The distinctive, double-crested summit and grey columnar cliffs pique the curiosity of travelers wending their way along U.S. Highway 550 north of Durango. 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 epoch. The first recorded scaling was in 1873 by H.G. Prout, 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 railroad, but rather, in honor of masters of geography and cartography.
The approach: The first two-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 feet, the trackway plows through wildflowers so opulent and enthusiastic it is a wonder humans can carry on. Various arrangements enchant, but you are sure to be surrounded by cow parsnip, mountain delphinium, osha, little sunflower, Indian paintbrush, Whipple’s penstemon and columbine.
The footpath plunges into a deep and dark subalpine forest. In a mile, after passing a perfect disk of water, watch for a trickling brook where queen’s crown flourishes. Limestone boulders beside the track are bejeweled with fossils.
At 11,600, feet the path emerges from the woods onto a broad swath of land, the Engineer plateau. The stately fallen conifer at treeline marks a favorite resting place, affectionately dubbed the Bus Stop. Here, the mountain is revealed and the traveler feels its compelling force. Wade through purple fringe, magenta paintbrush, alpine avens and Parry’s primrose while walking to the signed junction with the Engineer Mountain Trail. Turn right, cross a rivulet, and walk uphill to the gigantic solitary boulder, Social Rock.
Trail note: A left/south turn on the Engineer Mountain Trail guarantees a premier traipse through golden aspens in autumn. The trail drops 1,760 feet in 5 miles. The lower trailhead is accessed by turning west off U.S. 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. Now the hike becomes a climb. A stone bivouac located here serves as a comfortable and generous room-with-a-view for those who choose not to proceed. Resist the urge to continue if you do not enjoy exposure or if small children are in your care.
The segment that follows is strikingly intimate as you proceed up the ridge, just right (north) of stout spires. Engineer has some of the finest talus climbing in the local mountains.
The crux awaits. Enter a three-foot-wide crack and scramble easily up the initial 10 feet, protected on two sides. 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 them. The holds are blockier and the climbing less exposed if you stay very close to the crack on the right. Avoid wandering out onto the face. In about 50 feet, you will come to a stone horn. 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. 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.
A fragment of social trail arises as the pitch decreases, a bit southeast of the ridgeline. If you opt for this trail, be sure to return to the security of the ridge promptly.
If you flow, you will mount the crux in about three minutes. The final scamper to the summit 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.
Your length of stay on top depends on the weather. Engineer attracts electrical storms. If lightning is in the vicinity – or worse, your hair is flying straight up – begin the descent immediately. 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.
For added pleasure, enjoy a ridgeline walk to Engineer’s west crown, “Little Engineer.” Drop 508 feet to a saddle at 12,460, and climb 153 feet to the subsidiary summit at 12,613. This adds 661 feet of climbing and one mile round trip, 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 the 12,460-foot saddle. Descend the south ridge of Little Engineer 150 feet, then drop west to almost 11,800 feet before circling around to the north side of Engineer Mountain. Endure the tedium of heading east across the rock glacier on the 11,700-foot contour.
Engineer is a half-day hike. I summited unhurriedly one summer solstice evening. I descended past spears of stone set ablaze by the sun-that-hesitates-to-set, re-entered the domain of flowers, and ambled home through woods, surrendering reluctantly to the shortest night.
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 highway. The bottom part of the trail crosses a major avalanche release zone. Slides have obliterated the trail, run across the highway, and buried the bathroom (and people). For the initial climb, seek the protection of the trees to the north, avoiding the base of the slidepath. My favorite snowshoe is to go southeast from the Engineer plateau to a point at 11,916 feet, perched dramatically above U.S. 550.
Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.