Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Climbing Mt Ouray: Almost a 14er

Mt Ouray sits at the southern reaches of the Sawatch Range and is visible from many places in Salida and the Arkansas River Valley.   Ouray sits about 14 miles from Mt Shavano, the closest peak with a higher elevation.  Because of its isolation, Ouray dominates the southern Sawatch Range.  From Salida you can see Ouray's most impressive feature, a large cirque called the Devils Armchair.

Ouray has always been inviting but I never climbed it.  Last week I mountain biked up Marshall Pass.  The ride up the pass travels just below Ouray and offers great views of the mountain.  The views of the mountain during the ride put Ouray to the top of my "to hike" list.  I got in touch with my friend Drew Petersen, who climbed Ouray before to see he if was up for another climb.  That was Monday. On Wednesday, July 29th we set out for Mt Ouray.

Looking into the Devil's Armchair of
Mt Ouray from Marshall Pass Road
Mt Ouray doesn't have any formal trails to its summit.  There are a few herd paths that can be followed intermittently to the peak.  We chose to climb from the Marshall Pass trailhead.  Climbing from Marshall Pass appealed to me.  My last few hikes were all long mileage affairs traveling 15+ miles and climbing over 6000 vertical feet.  Ouray from Marshall Pass begins at over 10800' and gains a modest 3000 feet with less than 8 miles of travel roundtrip.  Still a solid outing, but a break from the more ambitious hikes I recently took.

From Marshall Pass, our hike began traveling north on the CDT.  We followed a doubletrack section of the CDT a short distance before reaching the remains of an old trail that heads uphill towards Ouray.  The old trail quickly fades to more of a herd path and travels through open woods with small cairns occasionally marking the way.  This herd path is relatively easy to follow, although it does fade at places.  Usually another section of herd path or a cairn comes into view to confirm the route.  Even if the path is lost, route finding is straightforward.  Heading directly uphill will bring you to treeline very quickly.

At treeline the route becomes less distinct.  Leaving the herd path from the woods, there are a few small cairns that can be easily missed.  Even without cairns, the route is pretty straightforward. Climb uphill and gain the ridge.  Once on the ridge, follow it uphill and you will reach the summit.

Looking toward Mt Aetna and Taylor just above treeline
Looking back down toward treeline
Alpine sunflowers
Grassy slope below Ouray's ridge
Once on the ridge, our route was easy to follow.  In the grassy sections along the ridge, there are stretches of herd path to occasionally confirm the route.  While grassier in the beginning, climbing the ridge is a solid class 2 affair traveling mostly over rock.  Sticking to the ridge proper can intensify the route to a class 2+ scramble, but for the most part, easy route finding allows you to bypass most of the trickier sections.  The sun was our biggest obstacle on our climb.  We were hiking relatively early and the sun was just barely over the ridge, at a bad angle for visibility.

On the ridge with the summit in the distance
Short stretch of grass before hitting the rock
Early morning sun peaking over the summit
Looking toward Chipeta
More wildflowers
Last stretch before the summit
We made it made it to the summit in just over 2 hours.  There are conflicting reports on the actual distance from Marshall Pass to the summit, but it is somewhere between 3 and 4 miles.  From the summit the views are far reaching.  Directly across the valley to the east stands the Sangre de Cristo Ranges and stretches far to the south to the Blanca group of 14ers.  Pikes Peak is visible far to the northeast.  It seems that the entire 80 mile length of the Sawatch Range is visible.  Closer to Ouray, 14ers Shavano and Tabguache are the dominant Sawatch peaks with high 13ers Aetna and Taylor next to them.  The Continental Divide sits just below Ouray and much of the divide is visible well beyond Monarch Pass to the north.  The higher summits of the eastern San Juans are visible to the west with Uncompahgre and San Luis Peaks easily identifiable.  To the south, 13er Antora Peak and its neighbors round off the southern end of the Sawatch Range.  Looking toward Salida, the town is visible some 7000 feet below with the "S" on S Mountain just barely visible.

North over Chipeta
South toward Antora Peak
The scenery right around the mountain is quite nice.  The most dominant feature is the huge cirque called the Devil's Armchair.  Two large ridges surround the large cirque with the summit making up the back of the cirque.  Climbing the peak is possible from the Devil's Armchair side of the mountain and will probably be a hike for another day.  Below the summit, to the north lies a large alpine meadow of the Little Cochepeta basin between Ouray and Chipeta Mtn.  Another large meadow is to south of the peak just above Marshall Pass.

Looking over the north arm of the Devil's Armchair
The south arm
For anyone interested, here is a quick lesson on the names of the mountains, Mt Ouray was named after Chief Ouray, a Ute chief.  Just to the north lies Chipeta Mtn.  Chipeta was Chief Ouray's second wife.  Just beyond Chipeta Mtn stands Pahlone Peak, named after the couple's son.

We spent about a half hour on the summit before our descent.  We made fairly quick time heading down the mountain.  We stuck closer to the ridge proper as we descended.  Staying on the crest of the ridge we descended a band of rock that may of been a short descent over class 3 rock.  The rougher descent can be easily bypassed however.  We made relatively quick time on our descent.

Looking back down the ridge before our descent
Looking back up the section of class 3
A little further down the ridge
A small bump along the ridge
View toward Marshall Pass with Antora in the distance
While descending, one thing of interest caught my eye.  Looking down into the Little Cochetopa basin I could see wildlife.  Except it wasn't wildlife, it was cattle.  It isn't uncommon to see livestock grazing on public land in the west.  This seemed like an odd area to see grazing cattle however.  The basin is quite lush and boggy.  It's also well above timberline in a fairly deep basin.  I don't think the cowboys rounding up these cattle would have an easy time bringing the cattle back to the valley given there location.  As we descended we watched the herd of at least 30 head moving around.  At one point, nearly the entire herd was lined up side by side drinking from a small pond in the basin.

Cattle grazing far below
(Click on the photo for a better view)
We left the ridge for good and headed down the grassy slope before reaching the trees.  We were a little off course initially to find the herd path.  We backtracked a little bit and found our route into the trees.  The trees are sparse enough that travel wouldn't have been too difficult to bushwack but we wanted to find the herd path for a quicker descent.  We made it back to the trailhead in less than 5 hours including our time on the summit.

Descending below the ridge
Small section of rock below the ridge
One last look to the north toward Aetna and Taylor
before entering the trees
Mt Ouray is a worthwhile summit to visit.  Because it stands just 29 feet below that magic 14,000 foot mark, it sees a fraction of the traffic as the 14ers just a few miles to the north in the Sawatch Range.  Drew who hiked Ouray a few times,  was surprised to see another group on the summit during a midweek hike.  There is no official trail to the summit and this may also keep more casual hikers from climbing it.  Even without trails, the route finding is straightforward. Ouray offers great views, few people, and a solid climb without an epic effort and I recommend visiting this relatively quiet summit.

Tomcat on the descent

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