37.699226° N, 107.80672° W - Engineer Mountain

Assessing Risk on Engineer Mountain


, by Greg Heil

The north face of Engineer Mountain. The route to the summit follows the ridge on viewer's left. The dangerous boulder-stretch-traverse took place on a cliffside on this north face. Photo: Greg Heil

Engineer Mountain towers above the Million Dollar Highway and Purgatory Resort north of Durango, Colorado. At a "mere" 12,968 feet tall, the hordes of 14er climbers skip straight over this aesthetic mountain—but it's a must-do peak climbing objective for Durango locals.

I hugged the rough rock outcropping, reaching around the boulder for a handhold and then following that hand with a foot outstretched over the sheer precipice. The vertical drop itself was intimidating—probably over 200 feet. But if I fell, after I hit the ground, my broken body would ragdoll down a steep scree field for another couple thousand feet, leaving my corpse tucked under a boulder somewhere, unlikely to be found without a thorough search of the region.

As I dusted my hands off after the stretch around the boulder, I realized that the small traverse to the ledge wasn't the problem—the impending vertical climb was. While I spotted dirty handholds and footholds heading up the near-vertical rock wall (indicating that people had previously passed this way), I stopped to assess the difficulty of the down climb. I don't know how many times I've written in route descriptions on FATMAP that "the down climb is always more difficult than the ascent" and that "if you have any issues while heading up, it's better to turn around early to avoid getting cliffed out or injured on the way back down."

As I stood on that ledge, looked at the exposure beneath me, and the wall above, I realized that I needed to take my own advice. Returning back down this pitch would be way too sketchy, with one slip meaning certain death.

Left: Looking up at the crux move of the route. A scree field leads to a steep climb up a slot and a scramble onto the face to the left. Right: The imposing rock face in question. Photos: Greg Heil

This was already the second cliff face I had examined as I tried to find the optimal path up the summit ridge of Engineer Mountain, but this wasn't going to be my way forward. I doubled back across the boulder-stretch-traverse, and climbed back into the slot I had climbed up earlier.

I was climbing Engineer with my wife, Christine, and at the first technical climb up a narrow slot, she had decided to call it quits and wait for me on a ledge as I tagged the summit. While it's generally not a great idea to separate from your climbing partner on a mountain, we had assessed the risk and determined it was acceptable: she would hang out on a safe ledge and enjoy the beautiful view while I would tag the summit and return to the same spot to collect her. There were no weather worries, no food or water supply troubles, or any other issues, so we determined that this course of action was safe enough.

I just had to find my way forward.

After backtracking a bit, I thought back to the research I had done and the GPX file that I had looked at on FATMAP. The boulder-stretch-traverse had taken me too far to the right, and I was pretty sure that the route had headed left out onto the slightly more mellow face of the mountain. As I sat in the slot, I decided to scramble up and out to the left to take a look.

Looking back down the slot. Photo: Greg Heil

Choosing to scramble up and out was a non-obvious route, as the telltale signs of dirt and footprints had led right. But as I popped my head over the rock wall, I saw that I could definitely make the wide-open face work. While I'd have to scramble on a slightly loose mountainside with more you-fall-you-die exposure, at least it wasn't a vertical cliff. And within a few feet, a small crevice in the mountainside would provide some protection if needed, and hand and foot holds if in doubt. So I popped out onto the cliff face, scrambled through a few feet of sketch, and continued onward and upward.

After a few hundred feet of steep and exposed scrambling, the grade began to mellow out into a more typical scree field hike/scramble—and thankfully, without the insane exposure. As I continued upward, I even found a few sections of easy scree walking along aesthetic ridgelines, eventually leading me to the impressive summit of 12,968-foot Engineer Mountain.

Not only is Engineer Mountain not one of the venerable 14ers, but it doesn't even quite hit 13,000 feet tall, meaning that most snobby climbers simply skip this peak. But what it lacks in height, it makes up for in aesthetic beauty. Engineer is a massive rocky monolith standing all by itself that dominates the skyline along the Million Dollar Highway (US 550) north of Durango. From the right spot on the north end of Durango, you can even spot the mountain in the distance. And from the nearby ski resort of Purgatory Mountain, you'll spend your entire day starting at the double-peaked grandeur of Engineer in front of you all day long.

This peak is so beautiful that it absolutely begs to be climbed!

As I scrambled back down to pick up Christine, I deployed one of my trekking poles for some stability in the scree, using one hand on the rock and one on the pole. As I reached the small crack/slot system on the face before returning to the deep slot, I steeled myself for the final few moves down the crack system. I made good use of the slight protection from the crack and eventually skirted back over the rock wall into the deeper slot. That down climb had felt much sketchier than the ascent, and I couldn't have imagined trying to downclimb the cliff that I had decided against earlier. I felt very thankful that I took the time to examine my options and look around for a more sensible route to the summit instead of making a hasty and potentially dangerous decision.

As I collected Christine on the ledge, I spotted several hikers heading back down the trail that we had climbed earlier. "Nobody else has climbed this far up the mountain," Christine said. "Only a couple people made it to the wind block lookout point, and most people turned around even before then," she observed. We had passed a stacked rock wall wind block on the shoulder of the mountain earlier (a somewhat common feature of human impact on the otherwise pristine mountainsides in Colorado) before the climb really turned technical in the final pitches.

We continued back down, slipping and sliding in the loose dirt on the lower pitches, before finally heading back down and out via mellow hiking on the Pass Creek Trail.

Our early alpine start had meant that we were the first car in the parking lot for the day, but as we hiked out, we saw dozens upon dozens of hikers and bikers heading up the trail for an adventure in the mountains... but few (if any) had intentions of heading for the summit of Engineer. And of the few that might have entertained the idea, most would turn around before tackling the final pitches.

It's satisfying to climb a mountain that few other people will attempt, and in Colorado, it's so easy to find hundreds upon hundreds of incredibly aesthetic and challenging peaks with very few other climbers on them—just so long as they're below 14,000 feet.

But with fewer people on the mountain, there are fewer people to call 911 if something goes wrong. And so, risk assessment is doubly important. We had been assessing risk all day—we had started early to avoid the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms (which did materialize, just after we were done for the day). Christine called it quits when she felt uncomfortable on a technical slot scramble. We assessed the risk of splitting up for a bit (which only ended up being an hour) and decided it was acceptable. And then, I had to assess the risk levels of three different paths through the crux of the climb to determine which one I was comfortable with (if any).

You can't switch your brain off when you're climbing a mountain—this isn't simply an athletic endeavor. Rather, you need to keep your problem-solving faculties online and fully engaged at all times. Or better yet, you need to drop into a flow state in which your brain reacts faster than you can consciously process. But whatever you do, you need to always be honest with yourself about your abilities, your limitations, and the other challenges that are outside of your control.

When the risk is too great, you always need to be willing to say, "No, we're not going to do that today," and turn back.

The mountain will always be there. But if you make the wrong decision, you might not be. As the saying goes, "live to climb another day."

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