When I was 13 or 14 years old in the early 1980s my father Robert and I did a hike and scrambling climb in Ouray, Colorado that took us up the rightmost side of the famous and rugged amphitheater that looms above the city and to a highpoint above timberline at approximately 12,182 feet. Since then I've always wanted to return, however despite several attempts I haven't been able to make the return trip, due to not being able to retrace the route my dad and I used, or possibly because I haven't felt safe ascending beyond a certain point.
Here are the only two photos from that early 1980s ascent, taken at a wonderful old miner's cabin not far from timberline, high up in the amphitheater. This cabin was built into a hillside in a partially wooded area, and had a window possibly made from a slab of mica. Inside the cabin above the entry door Ouray's famous high-altitude runner Rick Trujillo had signed his name.
With this piece I hope to share the stories of my attempts at this climb and to get input from others who may have climbed to the peak I hope one day to return to. Here is a time-line of my attempts:
- 1981 or 1982: Successful climb with my dad
- 1986 or so: Successful climb by myself
- 1990 or so: Unsuccessful climb with my brother Erik
- 1996: Unsuccessful climb by myself
- 2009: Unsuccessful climb by myself
Key points in photos:
- Ruth Miller's Cabin
- Top of overhanging pink cliff
- Miner's cabin at top of cliff
- First clearing
- Second clearing
- 2009 high point
- Tailings pile
- Top of rough mine road
- 1980s Gully too steep to descend
- Upper miner's cabin with window
- 1980s high point at 12,182 feet
- Bridge of Heaven / Horsethief Trai
- Sow / Cow Peak
- Bear Creek trail
- Engineer Pass
The following photo, taken from the opposite end of the Ouray amphitheater or perhaps above the Chief Ouray mine, shows many of the numbered locations on the key above, including the route I believe I took in the 1980s, in white, and in pink the route I am considering trying next time out.
The following photo shows the upper portions.
The following is a composite image I made that includes a topographical map of the area superimposed over the best satellite image I could find. It includes the spots mentioned in this article. To view this or any of the other images on this page at full resolution just click on them.
Notes From 2009 Attempt
August 10, 2009 in Ouray, Colorado at the Wiesbaden Hotel and spa, about 10:00 p.m. I woke at 6:15 a.m. this morning and drove up the Million Dollar Highway, U.S. 550, to the road leading to Ruth Miller’s cabin, where I parked it and set out with my backpack. I hiked up the road to Ruth Miller’s cabin and then up the ridge above the cabin making my way towards the steeply overhanging rose-colored cliff high above.
It was mostly walking until about halfway to the top of the cliff, where there was a sizable black stone looking a bit like an Easter Island figure, but more primitive and made up of loose rough pieces.
I headed to the right from that stone and upwards until reaching a wall that was steeper than any previous, with several pine trees growing close against the face of rock. I went off to the right and slowly worked back toward the top of that face to the left, and continued upward.
From this point to the top of the pinkish cliff I continued up through various paths skirting gullies, some of which contained large fallen trees, long dead. The scramble up eventually funneled into one final gully, culminating at the top right of the immense cliff.
Roughly 100 yards up from the cliff and a bit off to the left is an old miner’s cabin in ruins.
I am not sure that the route I took from this point upward was the correct path to make it to a point at 12,182 feet being at the near top of the rightmost portion of the Ouray amphitheater, a point I reached as a 13 or 14 year old boy on a hike with my father Robert in the 1980s, and once again about five years later by myself.
My memory of those two successful ascents is unclear as to the exact route once the top of the cliff is reached, further confused by an unsuccessful trip on this route with my brother Erik when I was in my early 20s. Another unsuccessful ascent in about 1996, when I brought along my video camcorder, also adds to my difficulty remembering those two magical trips to the top, when I found the correct route.
I’m afraid that my climb today only repeated the routes that haven’t been successful, yet nearly 30 years since I first made it all the way up, I am not certain my unsuccessful climb was due to an incorrect route or, rather, due to my reluctance to push past the point at which I stopped and turned back down.
The route I took this morning brought me to the same place I had reached with my brother Erik, and probably also during my circa 1996 trip. I don’t know whether my ability to make it to this high isolated and exposed spot signifies my repeating an incorrect route, or whether it is indeed the right way but I’m no longer daring enough to attempt the rest of the route without ropes and a good strong climbing partner.
The route I took this morning veers off to the left and up steeply from the old miner’s cabin frame above the pinkish cliff, climbing a dry stream bed and then veering right, followed by switchbacks (done out of necessity due to the steepness of the terrain) on extremely steep forested hillside up to a solid rock cliff, which I followed along the bottom heading to the right and upward.
The hills became just about as steep as is possible for the pine trees which cover them to grow on, and making progress up was difficult. I used two walking sticks and many times needed to use the trees themselves to get solid footing. Without the pine trees these hills would be either impossible or extremely dangerous to climb.
After much bushwhacking up these hills I reached the first of two clearings overlooking Ouray and the Uncompagre River side of the mountain.
There was a red vinyl marker tied to the branch of a tree here. Above here I climbed more steep wooded hills, and some of the climbing was up a dry riverbed. It took me about 20 minutes to reach the first clearing from the top of the cliff, and about 20 more minutes to reach the second clearing from there, which also had a red marker tied to a tree.
This second clearing was on a massive precipice on the river side – a huge scary gully of loose rock. I believe that during my 1996 attempt, when I made it to this spot, I came up this terrible gully when I took the wrong route instead of going up through the steep hilly sections of forest.
I took a few photos of Ouray far below.
Barely visible through the trees above this second clearing were looming stone cliffs, which I made my way up to and then followed along heading to the left.
I reached a gully of small stones with a crumbly rock wall on the left and an odd group of aspen trees bent over, and in the scariest moves of the route scrambled along, at one point lifting my legs over a small aspen tree barely clinging to the crumbly cliff. A fall there would have been very serious, but I felt right at the limit of my comfort zone and made it past.
A short scramble up loose rock followed.
After 10 minutes or so I made it up a final steep section to an ancient weathered tree – mostly dead – with sheer drop-offs on two sides, Bear Creek trail thousands of feet below and views of the Red Mountains off in the distance.
The only possible route for continuing on from this point, aside from turning back, was a steep crumbly cliff to the left, leading someplace I couldn’t see. The cliff that I could see was about 60 feet high before rounding out of sight into what looked to be an area of great exposure on all sides, although I could make out a few trees above.
Was this the climb up my father and I had done 30 years ago, or was it an insane false route leading nowhere which would only require an extremely dangerous down-climb once I made it over the cliff?
I thought it over for 10 minutes or more, and finally decided that it was far too dangerous to continue up the crumbly exposed cliff, as any slip would cause me to tumble not only back to my precarious perch by the ancient tree, but past it down perhaps as much as 2,000 feet of cliff to the Bear Creek trail so far below.
I turned back and climbed back down, with the two difficult sections plenty scary for me as it was without venturing up that final cliff into the sky. Seeing that spot again made me think that either my father and I were very foolhardy going up that cliff long ago, or that we had made it up via a different route, one that involved more climbing to the left and up from the top of the pink cliff, rather than this route that winds far right around the very farthest reaches of the amphitheater. Part of me feels that the route I took today is correct.
2011 Postscript And Thoughts
In 1981 or 1982 when I first made it up to the high parts of the Ouray amphitheater with my dad just by hiking and scrambling, our most harrowing experience happened on the way down, when we tried to take a shortcut down a large tree-lined gully -- the one that now descends to meet up with the rough mining road and tailings pile which were made in the 1990s. Finding that the descent became too steep, we eventually had to climb back up and return down the way we'd come. Since then I've wondered if a route leaving from the top of the rough mining road and tailings pile could be an easier way up. In the 1990s I recall scoping it out a bit, but determining that it was too steep to ascend. I didn't look very closely, however, and now I wonder if there may be a way through from that spot, and I've assembled a few photos showing this possible route, marked in pink.
The following image, probably taken from the Bridge of Heaven and the Horsethief trail, shows the route I took in the 1980s in white, and the alternative route I'm considering in pink.
The following photo, probably taken from the summit of Mt. Abrams, shows the back side of the route, with Bear Creek trail and Engineer Pass road visible.
Hypoxia Gym has noted claims of a route to the top of the Ouray amphitheater involving only hiking and scrambling, and I wonder if this was the route I successfully took in the 1980s. If it wasn't, I'd like to learn of any secret routes up that don't involve the Horsethief trail access. Any access from the Horsethief trail and Bridge of Heaven side of the amphitheater would not allow access to the unnamed 12,182' peak I want to reach again. When my dad and I reached our 12,182' high point, an exposed peak with no way across to the rest of the amphitheater and the Bridge of Heaven, we found and signed an old summit register, which noted the last ascent as being by a Boy Scout troop in the 1970s, I believe. I wonder also about possible routes going up from the Bear Creek trail side of the amphitheater.
Please let me know if you have any information to add.