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 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. Towards 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 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)

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