Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Engineer Mountain, 12,968': Locals' Favorite Trail and Peak

Essence: A pathway suitable for everyone rises through extravagant flowers and old growth trees to the Engineer Plateau with its flamboyant floral tapestry. Scale exhilarating, blocky talus on the northeast ridge. Exposed crux turns this hike into a climb on the upper portion of the peak.
Travel: From Durango, drive north on US 550 for 35 miles to Coal Bank Pass. Turn left/west 0.1 mile north of the pass (mile marker 56.9), onto a dirt road that leads shortly to trailhead parking. There is a seasonal outhouse on the east side of the highway but no water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.4 miles and 2,378 feet of climbing
Time: 4:00 to 5:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation easy; considerable exposure for about 50 feet at the crux
Map: Engineer Mountain, Colo. 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: June 20, 2012
Quote: The power of such a mountain is so great and yet so subtle that, without compulsion, people are drawn to it from near and far, as if by the force of some invisible magnet. Lama Govinda

First dusting of snow on Engineer Mountain in autumn enthralls. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

The distinctive, double-crested summit and grey columnar cliffs pique the curiosity of travelers wending their way along US 550 south of Silverton, Colorado. A relatively solitary peak, Engineer Mountain calls persistently to climbers atop other crests in the La Platas and San Juans.

The mountain was sculpted by a 2,000 foot wall of ice sliding south during the Pleistocene. It was first scaled by H. G. Prout in 1873, a member of a geographic survey crew mapping the area with the Army Corps of Engineers. So, no, the peak was not named for top guns on the D&SNG Railroad, but rather, in honor of masters of geography and cartography.

Engineer Mountain Map: The black line shows the standard route from Coal Bank Pass to the summit. The dotted blue line is the optional course to Little Engineer.
Pass Creek Trail Route: 
The first 2.5 mile jaunt up the Pass Creek Trail accommodates people of all ages and abilities.  In a rising traverse from the signed trailhead at 10,660', the trackway plows through wildflowers so opulent and enthusiastic it is a wonder humans can carry on. A sprightly octogenarian is dominated by cow parsnip and mountain delphinium.

A few paces away a different arrangement enchants: little sunflower, Indian paintbrush, rayless senecio, Whipple's penstemon, osha, and columbine.

The footpath plunges into a deep and dark subalpine forest. In a mile, pass a perfect disk of water. At 1.3 miles, watch for a little side trail that hooks left to a trickling brook where queen's crown flourishes.  Limestone boulders beside the track are bejeweled with fossils. At 11,600' the path emerges from the woods onto a broad swath of land, the Engineer Plateau. And now, for the first time, the traveler feels the pulling force of the mountain. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

The stately fallen conifer at treeline marks a favorite resting place, affectionately dubbed the Bus Stop.

Walk a short distance to the 4-way junction with the Engineer Mountain Trail at 2.5 miles. Continue straight/west uphill to the solitary boulder, Social Rock, seen below.  (THW, photo)
Trail Note: A left/south turn on the Engineer Mountain Trail guarantees a premiere traipse through golden aspens in autumn. The trail drops 1,760 feet in 6 miles. The lower trailhead is accessed by turning west off US 550 at mile marker 52.2.

The Climb: From Social Rock, ascend the broad, red northeast ridge of lower Engineer. The trail is threaded and shattered. The erosion from so many people going every which way makes this first push a marbly pain. Try to stay on the main trail hovering on or near the ridgeline. Toward the top of the red band the trail becomes standardized, bears right, and penetrates the grey granitic layer. (THW, photo)

This image looks back on the red band and The Fort, a bivouac that serves as a comfortable and generous room-with-a-view for those who choose not to proceed. For here, the hike becomes a climb. Resist the urge to continue if you do not enjoy exposure or if small children are in your care. (THW, photo)

Engineer has some of the finest talus climbing in the local mountains. (THW, photo)

The segment that follows is strikingly intimate as you proceed up the ridge, just right/north of stout spires. Luminous radiance bounces off a pale stone wall in evening twilight. (THW, photo looking down)

The crux awaits. Enter a 3 foot crack and scramble easily up the initial 10 feet, protected on two sides. (THW, photo looking down)

The squeeze narrows. The standard choice is to move up through a notch on the left/south side of the crack and onto the exposed face riddled with spiky nibs. Most are very solid, but test. The holds are blockier and the climbing less exposed if you stay very close to the crack on the right, as shown. Avoid wandering out onto the face.  In about 50 feet you will come to the stone horn, pictured.

Here is another look at the crux with the horn at the top. An anchor may be set around this feature for people who wish to be belayed. There is a second way to commandeer the crux. Instead of turning left at the notch, continue straight up the crack, shown. It leads to a chimney that rises vertically to the top of the crux. The rock is excellent, the climbing relatively easy, but the exposure is chilling. This is the route my 12 year old (with 9 years of climbing experience) relished, but I cannot recommend it. (THW, photo)

When the pitch decreases, move back onto the ridge at first opportunity. This look-back snap shows a fragment of social trail coming up from the crux, a bit southeast of the ridgeline. If you opt for this trail, be sure to return to the security of the ridge promptly. (THW, photo)

If you flow, you will mount the crux in about 3 minutes. The final scamper to the summit (at 3.2 miles) is pure Class 2 pleasure so long as you stay on the ridge. Do not get lured onto the southeast face as others have done. Top time depends on the weather. Engineer attracts electrical storms; reports of hair flying straight up are common. Some people tag the top and rush down because their descent anxiety gets the better of them. Resist. Spin around and revel in the great circle of the horizon punctuated lavishly by peaks as riveting as this one. Only in Colorado! 
(Chris Blackshear, photo)

On the lower northern slope is a deeply folded rock glacier. (THW, photo)

For added pleasure, enjoy a ridgeline walk to Engineer's west crown, "Little Engineer." Drop 508 feet to Saddle 12,460' and climb 153 feet to the summit, 12,613'. This adds 661 feet of climbing and one mile, assuming you return as you came. If you are tempted to continue descending to the west, avoid the northwest ridge. The terrain sucks you in. It looks good at first but gets ever steeper and has layers of cliff bands with boulders on the loose. A better choice is to retreat to Saddle 12,460'. Descend the south ridge of Little Engineer 150 feet, then drop west to almost 11,800’ before circling around to the north side of Engineer Mountain. Endure the tedium of heading east across the rock glacier on the 11,700’ contour. Engineer Mountain from Little Engineer. (THW, photo)

Engineer is a half day hike. In the late afternoon of Summer Solstice, 2012, I summited unhurriedly in 1:45. I descended past spears of stone set ablaze by the sun-that-hesitates-to-set, re-entered the domain of flowers, enjoyed a toast to the sun at the Bus Stop, and ambled home through woods, surrendering reluctantly to the shortest night. Purple fringe, magenta paintbrush, and alpine avens on the Engineer Plateau.

Winter Note:
The Pass Creek Trail is popular with snowshoers, skiers, and snowboarders. Park in the Coal Bank Pass lot on the east side of the road. The bottom part of the trail crosses below a major avalanche release zone. Slides have obliterated the trail, run across the highway, and buried the bathroom. For the initial climb, seek the protection of the trees to the north, avoiding the base of the slidepath. My favorite snowshoe heads southeast from the Engineer Plateau to Pt 11,916', as this group is doing. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Knife: West Babcock Peak, 13,160', to Spiller Peak, 13,132'

Essence: An exhilarating, exposed scramble across a serrated slice of stone.
Travel: From the US 160/550 intersection in Durango, travel 11.0 miles west on US 160 to Hesperus. Turn right/north on La Plata Canyon Road, CR 124, and measure from there. After passing the hamlet of Mayday, the road turns to smooth dirt at 4.6 miles. There are several established campgrounds in this area. Park in a pullout on La Plata Canyon Road at 8.1 miles, just past Boren Creek.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.5 miles, 3,900 feet of climbing from La Plata Canyon Road
Time: 7:30 to 8:30
Difficulty: 4WD road, off-trail from the mine; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling; breathless and sustained exposure; helmets recommended
Map: La Plata, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Date Hiked: June 10, 2012
Quote: To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. Soren Kierkegaard

East, Middle, and West Babcock Peaks, The Knife, Spiller Peak from Hesperus Mountain, 13,232'.

Route: From the pullout, elevation 9,240 feet, walk up CR 124 about 200 feet to FSR 794. Walk northwest up the Boren Creek Road to the mine at 11,320 feet. Leave the road and climb West Babcock Peak. Moving west, cross The Knife and summit Spiller Peak. Descend south to the Spiller-Burwell saddle. Plunge down the basin, skirt a waterfall and return to the Boren Creek Road.

West Babcock Peak: The first objective of our compatible group of five was to summit West Babcock via its face, not the couloir route. We walked briskly almost three miles up shady, crisp FSR 794, the Boren Creek Road, to the sun in the upper basin, observing a golden eagle circling overhead. The image below shows the traverse in context as seen from the mine, elevation 11,320 feet. Starting on the right and moving left is East Babcock, 4th Crest, Middle Babcock (high point), West Babcock with its smooth face, The Knife, the crux at the "tooth", and Spiller Peak. We slogged up the familiar incline. Then, keeping the straight, thin couloir coming off West to our right, we climbed a rib of stone.

Note of Caution: In 2016, I witnessed two, 3 X 3 foot cubes of stone crack from a Babcock couloir and, gathering more boulders, bounce-fly at 60 mph down the center of the basin where I had been moments prior. They skidded to a halt just shy of the 4WD track. It was a narrow and lucky miss. Please be fully aware and understand this location is particularly dangerous.

Looking down on our route, from the obvious knob, image center-right, we climbed the "smooth stone" face of West Babcock, favoring the west side.

The pitch is actually rife with loose boulders. We climbed as lightly as fairies, skimming over the surface, testing holds, gaining the ridge just west of the summit. We crested West Babcock in under three hours from the trailhead. 

Hesperus Mountain, the towers of Lavender Peak, and Mount Moss are intimately close in the northwest.

The Knife: A La Plata Mountains devotee, having by now climbed all of the peaks save one, this little stretch, not even a mile, long eluded me. It has a notorious reputation amongst locals in Durango. On this day I was awarded the "sweet spot," climbing upon the heals of my friend, John, who had done this span previously, storing the way in his impeccable memory. Therefore, we rarely stopped to debate alternative routes, allowing us to complete the traverse between the two mountaintops in exactly one hour.

It is best, as always, to stay pinned to the ridge. When we were forced off, we usually deferred to the north and only briefly. John called the innumerable blocks, spires, obstacles, and sawtooths, "jiggity jaggities." Width varied; at times the ridge was one slender block wide, in other places, comfortable. There was plenty of good rock, but a substantial share of rotten as well. I was off-ridge to the north when a hold let go and I was flung backwards over a vertical couloir. I have no idea how I magically regained my position. For John, as leader, it was, "the ridge that never ends," but for the rest of us experienced scramblers, it was a pleasurable practice in mindfulness. This image shows the first serration on The Knife with Spiller in the distance.

The Crux. At the deeply incised declivity in the ridge, we carefully scrambled down to a minuscule saddle. We moved to the north and then the south on loose dirt and rubble. Below is a picture looking back/east from the pinch. 

Faces to the tooth, we dismissed exercising the standard route which leaves the ridge, downclimbing into a couloir on the north. For a detailed description of this route, please see Dave Cooper's, Colorado Scrambles, a Colorado Mountain Club guidebook, 2009. Instead, we climbed straight up the wall that is slightly north of center. Great holds are mixed in with loose debris. Choose carefully. It is ill advised to traverse in the opposite direction. If you must, take a rope. Once past the first 15 feet, we were on a ridiculously steep pitch, breathtakingly exposed, but blessed with sufficient holds. In this image you can see a climber working his way up the near vertical crux wall.

Now past the crux it was a relatively simple, but not trivial, climb up the summit block. This image, taken from Spiller, looks back on The Knife, West Babcock, Middle, just visible, and East (THW photo).

We relaxed on top for the better part of an hour before descending the south ridge of Spiller. The rock is fractured, holds unreliable, exposure serious. This image was taken in 2017 of climbers ascending the south ridge.

We made the mistake of leaving the ridge too soon on what appeared to be a use trail.  That was a disaster, stranding us on resistant soil covered in gravel directly above a cliff. We clawed our way back to the ridge and continued down to the Spiller-Burwell saddle. The trip off the wide basin rim was endlessly tedious through broken rock. Following the central depression, we came to the top of a waterfall where we turned left and, in time, dropped back to the Boren Creek Road. This photo shows the crux from the upper basin.  

Flowers. I dutifully write down the names of blooming plants seen for the first time each summer. Today's list was surprisingly abundant: valeriana capitata and edulis, blue columbine, red columbine, star flowered false Solomon's seal, alpine kitten tails, phlox, alpine spring beauty, old man of the mountain, thimbleberry, strawberry, osha, corn husk lily, green gentian, king's crown, draba, Richardson's geranium, elderberry, dock, waterleaf, larkspur, woods' rose, purple vetch, fairy candelabra, meadow rue, raspberry, daisy fleabane, New Mexico groundsel, scorpion leaf, alpine groundsel, packera (formerly senecio), chokecherry, scarlet gilia, current, white peavine, Brandegee's clover, Jacob's ladder, mountain parsley, white and purple violets, chain pod, cow parsnip, and bluebells.

It was a flawless and flowerful day.

2017 Note: I'm grateful to have traversed The Knife. Part of me wants to return to get better photos, to experience the risky adrenaline-infused thrill once again. But this climb pushes the boundaries of my skill level and my courage. I doubt I will return. Robert Macfarlane in Mountains of the Mind, speaks eloquently to a growing notion within: "The attraction of mountains is far more about beauty than about risk, far more about joy than fear, far more about wonder than pain, and far more about life than death."