike up the peak.

View from the summit of Mount Ouray, Colorado, 22 July 2013.


This review of the west ridge up Mount Ouray is for people with joint disease and/or mild neurological problems


You can gauge the relevance of this review to you by reading an overview of my mild physical impairments, here. These include inflammation related neurological problems that give me problems controlling my legs.


Having done the Mount Ouray hike yesterday, it would not be my first recommendation for people with significant arthritis.


In essence, the entire steep portion of the peak (which goes on for seemingly forever) is composed of fragmented, rock.  Though easy for the able-bodied to negotiate, these granite and quartz rocks continue for too long to be anything other than a tedious challenge for people who are no longer spry.


Ouray’s only virtue (for me) was its surprising solitude on the Monday that I hiked it.  I had the entire mountain to myself, all day.




Because I hike alone and away from trails whenever I can, I am more cognizant than most of the physical risks involved in trying to negotiate terrain that I arguably have no business being on.


That awareness flavors my reviews, which may make them less pertinent to you.



This is not a trail hike


Directions for the hike, including GPS waypoints, are located on page 173 of:


James Dziezynski, Best Summit Hikes in Colorado, Wilderness Press (2007, third printing 2010) (pages 172-175)


The route starts at the Colorado Trail parking lot, located on (dirt) Marshall Pass road.


To start your bushwhack up onto the east end of the peak’s west ridge, cross the road (from the parking lot) and walk about 500 feet east (downhill) to a meadow on the north side of the road.  (Do not follow the Colorado Trail that begins directly across from the parking lot.)


Looking north, notice that there is a ridge in between your position at the edge of the road and what appears to be the west ridge leading up Mount Ouray.


This intermediate ridge is actually the eastern end of the west ridge, as it circles west from the peak and then south and east.


There is a high spur at the end of this eastern terminus — before the intermediate ridge more gently descends below tree line.  This lump is going to serve as your first target.


Take a compass reading on spur.  Then bushwhack across the meadows, including through two bands of trees, up toward it.


This is easier than it might seem.  When in doubt in the forest, just follow the fall line.




The fall line, best known to skiers, is simply the most direct route up or down a slope.


If you carry a GPS unit, James James Dziezynski’s description of the route comes with waypoints.


Once at the spur, you will see the west ridge circling left and then right, as you look north.



Caveat — the route up the summit looks easier than it actually is



The first part of the hike, along the grassy-rock ridge, is easy. You will probably notice that other hikers have worn intermittent trail-like impressions in the tundra.


As the ridge loops toward the peak proper, it drops abruptly down through some rockier terrain.


Once you cross this dip, you will begin the steeper portion of the west ridge.  If you are carrying a pack, you will eventually find yourself using both hands to scramble upward.




Based on past personal experience, I tried simulating using only one arm for some of the “four-footed” sections.


It is possible, but not fun, and takes an inordinate amount of planning your body configurations for some of the moves.



Segments of trail-like traces can often keep you on the best route up.  However, these sometimes are less than clear.  For example, it is not always a good idea to climb along the highest point of the ridgeline.  This is especially true at a prominent outcropping of dark granite and another of white quartz.


Photograph of dark granite and white quartz outcrops on Mount Ouray for Peter Free review of the hike to the summit.


The best route upward around both of these is left (north).



White quartz — a warning about route-finding


Beware of the quartz on this route.  It is surprisingly slippery, even when dry.  And the rock is far too hard for trekking pole points to grip.


An example, for the less than able-bodied, is pertinent.  Coming down, I decided to experiment with the southern way around the quartz outcrop.


Were I not comfortable with low level climbing, this would have turned out poorly.  In some places, the quartz outcrop slopes downward in a series of small faces.  It is too slippery to scramble up or down safely, without using handholds and planning your route beforehand.


This meant that once I committed to a comparatively insignificant route (assessed by unimpaired standards), I was pretty much stuck with it, even though I could not see my path all the way down.


In one place, I had to balance along a moderately narrow crack to get safely off a small quartz face that I had risked dead-ending into.


I point this out because, had I not been paying attention, I could have gotten myself into trouble, quickly.



Why rock scrambling is mentally taxing for people with physical impairments


Colorado-style rock scrambling usually means clambering over or through fields of fragmented rock of various sizes.  On most Colorado peaks, these tumbled rocks have gaps between them.  The spaces are often large enough to gobble a leg or trap a foot.  The smaller ones are prone to sucking up trekking pole tips, with a resulting lunge groundward.


Rock scrambling means that you have to pay constant attention to what body part is going where — and to the stability of whatever it is going to land on.  When you add trekking poles, the coordination challenge mounts. 





Even on the mild day I was on Ouray, wind was occasionally strong enough to blow me off balance.  There are a couple of narrow places on the route that have drop-offs on both sides.  If the wind topples you here, you are going to get hurt.



Summit view — nothing that you cannot pretty much see from the lower and easier part of the west ridge approach


If you want to save yourself the discomfort of rock scrambling, finish your hike on the tundra portion of the west ridge.


The views on the easy part of the ridge are actually three-dimensionally more interesting than they are on the summit.  And you will not have to go as far to escape thunderstorms that blow in.



The moral? — Mount Ouray has fewer people than the easy 14ers, but —


Consider whether the high proportion of rock scrambling on the mountain is to your taste. It is not to mine.


Then there’s the distance from Colorado’s Front Range population centers.  The parking lot for this hike is about a three and a half hour drive from Colorado Springs.  And the fourteen miles on Morrison Pass road is just rutted and rocky enough to seem tedious.  In places, the road is only the width of a full size pickup.


Being older, I probably will not do this summit again.  Its rock scrambling is technically too easy to feel a sense of accomplishment.  But it is dangerous enough — for mildly physically impaired people — to make attention lapses and losses of balance potentially serious or fatal.


The peak itself is less than 14,000 feet — so no bragging rights there.  And the view is pretty much the same as any other from the Sawatch Range.


For most arthritic folks, there are better (though more trafficked) choices — including some of the easy 14ers that I reviewed last year.


On the other hand, for a fit and physically non-impaired person, Mount Ouray is a mild and aesthetically worthwhile outing.