Mount Yale (14,196 feet) — A Review for Hikers with Joint Disease, Joint Replacements, or Neuromuscular Deficiencies

© 2012 Peter Free


23 September 2012


View from recommended portion of Mount Yale hike. 

View from the recommended part of the Mount Yale (Colorado) route, taken 19 September 2012.



This review of the southwest slopes “standard” trail up Mount Yale 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.  Notice that I have had to give up non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), due to hypersensitivities.


People with joint disease similar to mine, but who can treat it with medication, will be able to go longer distances than I do, with significantly less difficulty.



Yale was a bit long — with a possibly challenging summit (for people with mild physical impairments)


Yale’s summit approach hike is actually nicer than the other “fourteeners” that I have written about.  But once one nears the summit, large boulders and a somewhat poorly cairned route make going up noticeably more challenging than most people with mild physical impairments will like.


You can find route descriptions and trip reports, here (at  The route I’m reporting on begins at the Denny Creek Trailhead adjacent to Chaffee County Road 306, 12 miles west of Buena Vista.  The route and the parking lot are paved.  (Unusual for a fourteener hike.)


The positives


The southwest slopes trail to Yale is reportedly 9.5 miles long.  Much of this is well unusually well maintained and stably-footed.  Although the path has the Sawatch Range’s customary number of granite rocks, these are mostly solidly embedded in the ground.  In short, footing on the trail, below the saddle and summit, is unusually sure for a fourteener.  It is usually relatively easy to put one’s feet on dirt, rather than rock.


A number of less stable segments occur.  This is especially so, as the trail switchbacks back and forth across a very long rock fall that dissects the route upward.  Here, the footing is similar to that on Mount Shavano, Democrat, and Cameron.


But, overall, Yale’s below-saddle route was the best of the eight fourteeners that I have done this year.


The only caveat to this might be that the trail’s “step-ups” — meaning in-trail rocks that serve as steps on steeper portions of the route — are somewhat higher than other hikes.  There are enough of these that they can become fatiguing, especially coming down (for hikers who are unable to sustain the joint-pressures caused by bounding downhill).



The negatives — it is easy to lose upper portions of the trail and wind up in difficult terrain


These negatives all stem from joint disease and its complications.


Most route reports class Mount Yale as one of the “moderate” fourteeners.  This means that fit and able people will not have any difficulty hiking it.


However, in my case, Yale is long enough that my arthritis was in full inflammatory mode well below the summit.  And that led to my usual quota of problems.


The terrain near the top compounds these inflammation-related difficulties.  As one approaches the saddle (below the first of two false summits), the trail becomes somewhat difficult to follow.  From there upward, the approach is covered with sliding dirt, scree, rock slides, and large boulders.  None of these are joint disease-friendly.


The cairns that mark this portion of the route were apparently built by people coming downhill, so many of them are too short to be consistently seen, while one walks uphill.


Consequently, I lost the route from saddle to summit four times.  That, in turn, got me into Class 2-Plus and 3 scrambles up, across, and between massive boulders.


Physically able people have no trouble with these deviations from the proper route.  But people with balance and muscular problems almost certainly will.


Small patches of lingering snow made the going more difficult on the day that I was there.  Wet shoes on worn rock made for slips.




In my case, in addition to the neuromuscular and balance problems I have documented elsewhere, I often have to use an arm or two to move my left leg to where it needs to go.  That makes it impossible maintain three points of contact (with rock) in scrambling and climbing situations.



A route-finding tip — if the clambering seems way more difficult than it should be, you’re off the trail


The actual path to the summit bypasses the false summits that block Yale’s actual peak from view.


If you keep that in mind while route-finding, you may avoid the time-consuming deviations that I made.



The chief “con” to Yale — is the likelihood that arthritics will inadvertently get in over their heads


This is why I can’t give Mount Yale a “recommended” rating for our joint-diseased/replaced group.


It is too easy to go off-trail near the summit and find oneself more than trivially concerned about breaking something important.  Or worse.


In retrospect, if you do find yourself in noticeably difficult terrain on Yale, you have gotten off the trail.


By way of dunderheaded example, on the lower reaches of this more difficult portion of the route, I found myself clawing my up sliding dirt and loose scree and talus on all fours.  Had I not lost the path, the route would have been more manageable.


Note — scree versus talus


My geology courses distinguished scree from talus, even though many sources do not.


Scree slopes are composed of small (but larger than gravel), usually angular rock chunks.  Scree slides, when you walk on it.


Talus slopes are made from much larger, also angularly fractured rocks.  These slopes are often less noticeably unstable, but if one or more rocks do let go, something is going to get squashed.


On a combination of scree, sliding dirt and rolling talus, it is important for joint-diseased people to remember that the dynamic balance that many of us had while young is gone.  That loss of ability meant that I had to concentrate that much harder on not losing my balance or provoking a mini-rock slide.


Traverses on scree and talus-strewn terrain can be treacherous.  It took me a ridiculously long time to regain the actual trail, when I belatedly spotted my mistake in leaving it.


Once I knew where to go, I had to calculate a route laterally upward to regain the path.  Pure traversing or descending were too dangerous, due to the presence of so many large and loose talus fragments on what is obviously a rockslide slope.  Sliding scree one can cope with.  Cut-loose talus one cannot.


Once out of the scree/talus slide area, I made at least three inadvertent deviations from the proper path.  These deviations had me clambering up, over and between the giant boulders that comprise two false summits.  The effort, which was substantial, turned out to have be unnecessary.  Of course, I only discovered the proper routes coming down.


Note — even the very alert will probably miss the best route, in at least one instance


There are two places below the summit where the “sort of” trail splits, giving hikers two alternatives.


In one case, it seemed to me (while coming down) that the lesser used fork was the better choice.  However, this alternative is near invisible going uphill.



A caveat about the descent — ditch your poles in some places, and be prepared for the long hike down


For arthritics, trekking poles are a necessity coming down.  But be warned that there are places descending the boulder-strewn summit, where you will need both hands to cling to the rocks.  In these sections, using your poles will get you hurt.


The hike back to the Denny Creek trailhead is long.  I am always surprised how far I came uphill, when I’m retracing my route back.  This seems especially so on the rocky, above timberline portions of these fourteener hikes.


In Yale’s case, the interminable “step-down” rocks began to take their toll.  As I mentioned earlier, these make for bigger “steps” than on many other trails.  I found myself putting most of my weight on my forward planted poles, as I tried to reduce the joint impact descending these large blocks.



Negatives aside, the lower slopes of Yale are worth hiking


Yale is my favorite lower approach hike of the eight fourteeners that I have done this year: Pike’s, Shavano, Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, Elbert, and Sherman.


I might do Yale again, but stop well short of the saddle.  The view from below the saddle is worthwhile.  (See the picture at the top of this review.)


One begins to get good looks at surrounding peaks, even from below timberline.  Above timberline, but still well short of the saddle, the view is uninterrupted toward the west and northwest.  The more comprehensive sights from the summit turned out not to be substantially more pleasing.  In other words, going all the way to the top, just for the view, wasn’t worth it.


By ending one’s hike short of the saddle, one avoids the challenges of the summit and the seemingly interminable length of a full descent.



If fourteener ego is important — do Mount Elbert instead


Elbert’s summit is significantly easier to hike and visually more rewarding.



In sum — Yale is (indeed) somewhat more difficult than the “easy” fourteeners


Yale’s challenges (for the joint-diseased) are due to:


(a) the difficulty of staying on the trail from saddle through summit


(b) the route’s 9.5 mile length.


What most guides don’t tell you is that the trail below the saddle and summit is noticeably more pleasant going, and aesthetically more pleasing, than most fourteeners.  That part of the route, I do recommend to people with joint-disease, who are still able enough to take it on.