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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Climb To Chief Ouray's Namesake Mine

View through the long shattered Bunkhouse windows at Chief Ouray Mine
There was considerable disagreement as to when I last trudged up to Chief Ouray Mine... a "his" versus "hers" difference of opinion, which is just another way of saying, "lose--lose, dude; drop it." But of course I didn't drop it because I knew I was right... this time, I'm right. Suffice it to say that it was sometime between last year (not) and a decade ago (bet your paycheck), depending on who you ask.

Meteor showers trailed across a night black winter sky when Chief Ouray gulped his first breath of air; a "good sign," said Ute elders. Born of a Ute mother and Apache father in Taos, New Mexico, Ouray grew up fighting rival tribes of Sioux and Kiowa. He eventually moved to southwest Colorado where his father had become leader of a hot springs loving band of Ute's near Ouray and married a fair maiden by the name of Chipeta. 

Ouray became Chief when his father died in 1860. He was known for his patience and diplomacy skills when dealing with the influx of white settlers and gold-rushers. Unfortunately, the treatises Chief Ouray negotiated in good faith for his Utes were reneged on by a far removed government in Washington DC... one that commonly reneged in favor of the interests of whites over reds. Push came to shove and there was a massacre while Chief Ouray was away trying to negotiate yet another treatise. He lost control of his tribe; soldiers came and took revenge for the killings and reclaimed the land... land that wasn't theirs to reclaim in the first place. 

That is where and how the mine got it's name. Chief Ouray, "Friend to the white man." Look where it got him. After a longer than I remembered switchback climb... post-holing through north facing remnants of knee-deep drifts of snow... I saw across a deep crevasse of Cascade Creek's upper falls the namesake remains of Chief Ouray Mine. An old bunkhouse teetered on the edge of a precipice, it's timber footers rotted through... some hanging in mid air. 

Standing at spillway, where the Cascade Creek free-falls into an abyss of thin air, I observed over the tips of my boots a miniaturized version of Lovely Ouray... ant-cars darting to and fro in search of parking. My head spun... probably from the strain of a rapid accent. 2000 feet of elevation gain can do that. But it could have been my acrophobia demon... rearing it's ugly head. How many times must I kill that bastard.

Boulder hopping across the creek, I tiptoed a hit and miss sliver of a trail to the bunkhouse. People lived here, I thought... watching my every step. Crazy-ass miners... living in a half-assed tin shed on what is basically a rockslide, one that teeters, literally, on the edge of a rotting, sheer-faced mountain at the mercy of gravity's eternal tug. 

I entered yesteryear's door, into the dark gloom of a hard rocker's tin shack life. An old wood cookstove set askew in the middle of the room. A few army barracks style bunks were still there, used by occasional campers and hikers caught in summer thunderstorms. 

Over in one corner remained a few chunks of aged coal... fuel for the cook stove and winter heat. Visitors now used the coal to graffiti names and dates on planks of wood and walls. There were hundreds of them. 

I crunched through broken glass... room to room to back door... and stepped into the full brilliance of high altitude sunlight. My head spun. Damn that demon.



  1. Simply beautifully amazing!!! Thank you for fighting the bastard in the mountains I love to visit so very much!!! Ouray has long been a favorite area of ours to visit, but due to physical limitations, our high tours are on the jeep trails. I envy you and your travels with the sights you're seeing and look forward to many more beautiful photo's!

    Carry on!!!

  2. Thanks Meowmamma,
    When I can no longer hike, I'll be on those jeep trails too. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. I remember the San Juan's as being the most beautiful mountains in CO of all those beautiful mountains as we wandered around when I was a child. Lovely story you wrote. I too suffer from that same beast. I don't let it stop me, just is a thing to master with sense and it keeps me careful of doing anything stupid.

  4. Tesaje,
    Geologically speaking, the San Juans are the newer mountains so they are not yet rounded by time and erosion. They still have ragged, sawtooth lines and sharp pinnacle peaks... begging to be probed and explored, if you can withstand the torment from your demon :)) A good summit keeps him at bay... for a while.
    Thanks for your comment,


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